God-of-the-Gaps Reasoning and the ‘Fecundity’ of the Laws of Physics

In this post, I will explore a common accusation made against the fine-tuning argument for theism, namely that it depends on god-of-the-gaps reasoning. This kind of reasoning uses God as an explanation for phenomena that the natural sciences do not currently understand. This strategy is precarious because, as scientific knowledge grows large enough to fill in these gaps in our understanding, what was previously explained by God eventually gets replaced by naturalistic explanations. God thereby becomes superfluous.

Is God just a "stand in" for what science will eventually explain?
Is God just a “stand in” for what science will eventually explain?

Why do naturalists often accuse theists of god-of-the-gaps reasoning with respect to the fine-tuning argument? Well, it is true that our current understanding of the multiverse only permits a very narrow range of worlds hospitable to life, but perhaps future scientific discoveries will uncover more hospitable worlds than we had originally bargained for! So, says the naturalist, the theist’s best policy is to wait and see how science progresses rather than make premature appeals to God on the basis of incomplete evidence.

Prudent theists typically heed these warnings, despite the fact that scientific models consistently fail to explain fine-tuning. For example, Stephen Hawking’s construal of M-Theory suggests that 10 to the 500 worlds are compatible with the known laws of physics. Assuming (and this is an act of generosity!) that each of those worlds is actual, still only a small fraction of them are hospitable. And of the hospitable ones, the odds of any of them generating living creatures who are also self-conscious agents are still quite low.

However, the failure of Hawking’s proposal does not equal the failure of naturalism; other proposals may surface which are far superior to M-Theory and which meet the probabilistic demands posed by the problem of fine-tuning. At the very least, then, theists and naturalists alike need to be very tentative in their conclusions about what a multiverse can explain.

But the fine-tuning discussion need not end with caution about the prospects of future of scientific research. Assuming that multiple worlds actually exist, the discussion is wide open for exploring deeper philosophical problems such as why the fundamental laws governing the multiverse are structured in such a way as to be capable of generating complex worlds – indeed hospitable worlds containing self-conscious agents – in the first place! This is a philosophical problem – not a scientific one – because it concerns the basic logic of the laws themselves, laws which are presupposed (and therefore not explained) by scientific endeavour.

In the past, philosophically inclined theists have pointed to the elegance, consistency, and mathematical form of the laws of nature to support of their position. But they have neglected to ask why (on the multiverse hypothesis) these same laws have the potential to generate hospitable worlds at all? Is this not a fact in need of explanation? Surely there might have been elegant laws without that potential. But then why didn’t those laws exist instead of the actual ones? Indeed, why are the actual laws so fecund?[1]

Why are the laws of physics so fecund?
Why are the laws of physics so fecund?

Naturalism doesn’t seem to have an answer to this question, but theism might. If a benevolent God exists, then he may have good reason to create ‘fecund’ laws that yield such a plethora of worlds. This might seem like a huge waste of time and resources on God’s part if his only purpose is to make living creatures. But if He also values a process that generates creativity, diversity, complexity, and interdependence – not just living creatures – then a rich plethora of worlds may be in order.

What do you, the reader, think? If a multiverse exists, does the fecundity of its basic laws need some kind of explanation? Why or why not?


[1] I.e. why are the laws so productive and fruitful, when they might not have been?

2 thoughts on “God-of-the-Gaps Reasoning and the ‘Fecundity’ of the Laws of Physics”

  1. What a great question, Thomas. I’ve heard a lot of ruckus ’round this topic, but haven’t heard this question asked before.

    Does the fecundity of the multiverse’s basic laws need some kind of explanation? Is theism the best explanation? A few thoughts.

    1. What does it mean to “require” explanation? I know what it means perfectly well when I’m talking to a person and feel that it’s their duty to give me reasons for something they’ve done that, on the face of it, they shouldn’t have. But to require explanation of the universe for why it is the way it is — not sure about that. Do I * want * explanation? Yep. Sure do. Love it.

    2. But then, how do we think about “explanation”? Again, I think it’s easy to get tied up with (what I think of as) anthropocentric notions of explanation. Is there a Reason (capital “R”) for why things happen the way they do? If it’s the kind of Reason that I want (and as things stand in this blog post comment, given #1, that’s the kind that’s relevant), it’s going to be something filled with purpose and will. Other kinds of reasons (little “r” reasons) – well, they’re just more stuff in the machine. Actually – not even that. On a Humean picture of science, the kinds of scientific “laws” that I think of as little “r” reasons aren’t really “things” out there at all. On that view, we come to the world – a world with a lot of brute facts, and only that – and we’re pretty clever, so we manage to put together some pattern-like things. In all the chaos, we’re bound to be able to find some kind of pattern-like things, in the same way that, with enough random looking clouds and stars in the sky, we can often “find” some pattern that puts things in the sky together in a way that make sense for us. Yea, things happen regularly, but (on this view) that isn’t because there is some law that forcing them to happen that way. The “laws” are patterns that we find, but the patterns are brute facts.

