Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Is the argument from reason a god of the gaps argument?

A. God of the Gaps
Another argument frequently advanced against virtually any piece of natural theology is the God of the Gaps charge. In fact, this is one of the most popular items in the atheist playbook. We know from the history of science that many things were thought in the past to require an explanation in terms of divine agency are now know to have naturalistic explanations. Rainbows, for example, were once thought to have been put in the sky as a sign, we now know that they can be naturalistically explained in terms of light refraction. Various biological systems show a harmony between means and ends which in the past was cannon fodder for the design argument, but is now explicable in terms of random variation and natural selection. So if there is something that we think cannot be explained in physical terms, just give science some time, and they’ll figure it out sooner or later.
An instance where the God of the Gaps objection appears strong is in the case of Newton’s account of the orbits of the planets. His theory would have expected the orbits to go somewhat differently from the way they go, and so he postulated God as the one who keeps the planets in line. Laplace later developed a theory that didn’t require this kind of divine tinkering, and when asked about Newton’s theistic theory he said “I have no need of that hypothesis.”
However, I am not sure that every argument that points to an explanatory difficulty for the naturalist can be effectively answered with a “God of the Gaps” charge. Consider, for example being at a dinner party with someone who is given a large amount of water and creates from it an equal volume of wine. (It tastes like really good wine, not that California cheap stuff). Can we reasonably say that this we just have a gap in our understanding. As Robert Larmer points out, our understanding of how wine is made is precisely what makes it so difficult to explain naturalistically.
What should be at issue in assessing “God of the gaps” arguments is whether they have met these conditions. Claims regarding events traditionally described as miracles and claims regarding the origin and development of life are where “God of the gaps” arguments are most commonly met. In the case of events traditionally described as miracles, it seems very evident that our increased knowledge of how natural causes operate has not made it easier, but more difficult, to explain such events naturalistically. The science underlying wine-making is considerably more advanced today than it was in first century Palestine, but our advances have made it even more difficult to explain in terms of natural causes how Jesus, without any technological aids, could, in a matter of minutes, turn water into high quality wine. Indeed, it is the difficulty of providing a naturalistic account of such events that leads many critics to deny that they ever occurred; though this looks suspiciously like begging the question in favour of naturalism. It is clear that if such events have occurred, the advance of science has made them more, rather than less, difficult to explain in terms of natural causes. Employing a “God of the gaps” argument that the occurrence of such events would constitute good evidence for supernatural intervention within the natural order seems entirely legitimate.
Perhaps even Newton has been given a bad rap, as Plantinga points out:
Newton seems ... to have suffered a bum rap. He suggested that God made periodic adjustments in the orbits of the planets; true enough. But he didn’t propose this as a reason for believing in God; it is rather that (of course) he already believed in God, and couldn’t think of any other explanation for the movements of the planets. He turned out to be wrong; he could have been right, however, and in any event he wasn’t endorsing any of the characteristic ideas of God-of-the-gaps thought (“Methodological Naturalism” Pt. II, Origins and Design, Vol. 18, No. 2, Footnote 52).
So, I would maintain that there are gaps and there are gaps. It’s not just pointing to an unsolved engineering problem in nature. First of all, the categories of the mental and the physical are logically incompatible categories. You start attributing mental properties to physics and you might end up being told that you are no longer describing the physical at all. Purpose, normativity, intentionality or about-ness, all these things are not supposed to be brought in to the physical descriptions of things, at least at the most basic level of analysis.
Let’s consider the gap between the propositional content of thought and the physical description of the brain. My claim is that no matter in how much detail you describe the physical state of the brain (and the environment), the propositional content of thought will invariably be undetermined. This isn’t my claim of C. S. Lewis’s, this argument was made by the arch-naturalist W. V. Quine. Now of course that doesn’t make it true, but nevertheless it’s not a matter of getting a physical description that will work, In my view the logico-conceptual gap is always going to be there regardless of how extensively you describe the physical. As I said earlier, bridging the chasm isn’t going to simply be a matter of exploring the territory on one side of the chasm.
Second, to a very large extent the gap between the mental and the physical was caused by science in the first place. The way one got physics going in the early days of modern science was to attribute such things as colors, tastes, smells, to the mind, while explaining the physics of it without having to consider these things. So, for example, in reducing heat to the mean kinetic energy of gases, science “siphoned off” the feeling of warmth caused by heat to the mind, and explained heat without reference to how heat feels to us. As Swinburne put it.
There is a crucial difference between these two cases. All other integrations into a super-science, or sciences dealing with entities and properties apparently qualitatively distinct, was achieved by saying that really some of the entities and properties were not as they appeared to be; by making a distinction between the underlying (not immediately observable) entities and properties and the phenomenal properties to which they give rise. Thermodynamics was conceived with the laws of temperature exchange; and temperature was supposed to be a property inherent in an object. The felt hotness of a hot body is indeed qualitatively distinct from particle velocities and collisions. The reduction was achieved by distinguishing between the underlying cause of the hotness (the motion of the molecules) and the sensations which the motion of molecules cause in observers. The former falls naturally within the scope of statistical mechanic—for molecules are particles’ the entities and properties are not of distinct kinds. But this reduction has been achieved at the price of separating off the phenomenal from its causes, and only explaining the latter. All reduction from one science to another dealing with apparently very disparate properties has been achieved by this device of denying that the apparent properties (i. e. the ‘secondary qualities” of colour, heat, sound, taste, etc.) with which one science dealt belonged to the physical world at all. It siphoned them off to the world of the mental. But then, but when you come to face the problem of the sensations themselves, you cannot do this. If you are to explain the sensations themselves, you cannot distinguish between them and their underlying causes and only explain the latter. In fact the enormous success of science in producing an integrated physico-chemistry has been achieved at the expense of separating off from the physical world colours, smells, and tastes, and regarding them as purely private sensory phenomena. The very success of science in achieving its vast integrations in physics and chemistry is the very thing which has made apparently impossible any final success in integrating the world of mind into the world of physics.
If Swinburne is correct here, the very thing that made reduction possible in many historic cases is going to make it impossible in the case of the mind and matter.
I conclude, therefore, that “God of the gaps” or even a “soul of the gaps” response to the argument from reason does not work. I am not saying that we just cannot figure out right now why the mental states involved in rational inference are really physical, I am suggesting on principled grounds that a careful reflction on the nature of mind and matter will invaribly reveal that there is a logical gap between them that in principle can’t be bridged without fudging categories.

