In pre-modern times, some explained lunar eclipses by a supernatural dragon devouring the moon. Before the identification of germs and viruses, diseases were often attributed to demonic powers. And how did the planets move continually in their regular orbits? Angels, it was thought, were pushing the planetary spheres. And thunderbolts were hurled to earth by the god Zeus.
Unfortunately, when natural causes were identified for such phenomena and direct supernatural agents were no longer required, this weakened some arguments for the existence of God. Critics of religious faith denounced appeals to a “God of the gaps” — a term that refers to arguments for God (or, more generally, to theological ideas) that overeagerly seek to use God as an explanation for anything that current science can’t explain, employing God to fill gaps in scientific knowledge.
Perhaps, though, criticisms of the “God of the gaps” can themselves be pushed too far. Sometimes they seem almost to result in an “atheism of the gaps,” equal (though opposite) to the theistic error. Modern science proceeds on naturalistic assumptions, and it’s entirely proper that it do so. It’s achieved great things, and it’s a great global enterprise that transcends national, cultural, ethnic and religious boundaries.
Sometimes, though, it’s altogether correct to acknowledge consciousness and purpose. Intelligent agents shouldn’t always be ruled inadmissible. Homicide investigators, for instance, need to distinguish a murder from natural or accidental deaths. Arson investigators who ruled intelligent agency out before even considering the evidence would be essentially useless. Dogmatic resistance to a “human of the gaps” argument would leave many a case unsolved. Often, it would thwart justice.
The “God of the gaps” argument has sometimes been crudely caricatured as “I can’t explain this, therefore God.” And, plainly, such an argument will seldom be sound. But at least in its basic logical form, it’s not fundamentally different from another argument: “I can’t explain this otherwise, therefore deliberate human agent.” And that argument is often quite solid.
Imagine yourself cruising into the harbor at Victoria, British Columbia. On the lawn in front of the provincial parliament, flowers spell out “Welcome to Victoria” in large letters. Was their arrangement designed? Or did it result from astounding botanical coincidence?
Compare Mount Rushmore to the other mountains around it among South Dakota’s Black Hills. Of course, rocks have to have some shape or other. So are those faces on Mount Rushmore merely the result of wind and water erosion, coupled with random chance and billions of years?
If a plausible human author or set of authors can’t be found for the Book of Mormon, it seems reasonable at least to consider Joseph Smith’s explanation. Are there intricate chiasms in the Book of Mormon? Not a big deal, a critic once told me; it had to be organized somehow! Which is plainly true. But repeated, complex chiasms seem — as a 2004 BYU Studies article "Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance? argued — extraordinarily improbable unless they were deliberately created.
The perception of deliberate order in nature is both very ancient and natural. In fact, as the vocally atheistic evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has defined it, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Dawkins, of course, contends that the appearance of design is illusory.
However, “Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition that Life is Designed” (published by HarperOne), a recent book by Douglas Axe, contends that random neo-Darwinian mutations cannot account for observed biological reality. Axe’s scientific credentials — undergraduate training at Berkeley, doctorate from Caltech, postdoctoral research at three laboratories in Cambridge, England —appear to be solid. (The Jewish writer David Klinghoffer provides a sympathetic summary of Axe’s argument under the title of “‘Undeniable’: Darwinian Explanations Not Just Unlikely, But ‘Physically Impossible’” at cnsnews.com.)
The point, as I see it, is as follows: Proposed instances of intelligent design need to be examined on an individual basis, not dogmatically dismissed in advance. (Or, if that’s what we’re doing, we should be open and upfront about it.) Perhaps they’ll withstand scrutiny. Perhaps they won’t. But a dogmatic assertion that, someday, we’ll be able to explain every single mystery as the result of purposeless natural forces isn’t obviously superior to its mirror image, the “God of the gaps” argument. An atheistic “scientism of the gaps” is a mere promissory note, not actual evidence. And, while science’s credit rating is very high, it’s not infinite. There’s no guarantee that naturalistic science will ultimately explain absolutely everything.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.