Many scientifically-minded atheists claim that science can explain or has explained everything that God was once invoked to explain, and thus there is no more room for belief in God. But when theists point to gaps in scientific knowledge and argue that God best explains that gap, atheists accuse us of committing a God-of-the-gaps fallacy. If the discovery of natural processes to explain some phenomena counts as evidence against God, how can it also be that the lack of a naturalistic explanation cannot count as evidence for God’s existence when God is the best explanation for the phenomena? Heads I win, tails you lose.
Obviously the lack of a naturalistic explanation for some phenomenon in and of itself is not evidence for theism, but it does show that (1) science has not explained everything that needs to be explained or that the God hypothesis has been invoked to explain, and (2) it shows that there is still explanatory power in theism.
Just because we have come to learn that God is not necessary to explain some of needs to be explained does not mean that God is not needed to explain anything. If we had 10 things that need to be explained, and God had been invoked to explain all 10, but we have since discovered that God is not needed to explain seven of those 10 items, it does not follow that God is (probably) not needed to explain the remaining three. It may just be the case that God is only needed to explain the remaining three items, and it’s because God is the explanation for those three items that they defy naturalistic explanation. The atheist is exercising faith when he says that science will discover the naturalistic processes responsible for the remaining three items just as it had for the other seven. They may or may not. But to assume that they will despite having no evidence for this belief is blind faith. The basis for our judgments is evidence that exists today, not evidence that is hoped to exist in the future. If the current evidence shows that the God hypothesis is superior to the naturalistic hypothesis, then we are beholden to follow the evidence and admit that it at least shows it is possible that God exists, even while recognizing that our conclusions could change if the evidence changes.
For some phenomena, we don’t have to wait for the possibility of more evidence in the future because the nature of the phenomena is such that a naturalistic explanation is impossible in principle. For example, naturalistic processes cannot possibly explain consciousness, morality, or the origin of physical reality:
- Consciousness – Self-awareness is not a physical property, and thus cannot originate from anything physical.
- Morality – “Good” and “evil” are not physical properties. There are not evil elements or good molecules. Good and evil are immaterial properties, and thus cannot originate from anything physical.
- Physical reality – Physical reality had a beginning. Since something cannot come from nothing, physical reality had to be caused to come into existence. Whatever that cause was, it cannot be a physical or natural entity because it’s logically impossible for physical stuff to exist prior to the existence of physical stuff. That would require that physical reality exist before it exists, which is a logical absurdity. The cause must be immaterial in nature, and thus there cannot be a naturalistic explanation for the origin of physical reality.
The atheist’s way of reasoning also fails because it presumes that the evidence for God’s existence is limited to explaining natural phenomenon. God is invoked to explain much more than natural phenomenon, and thus even if science had explained all natural phenomenon in terms of natural processes, it still wouldn’t follow that science had explained God away. God would still be needed to explain other elements of the human experience.
No matter how you slice it, the advancement in scientific knowledge has not removed the need for God’s existence, nor undermined the basis for belief in God’s existence. If anything, advancements in scientific knowledge have given us more and better reasons to believe in God. Justifying that claim will have to be reserved for another day.
One does not commit a God-of-the-gaps fallacy merely by positing God as an explanation, but by positing God as an explanation simply to fill a gap in our knowledge. We don’t know how to explain X, therefore we say God did X. In this case we are positing the existence of God to cover for our ignorance. When God is posited as the best explanation for what we know, however, that is a valid way of reasoning. Theists argue that what we know about the effect is best explained by a divine being rather than naturalistic processes. God is posited to explain what we know, not what we don’t.