January 12, 2012

God-of-the-gaps objection (Part 1 of 4)

By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Carillon, January 12, 2012

God-of-the-gaps objection (Part 1 of 4):
Intelligent design is not an appeal to ignorance

Sometimes the intelligent design hypothesis is said to be an illegitimate scientific explanation because of the so-called God-of-the-gaps objection. Today I will explain the God-of-the-gaps objection, plus I will argue that this objection is problematic.

According to the God-of-the-gaps objection, intelligent design (ID) is a faulty explanation because it is based on ignorance, not knowledge. That is to say, ID is based on gaps in our knowledge of the capacities of natural non-intelligent causes, but natural non-intelligent causes are actually at work, as further scientific investigation will show.

For example, many years ago people appealed to God as an explanation for lightning. But, of course, we now know that lightning is an atmospheric electrostatic discharge (i.e., a form of static electricity), not God's intervention. Clearly, using God as an explanation of lightning is to display ignorance of the actual causes of lightning. Clearly, too, as science progresses, the gaps due to human ignorance close—and so the "God" of the gaps gets squeezed out.

Thus, according to the God-of-the-gaps objection, we should not appeal to ID as an explanation.

Is the God-of-the-gaps objection reasonable to believe? I don't think so. Here is one argument for thinking that the God-of-the-gaps objection, when aimed at ID, is problematic. (Next time I will set out a second argument.)

Yes, the God-of-the-gaps objection gains traction when a God hypothesis is applied without reasonable constraint, that is, when evidence truly doesn't warrant it (think of our lightning example). However, the fact remains that ID can sometimes be applied reasonably.

According to ID proponents, ID is appropriate when—and only when—two conditions are satisfied: (1) we have positive knowledge for thinking that non-intelligent causes clearly struggle/fail, and (2) we have positive knowledge that the phenomena to be explained clearly resemble the sorts of things that only known intelligent causes do.

Interestingly, the satisfaction of these conditions is at the heart of reasoning that we do in everyday life when we discern intelligent causes.

For example, if I am playing Scrabble with my family and I see the letters, DAD-IT-IS-YOUR-TURN-TO-BUY-PIZZA, I know (i.e., have reasonable belief) that the arrangement of letters has been intelligently designed. Why? Because (1) I know that it’s extremely improbable for Scrabble letters to arrange themselves this way without input of intelligence, and (2) I know that this arrangement of letters displays those distinct characteristics which originate from a mind or personal agent, i.e., an intelligent cause.

Sure, it's logically possible that the letters' arrangement was due to chance, natural law, or some combination of these, but, clearly, it's reasonable to think that an intelligent cause explanation is the more plausible hypothesis.

In the 2009 book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, philosopher of science Stephen C. Meyer takes the above-described ID reasoning to the investigation of the origin of the information content of Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA), the blueprint of life. Notice how Meyer employs the aforementioned two conditions.

First, Meyer argues, we know that the origin of the code of DNA is highly improbable when we are given non-intelligent causes only. According to Meyer, contemporary science tells us that the major contending explanations which do not appeal to intelligent causes are not up for the explanatory task. Contemporary science tells us that material non-intelligent causes, when understood wholly in terms of chance, physical necessity, or combinations of chance and physical necessity, very apparently lack the capacity to produce the rich information content of DNA.

In other words, because of what we know of physical matter, we have positive knowledge that explanations of DNA's origin which don't appeal to intelligent causes have great difficulty.

Second, Meyer argues, we know from our uniform and repeated experience of the cause-and-effect structure of the world that only intelligent causal agency produces the sort of information that is found in DNA (i.e., information that is like that found in my string of Scrabble letters, but is much more complex). Meyer calls this sort of information functionally specified information (or specified information, for short). The information consists of a complicated set of instructions that direct the construction of non-living material/chemical structures to function together in a highly specific way, i.e., as a complex integrated system, which is the first life.

Moreover, we know that DNA's code, i.e., DNA's complex functionally-specified information, resembles human-made computer software, but is much more sophisticated. As Bill Gates of Microsoft has famously said, “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.”

Because of the satisfaction of both of the above two conditions, Meyer concludes that the ID hypothesis is a scientifically legitimate way to go.

But, we should pause here and notice: Meyer's argument is definitely not an argument from gaps in our knowledge.

