[asa] Miracles and God of the Gaps

From: Jon Tandy <tandyland@earthlink.net>
Date: Thu Jan 22 2009 - 10:20:40 EST

I am considering a question of how miracles have formed a part of scientific
explanations in the past, and how would science work under the assumption
that supernatural explanations could be allowed. I'm also questioning
whether TE is in reality a "God of the gaps" explanation.


First, can anyone give me some examples of explanations that were previously
attributed to miracles, that have subsequently been determined to have
natural causes? I know obvious things like the creation of the universe,
origin of life, and exact mechanisms of biological complexity are still
subjects of controversy and are not well defined. I'm looking more for
specifics, in particular historical examples.


For instance, I recall in the last few years on this list someone mentioned
Francis Line believing that God could stretch the atoms to fill the space
above the meniscus, where Robert Boyle was not willing to rely on a
miraculous explanation and proposed that a vacuum existed. I've done a
little research online and can't confirm this to be the case, and it seems
rather that the difference between the two was more complicated than a
simple "miracle vs. natural explanation". I have also read about some
medieval scientists believing (based on Biblical scripture) that God
"literally" upheld the earth with his hand to keep it in orbit, prior to the
discovery of the action of gravity, and that the theory of gravity somehow
was believed to displace God from part of his role. I don't know how
accurate this characterization is. What are some other cases in the modern
history of science that specific "scientific" explanations have relied on a
miracle hypothesis, as part of an otherwise natural scientific paradigm?


The second part of the question is, what would (or did) science look like
with miraculous explanations included? In particular, most scientists and
in particular many TEs characterize "miraculous intervention" as a "science
killer" and "God of the gaps". If the sole cause is supernatural, then
science has to stop its investigation because it has no domain there. Is
this really the case? I don't believe that it is. Take for example Behe's
theory on the bacterial flagellum. Was proposing a non-natural designer a
"science killer" in this case? I think the answer is the opposite:
scientists took the challenge to investigate this theory, just as they would
any other theory, and they have learned quite a lot about the flagellum over
the last 10 years or so. As I understand it, they have disproved some of
his more simplistic conclusions, such as the discovery that there are
variant or partial structures that still serve the same functional purpose,
and that the various parts do appear to have other unrelated purposes in
other combinations within the organism. Score one for the advance of
science, at the expense of those who wanted the flagellum to be the poster
child of scientific creationism.


But what if the situation had been different? What if scientists took
Behe's challenge to disprove irreducible complexity, and for the next 50 or
100 years discovered greater and greater levels of complexity that had no
evidence of evolutionary precursors or natural explanations? What would
have been the impact on science? Take for instance the origin of life
itself. This was the prevailing religio-scientific explanation prior to the
1950's (and of course still is for many). It didn't kill science, but
rather science took the challenge to find a natural explanation - and has so
far come up with relatively nothing. In the process, I'm sure they learned
a lot about protein and RNA/DNA structure and other things, such as
discovering that protein-like structures can self-organize, although random
in orientation. I'm not suggesting that science will never answer this
question, but am simply questioning the assertion that science has been
weakened by proposing a miracle.


Nor has science been hindered by the fact that the question is unanswered -
thus, if the question of the origin of life turns out to be unanswerable by
natural means (i.e. it really was due to a miracle), nevertheless biology is
able to have great explanatory power in many other avenues of investigation
subsequent to the development of the first living thing. Science will
thrive wherever it has power to explain, and where it can't explain it will
either continue to investigate or set the question aside.


Now for the third part. Most scientists, including TEs, decry the reliance
on "miracle" because it undermines the process of scientific investigation,
and creates "God of the gaps" scenarios of using God to fill in the gaps in
our knowledge of the natural order. Yet the same TEs will rely on the
doctrine of providence or quantum interaction as theological explanations
that are just as "miraculous", although hidden behind our present inability
to investigate. It seems to me that the doctrine of providence is just as
much a "God of the gaps" explanation as other more explicit claims of
miracle, as the recent conversation with Timaeus brought out.


If "Nature" is fully sufficient to account for the origin of things (without
any front-loading, providence, or tampering with quantum possibilities),
then strict methodological naturalism would be the right way to fully
discover the character of those things, only limited by our ability to
observe and measure with enough precision. But if Nature is not fully
sufficient on its own - if it requires a Divine Tinkerer or Intelligent
Frontloader - than natural explanations are not enough. The TE position is
generally characterized by pretty much a full acceptance of science's
ability to describe cause and effect relationships as currently understood,
and yet defines those relationships as "secondary causes". Since a theistic
God is held to be the responsible party as "primary cause", the moving force
that allows nature to progress in the direction it has taken (and that it
wouldn't have taken such a course without a primary cause), how is this not
a "God of the gaps" explanation - an argument from our present ignorance?
It may be a gap that is never able to be filled, but a gap nevertheless, it
seems to me.


Jon Tandy


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Received on Thu Jan 22 10:21:05 2009

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