Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Evolution of the Gaps

The 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth is fast upon us--February 12 to be exact--and the occasion will undoubtedly spawn prolific comment on his legacy. Add to that the fact that this year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species and you have the makings of a real celebration. He was, after all, one of four or five great influences on modern thought, along with Sigmund Freud, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Dewey, and Karl Marx.

One of the more interesting comments on Darwin and his legacy is the recent article by Jerry Coyne on why science and religion can never be reconciled, in the most recent New Republic. Coyne reviews two recent books on Darwin, both of which argue that evolutionary theory and religious belief are reconcilable, and in the process makes his own case against the possibility of any reconciliation between religion and science at all.

I'll be making a few observations over the next couple of weeks about Coyne's article and the many reactions to it by important modern thinkers.

The "God of the Gaps" Argument
The first has to do with a comment Coyne quotes from Karl W. Giberson's book, Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. Coyne quotes the passage approvingly:
The world is a complex place, and there is much about the universe that we still don't understand. We are centuries away from closing the many gaps in our current scientific understanding of the natural world.... But it is the business of science to close gaps, and it has long been the central intuition of theology to find a better place to look for God.... Promoting "design" in isolation from God's other attributes is a dangerous and ultimately self-defeating way to get God back into science. [italics mine]
There are several things going on in this paragraph, but the one I want to draw attention to is the italicized part. It is one brief statement of one of the assumptions behind the "God of the Gaps" argument against theism, an argument alluded to throughout Coyne's piece. This is an argument used frequently by Darwinists against anyone who would presume to believe in some account of nature that involves anything outside of nature.

According to this argument, there is a body of questions about the world, many of which are still unanswered. Fewer of these are unanswered now than in previous times, since Science answers more and more of these questions every day. Those of a religious bent, it is charged, have always taken refuge in God as the answer to unanswered questions. If there is an unanswered question, proponents say, "God did it." But Science will one day answer all these questions, we are told, and then there will be no need for the silly hypothesis of God.

In short, the God Hypothesis is only a sort of intellectual stopgap measure to plug the holes in our knowledge about nature that becomes less and less necessary as Science advances, and the outstanding questions decrease. Furthermore the plausibility of the Hypothesis even for explaining those things that are still unexplained by Science becomes suspect because it has so often been replaced by a scientific explanation.

The static analysis fallacy behind the argument
But there is an assumption behind the God of the Gaps Argument that is ridiculous on the face of it. In fact, it is a great example of the static analysis fallacy.

The assumption is that there is a fixed number of questions about the natural world, some of which have been answered and some of which have not, so that every question that is answered reduces the number of unanswered questions by the same amount, leaving the body of unanswered questions reduced by one, and leaving the need for the God hypothesis reduced by 1 divided by the number of unanswered questions.

Now this is obviously absurd, since science (as opposed to "Science") does not operate in a world in which there is a fixed number of questions. As science proceeds in its path of discovery, it discovers new questions which it never would have thought to ask before. Because of this there are some who would argue that the number of unanswered scientific questions is not diminishing at all: that, in fact, because of the rate of the appearance of new questions compared to number of questions having obtained answers, the number of unanswered questions is actually increasing all the time.

It's a bit like the situation with oil reserves. I don't know if the situation still holds, but several years ago, there was a debate about the availability of oil and how long the world had until it ran out. Someone came up with the exact number of years they thought we had until we ran out of oil. They simply took the amount of known oil reserves and divided it by the amount of oil consumed each year. Presto: a reliable prediction of how long we had.

But the analysis failed to take account of the discovery of new oil reserves each year. At any one time, there are so many gallons of oil reserves discovered. But the next year, they will have discovered more oil reserves. So any static analysis will completely miss the change in available oil and its affect on the analysis. In fact, someone pointed out, the rate of discovery of new oil reserves in any given year consistently outpaces the amount of oil used in that year so that at the end of each succeeding year, there is more available oil.

Again, I don't know if this situation still holds--and, of course, there is obviously a fixed amount of oil on the earth known and unknown--a situation, by the way, that does not necessarily apply to the number of mysteries in nature.

There is also the matter of the nature of the newer questions in relation to the old. I can't prove it, but I wonder if the questions scientists face get increasingly intractable. As they delve deeper into the mysteries of nature, do they realize how much deeper the mysteries are than they thought before? This seems to be a theme in some writing by physicists.

