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 College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.