The widely used (especially by laymen atheists in theology debates) term of "God of gaps" (the idea that theists explain unexplained scientific phenomenons by invoking God as the reason, filling that unexplained [or, yet-to-be-explained] gap in science) is quite known to be used in science/religion debates.

What happens more than often in those (mostly laymen) debates is that this argument is being invoked against a metaphysical argument for God. What I'd like to ask (I assume the answer is obvious, but I'm not exactly sure, maybe there was a discussion around this subject) is whether or not it's "correct" (logically) to invoke the "God of gaps" argument in a metaphysical debate?

  • For example, from "the unseen universe" (Stewart and Tait) - many of [the scientific natural concepts such as energy, substance, ether] are invisible to empirical human observation, and therefore must rely on imaginary representation, speculation, and, ultimately, faith. Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 14:24
  • Could the "God of gaps" argument refute the above statement? Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 14:24
  • 1
    Here is an interesting concept. Deus ex Machina: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_ex_machina
    – Gordon
    Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 14:31
  • 1
    +1 A God of the gaps argument assumes that whatever God exists must fit into an atheistic paradigm, in particular, into the gaps or anomalies that have not been explained by some research program. From a theist perspective asserting God asserts the presence of agent causation in the universe to explain the orderliness we observe. The atheist has no explanation for orderliness or existence of deterministic natural laws except randomness. The God of the gaps argument is a rhetorical attempt to reduce a theist's position to something an atheist can attack. Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 17:04
  • 1
    @FrankHubeny The objection was originated by Drummond, who was an evangelist and mocked his fellow Christians for invoking "gaps which they will fill up with God", atheists were not involved.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 18:53

3 Answers 3


"God of the Gaps" is not really a single argument, but a collection of related arguments which all use similar terminology. Some of them simply combat teleology, others seek to directly discredit theists. As such, whether any of them are "correct" depends greatly on the specific argument being made. However, all of them have a common attribute: the assumption that there is some part of the universe that is knowable via some non-theist means, typically empirical means.

Thus I think that general statements of correctness can be made about a "God of the Gaps" argument in any case where we assume we can know something. Skeptics such as Aggripa the Skeptic made a living challenging such assumptions, and we have not really shaken those challenges, even over twenty centuries later. The question of how we can say we "know" something is at the heart of all empirical philosophy (indeed, all of epistemology). And in every theory that I know of which claims we know something, we run into something akin to the questions of what we can truly "observe" that show up in the philosophy of science, or the idea of the "first mover" in the metaphysics of causality. It appears we have a gap in the concept of what "knowledge" really is.

And this is a powerful gap indeed. And whether you call it God, Brahman, the Dao, or simply call it "the unknown," it doesn't seem to be retreating from this particular gap all that rapidly. So while the "God of the Gaps" arguments tend to rely on the idea that these gaps become less important as other approaches (such as science) mature, they are built on those gaps. The validity or "correctness" of any such argument depends mostly on how comfortable you are with that.

  • But I do think there's a big difference in using this argument against scientific "gaps" and metaphysics "gaps". Do you not? Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 20:31
  • @YechiamWeiss Why?
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 20:33
  • Because science talks about empirical study, where it's easier to say that we'll "fill the gap" further down the road, while metaphysics is usually not relying on empirical study, so "filling the gap", or more accurately, gaining more knowledge about the subject, is almost non-existent. What's usually being done in metaphysics is re-positing of the arguments, approaching the subject differently, tackling different angles. It's not something that can be said to "wait until we'll have the appropriate equipment to solve it". Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 20:38
  • How do you know we will gain more knowledge about the subject if it is an empirical topic? Do we plan to approach the subject differently, or tackle different angles?
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 20:39
  • that's perhaps one of the issues with God of the gaps argument, it's a positivistic one, claiming that we'll necessarily gain more knowledge about the subject because it's empirically possible. Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 20:41

1) Method Using fictions as a method can be helpful I think, and for this reason I would mention the book of Han Vaihinger https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Philosophy_of_%27As_if%27 It is better to actually read Vaihinger's book if that is possible because the Wikipedia article is not too good. I often use my highly ideosyncratic Hegel, my very own Hegel, as a method to come to grips with the world; not as the absolute truth, but as a method. So I would probably put your comment regarding Stewart and Trait under the category of Method.

2) Time

Both the play or drama and life are time limited, so the temptation to make an idol or fetish to solve our problems is very real. This would not be mere Method, but it would be Ontology.

On the other hand, the full story, without the device of the Deus ex Machina, would be the repair of the world, but this takes time. More than one lifetime. Can the repair of the world ever be completed? If it were finished it would not be an idol because there would be no need of an idol, it would just be a better world. I don't know the answer to the question of whether the repair could be completed, but I feel certain that there is a lot written on this subject.

It was Karl Marx I believe who specifically recognized that man is quick to solve his problems with a fetish or idol. Why? Probably because we can't resist having an ersatz answer to life's problems within our single lifespan. This was Marx's concept of reification. If Marx did not discover reification, he certainly developed it with extraordinary genius.

So we know that if we think of an orange as just an orange, we have a fetish or idol. But no, the orange came from a seed, it was planted, tended by humans, nourished by nature, transported to the market again by human beings; so there is a lot of history wrapped up into "this single orange", this idol, this fetish, this ontology.

Now say, for instance in the Kabbalah, is Kether ever reified? No. I don't think so, and this is very wise I think. It is hidden and resistant to man's shortcuts, ontologies and so on.

