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A Brief Commentary on the God of the gaps and Design: for high school students


The claim that seems to be at the heart of today's popular atheism is that one does not need the God Hypothesis in order to explain the universe; the idea of God was nothing more than a way to fill in the gaps in our scientific knowledge of the universe.


The following is a simple analogy that might help illustrate the contrary.

Let's give Rado, who is a jack-of-all-trades, a machine to study and eventually figure out.  He opens it and sees the order.  He slowly figures out how the thing works, the purpose of each of its parts, how they work together to consistently produce a determinate effect, etc.  He begins to explain this and that, but there is much more that is left unexplained.  He continues, nonetheless, to penetrate into its intelligible order.  What he did not understand previously, he eventually came to understand, and he assumes that this process will continue.  Let's call this process "machine science".

Now, we know that someone designed the machine and had it built for a definite purpose, but Rado does not know that; he was simply given the machine without any information about its origin.  As Rado progresses in his understanding of the workings of this machine, he is more able to explain the "reasons" it does what it does.  In other words, he discovers that there are reasons or causes for this and that motion, action, or effect, etc.  

The engineer is on the other side of the wall observing Rado from a two-way mirror; he is impressed by how much Rado is coming to understand his work.  Rado, however, is so immersed in his "machine science" that he does not notice the engineer, but it does not matter; Rado can still make progress in his "science".

Samantha walks into the room.  She looks at the machine and immediately recognizes that it is the work of her father (the engineer).  "I know who made that", she says.  

"No, you don't need to posit a cause to explain it," says Rado.  I can explain much of it now."  He begins to explain the inner workings of the machine, and his explanation is very thorough.  

"You see," says Rado, "there is no need to believe in an external cause.  I can explain it without that idea.  Before we understood how the minute hand moved, people posited an external cause, such as some imaginary engineer, but we now know what causes the minute hand to move, as well as the second hand, the hour hand, the ticking sounds, etc., and it is not some engineer.  It is this spring, this gear, and this pendulum, etc."  

Samantha says "The watch is indeed intelligible (knowable and explainable) from within.  But that's precisely what needs explaining.  What is the reason for the knowability or intelligibility of the machine in the first place?  You can't say "because this spring unwinds, causing this gear to move, or that battery supplies a charge in order to cause this...etc."  What I'm saying is, just as the action of this part of the machine is explained by the action of that part, or this gear turns because that smaller gear turns, and has teeth that fit exactly into the notches of the larger gear, and vice versa, etc, the thing as a whole requires an explanation as well.  What is the principle of its entire order?  You cannot appeal to this and that part in order to call attention to its order.  I already know the parts are ordered and work in harmony with one another to produce determinate effects.  My question is "why?"  What is the cause of its intelligibility and order in the first place?  For it is that order that makes your "machine science" possible.  So when we ask: "What explains the whole machine?" we are asking for the sufficient reason for the intrinsic order that you behold in the thing and that makes it possible for you to explain it internally.  To answer the question by appealing to the order and harmony of the parts is to argue in circles.  It assumes the point that needs to be explained."


Natural selection, whatever its role is as a cause, is insufficient to account for order because it presupposes that organisms possess order (a nature) in the first place, that is, an order or inclination towards self-preservation or unity. 

As for the question of the machine's origin or first cause, there are two possible answers: a) an intelligent cause, or b) a non-intelligent cause.  Rado claims that there is no need to posit an intelligent first cause, for the machine simply came to be over time (i.e., through a process of random variation and market selection).  It first came to be as a simpler machine, but it gradually increased in complexity.  

Samantha says yes, it did begin as a simpler machine, and it did gradually increase in complexity (via a process of variation and market selection), but it did so only because there was an intelligent cause from the very beginning that made the watch for a specific purpose (the engineer), a watch that could vary or change in very specific and meaningful ways (stronger casing, waterproofing, etc).

Rado disagrees.  He says that we can explain the thing's order through the "science of machines".  Science explains it, he argues, so we no longer need to appeal to an external cause.  Rado claims that the only reason Samantha is appealing to an external cause is that she does not understand the inner workings of the machine, that she is not learned in the "science of machines" – and it is true, she does not understand how this machine works.  But she also insists she does not need to.  Her point is that just as Rado can come to understand the inner workings of the machine without knowing anything about who designed it or who is watching him behind the two-way mirror, conversely, she argues that she does not have to understand the inner workings of the thing in order to know that the order that exists in it does not explain itself.  

Samantha argues that the origin or first cause of the machine is an intelligent cause.  Why?  Because a thing cannot give what it does not have.  In other words, the effect cannot be greater than the cause.  Intelligibility does not arise from unintelligibility, that is, order does not arise from that which lacks order.  To deny this would be to argue that being arises from what lacks being (nothing).  Order and disorder differ in that the former (order) possesses something, while the latter (disorder) lacks something.  We do not say that order "lacks" disorder, but rather disorder lacks order.  The greater does not arise from the lesser.  An intelligent cause produces an intelligible effect, and that is why the machine (i.e., a watch, a computer, a refrigerator, etc.) is intelligible – the engineer is intelligent.  The engineer sees order, and so he can impose it on what lacks order.  Rado's argument merely amounts to saying that the machine is intelligible because it is intelligible, that is, it is ordered because it is ordered.  But that is a tautology (an unnecessary repetition of meaning, using different words that effectively say the same thing twice).

To argue that God is a "hypothesis" that has become outdated and that science will eventually explain the universe without an appeal to a first cause that is outside of it is analogous to Rado's claim that the machine is ordered and intelligible because it is ordered and intelligible.  Such an explanation fails to account for the intelligibility of the universe.  What renders the universe intelligible in the first place?  The answer is an intelligent cause that is not part of the universe (not one of its ordered parts), because "from nothing comes nothing", which also means from disorder comes disorder, not order.

Natural selection, whatever its role is as a cause, is insufficient to account for order because it presupposes that organisms possess order (a nature) in the first place, that is, an order or inclination towards self-preservation or unity.  Things have an innate tendency to preserve themselves, that is, an innate tendency towards stability and unity.  Things tend to fullness of being, that is, they resist disintegration as much as they are able.  That intrinsic tendency to being, to unity, intelligibility and order, requires explanation – it is far too easy to take it for granted.

To act with intelligence is to act with order, and to act with order is to act for a purpose, for an end, and thus with intention (to tend to an end).  The engineer acts for an end.  To act without intelligence is to act without intention, or without a purpose or end.  The effect of such an act would be unintelligible, or unknowable.  One could not make any sense out of it, because it lacks order or intelligibility (knowability).  But science is possible only because the universe is knowable or intelligible.  It is a cosmos (a harmony), not a chaos.  What is the cause of its intelligibility or knowability?  The First Cause can only be intelligent.



Deacon Douglas McManaman. "A Brief Commentary on the "God of the gaps" and Design: for high school students." CERC (March 25, 2011).

Printed with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.

The Author

mcmanamanwbasmMcManamanaDoug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Deacon Douglas studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. He is the author of Christ Lives!, The Logic of AngerWhy Be Afraid?, Basic Catholicism, Introduction to Philosophy for Young People, and A Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues. Deacon McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his website here

Copyright © 2011 Deacon Douglas McManaman
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