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At 1/02/2008 09:54:00 PM , Blogger Edward T. Babinski said...


Some of those "gaps" appear to lay between your understanding of basic words/concepts and their meaning and usages by others.

For instance I don't know how you conceptualize in your own mind the word "physical" (as in "physicalism") but just how "solid" do you think your definition is? You probably even imagine the "physical" world as being two-dimensional in your mind's metaphorical eye, while the "supernatural world" you probably imagine as being "three-dimensional." I'm only guessing. Still it seems to me that there's a "gap" between your understanding and that of others when it comes to inner conceptualization.

To a physicalist doesn't the word "physical" simply refer to everything in nature and is simply how nature works? That is there understanding, no? While you seem to assume there is something called "non-physicalism." Yet even then you're stuck borrowing the physical concept to start with and simply negating it and trying to make that into a positive I guess.

Indeed, is it possible to show someone something that is "non-physical" or show someone "supernature" or define either without using natural metaphors to begin with, or define them without employed negations of things (things that we both would agree we do know about in a natural sort of way)?

I'm likewise curious what personal experiences you have had in your life that you remain to this day absolutely convinced have no possible explanation except a supernatural one? Perhaps everything about knowledge and beauty and everything else is supernatural to you. Fine. But I was hoping for something a little bit more than that.

In my life I've never seen nor heard anything that I'd call supernatural, though I did experience overwhelming joy once that seemed to come from my brain and tingled downward. I have no certain idea what that was all about however. And of course we've all experience coincidences of one sort or another. I did both while in the fold and afterwards. But they don't appear to constitute what I'd call proofs of anything.


Hey, I would love to be surprised after I die by waking up again in another matrix so to speak, and I hope it happens, and that of course that if a personal God is involved that that god is not the bastard that some verses of the Bible portray that god to be, inspiring words like "He who does not believe is damned already," or "they shall be tossed into a lake of fire."

At 1/03/2008 02:01:00 PM , Blogger Victor Reppert said...

My understanding of a broadly physicalist world-view is defined over and over again in terms of three doctrines. Let's go over them one more time.

1) Mechanism. The base level of the universe is free of purpose, normativity, subjectivity, and intentionality. It is not part of a physical description of a physical state that it is about something else, or that it feels a certain way, or that it ought to be a certain way, or that it has the purpose of being a certain way.

2) Causal Closure. The mechanistic level of physics is causally closed. Not necessarily deterministic, but causes that are essentially normative, subjective, purposive, or intentional cannot break in to the physical order and make something happen that would not otherwise have happened.

3) Supervenience. Other states of affairs, like mental states, are the way they are because the physical is the way it is, and if the physical were different, the mental would be, too.

That's my definition. On my account, if you accept these three theses, you are a physicalist. If you don't then you aren't. Just tell me which one you deny. If deny one of these doesn't make you a theist, we can talk about this later. But there are plenty of naturalists or physicalists (just ask Blue Devil Knight or Doctor Logic) who believe that this is the correct picture.


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