Monday 3 September 2012

Michelangelo of the Gaps

Ask a typical geologist, or even a competent GCSE student, how sand forms on the beach and you can expect a step by step procedure as large chunks of rock are split and weathered by the relentless beating of the ocean tides. This is a very slow, perfectly natural process that has been going on for millennia.
Ask how the famous Giant's causeway came about, those striking arrays of hexagonal pillars rising out of the sea on the Irish coast. You'll get a story that starts violently, with a rush of lava at hundreds of degrees, but again is both perfectly natural and unguided.
Ask about any rock form of any size on any continent, and through the gnarled roots of trees, the whipping of the desert winds, the pounding of rivers or the surging of magma from far below us they will provide an explanation, and for the most part those explanations will be perfectly solid.

Now ask instead about David.  The seventeen foot tall marble replica of a man, complete with muscles, bones, joints, and even sideburns, has and can have no unguided natural explanation. The only explanation that explains this phenomenon is the meticulous planning and dexterous hand of the great Renaissance artist and sculptor Michaelangelo. Geologists all agree with the accepted account of the origin of this sculpture, even as they agree on the natural processes that formed the smooth river stones the original David used in his most famous accomplishment.

When faced with the proposal that the best explanation for a phenomenon is not a famed sculptor but an almighty God, some people are inclined to baulk. Their motives vary, but one of the most common objections has to be their fear of a "God of the Gaps" mentality taking over science. The moment an omnipotent deity is used to explain one thing, they are convinced he'll be swept in to cover all remaining holes in our understanding too. In their desperation to preserve the curiosity to search for explanations, they rule out explanations without even glancing at them.

Yet this fear is itself unfounded. Just as a geologist can accept the work of sculptors where a sculptor's work is evident, and then go on to investigate the effect of water in forming a completely different rock, so one could explain as the direct intervention of God only those things which God alone could explain. There is no fear of a "Michaelangelo of the Gaps" putting a stop to geology, because a sculptor isn't the best explanation for the pebble beach or the desert sands. When we do find a Pieta however, it is worth investigating the Michaelangelo hypothesis.When we find wine in a pot that held water an instant before, without disparaging the normal process of growing and fermenting grapes, it may just be worthwhile considering the Jesus hypothesis.

It bears noting that the "God of the Gaps" objection is based on a slippery slope fallacy, assuming without evidence that God will be invoked to explain everything from quantum physics to Global warming if he can be used to explain anything. This chain clearly isn't a logical progression, since it is clear that scientists can and regularly do restrict theories to those areas in which they have strong evidence and provide the best explanation of the data.

By far the best proof that the "God of the Gaps" objection is groundless can be found in history. Many iconic scientists were fervent Christians, from the astronomer Johannes Kepler to the founder of Genetics Gregor Mendel. Albert Einstein is said to have kept photographs of three men on his study wall: Sir Isaac Newton, Michael Farady, and James Clark Maxwell. All three were devout believers. None of these were hampered in their investigations by any "God of the Gaps" effect.

From a strictly rational standpoint it is unacceptable that scientists should ignore theories, no matter how much explanatory power these theories command, out of fear that they might undermine the drive to investigate things further. To do so when the fear is as groundless as the "God of the Gaps" objection is just absurd.

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