man with bible

Debunking William Dembski’s ‘Chance-Of-The-Gaps Fallacy’

I saw the below quote from William Dembski, a philosopher and theologian, on a friend’s status update on Facebook. Though I did not have the time to examine it at first, I knew it looked absurd, and I was compelled to unpack the quote and write an article on it.  So here I am, several hours later, ready to do just that.

“Scientists rightly resist invoking the supernatural in scientific explanations for fear of committing a god-of-the-gaps fallacy (the fallacy of using God as a stop-gap for ignorance). Yet without some restriction on the use of chance, scientists are in danger of committing a logically equivalent fallacy-one we may call the ‘chance-of-the-gaps fallacy.’ Chance, like God, can become a stop-gap for ignorance.” —William Dembski

William Dembski
William Dembski is a philosopher and theologian.

Invoking The Supernatural?

Why would a scientist want or need to invoke the supernatural in a scientific explanation?  This seems to be patently outside the spectrum of scientific thinking.  First let’s concrete what the word supernatural implies.

(of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature. – [ oxforddictionaries.com ]

Beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.  There are questions outside of our current scientific understanding.  The origin of life, dark matter and dark energy, and exactly what sparked the big bang, to name a few.  Scientists do not appeal to chance as an explanation, they’re intellectually honest in proclaiming, “We don’t yet know the answer.”  To some questions they may even say, “We may never know the answer.  But we’re going to keep on investigating, because that’s what we do.”  Something along those lines.  That’s intellectual honesty.  Filling a gap in knowledge with, ‘I don’t know’, is not the same as asserting that god is a viable alternative place holder for ignorance.

The word chance here, if it’s alluding to evolution, is misused.  There’s a common misconception that evolution is all ‘chance’.  There’s a mechanism involved called natural selection, and is not chance.  It’s a process that falls within the purview of the physical laws of the Universe, one that can be explained through evidence and yes, even observation.

A Bit More On The Subject Of Chance

To put the above argument that scientists do not appeal to chance as an explanation, we need to have an idea of exactly what William Dembski means by this.

A possibility of something happening / the occurrence of events in the absence of any obvious intention or cause. – [ oxforddictionaries.com ]

While I argue that scientists do not appeal to chance as a scientific explanation, chance in terms of probability does have plenty of space in a coherent scientific discourse.  The Drake equation is a good example of this.  It is a probabilistic argument used to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.

Another example would be if the government sought the advice of scientists as to the outbreak of a particularly nasty strand of influenza within the next five years.  With enough data a hypothesis can be made that offers a probability, or the value assigned to the chance of this occurring.

To make this abundantly clear, chance is not a scientific explanation, chance is a value based on scientific evidence that an event may or may not occur.  When the scientists come back to the government they might proclaim there’s a 65% chance that a nasty strand of influenza will spread within the next 5 years, but the word chance, nor the word probability, is the explanation.  The explanation follows the declaration of the chance.

“How did you conclude there’s a 65% chance, or probability,” the government may rightfully ask.  Then comes the scientific explanation, one based on evidence.  I felt it important to make this distinction clear, as not to leave too large a ‘gap’ in my argument.

The God Of The Gaps Fallacy

A fallacy is a mistaken belief based on unsound arguments.  I explored, in part, the god of the gaps in a recent article about Bertrand Russell’s teapot.  It’s not a fallacy to argue that believers in god have appealed to the god of the gaps, or the argument from ignorance.  We can examine this through history.

There was a time religion argued the Earth was the center of the Universe, an argument that would give credence to a god imbuing our planet with a special significance in the Universe.  Once science explained that this was a fallacy,  it became an untenable position to argue the case for god from.

Before Darwin it was easy for theologians to argue the case for creation, for it was difficult for people to conceive of the complexity and diversity of life without evolution by natural selection.  Now that this science is well understood, most theologians have either retreated from the argument of creation altogether or proposed intelligent design, or creationism 2.0, in its place.  Of course there are those who still argue for creation and deny evolution entirely, but they make for disturbingly poor arguments at best.

Now that scientists can explain in great detail how the Universe operates, first due to Newtonian physics, and then Einstein’s theory of relativity, theologians dwell within the singularity, the moment of, and prior to the big bang, to promote the case for god.  If science uncovers the full truth of how these events unfolded in great detail, that gap in knowledge, previously filled in with god by Christian apologists, will vanish.  Where then will theologians make the case for god from?  Well, there’s always revelation and the ‘where would you get morals from if not god’ arguments.

Another way of looking at Bertrand Russell’s teacup and the ‘god of the gaps’ is when someone asserts, “While I cannot prove to you that there is a god, you cannot prove to me that there is not a god”.  Well, Bertrand can’t prove to you that there’s not a teacup orbiting our Sun, or some distant star, that is too small for any current technology to observe, but equally you cannot prove that this teacup does not exist.  The teacup is of course an absurd proposition, but no less absurd than the god argument in this context.

The god of the gaps is the equivalent from arguing a case from ignorance.  Scientists do not do this.  As stated above, when they don’t know something, they appeal to the ancient and humble wisdom of the phrase, “I don’t know”.  If a scientist does proclaim to know something that they don’t have any evidence for, they’re not practicing good science, and they’ll be called out on it by the scientific community.

“Chance, like God, can become a stop-gap for ignorance.”  – William Dembski

As argued above, the premises leading up to this conclusion are false.  Scientists don’t want nor need appeal to the supernatural, because by definition the supernatural is outside the laws of nature, which of course includes falling outside the purview of the laws of physics.  Theologians use god as a stop-gap because they do not have evidence.  They have faith, and through that faith they have presuppositions, and then look for science to back up these presuppositions.  This is not how science is done, and thus any science they use to argue for the existence of god is tenuous and intellectually dishonest.

If any readers disagree with the points I’ve made then please raise your objections in the comments and we can discuss.  To me, this quote from William Dembski is not logical, and misses out on the spirit of the entire enterprise of science.  If vampires, fairies, unicorns, or anything else considered supernatural could be observed and understood through biology, then it would not be supernatural.  It would be natural.  We have never observed anything to date that requires an appeal to the supernatural, because everything we’ve observed has a natural explanation.George Carlin Quote

Leave a Reply