Sunday, October 21, 2012

Is "god of the gaps" a terrible slogan?

Graham Veale is a theology graduate of Queen’s University Belfast and Head of Religious Education at City of Armagh High School. He argues that Christianity is true on his website Saints and Sceptics. In an article titled "God of the Gaps: Five Problems with a Terrible Slogan" he tries to argue that it is difficult to take seriously the "McAtheist" complaint "that 'goddidit' is a lazy man’s approach to explaining phenomena".

Graham Veale starts his attempt at refuting "McAtheist" with the observation that "we cannot be confident that every puzzle has a scientific answer". So lets set the record straight on this major misconception about atheism once and for all. Atheists have no problem with the fact that humans are not omniscient and omnipresent. On the contrary, atheists are well aware that we will forever never know everything that has happened in the past, nor what will happen in the future, nor the present. Since our access to information is forever and permanently limited by temporal-spatial constraints we will always be unable to answer every puzzle. How does this fact refute the observation that "goddidit" is a lazy approach to explaining phenomena? Graham Veale doesn't say.

Graham Veale then begins his second argument thusly: "There are persistent gaps that have never been filled in, and might never be filled in, by naturalistic science." OK, that is reasonable, and atheists agree with this. But why does this count as a second argument different from the first argument and how does this contribute to refuting the characterization of "goddidit" as a lazy approach to explaining phenomena? Graham Veale cites consciousness as an example of "persistent gaps" that he thinks are beyond the reach of naturalistic explanations. In the not so distant past religious believers like Mr. Veale would have the said the same about disease or the diversity of life forms. Throughout history religionists have persistently underestimated the reach of naturalistic explanations. He apparently is not aware that progress is being made in understanding consciousness. That none of this progress in acquiring such understandings have ever been made with the non-scientific methods of religious worship and divine revelation is one-sidedly ignored by Mr. Veale.

The argument he labels as three, but is really number two, begins as: "It is obviously false that theists invoke God to explain every phenomenon." Correct. Atheists are aware of the fact that theists have a tendency to be inconsistently selective in identifying God as the cause of their own good fortune but not their own misfortune. Graham Veale then cites the large amount of effort that theologians have put into debating for centuries the problem of evil. Again, he is correct that many believers have been active and assertive in defending and promoting their beliefs. However, the fact that laziness is not a general trait that characterizes believers does not contribute to refuting the criticism that "goddidit" is a lazy approach to explaining phenomena.

Graham Veale finally attempts to address the evidence with the argument he labels as his fourth: "However, if there is some evidence that does not fit neatly with theism, then there is an abundance of evidence which theism can account for." He then cites as two evidences favoring Christianity, or at least theism, "our finely-tuned universe and the living world around us." However, both phenomena are themselves strictly naturalistic. To get to supernaturalism from such naturalistic phenomena, religionists make an intuitive appeal to probability. Mr. Veale states it this way "Each is extremely unlikely to have happened by chance." But is that true? What are the probabilities here?

Given the billion of years, the size of our planet, the amount of energy and water available, the tendency of carbon and other elements to interact to form organic compounds, the ability of some organic molecules to auto-catalyze their own replication, the ability of reproducing organisms to change over time, the tremendous size of our universe, why should the living world around us be deemed too unlikely to have formed this one time? Given that our universe could be residing in a huge multi-verse, ditto for "fine-tuning". Furthermore, cosmologists don't currently know how many different combinations of the possible different values of all of the constants would produce viable universes containing living worlds over the entire multi-variate landscape.

Graham Veale then cites as argument five that if the “God-of-the-Gaps” criticism of theism is taken seriously then atheism becomes unfalsifiable. However, neither theism nor atheism can be decisively falsified, they are both in the same boat here. The question with all such competing beliefs about how the world works is overall weight of the evidence, not proof or falsification in some impossible to achieve sense. Again, humans are not omniscient and omnipresent. We are capable of obtaining, accumulating, and evaluating empirical evidences. We know that this empirical method for justifying our beliefs about how the world works has been uniquely successfull. The criticism that "goddidit" is a lazy approach to explanation neither interferes with, nor contradicts, our ability to obtain, accumulate, and evaluate the empirical evidences.

Graham Veale fails to demonstrate that the "goddidit" catch-all is a valid explanation for anything or that arguments for theism based on filling the gaps in our knowledge with a god have any merit.

The real problem with theism

Paul Wallace has a PhD in experimental nuclear physics from Duke University, is a former university professor in physics and astronomy, a former NASA researcher, and is a Christian hospital chaplain, who recently wrote an article that was published in the Huffington Post under the title "The Real Problem With Atheism". Within his article is a concise summary of his argument in the following two sentences: "It [science] wears blinders and refuses to acknowledge whole classes of questions that are important to people everywhere, questions of good and evil, and of human weakness, and of meaning. And it seems that New Atheism, in its wholesale dependence upon science as a philosophy, imports science's blinders -- bound as they are to its optimism -- into its overall worldview." Paul Wallace also claims that atheists do not "take note of", and "roll jauntily past", the poverty-stricken, those desperate for a job, drug addicts, and mothers who just lost a child to social services. So do we all need to be Christians, or at least theists, in order to acknowledge these important classes of questions and address the problems of those among us who are experiencing difficulties?

Atheists appear to be generally competent at recognizing the impacts of behaviors and actions on themselves and others. Atheists appear to be generally competent at distinguishing the positive from negative impacts. Atheists appear to be generally competent at recognizing that people have shortcomings. Atheists appear to be generally competent at finding meaning. Atheists appear to generally participate in, and contribute to, various efforts to reduce poverty, increase employment, treat addictions, and support parents whose children were taken from their custody. Contrary to what Paul Wallace asserts in his article, there is no convincing evidence that atheists are deficient overall, relative to Christians or theists generally, in acknowledging good and evil, human weakness, or meaning, or with assisting others in need.

In addition to the aspersions on the competencies and character of atheists lacking veracity, there is also a problem with Paul Wallace's argument being illogical because his conclusion that Christianity is true doesn't follow from his premises. If we accept his argument that atheists are lacking in those competencies, and in their character, then it still doesn't logically follow that Christianity, any other religion, or theism is true. The bottom line here is always the same, and it cannot be stated too often or be overemphasized. The only way to properly justify Christianity, any other religion, or theism is to show that the empirical evidences overall favor the supernatural world-views of Christianity, any other religion, or theism over the natural worldview of atheism. That many Christians, religionists, and theists either avoid altogether even attempting to make such an argument, as is the case here, or don't come close to succeeding when they do attempt to make such arguments, is the real problem with Christianity, all religions and theism.