To move this back into "purely" philosophical discourse, we probably come, at the end of the day, to something like Hans Gadamer, "Truth and Method", just as one example. Broadly speaking, hermeneutics, which is never finished until we are finished! But tradition as a topic is a bigger topic than hermeneutics itself. In other words, what is taught in the universities today is often a reduced hermeneutics.

  • To expand a little, a thing fills a gap. But we can also see God as a process, as in Whitehead, though I'm not a Whitehead expert. Or being as in Heidegger. Not being as a thing but as ready to hand. We can probably translate the Jewish bible, G-d: "I am what I am" to "I am what I will be", the latter is probably more correct. So this God not a Thing to fill a gap.
    – Gordon
    Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 19:08
  • I think, if you haven't read Schelling, that you'd love him. He says exactly those ideas, among other amazing ones. By the way, where is that Bible reference from? Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 20:26
  • The Bible reference is from Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Walter Kaufmann, Faber Pub. 1958. P. 271, but I think I got it wrong. Kaufmann is discussing this question and he references Buber: "I shall be present as whoever I shall be present"; "In sum, you do not have to conjure me, neither can you conjure me." Final meaning: "He is present." This God cannot be conjured by knowing the name as the Egyptian gods can.
    – Gordon
    Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 21:36
  • What I see is this (I think). We should take a concrete approach on the worldly plane. Why? Because even the a priori are probably reifications of human toil, suffering and hard work. So I am inspired by this approach judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/10130/… The essence of this, that to do good act "as if" there is no God in this world. Don't fill any gaps with him or anything like that. This is why God wisely remains hidden, for us to do the work.
    – Gordon
    Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 22:19
  • @yechiamweiss Thank you again for your reference to Schelling. I have some old notes on Schelling I need to find. Also, it would probably be a good thing for me to investigate Schelling.
    – Gordon
    Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 22:28

The God of the gaps argument highlights the problem of not recognizing scientific research programs as social constructions. One can generalize the problem in the following way: Given a popular scientific research program must competing research programs fit into the anomalies or gaps of the popular program or can they remain independent?

In the particular case of the God of the gaps the question is whether a popular deterministic research program that promotes useful results such as Einstein’s gravitation theory has room for God. If one accepts gravity or even evolution must one accept atheism? There are gaps in this deterministic program as there are in any research program. These gaps are characterized as indeterministic aspects of the theories that need to be explained better in the future. Examples of these are the indeterminism of quantum physics, the indeterminism at the origin of the universe and the evident indeterminism of our own human agency. The basic question for theologians is:

Must theologians fit whatever God they promote into the indeterminism of a deterministic theory?

That theologians are compelled to answer such a question means the answer is “yes” to the original question, that is, whether or not it's "correct" (logically) to invoke the "God of gaps" argument in a metaphysical debate?

Given a deterministic research program that denies the agency of a God or our own agency for that matter, there are two ways theists, or more generally those who support agent causation, can approach that research project.

In the first approach, the God of the gaps approach, theologians, or others promoting agent causation, simply accept the deterministic program. Then they opportunistically try to fit whatever God or other agency they promote into the indeterministic anomalies or gaps that the deterministic program has not yet closed or cannot close.

An example of this would be trying to see how free will, a characteristic of agent causation, could fit into quantum indeterminism. For a theological example, see Alvin Plantinga’s “Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion & Naturalism”, Chapter 3. There he calls the approach “hands-off theology”. In hands-off theology nature is deterministic and God does not act as an agent in the universe. There are no miracles. God’s agency is restricted to creating and sustaining the universe. Plantinga points to Bultmann as a particular proponent of this type of position. Such theologians relegate God to the available indeterministic gaps of a deterministic theory and in the process abandon human agency.

In the second approach, opponents of the popular research program outright reject the determinism of that program. They set up a competing research program where agent causation, not determinism, is a core principle and take over the results they want from the other research program. The indeterminism of the popular research program becomes unnecessary. It is discarded with the determinism. This is the opposite of a God of the gaps approach. It maintains the independence of both research programs. It does not stoop to fit into any other program’s gaps.

What makes a God of the gaps approach possible is that people forget that all of our scientific research programs are social constructions. As social constructions they are supported by social mood which changes. Success of one program over the other is not whether determinism or agent causation are true. Believers in either side can call up data in their support. When they forget this, they assume competing programs must fit into the gaps of the popular program rather than remain independent waiting for social mood to change in their favor.

  • You seem to think that social construction is governed by mood swings. It is not by them only, and long term, not at all. Lasting constructions must satisfy a host of epistemic and practical constraints, waiting for moods to change is hopeless unless one has something to offer to change them in their favor. I suspect that many would jump on agent causation if there was a cogent account of what it is. There isn't, and unless it is developed there is nothing to wait for. For that working with confirmed deterministic laws as constraints on potential theories of agent causation is promising.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 1, 2018 at 22:16
  • @Conifold Finding a cogent account of determinism is more of a problem than agent causation given our own experience of exercising free will and realizing, if one really takes determinism seriously, there is no point in engaging in any philosophical argument. What "confirmed deterministic laws" are you referring to? Einstein's gravitation theory is falsified by the rotation of galaxies since dark matter has not been found. Many worlds can be explained as a mathematical fantasy land. Even technologically everything works to within a limit of precision that is convenient, not deterministic. Commented Mar 2, 2018 at 14:56

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .