The God of the Gaps ArgumentScience has revealed an extraordinary number of things about life, the universe, and humanity. In particular, it has traced the history of the Universe down to the Big Bang billions of year ago. However, science has not (yet) found what caused the Big Bang. Believers can explain how the universe came into existence: They say that God created it. They use the same reasoning to answer a myriad of other questions, such as: Why is there life? Where does beauty come from? And why do people behave morally? All of these questions can be answered by saying that God wanted it this way. The “God of the Gaps” argument then says that this answer is the most plausible one for the question, and that, hence, God must exist. Adherents of the Abrahamic religions affirm their God as the answer, while adherents of other religions turn to their own gods, spirits, or extraterrestrials . We shall now see several variants of this argument.
You cannot solve a mystery by using a bigger mystery as the answer
We need a first cause!The scientific view of the universe can explain much of which has been historically attributed to gods: the creation and movement of the stars, the genesis of life, and the natural events on Earth. However, it cannot (yet) explain what caused the universe itself to come into existence. Adherents of the Abrahamic Religions argue as follows: everything is caused by something. Therefore, the universe must also have been caused by something, and this first cause of the universe is God.
The problem with this argument is that it contradicts itself: If everything needs a cause, then so does God. Believers commonly reject this, and postulate that God does not need a cause. However, if God does not need a cause, then we can equally well argue that the Universe does not need one either. The addition of a god is of no help here to answering questions of the universe. On the contrary: The argument first creates an artificial problem (by postulating that there must be a first cause), and then creates an artificial solution for that problem (God).
In reality , there is no reason to postulate a first cause at all. All our thinking goes that the universe must somehow have “started”. But that might be a wrong assumption in the first place. As Bertrand Russell observed: “There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our thoughts.” 1. There are several alternatives to the assumption that the universe “started”. Summer and winter, for example, come and go. In the same way, the universe could come and go and come and go. In such a scenario, as David Hume wrote, the “first cause” has as much meaning as the “largest positive number”.
Buddhism holds a similar view: The beginning of this world and of life is inconceivable since they have neither beginning nor end. Buddhists believe that the world was not created once upon a time, but that it is created millions of times every second and will continue to do so by itself and will break apart by itself . According to Buddhism, world systems always appear and disappear in the universe. In the eyes of the Buddha, the world, and its beginning and ending, is nothing but Samsara — the cycle of repeated births and deaths. Since elements and energies are relative and interdependent, it is meaningless to single out anything as the beginning1.
Jains do not believe in a creator either. According to Jain doctrine, it impossible to create something from nothing. The only logical possibility, then, is that the universe and its constituents (soul, matter, space, time, and principles of motion) must have always existed.
Science, too, may yet point us to something that is not a “beginning” in the proper sense of the term. One possibility is that the universe oscillates between expansion and contraction. Another possibility is that time itself came into existence only when the universe started. The reason for this hypothesis is that time runs slower in the vicinity of large masses. Since the nucleus of the Big Bang had a practically infinite mass, time may just have stopped. In this case, the question of what was “before” the universe would not make any sense. The search for the “first cause” would be no different from the futile search for the ultimate physical support of the Earth that bothered the ancient people : If man stands on his feet, his feet stand on the floor, the floor is laid on the ground, the ground is held by the rocks underneath and so on , then what is the foundation upon which everything rests? The Chinese thought it was a giant turtle . Today, we know that this question does not make any sense, because there is no “ultimate support” . It may well be the same with the universe. In the same way that the “ultimate support” of the Earth turned out to be the Earth itself, there may be answers to the question of what was before the Big Bang that we cannot currently even imagine. Postulating that there must be a first cause, which so happens to be God, is of no use in this endeavor.
Finally, the claim suffers from the typical problems of the “God of the Gaps” argument, which are shared among all its variations, and which we will discuss at the end of this chapter: the theory cannot be falsified, and thus it does not make predictions; it does not provide an explanation in the technical sense of the word; it does not prove that it was really any particular god who did the job, and not some other deity or force; and it wrongly assumes that theology would deliver better answers than science. It may even encourage us to stop searching for a scientific answer to the question .
Asking what was before the Big Bang is like asking what is North of the North Pole.
Argument by DesignThe universe is an immensely complex system, with billions of stars and planets in the observable universe alone. It is very hard to believe that this complexity came to existence on its own. Therefore, many people believe that the universe must have been designed by a “designer”.
There are several problems with this argument. First, it is false. As we have seen in the Chapter on the Universe , complexity can arise from simplicity : the beautiful structure of snowflakes, the intriguing patterns on plants and animals, and swarm behavior all arise from simple components.
Second, the argument contradicts itself. If complexity can arise only from complexity, then the designer must be complex as well. And if the designer is complex, then it, too, must have arisen from some other complexity. This is the question of “who designed the designer”. At this point, it is usually argued that the designer is an exception to the rule. This, however, is an arbitrary claim. We can equally well claim that the universe itself is an exception to the rule. There is no need to add one more entity to the story.
Simple molecules combine to make powerful chemicals...
Simple cells combine to make powerful life-forms...
All things are created by a combination of simpler, less capable components.
Therefore, a supreme being must be our future, not our origin.
Intelligent DesignA variant of the Argument by Design goes as follows: Whenever we see something highly ordered (such as a piece of art, a rose garden, or a city), we know it has been created by some intelligent being (humans). Since the world itself is also highly ordered, it follows that there must be some intelligent being who created it. This theory is called “Intelligent Design”.
We first note that the theory is false . As we have seen in the Chapter on the Universe, there are plenty of things that are highly ordered, and that were created by purely natural processes, including snowflakes, swarm behavior, hands, or indeed the Earth. Therefore, the theory is to be rejected.
Furthermore, the argument suggests that the universe has been created with forethought, and the species have been created perfectly for the world they inhabit. With this, the theory is different from the general Argument by Design, because it is falsifiable and makes verifiable predictions. As it turns out, however, these predictions are false. There are plenty of things that are not designed intelligently:
- Some species, such as the Neanderthal man or dinosaurs, came into existence, but then went extinct. If the design of the world were perfect, then a species would not have been created only to disappear. Some of these creatures were particularly odd: the Opabinia had 5 eyes (see picture) and a mouth that faced backwards. No wonder it died out, one may think.
- Then there are those species still alive today with inefficient characteristics. For example, for many species, the recurrent laryngeal nerve connects the brain to the larynx. And while both the brain and the larynx are located in the head, the nerve passes down the neck to the heart, then back up through the neck and into the larynx. In a giraffe, this leads to several meters of nerves to connec t two organs that are just a few centimeters apart (see illustration).
- Dolphins and whales live, but cannot breathe, underwater 2.
- Humans have their digestive tract and respiratory tracts crossing, so that they are at constant risk of choking [ibid].
- Bats have solid bones, which are difficult to fly with, and emus have hollow bones, which make flying easier — the opposite of what is required for each species [ibid].
- During copulation, the penis of the male honeybee explodes, leaving part of the penis inside the female (ibid).
- Bonobo apes engage in sex for pleasure (ibid) — between males and females, males and males, and females and females. A god such as the one imagined by the proponents of intelligent design would never have allowed this species to exist.
- Nature is full of vestigial structures, i.e., structures that may have served a purpose earlier in evolution but are now completely useless. The mole rat, for example, has eyes, but they are completely covered by a layer of skin so that the animal is, in fact, blind. Whales have leg bones that do not protrude from their bodies and ostriches have wings but cannot fly.
- Humans, too, exhibit vestigial structures. Some humans have physical remnants of the vomeronasal organ, a non-functional smell organ. The Occipitalis Minor muscle, located in the back of the head, serves no purpose either. While all Malays have it, 64% of Europeans don’t — without suffering from its absenc e. Similar examples are the palmaris longus muscle, the pyramidalis muscle, the plantaris muscle, and supplementary nipples in both males and females.
- Peopl e have a natural disposition to love fat and sugar. While this was useful for early humans, who were in constant need of energy, it leads to obesity today, which today is a predominant health problem in rich and poor countries alike 3.
- If a baby’s head is significantly larger than the pelvic opening of the mother, the baby cannot be born naturally. Prior to the development of caesarean section, such a complication would lead to the death of the mother, the baby or both. This is hardly a perfect design.
- The human spinal cord is often malformed, leading to scoliosis, sciatica, and congenital misalignment of the vertebrae.
- People suffer from all kinds of congenital diseases and genetic disorders such as Huntington’s Disease, a neurodegenerative disease that leads to loss of control over one’s body.
- Myopia, the common cold, and allergies cause large discomfort for people all over the world.
- Humans have an extra pair of teeth, which serve no purpose and are prone to produce medical complications — the wisdom teeth.
If I were granted omnipotence, and millions of years to experiment in, I should not think Man much to boast of as the final result of all my efforts.
Watchmaker analogyOne of the ways in which proponents of Intelligent Design justify their belief in a creator is by the so-called watchmaker analogy: Imagine you were walking on the beach and found a watch. Would you assume that it evolved naturally or that it was created by a watchmaker? Surely, you would assume the watchmaker. In the same way, believers assume God as the creator of the universe.
But watch what happens when we extrapolate this analogy: Assume that we continue our walk on the beach and that we find a watchmaker lying in the sand. Would we assume that the watchmaker had no first cause and that he had been born without parents? No. Surely, we would assume he has parents. In the same way, we should then conclude that God has parents. This, however, is not typically a conclusion that a believer would draw. Let’s say we continue our walk and come upon an atomic power plant. Would we assume that the watchmaker made it? Probably not. Most likely, the power plant was built by a large number of unrelated people. Therefore, we should conclude that there is not one god, but a large number of them. Again, this is not a conclusion that Abrahamic believers are willing to draw.
All of above shows that the watchmaker analogy does not hold water. In particular, it cannot be used to deduce the existence of a god much less the the existence of the unique, omniscient, all-powerful, and loving god that Abrahamic believers would like to establish.
The analogy also shows a problem in the approach to truth: Believers are happy to find the watch, and to start believing in the watchmaker. They are also ready to believe all kinds of stories about the watchmaker that they are told — without ever having met them. (Very funny consequences of this are discussed in 4). In contrast, in the scientific approach, experiments can be repeated so that theories can be validated over and over again. Science does not postulate anything upfront but continues to investigate until it finds evidence that supports or refutes the hypothesis. It does not make any claim to the truth until it has reason to do so.
In fact, the watch did actually come into existence by some pretty random processes, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes 5. It took humankind tens of thousands of years to make use of bronze, most likely found because someone accidentally used rocks that contained copper and tin to build their campfire ring. When the fire heated the stones, the metals melted and mixed, yielding bronze. When people realized this, they started to heat these stones on purpose, and to identify those that yielded the best bronze — which is a man-made “natural selection ”. From there, it took humankind many more thousands of years to produce the metals that we now use to make watches.
Titanium (the material that the watch in the picture is made of) was found by serendipity in 1791. The clergyman and amateur geologist William Gregor realized that black sand was attracted by a magnet. He investigated and found that the sand contained a hitherto unknown material that was later named Titanium. As so many discoveries, Titanium was first of little use because it could not be extracted from the sand. In 1910, Matthew A. Hunter proposed a process to heat the sand to 1000°C and then add hydrochloric acid. In 1940, William J. Kroll had the idea to use sodium gas, which finally gave us a way to industrialize titanium.
Apart from the metal used, the solar cell that powers the watch was again not designed by an omniscient being, but rather discovered by chance: Alexandre Edmond Becquerel realized in 1839 that some conductive solution produced an electrical current when exposed to light. It took humankind another 150 years of more or less systematic trial and error to stumble upon the configuration that still powers watches today. Thus, the watch came into existence by a man-made process that resembles evolution quite a lot: Large-scale, distributed trials led to some interesting results by chance. The good results were kept and submitted to the same process. Iterating this for several thousand years led to the watch that you see in the picture.
Can you produce, from your hypothesis, to prove the unity of the deity? A great number of men, join in building a house and a ship, in rearing a city, in framing a commonwealth. Why not several deities combine in contriving and forming a world?
