Stargate Universe and the Inference to Design

Stargate Universe breaks the old formula of the sci-fi television franchise. It is edgier, grittier, and darker than what we’ve come to expect from the world first created by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. Since that modest film in 1994, two popular television spin-offs (SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis), and several direct-to-DVD films have explored the expanded universe and taken an ever-increasing fanbase along for the journey.

The new series is about an unprepared, under-equipped team of scientists and soldiers who must evacuate their base and step through an intergalactic Stargate. They find themselves several galaxies away from home and on a ship of Ancient design that has been traveling through the universe for thousands of millennia. In order to survive and find some way to get home again, they must work together and confront internal and external difficulties.

In one of the episodes, an astro-physicist is describing their predicament in a video-journal segment onboard the ship:

“The odds of coming out of FTL [Faster-than-Light] on the outer edge of a star-system are astronomical. Throw into the fact that there are three potentially habitable planets, plus a gas giant to act as a comet catcher on the outside of system, we’re talking miraculous. . . So, there’s a chance now that we’re gonna live. . . . though, our definition of habitable just means the surface temperature range allows for the presence of liquid water and since the primary’s a Red Dwarf the planets must have a relatively short orbital radius just to fall within that range, which means there’s a likelihood that at least one or two of them will be tidally locked, meaning one side will always be facing the star, which increases the prospect of geological instability due to tidal stresses, and I can’t stand earth-quakes. . . . but it might be nice.”

It’s a interesting statement and highlights some poignant points in the contemporary debate concerning teleology and the anthropic principle:

In the past, the Stargate writers have not bothered to explain the existence of so many life-hospitable worlds. Of course, this is their prerogative. Stargate is fiction and we can expect a certain amount of suspension-of-belief. In the past the scientific community assumed that there would be an abundance of planets able to support the existence of advanced life given the abundance of stars in the universe. But this speech reveals that the writers are aware that of late this assumption has been strongly questioned.

This character points out a handful of the many requisite conditions, all of which fall within very narrow parameters, for advanced life to be able to survive. Her speech emphasizes how very fortunate they were to have even a few of these requisite conditions fulfilled, yet how very far they were from an ideal scenario. The effect for the viewer is to understand that this was no coincidence or random circumstance, even though the result was less than optimal. Indeed, latter on other characters assume contrivance and deliberation is responsible for the extremely fortunate location of the ship when it exited FTL. The intelligence immediately suspected as responsible is the ships automated computers, and this is later confirmed – though not for the reason they first suspected. In short, the Stargate Universe writers had their characters and viewers make an inference to design.

My question is then, what makes this inference to design so very reasonable?

First, it was recognised that the high improbability of their location when they exited FTL was not sufficient to justifiably make the inference to design. There were also the multiple factors that multiplied improbability on improbability so “miraculous” was an apt description. Still, this extreme improbability would not have been enough had each of these factors together not fallen within specific narrow parameters that would allow for their continued existence.

Second, the inference to design could be made as the best explanation. In the absence of any good reason to think that the fortune of their location was due to other explanations, they were justified in accepting intelligent design as the best explanation. This is true when alternate naturalistic explanations, such as chance and physical necessity, are exhausted.

Third, the inference to design was made easier when they had an intelligence that could plausibly be responsible. The initial hypothesis was that when power failure was immanent the ship’s computer activated a program that told it to drop out of FTL at the nearest system with a habitable planet they had a chance of surviving on. The crew of the ship had an intelligence available that could explain their fortunate circumstance, so they could easily make the inference to design. Objectors to teleology sometimes accuse the proponents of design of circular reasoning – the only reason for accepting a designer, they say, is because one already believes there is a designer. The trouble with this response is; it is not the only reason. The First and Second considerations above are others. The point here is to emphasize that if one already has good reason to think there is intelligence capable of said design, then the inference to design is even more reasonable.

Yet even if there was no intelligence apparent to them they were still justified in suggesting some form of intelligence was responsible. That is, even if they could know nothing more of the nature of this intelligence, they would still have good reason to think that some agent with intelligence and causal potency exists. For even if the crew of the Ancient ship had known nothing of computers yet somehow been aware of their extremely fortunate circumstance, they would be justified in their inference to design. Similarly, if the ship were instead a translucent bubble with no apparent computer system, the crew would be justified when apprised of their fortunate circumstance in making an inference to some form of intelligence responsible.

The next question to consider is this: if the Sci-fy channel can appeal to this teleological intuition, why can’t Christian’s wishing to develop a teleological argument for God’s existence also do this, since the intuition seems so fully reasonable?

