Arguing for the God of the Gaps and Against Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a cool dude and one of many who oppose the use of God of the Gaps argumentation. In this article I propose a valid form of such argumentation. Here is a quote from Bonhoeffer:

how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.

A few notes:

  1. Notice that the gap referred to here is a stop-gap, or a temporary measure. This argument may not apply to permanent gaps.
  2. Bonhoeffer does not adequately support the claim that man’s temporally unbound learning entails a reduction in the size of the unknown.
    1. This entails that there is a finite rather than growing amount of information to be ever learned, but that is an assumption rather than something known as true. If learning a new fact multiplies available questions then total potential knowledge may not be fixed and may indeed be growing faster than concrete knowledge, driving down the share of actual knowledge relative to total at any given time.
    2. Learning may exhibit diminishing marginal returns and actual knowledge may therefore converge to some fraction of total information.
    3. A catastrophic event may terminate intelligent life at any point and therefore we may not be able to depend on the claim that man has temporally unbound learning.
  3. Bonhoeffer states that learning weakens God of the Gaps arguments.
    1. To be sure, this is typically the case, but I will show it is not necessarily the case by example in just a moment when I make a God of the Gaps argument of a subtly different sort.
    2. It’s possibly that a God of the Gaps argument is defeated by a new argument which also attributes the same phenomena ultimately to God’s agency, so the weakening of the case for God is not necessarily weakened through the use or even the erosion of God of the Gaps argumentation.
  4. Bonhoeffer states that we are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.
    1. This seems quite wrong to me and out of step with scripture. Instead, my reading of scripture shows that the repeated demonstration of God’s agency beyond our understanding is a sign of his power beyond ours.
    2. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. (Not seen can also be translated as ‘hoped for.’) Everyone who knows my work knows that I am a fan of evidence-based Christianity and serious apologetic defenses of the Christian faith, but it is common in apologetics to say that we have shown Christianity is the preferred worldview and the most likely true or truth maximizing view of the world, but it is also common to grant that this is not something we can know with certainty. That is a gap filled by a leap of faith. If we find God through faith, and I think that is critical, it may not be right to claim that “we are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.”
    3. “Signs and wonders” is a biblical phrase describing a miracle. The word sign here means an indicator of the existence or power of God and the word wonder literally means something which cannot be explained or is hard to explain. Time stopping, Jesus rising from the dead, the walls of Jericho collapsing at the apparent action of trumpet sound, the genesis of creation, water to wine, and so on. These are wonders and signs which are particularly powerful signs or indicators exactly because the normal explanations of how things work appear to fail.
    4. God having vast knowledge and power in excess of our understanding serves to inspire humility and worship. That seems like a good thing to me.
    5. God is described in scripture as sufficiently but not totally understandable. In other words, he is in part necessarily mysterious. For example we read in Isaiah 55:8:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.

Job 11 also rhetorically asks “Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?”

Now, I do condemn most implementation of God of the Gaps argumentation, and for the typical reasons. Most implementations, but not all as I will show, do some of the following:

  1. Attempt to act as a stop-gap to answer questions raised. Yet, when it turns out to be a non-credible stopgap the questioner is rationally even less likely to trust both the individual Christian giving the stop-gap and the larger institution which said Christian is member and representative of. Christians should be comfortable saying “I don’t know” or “I haven’t thought about that” instead of trying to look like a cool smart Christian by supplying bullshit to someone asking a real question.
  2. Encourage intellectual laziness, reducing productivity and curiosity. Phenomena X is already explained, why bother to look deeper?

So, anyway, here is my example of a valid approach to the God of the Gaps argument in 3 abstract parts:

  1. All of creation originates with God, so we expect God to explain all phenomena, in the sense of ultimate causality though perhaps not as a proximal cause. All of creation includes yet unobserved things.
  2. When a proximal cause apparently other than God is discovered, it actually lends credibility to the Christian faith as long as the proximal cause has an ultimate cause which is also God.
    1. Total side point: We should keep in mind the various arguments that God may be a proximal cause to such phenomena as well, and acknowledge the compatibility view that God and another agent may be co-proximally causing some event. For example, when a Christian does X it is also true that the larger Church is doing X through that person and their contributions to that person’s state of being. It may be further true that God is acting through this person, as in the case of some of Jesus’ actions. Finally, there is some serious argument to be had that all of reality is continually and directly sustained through God. For example, see the Aquinian Cosmological Argument, or the argument from contingency, in the Summa, as well as the more recently developed derivative arguments of modern thinkers.
  3. Finally, if no such proximal cause is ever discovered we do at least have a first-pass ultimate explanation which is better than a total guess or the misleading statement that we genuinely have no idea. We have a good prior and we should use it.

This abstract 3-part notion of the Virtuous God of the Gaps can be concretized as an argument against randomness:

  1. Apparent randomness exists
  2. Genuine randomness does not exist
  3. Apparent randomness is derived from genuine randomness, unobserved natural processes, or intelligence
  4. Therefore, apparent randomness is derived from natural processes or intelligence

Now, you might dispute 2 by appealing to quantum mechanical unpredictability, but keep in mind that actual unpredictability is not the same as genuine randomness. Genuine randomness means that something is unpredictable in principle, not only in fact or under the current state of affairs.

Ironically, arguing that quantum mechanics are genuinely random is a Vicious God of the Gaps-like appeal to quantum mechanics where the exact nature of quantum mechanical operation is unknown and therefore leveraged as a stop-gap claim toward the existence of true randomness. It’s vicious because when any natural process is later uncovered which explains some of the apparent randomness it will defeat the original proposition that it was genuinely random. This is distinct from the virtuous case where a proximal case is identified consistent with the originally identified cause. In fact, in science and also in research and information technology, it is common to take some existing explanation and build on top with a more complex but consistent explanation. This is akin to a Virtuous Gap Claim.

Now, let’s see what happens when we make the following God of the Gaps-like claim: It’s possible that God explains some or all apparent random variation.

  1. Some time in the future a regular natural process is discovered which explains some of that variation.
  2. The regular natural process contributes to God’s ultimate explanation anyway. Many classic evidentialist arguments apply including fine-tuning and transcendental or origination arguments.
  3. Apparent natural variation is reduced but God’s explanatory power is not reduced.
  4. Or, no such natural process is discovered and the explanation is left as God.

I’m mainly talking in this application about apparent material randomness. Examples include random genetic mutation, electron, particle, and subatomic movements, and so on. I think complex specific information is useful as a determinant of intelligence. This allows us to revisit our original 4 steps this way:

  1. Apparent material randomness exists
  2. Genuine randomness does not exist
  3. Apparent material randomness is derived from genuine randomness, unobserved natural processes, or intelligence
  4. Therefore, apparent material randomness is derived from natural processes or intelligence
  5. Intelligence is attributable to humans or God
  6. Apparent material randomness is not attributable to humans
  7. Therefore, apparent material randomness is attributable to natural processes or God
  8. Natural processes are an indirect agency of God
  9. Therefore, apparent material randomness is directly or indirectly attributable to God

And this argument against randomness can be applied to Darwinian evolution to show that this notion is in fact every bit faith-driven and theistic as any of its alternatives:

  1. Darwinian evolution is natural selection acting on apparently random mutation
  2. Apparently random mutation is apparent material randomness
  3. Natural selection is a natural process
  4. Apparent material randomness is directly or indirectly attributable to God
  5. Natural processes are an indirect agency of God
  6. Therefore, Darwinian evolution is directly or indirectly attributable to God
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