27 April 2014

For theists, God is still in the gaps

We've heard the refrain a thousand times: that one can be a believer and still fully accept science. Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller are devout Christians who accept evolution; John Polkinghorne is a former physicist and a now a priest, famous for his conciliatory works like The Faith of a Physicist; and there is the mathematician and philosopher of science John Lennox, who critiqued Stephen Hawking's atheism in his book God and Stephen Hawking but who was careful not to reject the science out of hand.

Examples like this abound, but the accommodationism hides an ugly truth: even for these presumably sophisticated thinkers, their rationale for belief still exists in one of the oldest fallacies of all: God of the gaps.

Not pictured: God
I was reminded of this tonight with a facepalm-inducing article from Time, called "Why Science Does Not Disprove God". This type of statement is rewarded with an immediate facepalm because it does not clearly express what is meant by "God". If you mean the god who purportedly controlled volcanoes, or the weather, or earthquakes, or guided evolution – then yes, actually, God has been disproved as a viable explanation for those things.

Worse, it's trivially true that science cannot disprove God. Hey, maybe God still does guide evolution, albeit in some completely undetectable way! Y'know, like how William Lane Craig claims that God provides a reference for absolute time, even though we can't possibly sync our clocks to it. But hey, you can't disprove it, right? Checkmate, atheists!

Of course, there are an infinite number of things we cannot disprove, and there is a vast gulf between being able to disprove a proposition and being rationally compelled to take it seriously. We cannot disprove that we are in The Matrix, that we are brains in a vat, that external reality is an illusion, or that we will ride on magic potatoes through rainbow-colored clouds when we die. And yet, these are not propositions that too many people, aside from certifiable nutbars, take seriously. So, made aware of this triviality, theists inevitably retreat to the God of the Gaps:
  • Why does the universe exist?
  • Why does the universe seem finely-tuned for life?
  • What caused the Big Bang?
  • Where do we get our morals?
  • How did life originate?
  • What's our purpose in life?
Sometimes, the query is simply formulated poorly. There's no reason think the universe needs an explanation for its mere existence (a distinct question from its origin); the universe may simply BE. Nor is there any reason to believe that we have some objective purpose to our existence, that there is any meaning to our lives beyond what we make for ourselves. And simply in asking why the universe is finely-tuned for life, one is begging the question – the fact that life exists does not imply the universe was "tuned" for the purpose of harboring life. Such questions are not scientific, but that doesn't make them provocative questions.

But other questions clearly appeal to gaps in science, whether real or (mis)perceived. We don't know what caused the Big Bang, or if it's even sensible to use to word "cause" in that regard; nor do we know exactly how life originated, but we've made great strides in that regard. And science has actually done a pretty damn fine job in explaining where our morals come from.

A better question is this: why should we take any particular conceptualization of God seriously? Theists struggle to even provide a consistent and logically coherent definition of what God is, much less our epistemological relation to this deity. As an explanatory hypothesis, things that are ambiguously defined and untestable tend not to be particularly useful. It's precisely that fact which continually pushes God back into smaller and smaller gaps, and into greater and greater irrelevance.

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