Everything from nothing?A frequent critique in the scientific model is that it seems to say that the entire universe basically came from nothing. How can everything come from nothing?
As the attentive reader will have noticed, science makes no such claim. Nowhere does this book or a scientist say that the universe came from nothing. Rather, science says that so far, we do not know where the universe came from (if that question even makes sense to begin with). And as long as we do not have validated evidence for a theory that explains where the universe comes from, we keep searching. That’s all.
Concerning the question of where the universe came from,
science says nothing, not “nothing”.
Nobody knows the origin!Believers do not know how to explain where God came from, and atheists can’t explain where the universe came from. So, aren’t both views equally unsupported?
The answer is no. We know that the universe exists, and hence it makes sense to search for its origins. However, we do not know whether God exists. Therefore, before venturing to explain where God came from and what he’s done, we should prove that he exists in the first place. Believers are still stuck at this stage of the process.
In comparison, atheists are one step ahead: they know that the thing whose origin they search for actually exists.
How do atheists explain the origin of the Universe when even science has no concrete theory about it?
A hundred years ago, someone may have asked: “How do you explain the origin of lighting and thunder, when science has no concrete theory about them?” The only honest answer that an atheist could have given at that time would have been: “I don’t know”. The theist, however, would have replied: “The explanation is God!” Today, science has advanced. Theistic thinking has not.
Made for usIt seems that the world is so tailored for us that it must have been made just for us. If that is so, would it not allow us to deduce that there was a “maker”?
While this question may seem logical to a theist, the belief that the world was “made for us” is actually just an artifact of our self-centered thinking. If the world were made for us, we would not have evolved alongside several other humanoid species, even mating with them before they died out . If the world were made for us, we would not live on the 4th of 8 planets, orbiting around a star that is in every aspect like thousands of others, moving in a galaxy that is nothing more than a random place in a universe that contains billions of them.
Apart from that, the world is not really “made for us”. On the contrary, it is a rather hostile environment. It took nature billions of years for life to emerge, and it took millions of years more before the first humanoid species came on the scene. It took humankind hundreds of thousands of years to tame the threats of nature, such as wild animals, the cold, the heat, or drought. Many of those threats still remain. Every year, millions perish due to illness, floods, famines, or other natural disasters.
This is not a world “made for us”. Rather, we were made for the world, in the sense that all organisms that have not adapt to their environment were filtered out by natural selection. Assuming there is a creator is just a consequence of our inability to understand this phenomenon . Maybe Douglas Adams phrased it best when he told the following story:
Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking “This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in. It fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well. It must have been made to have me in it!
The probability is so small!The scientific theory of the universe relies on chance: Molecules happened to be aligned in the right way for life to emerge, cells happened to have a nucleus, and mutations happened to create eyes, wings, and feathers. Believers wonder whether the chance that all of this happened is too small of a probability to be real? As Fred Hoyle suggested in his Junkyard Tornado argument: “The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.” Therefore, the argument goes, chance alone cannot have been the reason for life on Earth. The reason must have been divine.
Let us first put the probability in the context of the universe: Nature runs billions of experiments in parallel, because the our world is just one of many in the universe. If the chance for life to emerge on a single planet is one in a billion, this still means that there will be life on one billion planets — because the universe just has so many planets6. Furthermore, nature runs her parallel experiments for billions of years. If the chance that some configuration of molecules will appear during a given year on a given planet is one in a billion, then it is near-certain that this configuration will appear — just because the universe is several billion years old. The fact that this just so happened to be the planet on which we find ourselves is merely the consequence of the anthropic principle.
Apart from this, most processes in nature are actually not guided by chance. Rather, they are guided by natural selection. Take a monkey, for example. It’s not created from scratch by a random meeting of atoms. Rather, natural processes generated thousands of different life forms before landing on the monkey we know today. In each generation, thousands of models were sorted out by natural selection. Only the most fit for their environment got a chance to continue. Again, thousands of different variations of these were generated. This process continued for hundreds of thousands of generations.
To illustrate this process, Richard Dawkins suggested 6 that we think of natural selection as a combination lock with 5 number wheels. Finding the right combination requires trying out all possible numbers: 10,000. However, evolution does not try out all possible numbers. Rather, it begins with the first number on the wheel, i.e., one particular constellation of genes in a species. When the right number is found (i.e., when the species survives), it proceeds to the second number, i.e., a more complex life form. It is as if, with each wheel, the right number clicks into place. If we proceed from right to left across the combination lock in this way, we actually need only 50 steps.
Attacking competing explanations doesn’t prove your favorite one right.
Even if you could disprove evolution, you'd still need to prove your god did it.
The Fine-Tuned UniverseThere are a number of physical constants that govern the processes in our universe: the gravity constant , the strength of the nuclear force, and so on. If any of these constants had a different value, then the universe would not have come into existence the way it did. For example, if the gravity constant were different, then our stars and plants may not have coalesced. Thus, even slight variations of the values could have made life in our universe impossible. This begs the question of why these constants have these exact values — and not any of the other myriad possible values.
Science has not yet settled on an explanation for this phenomenon. One possibility is that our universe is just one out of millions 7, all of which would have different values for the natural constants. Only in one of them would life have emerged — and this is, of course, the one in which we live. Or there could be some yet undiscovered physical laws that constrain the constants so that they cannot have any other value. Or possible still, life could exist in universes with different constants in combinations not yet imagined.
However, even if the search for reasons for the values of the natural constants is ongoing, this does not mean that God must be the reason. As we’ve discussed, it could be any other god instead of the Abrahamic one (for example Gayatri). It could even have been several gods . More likely, though, there could be a purely natural explanation. History shows us that many phenomena that were once ascribed to the gods (such as the rain, the movement of the sun, the seasons, lightening, etc.) can now be explained by science. That should make us careful when we postulate gods behind the unknown.
We should actually not postulate a god at all, if we want to find the answer to the question. This is because filling the spot with a god impedes an open enquiry into the question.
Science says: We don’t know, but we’re trying to shed light on it.
What are you doing to shed light on it?
