Isn't That Really Just "Science of the Gaps?"

In Salvo 7, I discussed how the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) attacked theistic evolutionist Francis Collins for arguing that scientific data about brain function and anthropological data about human morality "argue for the existence of a personal God." According to the NEJM, Collins "interprets this universality as implying that some basic structure in the brain 'needs God,'" and he even "goes so far as to conclude that the moral law was implanted in our brains by God."

The writers at NEJM oppose Collins because they hold that materialist accounts of origins should never be abandoned in favor of explanation by intelligent design (ID). This approach was endorsed by philosopher Daniel Dennett in his popular 1995 book Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which argued that Darwinian evolution is "dangerous" because it is a "universal acid" that is "capable of cutting right to the heart of everything in sight" and of explaining anything in biology.

Those who have imbibed too much of Darwinism's universal acid often charge that those who propose divine intervention (as Collins does)—or merely make the far more modest, non-supernatural proposition of intelligent design—engage in "God of the gaps" reasoning. According to such critics, ID's error is "inserting a supposition of the need for supernatural intervention," thereby stifling scientific advance by "confusing the unknown with the unknowable, or the unsolved with the unsolvable." Such Darwinists hold that "faith that places God in the gaps of current understanding about the natural world may be headed for a crisis if advances in science subsequently fill those gaps."

Would you believe me if I told you that all of the words quoted in the paragraph above were written not by the NEJM or atheist Darwinists like Daniel Dennett, but by Francis Collins himself in The Language of God?

"What?" you ask me. "Doesn't Collins himself invoke supernatural explanations for the origin of religion and ­morality because he feels that naturalistic Darwinian accounts are insufficient and that divine action is the best explanation?"

Yes.

Are you confused? You should be.

Francis Collins is utterly inconsistent in his application of the "God of the gaps" charge against ID, because this accusation could easily be made against his own invocation of God to account for the origin of religion and morality.

Other theistic evolutionists have made similar mistakes.

In their otherwise delightful book The Dawkins Delusion, Alister and Joanna Collicutt ­McGrath attack ID as a "God of the gaps" argument. Yet much like Collins, they fill many pages critiquing naturalistic evolutionary explanations for the origin of religion, arguing that "whatever the proximal causes, the ultimate cause of religious experience is God."

Will their critiques stop evolutionary theorists from attempting to explain religion or morality in Darwinian terms? Hardly. Theistic evolutionists like Collins and the McGraths will simply be accused of inserting "God" into the "gap" of the origin of religion, and then told to get out of the way and stop holding back science so that ­Darwin's universal acid can fill that gap.

Collins and the McGraths might retort: "But evolutionary accounts for the origin of religion are weak, and the best explanation for such non­adaptive behaviors is some transcendent source that draws humans toward ends that appear much higher than mere survival and reproduction."

Such a hypothetical rebuttal would be absolutely correct, showing that the "God of the gaps" charge evaporates when one has strong positive reasons for invoking an intelligent cause. In fact, Collins admits that we may invoke intelligent agency due to "positive reasons, based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge." Likewise, the McGraths admit that "the natural sciences depend on inductive inference, which is a matter of 'weighing evidence and judging probability, not of proof.'" Much to the chagrin of Collins and the McGraths, their words describe exactly how we infer design, which is not a "God of the gaps" argument.

First, ID does not invoke "God" but merely infers intelligent causation where we find in nature informational patterns that, in our experience, derive from an intelligent source.

Second, ID is not a "gap" argument, nor as Collins charges, does it confuse "the unsolved with the unsolvable." ID isn't based upon what we don't know, but rather upon what we do know. As pro-ID philosopher of science Stephen Meyer explains, "Our experience-based knowledge of information-flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified complexity (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source from a mind or personal agent." Or as Meyer and pro-ID microbiologist Scott Minnich put it, ID is "an inference to the best explanation given what we know about the powers of intelligent as opposed to strictly natural or material causes."

Thus, ID is based upon positively finding in nature the types of information that we know, from our prior observation-based experience, derive from intelligent action.

The double hypocrisy of theistic evolutionists who mistakenly call ID a "God of the gaps" argument is now exposed: Not only could their own arguments be subject to "God of the gaps" accusations, but their descriptions of proper scientific reasoning match precisely how ID proponents infer design.

Even worse, the "God-of-the-gaps" charge turns out to itself be a gaps-based argument! By claiming that all "gaps" must be filled with the acid of Darwinism—even when explanations of how they must do so aren't forthcoming and when the evidence positively points towards design—ID's critics become the ones engaging in "Darwin of the gaps" reasoning. Who now is stifling the progress of science? •

Darwin's Dangerous Idea

In 1995, Daniel Dennett, the Austin? B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, published Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life. The book, drawn from a series of lectures that Dennett delivered at an undergraduate seminar on Darwin and philosophy, was never meant to be a work of science, but rather a popular, interdisciplinary, and approachable explanation of how evolutionary theory supposedly accounts for all aspects of human life, including the mind, language, and even ethics.

Its central metaphor is that of a "universal acid" capable of chewing through anything that stands in its way, leaving behind a residue that transforms all that it touches. According to Dennett, Darwinism is just such an acid. "It eats through just about every traditional concept," he writes, "and leaves in its wake a revolutionized worldview, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways." In other words, says Dennett, Darwinian evolution has successfully worn away all of our cherished cultural customs and myths, leaving behind only evolutionary explanations for our origins, our development, and our attempts to make sense of our lives.

What this means is that Darwinism (the acid) represents the only residual—and thus the only feasible—account of existence. Everything else either has or will melt before it, especially non-materialistic theories such intelligent design (ID). Later in the book, Dennett likens the latter to skyhooks (think of actual metal hooks hanging from nowhere in the sky, not the basketball shot), arguing that they have no structure to support them—no grounding in pure science—and so emanate from out of the blue. Dennett refers to Darwinism, on the other hand, as a crane. He says that evolution is a grounded structure by which entities of great complexity can be built; it does not rely for support on anything outside of the physical realm.

There is a basic problem with this metaphor, however. Darwinism is actually the furthest thing from a crane. It may rely on matter alone for its support, but it has yet to discover the material processes that would justify such a reliance. In short, the structure that would make Darwinism superior to ID just isn't there. Consequently, Darwinism turns out to be something of a skyhook itself. Dennett ridicules ID for being a "God of the gaps" argument, inserting a designer wherever another explanation is lacking, but he does the exact same thing with matter. In this sense, and in this sense only, his beloved Darwinism is indeed an acid, only here the only thing that it has corroded is his own common sense.


From Salvo 8 (Spring 2009)

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is a senior editor of Salvo and is co-founder of the Intelligent Design & Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center and Program Officer in Public Policy and Legal Affairs at the Discovery Institute.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #8, Spring 2009 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo8/darwins-acid