The planet that we occupy is suitable for the existence and the sustaining of advanced life. The conditions for any planet being suitable for the existence and the sustaining of advanced life are many and variegated, and each condition falls within narrow parameters, such that if any one fell outside that minute safety zone advanced life could not have come to exist nor be sustained. Because of the extreme improbability of finding conditions suitable for the existence and sustaining of advanced life, expectation of finding planets suitable for the existence or sustaining of advanced life is low, yet we find advanced life not only existing but also thriving on our own planet. We are in a position to understand at least some of the conditions and narrow parameters that earth fulfills to make possible advanced life’s continued existence. We have no reason to think such fortune would be physically necessary. Chance fails as a superior explanation when multiple independent conditions with high specificity render the description “miraculous” or else improbable in the extreme. We are therefore justified in making the inference to a designing intelligence responsible for the existence and sustaining of life on earth. This fits more naturally with a theistic worldview than an atheistic worldview.

Panel Discussion of Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell

On January 28, the C.S. Lewis Society hosted a panel at Tampa, Florida, to discuss Stephen Meyer’s new book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. The audio from that discussion is now available on the Society website. Download it here.

On the panel was the book’s author Meyer, mathematician and popular author David Berlinski, and apologist and professor of theology Tom Woodward. Radio host Michael Medved chaired the exchange. The discussion lasts for over two hours and explores the evidence for  intelligent design and Meyer’s central claim that the information in DNA demonstrates a designing intelligence behind the origin of life.

Stephen Meyer’s book is available on Amazon.

Here are some of the book’s endorsements:

Signature in the Cell delivers a superb overview of the surprising and exciting developments that led to our modern understanding of DNA, and its role in cells.   Meyer tells the story in a most engaging way.  He retained my interest through many areas that would normally have turned me off.  He is careful to credit new ideas and discoveries to their originators, even when he disagrees with the uses to which they have been put.  The central idea of the book is that the best explanation of the information coded in DNA is that it resulted from intelligent design.  Meyer has marshaled a formidable array of evidence from fields as diverse as biochemistry, philosophy and information theory.  He deals fairly and thoroughly with even the most controversial aspects and has made a compelling case for his conclusion.  The book is a delightful read which will bring enlightenment and enjoyment to every open minded reader.
—Dr. John C. Walton, School of Chemistry, University of St. Andrews

Signature in the Cell is the quintessential work on DNA and its implications for intelligent design.
Greg Koukl, host of Stand To Reason

How does an intelligent person become a proponent of intelligent design? Anyone who stereotypes IDers as antiscientific ideologues or fundamentalists should read Dr. Meyer’s compelling intellectual memoir. Meyer as a student became fascinated with the ‘DNA enigma’—how the information to produce life originated—and at considerable risk to his career hasn’t given up trying to solve the mystery. Meyer shows how step-by-step he concluded that intelligent design is the most likely explanation of how the DNA code came to be, but he’s open to new evidence—and in so doing he challenges defenders of undirected evolution to have the courage to explore new alternatives as well.
— Dr. Marvin Olasky, provost, The King’s College, New York City, and editor-in-chief, World

In this engaging narrative, Meyer demonstrates what I as a chemist have long suspected: undirected chemical processes cannot produce the exquisite complexity of the living cell. Meyer also shows something else: there is compelling positive evidence for intelligent design in the digital code stored in the cell’s DNA. A decisive case based upon breathtaking and cutting-edge science.
Dr. Philip S. Skell, National Academy of Sciences and Evan Pugh Professor at Pennsylvania State University, emeritus

(HT: Brian)

Who Designed the Designer?

Last year, professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary Douglas Groothius wrote an essay in the philosophy journal, Think: Philosophy for Everyone, challenging some of Dawkins’ claims in the The God Delusion about the argument from design. It was one of the journal’s most popular essays of the year and if you haven’t read it, the article is available as a free sample on the Cambridge University Press website. Think seeks to expose contemporary philosophy to the widest possible readership and here Groothius has presented his arguments in the form of fictional conversation at a book discussion group. Anthony is the atheist; Agnes, the agnostic; and Theo, the theist:

Anthony: … There is one argument against theism that Dawkins returns to repeatedly. It isn’t new, but he uses it powerfully. And it can be stated simply, I think.

Theo: I think I know what is coming.

Anthony: Dawkins says that believers in God use God as a kind of philosophical trump card to explain certain aspects of nature. When they cannot explain something scientifically, they simply invoke God to end the argument. So, if we cannot explain something very complex and seemingly designed, like the rotary motor attached the back of the bacterium in the cell, God is invoked. I’m talking about the bacterial flagellum, the poster child for the Intelligent Design (or ID) movement. These people say, ‘It was designed by an intelligence, not brought about by nature alone’.

Theo: That’s right. ID thinkers call it ‘the design inference.’ It appeals to empirically observable facts – from biology and cosmology – and infers from these facts that the best explanation is design, rather than some combination of chance and necessity, which are unintelligent, nondirective causes.

Agnes: It sounds like these ID people are at least trying to give a scientific argument, aren’t they?

Anthony: Agnes, it’s a ruse, a charade really. Think of the Wizard of Oz. He seems to be a supernatural wizard, when in fact he is a mere human with special effects. As Dawkins says, ID is ‘creationism in a cheap tuxedo.’