    What’s the point of all that mumbo? As I see it, you either give me a Reason or you give me a reason. If you give me a Reason, I’m going to have a hard time making sense of it if it doesn’t involve a person-ISH entity. If you give me a reason, I’m going to say – that’s nice for predicting things, but I don’t really care in any deep existential sense. It’s nice that we’ve found a pattern.

    And the point of that jumbo? On the view above, naturalism doesn’t give Reasons, and reasons aren’t all that, on an existential level. Now, maybe that existential level is evolutionary by-product that pretty much is waiting for it’s time to go – since maybe all it does is give us head-and-heart aches that distract us from getting to the real business of life – making predictions with scientific “laws”(/patterns we figure out)! But the point is, on this view, naturalism either doesn’t have an explanation for the fecundity of the basic laws, or, if it does, it’s a little “r” reason. Ah, but wait! As you suggest, since these are the *basic* laws we’re talking about, science isn’t going to have further little “r” reasons. So, if naturalism science, no little “r” reasons, no reasons at all.

    But then, again, on my view, naturalism doesn’t *in general* provide us with the kinds of explanations (ie Reasons) I really wanted anyway (perhaps due to evolutionary misfortune, granted). So what? So the question was sort of moot from the beginning. (Too bad I wrote so much on a moot question, ey? 🙂 Aye philosophy.)

    3. So what about God? Call me anthropocentric (really, do it. I kind of am. Maybe that’s a problem too.) But if there is a Christian-like God, doesn’t he think we’re “hella” awesome (that’s California-speak for “really cool”)? And if so, why waste all this time and energy making the universe all spiffy, when things down here look so messed up?

    One response is that if there is a God-like being, he/she is not as much like the Christian God as I hoped. Another is that making the universe all spiffy wasn’t really all that much of time-and-energy suck, actually, for an eternal God, and that he/she * is * creative, AND that on top of that, this stuff multiverse stuff is actually pretty fun and interesting for us, AND it makes us wonder about / seek after he/she. Eh. I’m not convinced, really. I guess I’m a small and simple is beautiful kind of person, and it seems like a lot of complication to keep us distracted with when really we could have been spending * our * very not-eternal time making each other’s lives better down here. Then again, I would never have thought about just how unsatisfying I find naturalism and little “r” reasons if it hadn’t been for this…

  2. Thanks for your sizable reply, Marilie. You bring up some key issues that deserve attention. I’ll try to address some of them in the five points below.

    First, the kind of explanation which the ‘fecundity’ (F) argument appeals to is one which increases the probability of F relative to other competing explanations. This explanation would be a causal one, but it need not involve persons, gods, laws, intentions, or wills. Any explanation by virtue of its power, scope, and prior probability, etc, is a viable contender as the cause of F. Therefore, whether we want an explanation, or whether it satisfies a deep human need for order amidst chaos, is incidental to the F argument.

    Second, the Humean insight that human beings impose patterns – like ‘laws’ and ‘causal connections’ – onto the flux of experience is a good one, but incomplete on its own. As the subjects of knowing, our patterns for interpreting the world that we ‘bump up against’ can be more or less informed by that world, so that there are better and worse ways of interpreting it. It seems that humans can to some extent (albeit partially and incompletely) comprehend the connection between our interpretations and the feedback the world provides – a connection that we continue to explore with needed corrections and further refinements in our acts of knowing. Clearly, my version of the F Argument depends on the idea that abduction is a reliable (though fallible) way of comprehending that connection, so that the ‘laws’ we project likely indicate the existence of material objects with propensities to behave in the regular ways that these laws suppose.

    Third, Hume’s objection that we have no way of proving that our interpretations track with a world distinct from our acts of knowing is not unique to my argument, but rather speaks to the problem of skepticism in general. I take it as an assumption that we bump up against a world with characteristics and relations that are distinct from my acts of knowing and which exist whether or not knowers exist. This assumption is IMHO 😉 a plausible one and good arguments (though not airtight arguments) can be made for it.

    Fourth, I would take issue with Hume’s requirement that I be able to prove the above assumption before I am epistemically warranted in holding it. Therefore, my inability to prove that ‘laws’ reflect real propensities in material objects does not require me to suspend judgement about the matter. In a similar way, there is no way to prove that the principles of abduction “hook up” with a world distinct from us, and are not just pragmatic tools for making predictions, but given how foundational these principles have been to the progress of human knowledge in the sciences and philosophy, one is hard pressed (on pain of skepticism) to deny that they reliably hook up.

    Fifth, abduction does not require that an explanation for F exists. Rather it supports a modest and more defensible version of the principle of sufficient reason: i.e. if F can have an explanation, and there are explanatory gains in terms of prior probability, explanatory scope and power, etc in positing an explanation, then we have prima facie warrant for believing that there is such an explanation. This more modest principle is compatible with the view that F does not require (and does not, in fact, have) an explanation; it only provides prima facie warrant for positing the explanation, which is what the F argument seeks to show. This is far from proof, let alone full-blown certainty, but it is still a rather important piece of natural theology, even if it does not address the important question of why “things down here look so messed up?”

    Thanks again for your comments and for furthering this discussion!

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