The Probabilistic ArgumentLuke Barnes proposes a variant of the Finetuning argument that uses formal probability theory8. It goes as follows:
- The physical constants take some values that permit life, and we don’t understand why.
- We assume a uniform probability distribution over all possible values of the physical constants between a reasonable minimum value and a reasonable maximum value.
- We show that the probability that the constants take their value by chance is vanishingly low.
- We show that the probability of the constants taking their value is higher if we assume a conscious agent (God) who set them that way.
This argument has a number of problems: First, the probability of an observation is always higher if we assume the involvement of a conscious being. For example, let’s assume that we throw a die 100 times to obtain a sequence of numbers. What is the probability of us obtaining that exact sequence? It’s one in 1077. Now, what is the probability if I am a sorcerer who wants us to obtain that exact sequence? This probability is one . Therefore, Barnes' argument (as stated in Premise  of 8)says that the observation “strongly favors” the hypothesis of me being a sorcerer.
By the same token, all types of other metaphysical explanations (aliens, gods, etc.) are considered more likely than naturalism in Barnes’ argument. The argument does not require these explanations to be probable by themselves. Even if it did, it would be hard to determine the probability of the existence of a conscious being who has the power to set the values of physical constants and who precedes the genesis of the universe. What is the probability of that being’s existence, and on what basis would we estimate it? If we just assume that this probability is high because “God” is our go-to hypothesis, or because God is “simple”, then we still do not actually prove a high probability of God’s existence. Rather, we presume it.
In reality, the physical constants are not chosen from a uniform random distribution. That is merely an assumption that springs from our ignorance. Thus, while it is interesting to investigate why these constants take the values that they do, this does not entitle us to suspect that an intelligent agent set them.
Furthermore, despite its sophistication, Barnes' argument suffers from similar weaknesses as do the other arguments we have examined in this chapter. First, the argument is not (and does not aim to be) a proof for the existence of God. It does not provide evidence in the sense of a true theory that predicts the hypothesis. This is why the argument does not allow us to make predictions beyond what we already know (namely that the constants take these values). Thus, the argument is not an explanation in the sense of this book.
More importantly, the argument suffers from the same problems as the First Cause argument: it argues that a scientific explanation (if it were to be found) would still beg the question of why that specific explanation holds. At the same time, the argument does not address the question of why a god would exist, how he would come into existence, why he would want to create life, and how he would have done it. In this way, the argument unfairly scrutinizes the scientific hypothesis more than the theistic one.
Finally, the argument would have failed to explain other unexplained phenomena in the past. For example, it would have preferred a god moving the sun across the sky to the naturalistic explanation we now know is true today (among other things). If the argument has failed in the past, there is no reason to assume that it would be correct this time. The scientific theories about the universe also need continuous adjustment, but in the meantime, they make verifiable predictions about things that we did not know and that we then find to be true. This allows us to validate the theories, to correct them, and to use them. This justifies our confidence in them. The same cannot be said of the probabilistic argument.
I don’t want to believe. I want to know.
God is simpler!Scientific theories about the genesis of life are rather complex. They involve the random permutation of proteins, protein-based replication, and millions of years of evolution. The God of the Gaps theory is rather simple by comparison. It requires only one new entity (God) and explains not just the genesis of the universe but also of life and of humanity. For example, to explain why life is here, we could just say “God created life”. In this way, the theory “God did it” has an extraordinary capacity for compression.
However, let us look at the predictions that the theory “God created life” makes. First, it predicts that life exists. As it so happens, the same prediction can be made by the theory “Life is there”. In this case, there is no prediction that the first theory makes that the second one does not. Adding “God” does not add any new predictions. Therefore, the theory “God created life” is actually quite complex: It requires a new metaphysical entity of unknown origin that decided to create life. The theory is actually simpler without the god.
This is the essence of explanations that involve God: They tell us only the predictions we knew anyway, and nothing more. Besides, the theory “God did it” is unfalsifiable. This entails that we can equally well claim that any other entity is the reason for some phenomenon. For example, we can claim that “Gayatri did it”. The other problems with this type of argument apply accordingly.
“I don’t know” does not mean that you can fill in the blanks with your favorite fairy tale.
Where does beauty come from?There are many questions in life that we cannot (yet) answer by science alone. Examples include: Why do cats have pretty stripes on them? Why do the millions of insect species have such startling beauty? Why does man feel guilty when he sins? Why does anyone have a will? Where did personality come from?
Faith in God, goes the argument, can give answers to these questions: The reason is God. Cats have pretty stripes because God wants them to have stripes.
Unfortunately, this theory has a number of problems. First, the Christian explanation for the stripes of animals is false. It can be found in the Bible in Genesis 30:37-39: “Jacob took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted.”
This explanation is obviously false. Animals do not get stripes when they mate in front of almond trees. Rather, animals have stripes when this provides an evolutionary advantage such as camouflage. This also explains why animals often exhibit the colors of their environment (frogs are green, lions are yellow, rabbits are brown, and polar bears are white).
Second, the argument that “God did it” is commonly applied to all the beautiful things in life. Yet, there are arguably many more ugly, dangerous, and brutal things in life than there are beautiful ones. Tapewor ms, for example, are several meters long and live in the intestines of animals and humans. Much less theological effort has been devoted to explaining the existence of these animals.
Third , explaining phenomena by gods is basically an argument from ignorance: if we do not know the answer to something, then we say it’s God. This is, however, not a valid way of reasoning.
Finally, the claim that “God did it” suffers from the typical problems of the “God of the Gaps” argument, which we will discuss at the end of this chapter : it cannot be falsified and therefore does not make predictions; it does not provide an explanation in the technical sense of the term; it does not prove that it was any particular god who did the job ; and it wrongly assumes that theology would deliver better answers than science. It also encourages us to stop searching for a scientific answer to the question.
If you accept the explanation that God did it,
then your curiosity has been sedated rather than nourished.
How do you explain the soul?In the common understanding of the word, the soul is the non-physical essence of a human being. In many religions, the soul can live on when the body has died. So, what is the soul in an atheist world?