Theo: That smells like a false analogy, but go on. And watch out for ad hominem fallacies as well.

Anthony: I am happy to do so. I’m just getting warmed up. At an intuitive level, it seems that a designer is the most commonsensical explanation for some things in nature. If you see Mount Rushmore or ‘John Loves Mary’ written in the sands of a beach, you infer a designer. Fair enough.

Theo: That’s right! You seem to get the design inference at a basic level, although it can be put more technically. You have a complex phenomenon that fits a specifiable pattern: either the faces of presidents (Mount Rushmore) or a known and meaningful sentence (‘John loves Mary’). Design is, therefore, a warranted inference.

Anthony: Don’t get your hopes up, Theo. We have to look for the man behind the curtain and there is no one there – only nature! You see, as Dawkins points out, any supposed designer would be a case of specified complex itself (or herself or himself). Therefore, that designer’s existence would need to be explained by a previous designer. And that designer, being complex, would have to be explained by another designer, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. There is a vicious and infinite regress in which nothing at all gets explained. It goes on forever and that is philosophically nauseating.

Agnes: I see. It would be like jumping out of a bottomless pit!

Anthony: That’s it exactly, Agnes. You see, the appeal to a designer does not really explain anything. It just seems to, since we explain things like sculptures and sentences on the basis of intelligent agents who design them. But the sculptors and sentence-writers are not the last word. Their own existence needs explanation. So, the ID examples are misleading. Atheism is superior, since it explains everything according to what is simple: particles and natural laws banged into existence about 14 billion years ago.

Theo: It’s about time I slowed down this atheistic train and made some distinctions, Anthony. You are asserting that ID thinkers assume this principle: any complex entity that is specified in its pattern requires a designer outside of itself as a sufficient explanation.

Anthony: I suppose I am, and so does Dawkins. What’s wrong with that?

Theo: Everything is wrong with that. It’s a straw man fallacy. ID attempts to explain certain features of nature that indicate intelligence. These artifacts or systems are finite and material in nature. That is the explanandum if you will.

Anthony: Stop showing off, Theo. What does explanandum mean?

Theo: It simply means: the thing explained. The explacans is what does the explaining.

Anthony: OK. Very impressive. But I don’t discern an argument as yet.

Theo: Be patient. The point is this: ID is not operating from the premise that everything that is complex requires an explanation outside itself. Rather, it attempts to explain certain finite and material states of affairs through the design inference. It does not operate on some general philosophical principle that anything at all that is complex requires an explanation outside itself.1

Agnes: Dawkins never mentioned this. Did he misrepresent the ID argument?

Theo: In spades, he did! Dawkins is not the most sympathetic interlocutor. Moreover, a bona fide explanation can be given even if the thing that explains something else is not itself explained. For example, if I explain that Sam slipped because he stepped on a banana peel that is a genuine explanation. I do not have to explain how the banana peel got there!

Anthony: I suppose so. But what if the designer is a finite, material thing with specified complexity? Then it, too, requires an explanation.

Theo: Yes, but ID only tries to explain finite, material, complex states that are empirically observable. It leaves certain aspects of the designer or designers unspecified.

Anthony: Hah! So what kind of natural theology is that?! You don’t even know who the designer is.

Agnes: Right. So even if I accept the design inference, I can still remain agnostic about the existence of the full-strength monotheistic God: personal, all-powerful, all-knowing, totally good, and so on.

You can find the whole article here or download it as PDF file.

(HT: The Constructive Curmudgeon)

Teleology in nature: biology's next paradigm shift?

The debate over the presence of design in nature is a fierce and intractable one. Not everyone, however, accepts that Intelligent Design theory or Darwinism offer the only positions in this debate. Some have argued that there is room for a recognition of intentionality in nature that does not depend on the notion of a designer.

J. Scott Turner, a professor in the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology at State University of New York in Syracuse, has written a recent book called The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges From Life Itself, arguing for a position in this middle ground. With the inadequacy of modern evolutionary biology to explain certain biological phenomena (as pointed out even by evolutionists such as Stephen J Gould), Turner defends the indispensability of the notion of unconscious intentionality in nature and tries to show how this arises.

Turner is not alone, and in fact suggests that “we’re on the verge of a major philosophical shift in biology”. It will be interesting to see what effect this will have on the current debate. Some Christian theists have welcomed this renewed thinking in the classical teleology of Aristotle and Aquinas. Edward Feser, who contends that the Darwinian criticisms of William Paley do not necessarily count against Aristotelian teleology, follows Aquinas’s belief that the existence of natural teleology is clear but that we must supply additional arguments to show that this teleology requires God.

John Farrell has posted an interesting discussion with Scott Turner on Farrell’s blog:

John Farrell: Ed Feser had an interesting post a while back about how both sides of the ID/evolution debate misunderstand classical teleology. The ID types think proving teleology in nature means the existence of a Agent Designer (i.e., God) will be much easier to demonstrate, and the militant atheists shun teleology basically because …they agree. But Ed argues–rightly in my opinion–this is because both sides misunderstand Aristotle and Aquinas.

