bridge-the-gap-failedScience-types tend to dismiss theism on grounds that it’s rooted in an ignorance of material explanations for natural phenomena.  Science has discovered material explanations for most things once thought to be acts of God (lightning, gravity, etc.).  Seeing that the gaps in our understanding (gaps once occupied by God) have increasingly been filled by materialist explanations, so, they say, is the need for theism.  Furthermore, given the track record of scientific progress in the last few centuries, even those gaps that remain are likely to be filled with materialistic explanations, leaving no room for theism.  Are these conclusions reasonable?

I’ll begin by addressing the question of whether scientific progress eliminates the need for God.  To speak of the need for God, in this context, is to speak of His explanatory power.  Scientists who think finding materialistic explanations for natural phenomena eliminates the need for God presuppose that God is just a hypothesis, and that this God-hypothesis is only needed to explain the natural world.  Both presuppositions are false.

Most people who believe in God do not do so because God explains some X that is otherwise inexplicable.  For them, God is not an explanatory entity, but a living reality they encounter.  They believe in God because they have experienced Him.  There are, however, some theists who believe in God only because of the explanatory power such a being holds.  What these science-types miss, however, is that for these individuals, God explains much more than just the natural world.  There are non-physical realities that need to be explained such as the existence of objective moral values/duties, the existence of mind/consciousness, and freedom of the will.  Materialistic explanation of these phenomena are not plausible.  An immaterial being, however, provides a sufficient cause.  So even if God was no longer needed to explain all features the universe, His explanatory power would not be obsolete.  There would still be a need for the God-hypothesis.

It should also be pointed out that science can never, in principle, foreclose on the question of God’s existence.  Science is an inductive and empirical examination of the physical world.  God, if He exists, is an immaterial being, and thus incapable of being studied by science.  In the same way a yardstick is the wrong tool to weigh a chicken, science is the wrong tool to prove or disprove God’s existence.  Philosophy is the proper tool for this task.

As for the claim that the God is just a gap-filler for our ignorance of material explanations, I disagree.  God is not invoked because of what we do not know about the physical world, but because of what we do.  Science is often an exercise in effect-to-cause reasoning.  We look at what we know about some X and how it works (effect), and then reason backward to find the sufficient cause for the effect.  A supernatural explanation is advanced in some cases, not because we lack a naturalistic explanation (or lack the imagination for one) for the phenomenon in question, but because only a supernatural explanation can account for the evidence.

Consider the fine-tuning of our universe.  There are several physical constants that had to have extremely precise values both in themselves, and in relation to the other constants, in order for our universe to exist, and for life to emerge.  The degree of fine-tuning is so precise that it defies comprehension.  What can account for it?  Neither physical law nor chance can account for it because these constants were initial conditions of our universe.  What can account for the complex and specified nature of the constants, however, is a designing intelligence.  We know in both theory and experience that intelligent agents are capable of producing specified complexity, so we safely and rationally conclude that at least certain features of our universe were designed.  As I.D. Finetuneski wrote:

Second, we must confront the implicit suggestion that articulating intelligent design as an explanation constitutes an appeal to ignorance. It does not. Science seeks to understand the past on the basis of presently operative causes sufficient to the explanation of what is observed. There is only one presently active cause known to be sufficient to the task of producing complex specified information: intelligence. When intelligence is put forward as the proper explanation of the extreme precision of life-friendly cosmological fine-tuning, we are therefore offering an explanation on the basis of what we know. It is an appeal to knowledge, not to ignorance.[1]

What about the claim that science will advance to the point that there will be no room left for theistic belief?  First, as I noted previously, theism’s explanatory power transcends the physical world, so even if science could provide material explanations for all natural phenomena, it would not obsolete the need for theism.

Second, thinking science will be able to find material explanations for all natural phenomena is a rather presumptive faith commitment.  While material explanations for most natural phenomena have been found, why think material explanations for all natural phenomena will be found?  David Snoke provides an insightful analogy to demonstrate the naivety of this belief.[2] Snoke asks us to imagine a short-sighted 20th century man who cannot fathom the possibility of building a 50 story building.  But lo-and-behold, the feat was accomplished.  ‘Ah, yes’ he will say, ‘but a 100 story building is impossible.’  To his dismay, that too was accomplished by architects.  Given these architectural feats, our short-sighted man’s pessimism may turn to unbridled optimism.  ‘If they can build a 100 story building, then surely they can build a 200 story building.  And if a 200 story building, then a 400.  And if a 400, then an 800.’  Indeed, they may, but does that mean there is no upper bound to which buildings can be built?  Just because an 800 story building can be built does not mean a 50,000 story building can.  Likewise, while scientists have made significant progress in discovering material explanations for a host of natural phenomena, that does not justify the belief that such explanations can/will be found for all natural phenomena.

The faith scientists have in methodological naturalism to discover material explanations for all natural phenomena is, ironically, a science-of-the-gaps.  Whenever they are confronted with phenomenon that defies material explanations, they fill in the gap with their faith in science to find a materialistic explanation in the future.  Agnostic David Berlinski writes that for naturalists

whatever the gaps, they will in the course of scientific research be filled.  It is an assumption both intellectually primitive and morally abhorrent-primitive because it reflects a phlegmatic absence of curiosity, and abhorrent because it assigns to our intellectual future a degree of authority alien to human experience.  Western science has proceeded by filling gaps, but in filling them, it has created gaps all over again.  The process is inexhaustible. … Understanding has improved, but within the physical sciences, anomalies have grown great, and what is more, anomalies have grown great because understanding has improved.[3]

So not only are materialists resorting to a science-of-the-gaps to support their faith in materialism, but they fail to recognize that science advances by creating two gaps for every one it fills.  Thinking all gaps in will eventually be filled with materialistic explanations is naively optimistic.

Finally, how does it follow that by figuring out how something works, the need/room for God is eliminated?  Explaining how something works is not at all the same as explaining where it came from in the first place.  Even if science could find a material explanation for everything in the universe, due to the nature of the scientific discipline, it can never explain the origin of the universe itself.  Why?  Because science is limited to an empirical examination of the physical realm.  The origin of the universe marks the beginning of the physical realm, so whatever caused the universe to come into being is not physical, and thus is beyond the purview of science.  As Nobel laureate physicist Leon Lederman wrote:


In the very beginning, there was a void, a curious form of vacuum, a nothingness containing no space, no time, no matter, no light, no sound. Yet the laws of nature were in place and this curious vacuum held potential. A story logically begins at the beginning, but this story is about the universe and unfortunately there are no data for the very beginnings-none, zero. We don’t know anything about the universe until it reaches the mature age of a billion of a trillionth of a second. That is, some very short time after creation in the big bang. When you read or hear anything about the birth of the universe, someone is making it up–we are in the realm of philosophy. Only God knows what happened at the very beginning.[4]

Indeed, only an immaterial, eternal, non-spatial, and personal being can explain the universe.

[1]I.D. Finetuneski, “Baron Münchhausen and the Self-Creating Universe”; available from; Internet; accessed 29 June 2007.
[2]David Snoke, “In Favor of God-of-the-Gaps Reasoning” in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 53:3, September 2001; available from; Internet; accessed 14 January 2009.
[3]David Berlinski, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions (New York: Crown Forum, 2008), 183-4.
[4]Quoted in Henry F. Schaefer III, “Stephen Hawking, the Big Bang, and God”; available from; Internet; accessed 18 October 2007.