The soul is basically what makes a human different from a machine. However, in the naturalistic view of the world that this book promotes, humans are not so different from complex machines: they are intricate systems of billions of interacting cells. In this worldview, there is no space for a soul.
As Marshall Brain has argued 910, the absence of a soul is just a consequence of the evolutionary theory: Every species derived from simple, single-cell organisms over the course of hundreds of millions of years. There is no part of the scientific explanation of evolution that says: “a mythical supernatural being reaches in right here and installs a soul”. The same goes for the development of a baby. An embryo is at first just a single cell (a zygote) before developing into a small human. From a biological perspective, there is no moment in the process where a soul is inserted into the body.
From a naturalistic perspective, what we call the soul is just an auxiliary notion for the mental abilities of a human: reasoning, feeling, consciousness, qualia, memory, perception, thinking, etc. These abilities, however, are not mystical or supernatural. They are processes that happen in the brain. When the human dies, these processes stop.
The idea that there is a soul that eludes the body when the human dies is, from this perspective, a fabrication. But why did people come up with this idea of a soul in the first place? There are a variety of reasons. The existence of a soul can explain consciousness. It can also help people come to terms with their own death. We will discuss more of these reasons in the Chapter on the Founding of Religionsand the Chapter on the Benefits of Religion .
Whatever we make of the question of consciousness, positing an immaterial soul is of no help at all. It just tries to solve one mystery with an even bigger mystery.
Why do things happen?It is one of the fascinating (and sometimes frightening) facts of life that some things are outside our control. A loved one may suffer an accident, a friend may fall terminally ill, or you may win a million dollars in a lottery. The reasons for these events are beyond our understanding, let alone our influence.
In light of this, believers assume that there must be a superior being who makes these things happen. This is an understandable conjecture. Let us make this hypothesis more formal: “There is a higher power that coordinates the events on Earth”. Now, is there any way we could prove this hypothesis false? That is, can we imagine any event that would show that life is not coordinated by a supreme being? It turns out that there is no such event; whatever happens will always be the will of the higher power. This means that our hypothesis is unfalsifiable.
As the now reader knows, unfalsifiability has two consequences. First, the hypothesis “There is a higher power that coordinates the events on Earth” has no implication whatsoever for our lives on Earth. It tells us nothing about what will happen or what will not happen. Thus, both a believer and an atheist are equally unable to predict the future. Both are victims of the same random processes. When it comes to predicting the future, it does not help at all to assume that there is a higher power. Technically, the hypothesis “There is a higher power” does not imply any perception statements. It is literally meaningless.
There is a second consequence of the hypothesis’s unfalsifiability. It is that we can invent any other unfalsifiable hypothesis that contradicts it. For example, we can claim that “There are two higher powers, who work together to coordinate the events on Earth in alternation. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, it is mainly the first power, and on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, it is mainly the other power. Sunday is actually uncoordinated, real randomness.” This hypothesis contradicts the original hypothesis, but it cannot be proven false either. This shows that we can come up with an arbitrary number of contradictory hypotheses, each of which could “explain” the events of life and never be proven false. And this is what people do. They just call it “religion”.
Unfalsifiable as it may be, the belief that everything must happen for a reason is not just some harmless erring. It has very concrete consequences. It entails that when bad things happen (such as an accident, a disease, a famine, or poverty), people try to find the agent responsible for its happening 11. Throughout history, people have readily blamed ethnic minorities, religious groups, witches, magicians, or other marginalized individuals for disasters or negative outcomes — often with dreadful consequences. For example, in the 14th century in Europe, Jews were widely blamed for the Black Death, and thousands were massacred. And during the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, tens of thousands of women were killed for supposedly causing storms, illnesses, or other mishaps. If no such target could be fingered, people often believed that their misfortune was a collective punishment from a higher power, and that they had to adapt their behavior. At times, this entailed following a leader who claims to be able to please said higher power — often to that leader’s advantage: Preachers, priests, and shamans have all benefited from the gullibility of people, and to this day, televangelists make millions with very similar strategies.
Nowadays, such explanations are less popular. However, one still is: If a benevolent higher power such as the Abrahamic God dishes out misfortune, then a plausible interpretation is that the receiving party deserves this misfortune. This idea is called the Just World Hypothesis (JWH), and it can lead people to blame the victim of a misfortune for its occurrence. For example, people can come to believe that the victim of a crime is responsible for their own suffering, that poverty is self-inflicted, and that people are to blame for the illnesses they suffer. Several studies, first initiated by Melvin Learner, but later replicated, have shown such effects for victims of bullying, illnesses, poverty, rape, and other violence. Revolting as this thinking may be from a Humanist standpoint, it is unfortunately a logical consequence of the belief in a higher benevolent power.
This is just one of the problems with such types of arguments. The others apply accordingly.
Look, I understand that religion makes it easier to deal with all of the random shitty things that happen to us. And I wish I could get on that ride, I'm sure I would be happier. But I can’t. Feelings aren’t enough. I need it to be real.
Where does moral law come from?The Argument from Morality dates back to the German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. He argued that there exists a universal sense of moral obligation. This sense of “ought”, which he termed the “categorical imperative”, points towards an objective moral “law”, whose source can only be the supreme being or God.
However, ancient cultures had moral rules long before the Christian God appeared on the scene. Babylonian and Sumerian laws, for example, date from the year 2000 BCE. These codified moral laws regulated marriage and relationships, property, leasing, debts, and warranty, and stipulated both punishments and the presumption of innocence . Ancient Romans and Greeks, too, had sophisticated legal systems, all of which were invented long before the Abrahamic God, let alone Jesus or Mohammed, appeared. Today, people of all regions have basic moral rules, even if Hindus have never heard of the Christian 10 Commandments, and Christians have never heard of Hinduism’s legal framework. And the reason is that moral systems arise spontaneously in any human society. Humans have a self-interest in protecting their own life and limb, and moral rules are a means to that end. There is nothing divine in that. (For a greater discussion on moral rules and morality, see the Chapter on Morality .)
It could be argued that God gave humans at least some basic moral standards. However, moral standards are not absolute. They change over time and across cultures. Slavery, for example, was widely legal and morally acceptable in the Middle Ages (and is approved in the Bible and the Quran). Nowadays, it is nearly universally condemned. Polygamy is considered immoral by Christians, but acceptable by some Muslims. Judaism changed its stance on polygamy in around 1000 CE. The death penalty, likewise, is considered necessary by some people and immoral by others. Catholicism changed its stance on capital punishment in 2015. This defies the idea that moral standards would come from God.
Even if there were some basic common moral standard, this would not prove that it was handed down from a god, let alone from the Abrahamic one. The instruction not to kill each other randomly, for example, emerges naturally in any society, because our survival as people depends upon our collaboration with others. Furthermore, the moral standards of today’s Western societies have markedly evolved from the moral standards that the gods supposedly gave us: we no longer accept slavery, we have freedom of expression and religion, and we have equal rights for men and women — standards that the ancient gods were very hesitant to grant.
Did people really not know that they should not kill before Moses told them?
Why should people behave morally?This book has argued that moral laws do not come from God. No matter where the laws come from, we are left to wonder why we should actually follow them. The theistic response is: We should follow the law because God commands us to. And in case this is not sufficient, we should follow the law because otherwise God will burn us in hell for eternity.
In the atheist view of things, there is no god and no hell. Believers can then ask: “If there is no god, then what prevents someone from stealing or killing at will?”. The answer is simple: Most people do not steal or kill at will, or even at all. Most people have no desire to steal and kill. Turning the question around, we may ask the believer: “So, if there were no god, would you steal and kill at will? Is the only reason why you don’t your fear of hell?” If that is the case, then that person is morally defunct. But if there is another reason not to kill, then God is no longer needed as a reason — and the question does thus not prove his existence.
Fortunately, there is a rather simple explanation for why we should follow basic moral rules. Would you, the reader, like to live in a lawless society, where people can kill and plunder as they wish? Probably not. The majority of your compatriots think the same. Therefore , the majority of your compatriots, as well as presumably yourself, follow the moral rules of your society. That is all that is needed for the explanation of moral behavior.
The other problems of the “God of the Gaps” argument apply accordingly.
It is often argued that religion is valuable because it makes men good,
but even if it were true, it would not be a proof that religion is true.
Santa Claus makes children good in precisely the same way,
and yet that doesn’t prove his existence.
The God is a Lapse
Problems with the God of the GapsWe have seen the “God of the Gaps” argument in several variants. We will now argue that all of them suffer from the same problems:
- They are not based on evidence
- They are not falsifiable, and thus literally meaningless
- They do not compress information, and are thus not an explanation in the technical sense
- They do not prove that it was a particular god who “did the job” #FirstCause
- They assume that theology delivers better answers than science.
Finally, we will argue that the “God of the Gaps” argument is not just false, but also unhelpful. Apart from this , the argument suffers from the same problems that unsubstantiated theories suffer from in general. Furthermore, it is pretentious to assume that one’s own god would be the solution to all of humankind’s conundrums, as we will later argue in the Chapter on Criticism of Religion.
Whom do atheists turn to when faced with a situation that logic cannot explain?
I do not turn to anything. There are some things we don’t know, and making up answers to fill the holes, and then believing that the made-up answers are true is completely idiotic.
No evidenceThe “God of the Gaps” argument asserts that God created the universe (and also accomplished a number of other things — basically everything to which there is currently so scientific explanation).
It is indeed a possible hypothesis that God created the universe. The rule “if God created the universe, then the universe exists” is a special case of the more general rule “if someone creates something, then that thing exists” — which is generally true.
The problem is that the rule works only in one direction: If God created the universe, then it exists. This does not mean that, vice versa, if the universe exists, God necessarily created it. Anything else could have created the universe. Or the universe could not have been created at all. Applying the rule the other way round is a type of reasoning called abduction. As we have seen before, this way of reasoning generally does not lead to correct conclusions.
The only way to deduce that “God did it” is to have evidence for that hypothesis . Evidence for a hypothesis is a true theory that predicts the hypothesis. That is: we need a true rule that has “God did it” not in the premise, but in the conclusion. Up to now, no such rule has been found (as we have argued in the Chapter on Proofs for God ). Therefore, the idea that “God did it” is just a hypothesis that hangs in the air.
Absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
UnfalsifiabilityMany questions in life could be answered by assuming a god. For example: Where does the universe come from? God created it! Or: Why are we conscious beings? God made us this way!
Interestingly, we can never prove such theories false. There is nothing that could happen in the present or future that a believer would accept as a proof that God was not the ultimate cause. For example, even if one day we found out what made the universe come into existence, the believer can still argue that God caused whatever was the reason. There is no way to show that God did not ultimately do it.
Being now well-versed in the concept of falsifiability, the reader will have spotted immediately that the claim “God did it” is unfalsifiable: It cannot be proven false, even hypothetically. As always, this has two consequences: First, we can come up with many arbitrary, contradictory theories as to how the universe came into existence. (We will later discuss several of these). Second, the claim makes no predictions. By assuming that “God did it”, we are no wiser than before. A believer knows nothing more about this world than a non-believer. Not a single concrete prediction about how the world is, or how the world is not, can be derived from the statement “God did it”. And this is why religious people fare no better in the randomness of this world than non-religious ones (they fare worse, actually).
What was it God revealed to man? He did not reveal science. The whole structure of physical science was built up very gradually and tentatively by man. He did not teach man geology, or astronomy, or chemistry, or biology. He did not teach him how to overcome disease, or its nature and cure. He did not teach him agriculture, or how to develop a wild grass into a life-nourishing wheat. He did not teach man how to drain a marsh or how to dig a canal so that it might carry water where it was needed. He did not teach him arithmetic or mathematics. He taught him none of the arts and sciences. Man had no revelation that taught him how to build the steam engine, or the aeroplane, or the submarine, the telegraph or the wireless. All these and a thousand other things which we regard as indispensable, and without which civilization would be impossible, man had to discover for himself.
But isn’t God’s work falsifiable?This book harps on about the fact that the existence of God is unfalsifiable: there is nothing that could happen in the present or future that would show that God does not exist. Now, what if we were to say that God makes the sun rise every day? Is that falsifiable? If the sun does not rise tomorrow, then this shows that God does not exist.
The theory is indeed falsifiable. However, falsifiability alone does not make a hypothesis true. A hypothesis is true if it is either a perception statement or supported by evidence. So then, what is the evidence for the fact that God makes the sun rise every day? And what is the evidence that it is not Gayatri who does so? There is none. In fact, there is evidence against either , because we know today that the sun rises simply because the Earth turns (which it does for natural reasons). The assumption that God did it (or Gayatri, for that matter), is nothing more than a ghostification of the true explanation. With this, it falls into the same class of arguments as the Greek myth of Persephone.
If someone tells you that you do not understand the world and that therefore you should follow his religion, he’s obviously playing a cheap trick on you. If he really wanted your good , he’d encourage you to understand the world first.
No compressionMany things in life could be explained by assuming that a god did them. For example, by saying “God created the universe”, one learns where the universe came from. This looks like a good explanation that compresses the entire cause of existence of the universe into a single sentence.
However, such explanations are actually not compressing information. To see this, let us start with something more mundane than the existence of the universe: the existence of a rainbow. Assume the following facts:
Next Friday, the sun shines, it rains, and there is a rainbow.
Next Saturday, the sun shines, it rains, and there is a rainbow.
Next Sunday, the sun shines, it rains, and there is a rainbow.
God wants that next Friday, the sun shines, it rains, and there is a rainbow.
God wants that next Saturday, the sun shines, it rains, and there is a rainbow.
God wants that next Sunday, the sun shines, it rains, and there is a rainbow.
A scientific explanation, in contrast, goes as follows:
Next Friday, the sun shines and it rains.
Next Saturday, the sun shines and it rains.
Next Sunday, the sun shines and it rains.
Whenever it rains and the sun shines, there is a rainbow.
The same goes for supernatural explanations for the beginning of the universe. The theory that God created the Universe does not compress any information. It just adds a layer of complexity. To illustrate this, consider the following example. Small children like playing the game of “Why?”, in which they simply and continually ask “Why?” in response to every answer. The game continues until the unnerved parent finally says: “Because that’s how it is”. A theist presumes to know that answer to many questions that an atheist does not, answering the child with “Because God did it”, or “Because God wants it that way”. However, when the child asks the next “Why?” (namely, why does God want that?), the theist will have to respond “That’s how it is” as well. Thus, for the supernatural explanation, the “It’s like that” is only postponed, but not avoided. On the contrary, the hypothesis of a god entails many subsequent questions: “Where is god?”, “How does he interact with the world if he is not physical?”, “How do we know there is only one god and not many?”, etc. Thus, instead of answering the original question, the assumption that “God did it” just adds plenty of new questions. For this reason, Ibn Abi-l-Awja, an 8th century critic of Islam, reportedly refused to accept any answer that implied that something was done by God. In his view, this merely pushed the question farther back to someone who was not present 12. He was executed swiftly.
A claim does not automatically become an explanation if it uses the word “because”. It also has to capture a general pattern in what we have seen that allows for predictions in what we have not seen.
God or other godsThe “God of the Gaps” argument asserts that the universe was created by some supernatural being. To a Christian, Jewish, or Muslim believer, it is obvious that there is only one possible deit y, and that this deity must have achieved the feat: their God. However, the “God of the Gaps” argument does not actually prove that it was the Abrahamic God who created the world. It could have been any other God as well. In Hinduism, for example, one creation story goes that the god Vishnu, lying on an ocean of milk atop the serpent Sesha, sprung a lotus from his naval that contained the god Brahma. Brahma then goes on to create all living beings, as well as the sun, moon, and planets, and a number of other gods and demigods. In the Chapter on Proofs, we proposed yet another creator god, the goddess Gayatri, who deliberately created different religions in order to confuse humankind.
There could also be several creators of the world. In Raëlism, Earth is a big scientific experiment by extraterrestrials. Other religions, such as the native faith of the Maori or the Wicca Faith, know of a male and a female deity instead . The so-called “world parents” are commonly identified across multiple cultures with the sky (usually male) and the earth (usually female). Creation, then, is then the result of their union, and the creation story serves as genealogical record of the deities born from it.
This diversity of supernatural creators is possible because the theory “God created the universe” is unfalsifiable. This entails that we can arbitrarily create many alternative (and also unfalsifiable) theories about how the universe came into existence. Atheists have taken this occasion to come up with some more creation stories . In 2005, Bobby Henderson started the religion of Pastafarianism, in which the world was not created by the Abrahamic God but by a creature called the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) . Henderson claims that all arguments that can be brought for God as the creator of the universe can equally well support the FSM as the creator. Consequently, he wrote a letter to the Kansas State Board of Education to demand that Pastafarianism be taught in schools alongside the Christian theory of Intelligent Design and evolution. Today, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has thousands of (atheist) adherents, who claim that their creation story is as true as any other.
At the same time, the focus on gods as the creators of the universe is mainly the result of a lack of imagination. There are much more philosophical and colorful explanations of how the world came to existence. Buddhists, for example, assume no creation at all. In their view, the universe has always existed. The Taoist creation story, in contrast, goes as follows: The Tao gave birth to unity, unity gave birth to duality, duality gave birth to trinity, trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures [Tao Te Ching 42]. This may sound highly philosophical, but that is , from a Taoist perspective, more than adequate for something as foundational as the creation of the universe. It would be implausible for a Taoist to assume that the universe is like a watch, only bigger. We will discuss more creation stories in the Chapter on Religion.
These different theories as to the origin of the universe cannot all be true at the same time. They contradict each other. And yet, none of them can be proven false. This is the dilemma that comes with unfalsifiability. Unfortunately, the adherents of these theories cannot accept unfalsifiability as a problem, because if they did, they would have to abandon their own theory as well.
Kid, honestly I can go on and on
I can explain every natural phenomenon:
The tide, the grass, the ground
Oh, that was just [me] messing around
I killed an eel, I buried its guts
Sprouted a tree, now you’ve got coconuts. [...]