My first question is, as a scientist, do you feel based on your experience that this is true: i.e., that your colleagues who are materialists/atheists react to the subject of teleology negatively because they think it is intrinsically tied to an ID perspective?

Scott Turner: I’m inclined to agree with Ed Feser, but not completely. It’s obviously true that the ID issue is pretty polarized, needlessly so in my opinion, and I agree that there has been a bit of “closing of minds” on “my” side about purposefulness (or teleology), largely because ID has been pushing the issue so publicly, and also because of a bit of a “those icky creationists are back” mindset. Yet the whole issue of purposefulness and teleology has been at the heart of evolutionary thought since before Darwin, and there’s been quite a lot of deep thought about it since, I think. Unfortunately that’s all been submerged by the heat of the current rhetoric (Richard Dawkins and his cult followers have done us no favors in that regard.). This has pushed the more superficial arguments to the fore which can easily give the impression that the two sides are largely ignorant of the issue. So Ed Feser is correct in that regard. It does not credit the fact that there’s a pretty large body of biological thought that has grappled seriously with the idea.

I decided to write The Tinkerer’s Accomplice in part because I thought biological design was a serious and unsolved problem, and in part because I thought both the Neodarwinist and ID camps were missing something essential about the problem. In short, I wanted to write a book that took the issue of design seriously and proposed a scientifically credible way forward. Even the hint of design was a red flag, however. I had people refuse to review the book, and reviewers who branded it a “stealth ID” book. One reviewer opined that I was a “closet deist”, and I recently found myself described as a “known creationist.” I never knew that about myself! And there has been some private correspondence from colleagues that, to put it mildly, surprised me. So the issue itself does seem to unhinge people a bit. But on the positive side, there have been many people who have taken the time to consider the book seriously and to work through the ideas carefully and to tell their friends. So, even though the reception of the book was a bit negative at first, it’s slowly getting more positive.

John Farrell: Do you think teleology gets short shrift because–from a methodological stance– most evolutionary biologists think it’s really not much use anyway? In other words, unless teleology can make some predictions or offer some obvious questions worth researching (something the Intelligent Design movement has repeatedly failed to do), scientists just can’t be bothered with it?

Scott Turner: We biologists are trained to think very skeptically about teleological arguments, and rightly so, I think. Again this mindset has long predated the ID issue. In fact, I think ID is so emotive because it has inflamed already latent tensions in our thinking rather than caused them.

While there is clearly a radical materialist/Neodarwinist school of evolutionary thought, evolutionary biology is not monolithic in this regard. Evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) is probably the most prominent area that has grappled seriously with the issue of teleology. Niche construction theory is another…

John Farrell: In an earlier email, you wrote: “Right now, I think we’re at a very exciting time in evolutionary biology because the idea is emerging that we are now bumping up against the limits of the materialist/atomist philosophy, and are coming to realize that there is indeed something special about life that simply must be understood. There are various opinions out there about just what that special quality is (my two cents is the special quality of homeostasis), but no matter how it comes out, I think we’re on the verge of a major philosophical shift in biology.”

I assume you see specialists like Sean Carroll (Evo Devo) on this side? And Kirshner and Gerhart (The Plausibility of Life). In your experience is there already a clear cut divide, for example, when biologists get together at conferences and symposiums, where the reductionists are more vocal and hostile to teleology and the other side content to keep working away at the research and entertaining different theories of how designedness comes about?

Scott Turner: I’m not sure I’d describe it as a divide so much as a re-emerging perspective. Ever since the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics, there’s been this debate about the role that genes play in Darwinian evolution. At first, of course, the rediscovery of the Mendelian gene was thought to be the death knell for Darwinism. This is what makes the Neodarwinist synthesis–the reconciliation of Mendelian genetics with Darwinian natural selection–one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time. Once that was achieved, though, the question became whether genetic natural selection could explain everything (what might be called the “parsimonous” explanation), or whether there is something else involved. Richard Dawkins, of course, has been the most vigorous defender in our time of the “parsimonist” idea. But even though, for much of the 20th century, the scientific case seemed to be swinging decisively in favor of the “parsimonists”, the other side never really went away, and it has re-emerged in schools like evo-devo, or niche construction theory, or in Simon Conway Morris’ ideas about the importance of convergence. Most of these ideas that are bubbling up are, in fact, rooted in older ideas–evo-devo draws heavily on the work of D’Arcy Thompson, for example, who was a trenchant critic of Darwinism–that were part of an incredibly rich intellectual debate over evolution that was thriving prior to the modern synthesis. Those other perspectives submerged for a while, just because the modern synthesis seemed to settle so many things. But we’re seeing now that even though it solved a lot, it didn’t settle everything. And that is why, in my view, we’re seeing these ideas emerging anew.

Of course, that’s not to say the debate isn’t heated. For the most part, that’s fine–it helps keep us all honest. But it does have its down side. For example, I often run into criticism of my notion that homeostasis makes evolution a far more intention-driven process than the Darwinist idea can comfortably accommodate. Nearly always, the criticism is that intentionality is not necessary, that we can explain everything without it–the parsimonist idea. Never mind that it actually can’t explain everything–there’s no good Darwinist explanation for the origin of life, for example–but there’s a deeper issue. The parsimonist defense of Neodarwinism usually invokes Occam’s Razor–always go for the simpler explanation. But this is a fundamental misreading of Occam’s Razor, which really says that you must not make hypotheses without necessity. If you don’t believe intentionality is a real phenomenon, than invoking it is indeed unnecessary. But what if intentionality is real, actually is a necessary attribute of living things? Then in this case Occam’s Razor becomes Occam’s blinders. Which is never a pleasant thing to hear.

Read the whole thing.

The Tinkerer’s Accomplice: How Design Emerges From Life Itself is available on Amazon.

(Source: Edward Feser)

The "god-of-the-gaps" argument

The general idea is that the god-of-the-gaps argument represents a god who resides in the ‘gaps’ of human knowledge. Because the gaps in human knowledge will almost inevitable shrink this supposedly reduces the need for God and relegates Him to lesser and lesser portion, eventually rendering God’s existence unnecessary or irrelevant. 

In recent times the god-of-the-gaps argument is used most often as an objection to the arguments of natural theology advanced by philosophers and theologians who explain the gaps in scientific knowledge as specific acts of God. As such it is a variant of the argument from ignorance which is a logical informal fallacy. 

Here is an example of an argument where the god-of-the-gaps objection is used to show it is informally invalid.  

  (1) Science has yet to explain how the biological diversity of life on earth originated.

  (2) The gaps must be filled by God

  (3) Therefore, the biological diversity of life on earth proves, or at least helps to show the existence of God. 

Other example of arguments include the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the fine-tuning of the conditions necessary for intelligent life. It is worth pointing out that the above argument does not represent the best of what teleology has to present.*

The idea is that placing God as the explanatory entity in the place of ignorance is an illegitimate move. Doing so either stops or hinders scientific enquiry, or leads to embarrassment when the gap is finally filled with a demonstrable or feasible naturalistic alternative. 

As the argument from ignorance is an informal fallacy, there are some considerations that may render such an argument, specifically in the case of premise (2) justifiable. Let us look at some.


(1) The best explanation

The teleological argument is best understood as inference to the best explanation. This means that placing God in the gap where there is ignorance is a valid move, for it has become a probabilistic argument not looking to establish the truth of God’s existence with logical necessity. When God is posited as the best explanation, whether justified or unjustified, the detractor of the argument needs to show how God does not meet the requirements of a best explanation by (i) offering a superior naturalistic alternative or (ii) providing a plausible reason why our concept of God would not fill the gap where our supposed ignorance remains. 

If one of these two requirements is not met the detractor of the design argument is merely placing something else in the gap, thus the god-of-the-gaps argument can be turned around on its head. For example, many people who use the god-of-the-gaps objection to the arguments of natural theology turn out to argue for a naturalism or scientism-in-the-gaps. I have even seen people place a provisional-agnostism-in-the-gaps! An illicit move when the argument is considering what is the best explanation, for provisional agnosticism can hardly claim to be an explanation.

(2) Distinguishing between experimental and origin science

In experimental science where things are repeatable demonstrated, placing God as an explanation to fill gaps in human knowledge is can rightly be called illegitimate. For one expects gaps in human understanding and that those gaps will eventually narrow or close with time. The idea of a gap however is that they are few and far between, or else the gaps would be described as massive plains of ignorance. Where positing God as an explanation to fill a gap where previously there was ignorance may be called legitimate is in origin science. Origin science deals with rare, often non-repeatable events and includes the study of history and forensic science. When the two branches of science are distinguished and it is obvious that researcher or investigator is operating with origin science, the gaps can assessed using Bayeseon formulae** or the criteria for the best explanation. Both methods assess the probability of given events by taking into account the relevant background knowledge, and the probability that we should have the evidence we do have given said event did not occur.

For instance, what is the probability we should have the evidence of the empty tomb, that the disciples believed they saw the resurrected Jesus, and the origin of the Christian faith such that they were willing to give their lives for their message, if God did not raise Jesus from the dead. The relevant background knowledge would be things like the expertise of Roman soldiers in execution by crucifixion, our other reasons provided by natural theology for believing that a god exists, and the cultural milieu in which Jesus’ ministry took place and the utter absence of the disciples expectation that Jesus would rise from the dead before the end of the age. 


(3) Distinguishing between explanatory models

A test that determines whether the gaps in human understanding are getting bigger or smaller could be used to determine which explanatory model is superior. A careful analysis of the history of science may show that the gaps are getting smaller, so that a naturalistic explanation would be in order, or else history may show the gaps are becoming wider, so that a supernatural explanation will be in order. 

