Today’s topic concerns one of the oldest forms of religious apologia: deliberately confusing the relationship between probability and mystery. On one hand, science is a discipline which deals entirely in probabilities. On the other, it’s very common to hear religious believers talking about truth as a “mystery.” Another name for this apologetic is the “god of the gaps.” Let’s call those who use this rhetoric “gapsters.” Now let me distinguish what I mean by gapsters vs. believers in a particular religious doctrine: All believers are gapsters. Not all gapsters are religious believers. Some gapsters disdain organized religion but nevertheless believe in “something more” (but the “more” is a mystery). The idea of unsolvable mysteries is (and always has been) wildly popular.
Some examples of these widespread mystical beliefs are: a benevolent universe, a cosmic plan, “things happen for a reason,” a deistic intelligence suffuses all matter, living consciousness is a precedent of matter, a non-physical connection between living beings exists. Often you will hear those who hold such beliefs borrowing terms from advanced sciences such as “quantum” physics. This word is a giant red flag–call it a “quantum blunder” if you will–but if you hear the word “quantum” in any context other than a Star Trek episode, or from elite hard core Ph.D. particle physicists, you’re probably about to be served a king-sized helping of bullshit.
Mystical ideas form a smokescreen that blocks a scientific (probabilistic) understanding of the universe. Not only are they inaccurate, but they turn the goals of the Enlightenment upside down, denying the possibility of knowledge and reveling in the permanent impenetrability of the very types of mysteries science solves. Here’s how it works: replace any gap (unsolved mystery) with ‘god’ (divine or spooky action). For example, mental illness could be attributed to demonic possession. Storms, trees, or fire could be “ensouled” by nature spirits or elementals. And of course the idea of creationism has been the biggest intellectual logjam of the past 150 years: representing the intransigent refusal of many believers (and gapsters) to accept evolution by natural selection. Even among those gapsters who accept a great deal of science including evolution, “quantum spirituality” is all-too-common.
From studying the discoveries of Darwin, Einstein, Sagan, Hawking and many other giants, we now understand that there is no need to invoke spirituality to explain the biggest mysteries: human existence, human experience, love, beauty, the universe, or the stunning variety of life within it.
Prior to the 19th century, many of these big questions were answered by saying “only God knows.”
Today, even though there is an endless supply of new mysteries to be explored, we know enough to know that the best answer is never “only God knows” or “God did it.” But that’s exactly what the gapsters try to tell us. It’s the reason for the continuation of the stale debate between evolution and creationism more than 150 years after the publication of Origin of Species. But the “God of the Gaps” fallacy is not just for creationists. It has become a staple, a full-blown attack on knowledge, a shape-shifting strategy which has now been fully implemented by gapsters and the religious alike.
This was one thing when the world still had much larger knowledge gaps. We human beings are particularly good at writing stories to explain what we don’t understand. And in a pre-scientific world, these mythologies were highly important to maintain a perception of our place in a seemingly ordered universe. It was enough for our ancestors to face the threats of predators, disease, warfare and early death. Coming to terms with their ignorance, smallness and irrelevance on top of physical dangers would have been too much to ask of their primitive developing brains.
But in the 21st century, we are out of such excuses. If we want progress toward a better world, our stories must give way to knowledge. That doesn’t mean book burning, and it certainly doesn’t mean there’s no place for imagination or fiction. Quite the contrary. We now know we live in a material universe with no inherent purpose. So creativity, imagination and mythology are more important than ever to help give our lives meaning. But it’s time to acknowledge that the gapsters represent a severe threat to human progress. And when I say progress, I mean progress toward a better society and greater human flourishing. The gapsters claim to want the same things, but they are engaged in the deliberate blurring of the lines between truth and fiction, which can only hurt us in the long run. Why would anyone want this? They could just be a person who likes to keep things simple, and doesn’t think about the big questions too much. Or maybe they are someone who doesn’t like being “tied down” or limited by “cold” scientific truth. Still, this is a huge avenue of attack on science, and if we care about the future we should all probably pay attention.
So long as there were wide gaps in knowledge, science was no threat to the spiritual or religious world view. It’s a measure of how far we’ve come that we actually do understand a great deal about the origins and destiny of life, the universe, and everything. As the gaps in our understanding have shrunk and become more nuanced, there remain fewer and fewer places for grandiose notions about divinity to hide. Gapsters have recognized this shrinking space as an existential threat to their world views. In short, they either maintain the knowledge gaps are permanent, or they must admit the triumph of the physical sciences.
