God of the Gaps

When science can’t explain something, some people attribute it to the work of God, and later sometimes science figures out how to explain it. This “God of the gaps” has been discussed all over the Internet, including in this interesting talk between atheist libertarian Penn Jillette and Mormon pseudo-libertarian Glenn Beck (at about 22:40):

“Atheists often refer to the ‘God of the margins’, which is, as time goes on, we put less and less on God, and more and more on things that we find out.”

The idea is that science keeps explaining more things, disproving primitives who used to believe that there had to be supernatural explanations for them. “Galileo and Newton undid the idea that planetary motion was accomplished through the efforts of angels.”

Some theologians think such “gaps” should never have been attributed to God in the first place. Some say the advance of science has actually vindicated theists on some things, or that such advancement simply portrays the laws of nature God invented. Meanwhile, atheists such as Richard Dawkins seem to mock theists for having small imaginations that are continuously being assaulted by science’s advance.

Whatever the case, the entire discussion seems to revolve around the assumption that the gaps in scientific knowledge are shrinking, and whether or not this helps or hurts the arguments for God.

But I think this assumption is false. The gaps in scientific knowledge are not shrinking. In fact, they are growing faster than ever.

Yes, we are constantly discovering new things, but I think people sometimes get the impression that science is like an unknown land, where every discovery uncovers a new bit of ground and leaves that much less ground still to uncover. But reality is a lot messier than that.

First, a lot of new scientific knowledge merely overturns previously discovered knowledge. Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food details the abrupt reversals in nutrition recommendations over the last century. Matt Ridley has discussed some of the scientific “consensus” that has changed over the ages: “There was once widespread agreement about phlogiston (a nonexistent element said to be a crucial part of combustion), eugenics, the impossibility of continental drift, the idea that genes were made of protein (not DNA) and stomach ulcers were caused by stress, and so forth—all of which proved false.” It seems like every couple of decades the experts change their minds about whether back sleeping or stomach sleeping is safest for babies. Samuel Arbesman has actually tried to measure “how long it takes for half of the knowledge” in various scientific fields “to be overturned.” Often, new discoveries simply reveal that old discoveries were based on wrong assumptions or  misinterpreted data or inadequate studies that have been replaced with (hopefully more accurate) new ones – or rather, refilling gaps we thought we had already filled.

Of course, it would be unfair to suggest that all science is like this. Science is supposed to correct its earlier mistakes, of course, but there is also plenty of real advancement! Sometimes these “corrections” are actually tweaks that get us continually closer and closer to the truth. Newton had his physics that explained the movements of most of our everyday objects, and then Einstein came along and tweaked the equations with weird quantum stuff that explained the movement of everyday objects and the weird stuff that Newton couldn’t explain. (Pardon any oversimplifications or technical errors… I’m a little rusty on my physics.) Newton was right, but Einstein was more right.  He filled in a little more gap, making the gap smaller. Right?

Well, not exactly. This leads me to my second point: even when science fills a gap, it often does it with new understandings that reveal bigger gaps that we didn’t even known about before. Sure, we don’t have to invoke angels to explain the movements of the planets anymore. But the equations of gravity left us with an even bigger problem; we can explain how planets move around their stars, but we can’t explain why the stars all stick together in galaxies (there doesn’t seem to be enough stuff at that level) or why the galaxies are all flying away from each other (there seems to be too much stuff at that level).

So scientists have come up with “dark matter” that holds the stars together and “dark energy” that pulls galaxies apart. Our current, best understanding of the universe requires a whole bunch of invisible, unobservable stuff that is said to be 19 times greater than all the stuff we’ve ever observed in the entire universe! And you mean to tell me that’s a smaller gap than a few angels pushing four or five planets around?

The more questions we answer, the more questions we get. And this isn’t just true for outer space. It’s happening in health, where we’re learning that understanding the human body requires understanding the trillions of bacteria that coexist within it. It’s happening in particle physics, where accelerators discover more tiny things like neutrinos and leptons, and most recently the Higgs boson, but not always exactly in the way we expected. It’s happening in mathematics, where old conjectures are proved with whole new fields of study that lead to new conjectures. It’s trivial to find scientists saying things like “For every question we answer, as scientists, there are ten more questions that arise from the knowledge that we gained.”

And that’s why I can’t help finding God in the gaps, though perhaps not in the primitive manner of the ancients. I’m not suggesting we move the angels from the planets to dark matter. But I do disagree with the general idea that the continuing discoveries of science leave less room for God, as if they’re somehow mutually exclusive. Every scientific advance creates more room for appreciating the wonder of the universe God created.

When I read books about outer space (like Space Atlas) I marvel at the incredible variety of all the things we’ve found, and I marvel at the mystery of all the new details we can’t explain. When I read books about mathematics (like Visions of Infinity) I marvel at the sheer elegance of the way numbers behave across seemingly disparate fields and forms, and I marvel at the mystery of all the theorems that we haven’t proved and don’t even know whether or not they can be! Whether science is explaining something new or discovering something it can’t explain – both things make me think “God is awesome!” God is God of both the gaps and the non-gaps, and they’re both growing faster than ever.