Such a test may consist of the following four questions to asses the worth of different explanatory models.

1. Which model contains the fewer gaps?
2. Which model most accurately predicts where undiscovered gaps will be observed?
3. Which model most accurately forecast what scientists will discover as they use new data and technology to explore the gaps?
4. Which model is the least contrived and most straightforward in explaining both what is known and what is not yet known?

Once these criteria are assessed in light of explanatory models it could well be justified to assert that God is the better hypothesis or model. In this way, a researcher is basing the conclusion more on what is known, rather than what is unknown. 


(4) Distinguishing between ignorance and impossibility

It is helpful to see the intuitive distinction between the following two statements. (i) That we can’t see how such a thing can happen naturalistically. (ii) That we can see it is impossible for such a thing to happen naturalistically. A person who utilises the god-of-the-gaps argument will often level their charge at (i) failing to see that it is (ii) that is being advocated. Thus the god-of-the-gaps argument can become a straw man argument itself.

An example of this is G. W. Lebnitz’s argument against materialism and therefore for a substance duelism. Alvin Plantinga makes the above distinction, noting that (ii) is very different sort of claim than (i). 


(5) Begging the question

It begs the question to say there are no gaps at all, even if the gaps are getting smaller.


(6) Existential exclamations and the motivation for the scientific endeavour.

Advocates of the god-of-the-gaps argument often fail to understand what the theistic scientist or theologian means when they say ‘God did it.’ Most often the person is not a covering a gap of ignorance with a supernatural explanation but is expressing the wonder of God’s created order. Far from being a stopper or road-block to science it is a motivation for the theistic scientist to probe deeper into the mysteries of natural phenomenon. 

The theistic worldview provides not only motivation for good science, but the necessary philosophical underpinnings for the continuance of science. For instance, on theism God has endowed humans with cognitive faculties sufficient to understand the world, whereas on naturalism there is no such confidence. Similarly, theism guarantees rationality imbues the universe so that it is possible to discover laws in nature, whereas on atheism there is no such assurance. Alvin Plantinga manages to show that on naturalism there is no way to be assured about the reality of even physical objects, let alone that naturalism is itself true, for on naturalism our cognitive faculties are selected by evolution not for truth but for survival. Thus naturalism is at root self-defeating.


(7) Distinguish between primary and secondary causation

When the theistic scientist expresses the notion that God is responsible for unexplained natural phenomena, if he is not simply expressing his awe of the created order, is rather expressing a truth lost on the advocate of the god-of-the-gaps argument. The advocate of the god-of-the-gaps argument fails to distinguish between what the theist sees as primary causation and secondary causation. God can certainly be the one sustaining concurring with natural phenomena as a primary cause, but will operate through the agency of a secondary cause, say the laws of nature. 

The idea here is the theistic scientist utter a ‘Wow, this can only be achieved by a divine creator.’ Rather than this being the end of scientific inquiry, in the very next breath comes the next question, ‘How did God do this?’ Accordingly when gaps of ignorance are filled with knowledge and understanding, it does not relegate God to smaller spaces, but gives the scientist or researcher an extra reason to magnify God.


(8) Philosophical or theological expectations

A researcher or scientist may have philosophical or theological expectations of finding a gap with dimensions that make God a tidy explanation. Such as the beginning of the universe ex nihilo, or in the resurrection of Christ one expects to find a gap in scientific knowledge. In cases such as these, the god-of-the-gaps argument should be silenced, for given the philosophical or theological expectations it is wholly reasonable to posit God in the so-called gap. Two examples follow. 

First, early last century science suddenly struck upon empirical evidence for the beginning of the universe out of nothing, against the expectaions of the current cosmogony, namely the Steady State Theory. How the universe literally came into being is widely recognised to be a matter beyond science, for in the singularity, all material things, including time itself, began to exist. As science seeks to provide answers to all naturally occurring phenomenon the ultimate first cause of the origin of the universe will fall outside of the scientific endeavour. The formulation of Big Bang Cosmology creates a big “gap” for science, but a gap such as this has quite easily been filled by philosophers and theologians who expected it, for the cause of such an event can only be immaterial and timeless therefore changeless, uncaused and beginningless, enormously powerful and therefore a personal creator.

Second, The initial boundary conditions of the universe are themselves beyond the scope of science, and so one would expect explanations for these to also be outside science. 

This does not mean, in and of itself, that these expectations are not subject to naturalistic defeaters. But even if these laws or discoveries are not beyond science, based on current expectations of philosophy and theology, and in the absence of naturalistic defeaters one can be justified when positing God to fill such a gap.


(9) Auxiliary reasons

Similarly we can have auxiliary reasons to think that God fills the gap, for instance in the biblical texts, or other special revelation. Alvin Plantinga suggests it may be that such beliefs are basic, and result from when human cognitive faculties are functioning correctly in the appropriate environment.


(10) Religiously neutral premises

In religiously neutral premises the god-of-the-gaps argument can find no foothold. 

For instance, the second premise in the Kalam cosmological argument that the universe began to exist, can be found in almost any science text book. The first premise, that whatever begins to exist has a cause, is also religiously neutral as it does not take belief in God but only common sense to agree with it. Although the conclusion that therefore, the universe has a cause cannot be said to be religiously neutral, the charge of placing God in the gaps cannot therefore be levelled against the argument.

Another example, the premise the result of the appearance of design is either due not physical necessity, chance or design, carries with it no religious baggage. Plus it is entirely plausible as it seems to exhaust all the possibilities for the appearance of design. 


(11) The inference to design

The inference to design may come after sufficiently demonstrating that the appearance of design is not due to physical necessity or by chance. William Dembski has advanced a sophisticated and highly nuanced method for a design inference that does this. The inference to design hinges around the idea of ‘specified complexity,’ where the given probability is not only vanishingly small but also conforms to an independently given pattern.


(12) Design detection

According to Intelligent Design theorist one can discover the products of design without having any idea as to how those products came about. The practitioner of theistic science is therefore not committed either way to the gaps of history of the cosmos or understanding in human knowledge. The god-of-the-gaps objection usually fails to take this into account. 


(13) Motivations

The motivations of the advocates of design arguments are absolutely irrelevant to the truth or falsehood of the premise or the conclusion that follows. To claim the argument is unsound because of the religious or apologetic motivations is the genetic fallacy.



* Here is a better representative of the teleological argument. 

  (1′) The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.

  (2′) It is not due to physical necessity or chance.

  (3) Therefore, it is due to design.



Lays down the formula for calculating the probability of a hypothesis (H) on given evidence (E).

Lays down the formula for calculating the probability of a hypothesis (H) on given evidence (E).

Has science buried God? Report from the Dawkins/Lennox discussion

This week, on the 21st of October, Richard Dawkins and John Lennox came together at the Oxford Museum to discuss science, atheism, and the Christian faith. Both represent significant voices in the debate about the existence of God and the claims of science; with Dawkin’s The God Delusion and Lennox’s God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?

The event was hosted by Fixed Point, and for those that are interested you can grab a DVD or CD of the debate from their website (they are currently offering a £2.50 discount on pre-orders).

The RZIM trust has summarized some of the discussion (thanks to Aaron McAleese for sending this to me) and I thought I would quote some the comments because it sounded like a lively and interesting discussion between the two scientists. The whole report is over three thousand words, so I have not included everything. If you want the full report, you can email me for a copy at

Has science buried God?

The debate was a fascinating exchange which revolved around the ideas of truth, the intelligibility of the universe, the reliability of history, the importance of the resurrection, whether or not God has any place in science, and issues of morality and purpose.

The debate involved a conversation between the two speakers, followed by a question and answer session and then finished with concluding remarks from both sides. Because the speakers were cross-examining one another, it meant that the topics that they spoke about swung quite considerably.

Dawkins started by saying it depends which god you are talking about. He said there were three types of gods:

i) Einstein’s poetic metaphor.
ii) The deist god. Dawkins said there was a “reasonably respectable case for a deist god”, but it was not one he believed in.
iii) The thousands of other gods including Yahweh, Zeus and the Christian God.

Dawkins said he knew what God Lennox believes in. He said Lennox is a scientist who believes God actually turned water into wine (changing the proteins and structure of the water) and who walked on water. He said he is used to hearing it from sophisticated theologians, but not from a scientist like Lennox. He said couldn’t God think of a better way of saving the world then torturing himself. He said it was petty and small-minded.

Lennox said that he believes in the rational intelligibility of the universe and that it was not just a freak accident. He said that he believes in a creator who is not only a force, but a person. He said the issue was far from petty as it deals with a very serious problem – our alienation from God. He said as a scientist he believed the universe was rational intelligible because there was a God. He asked Dawkins how he accounted for it.

Dawkins said things were not a freak accident. He said that Darwin showed that it happened through evolution by natural selection. He said it looks designed but it is not. He said the cosmos has not had its ‘Darwin’ yet, so we do not know how it was created. He said biology can discourage us from believing in God. He said that although we don’t understand the cosmos we do not have to postulate a creator. He says it’s harder to think of how a God came into existence than a universe.

Lennox pointed out that Darwin does not explain the origin.  He said scientists and cosmologists assume the universe is rationally intelligible. He said can we trust our own minds if they are only the product of unguided processes? He quoted the atheist Pinker who said that unguided evolution only serves reproduction and has nothing to do with truth. Likewise, atheist Gray says that it could not give any credence of truth. He says Dawkins’ views undermines the rationality upon which he relies.

Lennox said everything depends on having a fine-tuned universe before life can begin. He asked Dawkins if his belief was that everything went from the simple to the complex. Dawkins said that in biology this was correct. Lennox said that all language comes as a result of a created mind. Dawkins says that DNA is not human language.

