A New Term
“Atheism of the gaps” is a new term I’ve come across recently during my excursions onto Twitter (yes, I’m on Twitter now, it’s fun). I’m not sure whether it’s been around for a while, or whether it’s a term that’s only just catching on, but I can see the point it is trying to make and I’m keen to address it.
God of the Gaps Strikes Back
I guess the best explanation for the appearance of this term is that some believers admit the force of the “god of the gaps” argument and have tried to accuse atheists of committing the same fallacy, but in reverse.
As a recap, the “god of the gaps” fallacy goes roughly like this:
- Naturalism can explain things up to a point;
- Then there are phenomena that it can’t explain (The origin of life, for example);
- These phenomena can only be explained by appealing to God.
It’s clear that this reasoning is weak, one can look to historical examples as evidence. This argument was applied in the past to things like the “action at a distance” of Newton’s gravitational force and the development of life on Earth. But since then we’ve filled in these gaps in our knowledge. Gravity manifests itself as spacetime curvature, and the development of life can be explained by evolution theory. The gaps in scientific knowledge can’t be exploited and used as evidence for God.
Can Science Support, not Undermine, God?
This last statement can’t be entirely true though, that would be unreasonable. There must be some failure, or perhaps puzzle, of science which improves the probability of God’s existence, otherwise we’d be admitting that nothing could ever change our mind.
Here’s a theoretical scenario, suppose we knew:
- There were only a handful of planets in the universe
- There was only one universe which has not existed for particularly long
- The chances of evolution and abiogenesis producing creatures like us in such a short time were incredibly small
If the age of the universe were short and there aren’t many planets, then we don’t get many opportunities to roll the improbable dice of human evolution. In our actual universe the reverse of these two things are true. If we knew these things then this, I would say, would be powerful evidence from science that humans had been put on Earth and not developed naturally.
Science can lead to God in the same way that it could lead to aliens. If we find a signal in space that is incredibly unlikely to have been caused by anything natural, we would think it likely that the signal was alien-made. In the same way, if we were to find something about nature that suggested our existence in the universe was unimaginably unlikely, this would make the suggestion that God created us more likely (it also increases the likelihood of any other kind of non-natural explanation, but we’ll ignore any others like brains in vats or simulations for the purposes of this article.)
Atheism of the Gaps Returns
Now we can move on to “atheism of the gaps”, what fallacy is meant by this? From what I can gather an “atheist of the gaps” fallacy goes like this:
- Science has met with many problems in the past to do with humanity’s existence that didn’t seem to be solvable
- These challenges have been met as science has developed
- So the problems that science faces with explaining our origins at the moment will one day be solved.
Now I agree that this is a fallacy. Just because science has solved problems in the past we cannot be sure that it will always do this. What theists want to do using this idea is to counter the response “science will get to that one day” to the problems they suggest. When atheists make claims like “you can’t use fine-tuning against me because that’s god of the gaps.”, the theist can respond that this argument is “atheism of the gaps” – it’s a blind assertion that science will solve any problem to do with the unlikeliness of human existence.
A Solution Awakens
But this is not the kind of argument (I hope!) that most atheists intend to make. Let’s take the fine-tuning as an example, because it’s a good one. While it is wrong to claim that science will one day solve the fine-tuning problem in a way that makes human life likely, it is right to say that science hasn’t had a proper look at it yet.
It’s not the case that we know it’s incredibly unlikely for the universe to have fine-tuned constants with the values that it does, we have no idea whether it is likely or not.
We can accuse believers of “god of the gaps” if they use fine-tuning because science hasn’t found the values of the constants of nature to be incredibly unlikely. If we had then it would be reasonable to suggest that God set those constants (or some other non-natural explanation).
We can’t be accused of “atheism of the gaps” with regards to fine-tuning because it’s not a blind faith in science, it’s a “we haven’t had time to develop a theory yet”. At the moment we have no idea whether the values of the constants are incredibly unlikely, or the only choice logically possible. A more advanced theory of physics may find that the values of the constants are fixed, in the same way that the speed of light is fixed in electromagnetic theory.
To summarise, I think that “atheism of the gaps” is a legitimate fallacy, but not one that atheists often make. I think this term has the annoying potential to be thrown incorrectly at atheists if it starts becoming mainstream.