If you light a lantern in the darkness, you see the area that it lights--and the darkness all around. But if you make the lantern brighter, although you see more by its light, you also see more that is dark. The circle of light increases, but with the increase in the size of the circle comes an increase in its circumference outside of which one sees the increasing extent of the darkness. With the increase in the size of the circle comes the increasing realization of the amount of the darkness all round.

Science is a light in the darkness of physical reality, but as its light increases, so does its estimate of the amount of darkness that is in need of light.

What accounts for the argument's popularity?
So why does this static analysis maintain an air of plausibility to so many people?

My theory is this: that they infer from the fact that we can manipulate nature and predict its behavior better, that we must therefore be closing in on some ultimate terminus in which our powers to control nature--and to understand it--are perfect. A sort of Scientific utopia. But is this inference valid?

I can do things with my computer now that I could never have done 30 years ago. Through the development of new software applications, I can manipulate text and images, as well as facts and figures, in a way the people of a generation ago could never have dreamed. I can access information with a speed and facility that is simply astounding. I can manipulate these things much better than before, and I can order information with an increasing competence.

But is this increasing ability to control and order information commensurate with my knowledge of how I am able to do this?

I took computer programming classes in college in the early 1980s. There were a limited number of computer languages at the time, and even a beginning student could comprehend the scope of the tools available to him to learn and master computer programming. But as the ability to manipulate information on the part of the computer user has increased, so have the tools and technology that makes that manipulation possible. In fact, the level of complexity that goes into making such manipulation easier on the part of computer users far outstrips their limited understanding of how they are able to do it.

When the Internet was in its infancy, you had to know html, and you could make a competent web page if you learned some basic commands. But go try to figure out how some modern state of the art web page operates now--a web page that makes something you want to do easier--and you will discover that just knowing html does little to help you understand it. There is php, and java, and numerous other languages and tools that seem to multiply by the week.

It doesn't take you long to realize that even though you can do more and more incredible things with the tools that are available to you, you understand less and less about the incredibly complex world of computer technology that allows you to do those things--a world getting more complex and harder to understand by the day.

Of course there is someone--or various someones--who know these things, else they would not exist. These someones--intelligences we presume--are inventing new things all the time to make it easier for those of us who use computers to do more and more things. What is interesting, however, is that if you talk to any one of these intelligences, you quickly discover that, although they may be very sophisticated themselves, they still do not understand very many things about the world in which they operate, so terribly complex is that world becoming.

I suppose there are those who would respond that this analogy breaks down when you consider that the world of technology is one that is, in fact, getting more complex all of the time because there are people constantly developing more complexity, as opposed to the natural world, which does not have such intelligences doing this. But the whole irony here is that those who are most prone to invoke the God of the Gaps argument are the very ones who believe in a theory (Natural Selection) that, over time, creates a more and more complex world.

Isn't this, after all, the lecture we are constantly having to endure? That things "higher" on the evolutionary tree are only "higher" in the sense that they are more complex? And that the evolutionary movement in nature is from the less complex to the more complex?

Other problems with the argument
Of course, those who wield the God the Gaps Argument against theism probably need to be asked who they are trying to refute, since there are very few intelligent theists who argue that evidence for God is restricted only to the things that science has yet to explain. "We are to find God in what we know," said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "not in what we don't know."

And anyway, scientific explanation is not necessarily a full explanation. Often scientific explanation takes the form of appeal to prior, unexplained phenomena. Science doesn't even purport to give ultimate explanations for things. It only explains how, and cannot explain why, so even those things that are supposedly explained by science still inhabit the domain of things that await some more ultimate explanation.

In other words, not only are the gaps not diminishing, but they aren't even really gaps.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd never thought about the obvious silliness of assuming a finite number of questions before. Good point! One one points it out the whole counter claim seems pretty silly.

We can go further, not only is it not obvious that there are finite questions, it seems likely that as the sciences advance they will need to use more and more models to understand a single thing, each of which is incompatible with the other, but each which explains some part of the data. The idea that we will be able to _imagine_ a single model to explain all the data about fundamental things (forces, particles, etc) is gone forever.

James Chastek