They’ve responded in two ways:
1) Science denial.
2) Science appropriation.
Which seems completely contradictory, right? Why would anyone both deny and appropriate the scientific method? The answer is because what we are talking about here is a classic human power struggle over social and political authority. It’s not a struggle between science and religion or even belief. It’s actually a struggle between two even more fundamentally opposite ways of looking at the world, probability vs. mystery. And the purveyors of mystery have figured out they’re losing the battle of ideas–badly. The legitimacy of their authority in society will be the next thing to go. So they have begun their counterattack with claims which deny science:
-Science was wrong before, so that proves we can’t really trust it
-Science is not the only way of looking at the world, there are other ways of knowing.
-Science can’t explain X, so what good is it?
-Science/technology has caused tremendous environmental damage and human suffering and is therefore wrong by result.
-Science has failed to bring humanity moral progress.
-Modern medicine/Big Pharma is a big nasty conspiracy to keep people sick and make money.
-Philosophy of Science undermines realist epistemological claims.
-Scientism is the reductionist and naive view that all problems have solutions and all mysteries can be solved.
Each of these false memes deserves an article-length rebuttal, and I’ve written on these subjects before. So have many others. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume by now most of my readers understand the falsity of these claims.
When gapsters start losing the argument with science, they then shift tactics to claim that their position is (or will be) proved by science.
-Quantum physics tells us everything is connected, therefore… (god, spirit, universal love, whatever).
-Quantum physics tells us everything is uncertain, therefore we cannot ever truly know anything, (i.e. pack it up, old-school science and make way for the new ’science’ of spirituality).
-X, Y, or Z spiritual thing will be discovered by science in the future (i.e. someday science will finally have to admit religion/spirituality was right after all)
-A, B, or C scientist believed in god (favorites are Newton, Einstein, and Tesla)
-There have been studies conclusively proving people can control matter with their minds or remember past lives
-Christian ‘Science’, ‘Scient’ology, Institute of Noetic ‘Sciences,’ Ken Wilber, etc. are scientific.
Which are all variants on the old “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” strategy. Again, each of these claims and sources have been refuted countless times.
Unlike new age gapsters, I’m not going to claim to fully understand quantum physics. But I do know a few things about it. Like science itself, quantum physics is based on a full acknowledgement of uncertainty about particles, of their position, of their mass, of their velocity, of their energy levels. You can know some things about a particle sometimes, and other things other times. Particles behave like waves and vice versa. They move instantaneously to other energy levels rather than gradually. Measuring a particle changes the particle. There’s a lot of weirdness in quantum physics, and much of it strains our intuition. But none of it suggests anything about god or spirituality.
Empirical science is equally uncertain. With the problem of induction, David Hume gave us the insight that all observations suffer from uncertain repeatability. You could try an experiment a million times with the same result. But on the million and first trial, you could get a different (and unexplained) result. So it is well known among scientists that nothing is actually ever proved. It can only be tested and correlated with observation. High correlation between theory and experimental observation can be said to provide a high probability that the theory is descriptive or predictive of reality. But theories are always subject to modification with the discovery of new experimental results.
Science is therefore a whole lot more uncertain than we would like it to be. Which is bad if you’re looking for certainty. We can never say something is “proved.” Yet in layman’s terms, science does indeed prove a great deal to a high degree of probability–or beyond a reasonable doubt. This has been good enough to get us to the moon and Mars, defeat countless diseases, and give us an amazing global communication system.
But gapsters dismiss the scientific method because they claim it can never be certain. But what they are actually doing is comparing science with all its uncertainties to the false certainties contained within their stories. Which they also conflate with mystery. This confusion between science, story and mystery is the framework on which gapsters hang their entire future. And that future is looking bleaker by the day. Because the only way gapsters can survive is to keep simultaneously undermining science, while keeping the gaps in knowledge under authoritarian control and off limits to discovery. What they are effectively saying is “Science can’t know things for sure, so I’m going to go ahead and replace that unknown with a mystery we can never solve, then I’m going to go ahead and tell you it’s not a mystery at all but is actually this story (god, spirit, consciousness, etc.)
This is a three-way bait and switch. Let’s go over it again:
Step 1: Declare science to be an imperfect discipline.
Step 2: Declare all true knowledge is therefore a mystery.
Step 3: Declare that mystery is contained within our particular god or spirit story. (But if science ever challenges any of the facts of the story, it’s back to a mystery.)