In other words, the ID hypothesis (when used properly) is based on what we know. It's based on positive knowledge of the capacities (or lack thereof) of non-intelligent causes, and it's based on positive knowledge of the sorts of things only intelligent causes do. Properly understood, then, ID is not an argument based on ignorance, so ID is not a case of God-of-the-gaps reasoning.

Therefore, when directed at ID, the God-of-the-gaps objection is problematic—and it should not block our scientific inquiries into evidence for intelligent design.

Stay tuned for part two.

Hendrik van der Breggen, Ph.D., is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence University CollegeThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.


poetreehugger said...

Love the Scrabble reference, and the photo illustration. Computer Scrabble is one of my leisure interests.

The quote from Bill Gates is interesting. Is DNA like the human invention the computer, or is the computer a (almost fractal?) type or image of the basic life programming system, DNA?

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hi Poetreehugger,

Thanks for the comment. The comparison is not between DNA and the computer per se, but between the information content of DNA (the functionally specific arrangements of the letters) and the information content of computer software (the functionally specific arrangements of the code). In a future column I will clarify the notion of information and its various types.

P.S. I have been informed (by Providence student Harley Dyck) that I should be doubly suspicious when I see the "buy pizza" arrangement of letters, because there is only one Z in a set of Scrabble tiles!

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

If anyone is interested, I discuss DNA's language/code as evidence for intelligent agency (plus I discuss some objections to this view) on pages 290-302 of chapter 4 of my PhD dissertation. Also, for additional clarifications of the concept of intelligent design and for further defence of the legitimacy of intelligent causes as explanations, please see pages 214-225 and 226-237 respectively.

Jordan said...

Thanks for this Dr. V. I continue to be amazed at how ID is treated unfairly by so many academics and the press. I've been reading reviews of Alvin Plantinga's new book and most of them say something along the lines of, "Really great book, except the chapter in which he appears to endorse Intelligent Design." Sigh.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hi Jordan,

Thanks for your comment -- and I sigh along with you.

Thanks too for letting me know (a couple of years ago) of John Lennox's video on gaps. If I recall correctly, you brought Lennox on gaps to my (and others') attention way back when Mark Jensen was blogmaster of the Philosophy Foosball Club blog. Seems like last week!

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

P.S. Philosopher of science John Lennox's helpful (four minute) video about the God-of-the-gaps objection is available here.

Also, here are some thoughts about the Lennox video (from me):

Lennox distinguishes between “bad gaps” and “good gaps.” The bad gaps are gaps in our knowledge about the world, gaps that get filled as we investigate the world. I think Lennox labels them “bad” because sometimes we mistakenly fill them with God. That is, we don’t know how it happened, i.e., we are ignorant of how it happened, so we conclude that God did it. This would be an argument from ignorance, a.k.a. the god-of-the-gaps fallacy. At is turns out, the more science discovers, the more the god of the gaps is squeezed out of the gaps.

Lennox’s good gaps, on the other hand, are gaps in reality, not knowledge. These gaps are the actual limits to what natural causes can in fact do. This is not based on an argument from ignorance. Rather, we examine an event or phenomenon (say, a written message or DNA), and we discern from what we know of nature, that natural unintelligent causes don’t have the causal capacity for producing this. I think Lennox labels them “good” because these gaps are real and we have positive knowledge about them.

I think that Lennox’s distinction between the gaps is crucially important. But I wonder if the labels “good” and “bad” are really helpful. It seems to me that the gaps per se are neither good nor bad; rather, the goodness or badness enters into the picture by how we use/misuse them. No one likes to be ignorant, but sometimes admitting ignorance is a virtue. Saying “I don’t know” or “I have a gap in my knowledge” isn’t bad in itself; it’s being honest. The badness enters when I mistakenly or deliberately base my argument on this ignorance (there would be more badness if it’s deliberate). Also, the actual gap or limit to nature’s causes isn’t a good per se; it just is. (I suppose that in a general sense it’s good because nature is a creation by God, but that would be a background sense, it seems to me.)

Maybe instead of good gaps and bad gaps we should simply say, respectively, gaps in nature’s capacities and gaps in our knowledge?

Anonymous said...

Hello Hendrik!

I'm not sure if this post is still active, but I was directed to it by our recent conversation on Facebook / my blog about MN.

I think you would get pushback on this posts from geneticists, specifically concerning the notion of biological information. When they use the term 'information' and employ the image of "language" (as Collins does in his book "The Language of God"), they are speaking metaphorically. They don't mean that genetic coding is an actual language (actual language is more complex). They mean it in the sense of functional (not conceptually meaningful) information. This means that the Scrabble example doesn't really work. It pushes the "language" or "information" metaphor too far. We don't find anything in biology that clearly and unambiguously gives the impression of intelligence, such as we find in the Scrabble analogy (which involves actual language, with recognizable linguistic and grammatical structure). So, the statement, "we know from our uniform and repeated experience of the cause-and-effect structure of the world that only intelligent causal agency produces the sort of information that is found in DNA" does not seem well founded.

Dennis Venema addresses this issue in his recent series at Biologos ("Biological Information and Intelligent Design": http://biologos.org/blogs/dennis-venema-letters-to-the-duchess/biological-information-and-intelligent-design-introduction).
I'm wondering how you would respond?

NOTE: While I'm not convinced of ID as a scientific explanation, I do value ID as a kind of meta-model, i.e., on a more comprehensive level of philosophical and theological explanation and that the notion of design is theologically fruitful. So, I think we probably agree more than we disagree on these things (which can easily be forgotten when debating the details!). Thanks for your thoughtful posts.

Anonymous said...

Again, on the "information" analogy (and thus problems with the Scrabble analogy), see this talk by Randy Isaac: http://resources.asa3.org/FMPro?-db=asadb49.fm4&-format=%2fasadb%2fdetail3.html&-lay=layout1&-sortfield=first%20author&source%5foccasion=2016%2bAnnual%2bMeeting&-lop=or&-max=2147483647&-recid=36433&-find=

I know Randy from the ASA. Here is a brief bio: Randy Isaac is a solid-state physics research scientist and executive director (Emeritus) of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), where he has been a member since 1976 and a fellow since 1996. Isaac received his bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in Illinois and his doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined IBM to work at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in 1977 and most recently served as the vice-president of systems technology and science for the company.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Patrick. I'll give them some thought!

Hendrik van der Breggen said...


Thanks again for your comments. Here are a few of my thoughts.

I think you might be misunderstanding the purpose of my Scrabble example—or maybe (probably) I didn't make the purpose clear enough. Its purpose is not to make an analogy between language and DNA. Rather, its purpose is to illustrate (via an everyday-life example) the two conditions which need to be satisfied before making an inference to design: i.e., that ID is appropriate when—and only when—two conditions are satisfied: (1) we have positive knowledge for thinking that non-intelligent causes clearly struggle/fail, and (2) we have positive knowledge that the phenomena to be explained clearly resemble the sorts of things that only known intelligent causes do. Immediately after this I set out the Scrabble example to illustrate.

Your criticism is on firmer ground if we focus only on (and isolate) my parenthetical remark that the sort of information that's found in DNA “is like that found in my string of Scrabble letters, but is much more complex" (I set out this parenthetical remark when I set out Meyer's second point). In my defence, I have three points.

First, I go on to describe this sort of information (i.e., the sort found in DNA) as “functionally specified information," which is as you do when you talk about “functional information." I like to think that this bit of context should count for something in my argument's favour. (I hope I don't come across as quibbling; okay, maybe I am.)

Second, I think that if the “sort of information" we're talking about has to do primarily with a set of instructions that arise from a sequencing of letters and words, in the case of language, and a sequencing of amino acids, in the case of DNA, then there's some conceptual overlap—similarity—between my Scrabble instruction to buy pizza and DNA's instructions to build, say, a liver or brain.

(Indeed, it seems to me that functional information—the set of instructions due to particularities in sequencing—isn't wholly its medium. The same instructions can be set out in different media. There's a message conveyed by the medium, whether the medium is linguistic, or electronic impulses coming from my keyboard, or molecular; and this message isn't reducible to the medium itself. This message, whatever its nature, which seems to me to be non-material in its commonality, is what's similar. I concede that in this second point I might be influenced by Plato and the notion of an immaterial reality that provides structure to the physical world. This seems to me also to fit nicely with “in the beginning was the Word." Still, this is not to set out a Platonic or theistic argument; it's to notice the implications.)

(Continued below)

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Third, I'm inclined to think that the degree of complexity favours DNA over my Scrabble instruction. Recall that in my article I'm talking about DNA as the blueprint of life. It seems to me that my short string of Scrabble letters with instructions to buy a pizza contains much less complex information than does DNA which contains a blueprint of life which includes instructions for making language-using creatures who can order not only one pizza but hundreds of pizzas—and with a variety of toppings! (Yes, the last bit was a wee attempt at humour.) Maybe (probably) my article doesn't make this clear. (The space constraints of a newspaper column are not conducive to philosophical nuance.)

Okay, so let's keep in mind that I'm not making an analogy between language and DNA (though some think the “sequence hypothesis" is a seriously analogous feature). But in my article it should be clear that I am making an analogy between computer two-character digital code/ sequence instructional system and DNA's four-character digital code/ sequence instructional system. It's in this context that we should understand my statement (which you quote and claim is not well founded): "we know from our uniform and repeated experience of the cause-and-effect structure of the world [i.e., computer code/ sequences bearing functionally specified information] that only intelligent causal agency produces the sort of information that is found in DNA." In view of our uniform and repeated experience of the creation of complex computer codes (sequences bearing functionally specified information), including the experience of Bill Gates and Microsoft, I think it does seem well founded to infer intelligence to account for DNA's code—a code that is, as Bill Gates says, much more complex than any code he and his company have ever made.

Of course, I could be mistaken in my thinking on these matters! Thanks, Patrick, for the fine conversation. Maybe we can continue this discussion on a backyard deck—before winter arrives!

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

P.S. I've taken a look at the posts by Dennis Venema. Before I offer any comment on them, I'll wait for him to complete his overall series (I think there's one more instalment to go). Also, because Venema is engaging the work of Stephen C. Meyer (who is much smarter than me), I think I'll wait to hear what Meyer has to say. I notice that Venema and Meyer have had an exchange of articles at Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (2 articles by Venema, 1 by Meyer), plus there's some commentary sympathetic to Meyer at a link provided at the website for Meyer's book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. Here is the link.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

P.P.S. I've been listening to Randall Isaac's lecture "Information and misinformation in life's origins," in which he critiques Stephen Meyer and Doug Axe's pro-ID video "Information Enigma". (It's unfortunate that almost nobody in the audience saw the 21 minute video, so for interested readers here is a link.) I'm presently thinking about Isaac's claim that meaningful DNA information is biochemical action and not an abstraction, and thus not a candidate as an effect of intelligent agency. At the moment I think I would present pushback on two counts. First, when he allows biological information to be physically dependent yet remain constant while the physical states get transformed, I think that to make sense of the constancy through physical change there's something metaphysical/ abstract going on (like a proposition as a metaphysical ground of language meaning makes sense of the same meaning expressed differently in various languages). Isaac seems to think it's only physical, but it seems to me that there's more (beyond merely physical). But I will ponder this further. Second, when Isaac says it's the physical-chemical action from the shape of a protein that really causes information, I think he may be off target. The question of ID folks has to do with contingent peculiarity/ particularity of the protein's shape whose information originates in the digital instructions in DNA. (An aside: when as a criticism of ID Isaac says new information is generated all the time in biological reproduction, it seems he misses the ID question of its origin for reproduction to occur in the first place.) That's as far as I've gotten on Isaac's lecture, and I may need to revise my above criticisms as I continue to ponder Isaac's lecture. Up next: Isaac's critique of Meyer and Axe's bike lock analogy. If time permits I'll comment on the whole of the lecture—which, even though I disagree with some of it thus far, is great food for thought! Thanks, Patrick, for the link.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Note/ reminder to readers: It's important to keep in mind that neither Patrick nor I (nor those whose work we are discussing here) are questioning the doing of science-engaged philosophy and theology. I'm pretty sure we both (all) think that the Christian worldview best makes sense of the findings of science plus the very possibility of doing science—all of which constitute huge clues that point philosophically/ theologically to design—plus that there's more to the Christian worldview than what science tells us, i.e., especially the historical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, not to mention the reality of the witness of the Holy Spirit. In the above comments, Patrick and I are merely having a friendly discussion about the merits/ demerits of ID as a hypothesis within science. My colleague Patrick and I are good friends—and brothers in Christ.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much, Hendrik, for your thoughtful comments. This has been a fantastic conversation! Lots to keep thinking about.

I echo your last paragraph as well. Life would be boring if there was never any disagreement, and since none of use knows everything disagreement can help both side approach the truth more fully, or at least nuance their own views. I have found that to be the case with this discussion for sure. I'll also point out that we agree on MUCH more than we disagree here. Which - actually - is why the honest conversation over disagreement can take place so amicably. Blessings, brother.