The God of the Gaps

Petty Armchair Popery posted a quote from Thomas Aquinas on  faith, and the weakness of human intellect. In it, he points out how little we understand about the common fly, and uses this “lack of intellect” as an argument for faith.

We’ve made a lot of progress since Thomas Aquinas’s day. The genome of the fruit fly (Drosophila) has been fully mapped, and every day, geneticists learn more an more about how gene’s are expressed as proteins. It is not one philosopher, but the cumulative efforts of thousands that have brought us this far. god-of-the-gaps

Is Aquinas not then making a “God of the Gaps” argument? That argument is as follows: “There are currently things we don’t know, therefore they can only be explained by the existence of God.” Every year, the amount of knowledge we possess grows, and the gaps that can’t be explained grow smaller. So “God” is merely an ever shrinking slice of unexplained phenomena.

Here’s why I don’t think Aquinas is entirely wrong: For every thing we learn, there are new things we discover that we don’t know.

For all we’ve learned, we still don’t know why we are here. You can choose to believe that there is no higher purpose, but that is an act of faith. You can remain agnostic, which means remaining open to new knowledge, and possibly accepting that you will never know. Or, you can seek truth in spiritual practices or in the beliefs of others.

One of our biggest problems is that our knowledge has outstripped our wisdom.We have amazing technology, yet we haven’t solved the basic problems that have been around since the dawn of civilization. Atheists claim that religion is not required in order to have morals, largely justifying the claim by pointing to immoral acts done in the name of religion, which proves nothing. But without a higher purpose (be it from religion, spirituality, or humanism) we will never solve the problems of war, hunger, and exploitation of the weak.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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6 Responses to The God of the Gaps

  1. Agellius says:

    Hi, thanks for the link. : )

    St. Thomas doesn’t use lack of intellect as an argument for faith. Rather, he is responding to the common assertion that we should only believe what we can see with our eyes and fully comprehend. St. Thomas says, “That would be a great argument if we knew everything. If I knew everything, then obviously, the things I don’t know must be false.” But the fact is we don’t know everything.

    His point with respect to the fly, is that it’s foolish to say we should only believe in what we can see and comprehend, when so much of what undoubtedly does exist, is far beyond our grasp. Even with regard to things that are extremely common, we only understand the vast majority of them on the surface level. Granting that we have completely mapped the genome of the common housefly, that is nowhere near a complete understanding of the organism itself. Each individual cell is extremely complex, and how all the cells work together to form the organs which perform the bodily functions of the fly, is far from being fully understood:

    “To grasp the reality of life as it has been revealed by molecular biology, we must magnify a cell a thousand million times until it is twenty kilometers in diameter and resembles a giant airship large enough to cover a great city like London or New York. What we would then see would be an object of unparalleled complexity and adaptive design. On the surface of the cell we would see millions of openings, like the portholes of a vast spaceship, opening and closing to allow a continual stream of materials to flow in and out. If we were to enter one of these openings we would find ourselves in a world of supreme technology and bewildering complexity.”

    And this is only a single cell. There are millions of cells in a fly, and how all those cells interact to form a cohesive whole organism, is another kettle of fish, and also not fully understood.

    In short, if we admit that most of the concrete, material world is beyond our comprehension, then how can our lack of comprehension of God, prove that he doesn’t exist? “There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy”, and you can substitute “science” for “philosophy” and it would be equally true.

    • jimbelton says:

      The fact that we don’t know everything doesn’t matter. At one time, we believed the world was flat. We now know it’s a sphere. We also believed that the earth was only 60000 years old. We now know it’s close to 4 billion years old. The “God of the Gaps” argument says that, eventually, everything that we currently attribute to God will be shown to have a “natural” explanation.
      If you follow micro-biology, you’ll see that the mechanisms inside the cell are increasingly becoming understood. The “gaps” in our knowledge are rapidly being filled in. I believe your assertion that “most of the material world is beyond our comprehension” is false. The fact that we currently don’t understand it doesn’t make it incomprehensible.
      My point in favor of Aquinas is that the more we learn, the more there is to learn. But his argument is still a weak one.
      The strong argument against the God of the Gaps, in my opinion, is that science, while having proven itself good at explaining the material world, gives us no handle on the deepest questions of philosophy. Atheists who argue “look how well science is doing at explaining the material world; therefore God doesn’t exist” are making a fallacious argument. If you ask “what is the purpose of life?” and they answer “there is none”, how do they know that? Agnosticism is a much more defensible position, one I myself held for a long time.

  2. Agellius says:

    I think you have a misconception that St. Thomas is making an argument for God’s existence. He’s not. His point is to refute the assertion that one should only believe in things that can be seen.

    • jimbelton says:

      I do think he is making an argument for faith in God (or at least particular beliefs about God). This is why he says: “Our intellect is so weak, it is foolish to be willing to believe concerning God only that which man can know by himself alone.”

      • Agellius says:

        Yes, that is part of his refutation of the notion that we should only believe what we can see for ourselves. He does offer proofs of God’s existence, it’s just that this isn’t one of them.

  3. Agellius says:

    Let me try to explain it another way. The following is basically the form of his argument:

    He starts out making the statement, “Some say X”. [X = “one should not believe in things that he cannot see”]

    Then he says, “X might be true if Y were also true. [Y = “man of himself can in a perfect manner know all things visible and invisible”]

    But Y is false. Therefore X is false.

    So you see, it’s all about refuting X. Never does he say, “And this proves that God exists.” The only thing he claims to have proven is that our intellects are so imperfect, that we can’t be certain that we can see all there is to see and know all there is to know; in other words, some things might exist that can’t be seen. But this is not the same as claiming to have proven God’s existence. He makes no such claim. Indeed he doesn’t even mention God in this paragraph.

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