Lennox said there was no other conceivable way of understanding information. He said information processes communication.

Dawkins accuses Lennox of [sic] incredulity.

Lennox said believing rationality comes from irrationality is rational credulity. He said he believed in an eternal logos that created the universe and the laws that uphold it.

Dawkins said that this was no explanation and that the universe was just a brute fact. He said it was easier to believe in a brute fact than in God. He said this was more plausible than a God.

Lennox says that things don’t always have a simpler explanation e.g. someone writing a book.

Dawkins says that your brain has an explanation – you can go back a level and it is always from the simple to the complex.

Lennox says we have no evidence for how low level molecules can move to a macro level with information.

Dawkins says we don’t know yet, but science is working on it.

Lennox says DNA is an ancient language that points to a logos and cannot be seen in purely naturalistic terms. Extreme reductionism removes the rationalism from the debate. He said that the existence of DNA suggests there is a designer and that Dawkins’ dichotomy of science or religion could put people off science.

Dawkins says that a religious person smuggles in magic as an explanation.

Lennox said there are some bad gaps that science closes as well as some bad gaps that it opens. He said that if there was a God you would expect (1) Evidence in the universe e.g. mathematical intelligibility, fine-tuning and the sophistication of the world and (2) that the creator would speak in a special way. He said that the resurrection was not petty. He said death affects everyone and therefore it does make an enormous difference.


Lennox asked about ultimate justice. He said this was not a petty matter. He said that we live in a broken world and that no God means no ultimate justice.

Dawkins said suppose there was misery and no justice. He said that this was too bad if it’s true. He then said maybe there was no hope without God.

Lennox said he’d just admitted it. He said if there was a God then he would have to reveal himself. He said he could not know Dawkins by analysing him with a telescope or a microscope. He said God had to take the initiative to reveal himself to people. That is the only way you can know someone.

Lennox asked Dawkins what the ultimate meaning of life was for him.

Dawkins responded by saying that we make our own meaning. He said a biologist’s perspective was that it was all about the propagation of genes.

Lennox said what about the nature of reality? He said how do you get from atoms to a brain, or a mind, or
consciousness? He said what concept of meaning can you have unless there is a top-down view of God? He said there is a personal God and this is the source of life and meaning. He said that there is a beyond and you can have a relationship with God. He said atheism’s meaning is much smaller.

Lennox made the following points as his closing remarks:
– Science has not buried God.
– Science originated from a faith in rational processes (from a Christian background).
– Laws that mean science can be done come from the logos from God.
– Christian faith is not unscientific if you pay attention to history.
– If science has buried God where do we get morality from?
– He pointed out that Dawkins has written that there is no good or evil because there is just DNA and we dance to its music.
– He said the new atheists hold to the values they have got from Christianity. He quotes Jurgen Habermas who says the foundations of our legal system come from Christianity.
– He said atheists like Nietzsche and Camus understood you cannot retain your moral values and you are led to madness.
– He asks whether Dawkins’ world is one in which (like Peter Singer) a newborn baby has no more value than a pig or a dog.

Dawkins made the following points:
– He said Singer was one of the most moral people he knew and that he was interested in suffering. His comment about foetuses and animals was in reference to their ability to suffer.
– He said the universe was not horribly determinist, but rather it was horribly rational or intelligible. He said it would have to be (as what would it look like otherwise?). He said we could only survive in such a universe.
– He said science does not know everything, but we are working on it.
– He says science doesn’t invoke magic as an explanation.
– He said prior to Darwin much of the science seemed like magic, but Darwin solved a difficult problem.
– He said Darwin provides a lesson that we should not give up on the difficult problems.
– He said science is going to solve things and if it doesn’t there is still no reason for saying magic did it.

The RZIM Zacharias Trust Team

God and the limits of science: Auckland Lecture this week

This Tuesday, the 21st of October, Dr Neil Broom will be giving a lecture addressing the debate about science and design. He will examine the explanatory limits of science and the case for the existence of God.

Topic: Science and the ‘God vs No-God’ Dilemma
Date: Tuesday, 21st October 08
Time: 6-7pm
Where: Lecture theatre 4.304 Engineering faculty

Neil Broom is a professor and the deputy head of the department of Chemical and Materials Engineering at Auckland University. He was trained as a materials scientist has been involved in over 77 published articles in international journals . Dr Broom initially spent time in research investigating crystalline structures before he switched focus to explore the world of living materials over the last two decades. With abundant exposure to nonliving and lving systems, Broom is convinced that the data of science paints a different story than the increasingly dominant view that we are merely biological artifacts of a cold, unfriendly universe.

His book, “How Blind is the Watchmaker?” from InterVarsity Press (it can also be previewed on Google Books),  challenges the “filmsily crafted but persuasively packaged myth of scientific materialism” and argues that the living world functions “in the presence of a transcendent, nonmaterial dimension – a dimension that both nourishes and imparts meaning to the processes of life”.