Look where I’ve been, I make everything happen
The recordThere are many things in life that we do not understand, and as a result, believers have a tendency to assume that a god did them. Thus, they build the theory:
Science, in contrast, has made an extraordinary series of revelations. Chemistry has explained the nature of the elements, and how they react with each other. Biology has explained the working of cells and the multitude of species, including their behavior and evolution. Physics has explained the growth of the universe up to the very first milliseconds. Social science has given us models for human behavior. Psychology has taught us how humans react to different stimuli. Technology has given us printed books, computers, and airplanes. All of these discoveries are consistent with each other, confirmed by repeated evaluation, and very useful. This gives science a good track record of reliability. When it comes to fundamental questions about the universe, it thus is clear that science deserves our trust, not faith.
So, what has science told us about the conundrums of life? Quite a lot as it turns out, as we discussed in the Chapter on the Universe. However, science does not yet know the origin of the universe (if there is one at all). Most notably, science has not claimed that there would be “nothing” at the beginning of the universe. It has just not yet found an answer, and maybe never will. This leaves us with the answer that we should give in all modesty to the yet unexplained conundrums of life: We do not yet know. But we will do our best to find out. Meanwhile, there is no use in inventing supernatural entities.
I would challenge anyone here to think of a question upon which we once had a scientific answer, however inadequate, but for which now the best answer is a religious one.
Why are believers wrong?If we don’t know the answer to many of humanity’s conundrums, can we still say that the theistic answers are false?
In the majority of cases, the theistic answers are not actually false. Rather, they are unfalsifiable, and hence nonsensical. In order to be false, they would have to make a concrete prediction — which they usually don’t.
However, there are a number of cases where we can say with confidence that the theistic answer is false. Cory Radebaugh made the point as follows:
For example, if the problem is 765769 - 29310, you may not know the answer, but you do know -3 is cannot be the answer. This is because two positive numbers multiplied cannot yield a negative number.
How naive to believe there might be a single answer to every question. Every mystery. That there exists a lone divine light which rules over all. They say it is a light that brings truth and love. I say it is a light that blinds us — and forces us to stumble about in ignorance.
DisinterestWe have argued that the “God of the Gaps” argument does not hold water. We will now see that the argument is not just false, but also counterproductive in the search for truth.
This is because, by claiming a supernatural answer, believers show that they are not really interested in answering such questions. Let us illustrate this by a small story (inspired by a Quora answer):
But most religious people do none of this. They limit themselves to claiming that the answers are provided by their religion. Thereby, they demonstrate that they are not really interested in the questions to begin with. That is fine, of course. However, they should not then claim to have the answers. Such a claim can only be made when one is interested in answering the question in the first place.
We do not even know the question,
and some people already claim to have an answer.
Pushing God awayWe have argued above that the “God of the Gaps” argument is invalid. Apart from that, it actually does the idea of God no favor.
To see this, consider that, in the past, gods or a God were assumed behind a great number of life’s conundrums. But nowadays, most of these questions have been answered by science. Thus, the explanatory space allocated for the supernatural has steadily shrunk. If human knowledge continues to progress as it has, the room for gods as explanations for the unknown will become smaller and smaller. If believers bind their god to what is scientifically unknown, they risk abolishing their god in the long run. It may be more reasonable to stop using the god as an explanation for physical conundrums, and to focus instead on the non-physical aspects of religion — on moral values such as generosity and charity, on hope in the afterlife, and on a positive view on life in general.
This observation was maybe best phrased by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor:
How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.
Inhibiting scienceGods can be used to explain many things in life. We have seen that these explanations are not actually explanations in the technical sense. Here, we argue that they are not just false, but actually inhibit the scientific enquiry.
This obstacle appears first in our mind: If we assume that God created the world, for example, we have a hard time even imagining that this was not the case. We are so fixed on the idea that the universe must have started, that we cannot even consider alternative ways of thought. This hinders new ideas about the universe — such as the idea that it oscillates, or that its mass slows down time. The same goes for other phenomena. If we assume that God gave us a soul, we keep searching for that soul, without giving room to alternative views of the human mind. The same is true for the question of morality. Since ancient times, people have believed that moral law comes from the gods. This has prevented them from correcting and developing these laws, so that the abolition of slavery, freedom of religion, and equal rights for men and women appeared only very late in human history.
But the obstacles are not just of psychological nature. If God is the answer to one question, then it follows that any other answer is a denial of God’s power, and hence, blasphemous. In Christianity, this has led to the inhibition, prosecution, and even execution of some of the greatest thinkers of humankind. Some Muslims hold that Islam has an easier relationship with science . And yet, many variants of Islam punish apostasy by death. This is affirmed by all schools of the faith, both Sunni and Shia, as well as by more than half of the Muslims in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Malaysia, and other countries. Thus, it is impossible in these variants of Islam to investigate a world model without God.
Science, in contrast, has no such constraints. Nobody is put to death if she or he questions the principle of gravity. In science, a theory is valid if it makes true predictions. If it ever makes a false prediction, it is abandoned. If we assume supernatural gap-fillers instead, which do not succumb to these conditions, then we inhibit the scientific analysis of the questions of life. Only if we acknowledge that we do not have an answer, we will be able to find one.
If you don’t know, and you think you know,
you will never know.
- Budsas.org: “The Origin of the World”, 2021
- Rationalwiki: “List of mistakes made by God”, 2021
- The Economist: “The caveman’s curse”, 2012-12-15
- WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com: “Intelligent Design Made Mankind?”, 2017
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, 2007
- Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion, 2006
- The Economist: “A numbers game”, 2017-07-15
- Luke A. Barnes: “A reasonable little question: A Reasonable Little Question: A Formulation of the Fine-Tuning Argument”, in Ergo Open Access Journal of Philosophy, 2020
- GodIsImaginary.com: “Understand evolution and abiogenesis”, 2021
- GodIsImaginary.com: “Think about life after death”, 2021
- Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, 2018
- Ibn Warraq: Why I am not a Muslim, 1995