Eliminating the God of the Gaps to Make Room for God Himself
In 2005, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn touched off a firestorm in a New York Times opinion piece which raised significant concerns about the relationship among science, reason and faith. That intervention was not as successful as it might have been because of the Cardinal’s assessment of the idea of “randomness” in science. Returning to the subject in the April 2007 issue of First Things, Cardinal Schönborn makes what I believe is a far more successful presentation.
Most sound Catholic commentators over the past two hundred years have argued strenuously that there can be no intrinsic quarrel between faith and reason, or between religion and science. The chief problems have arisen because many scientists mistakenly believe—on the basis of unrecognized philosophical preconceptions—either that a mechanistic knowledge of nature is the only kind of knowledge possible, or that an explanation of how things work in a mechanical sense somehow eliminates the idea of teleology (that is, a consideration of nature’s design and purpose).
The problem has been exacerbated at times by religious thinkers who insist on a fundamentalist view of God’s interaction with the natural order, assuming that the only premise compatible with religious faith is that God brings about his effects in nature chiefly through direct action. It is this position which leads to the “the God of the gaps”. In this view, direct supernatural agency is posited as necessary to explain this or that natural phenomenon, which in turn proves the existence of God. But as scientists show that this or that natural phenomenon operates according to intrinsic properties and material laws, the need for God is squeezed out, and He becomes the God of the gaps—a cheap means of explaining the ever-narrowing gaps in scientific knowledge.
The point that Cardinal Schönborn makes in his latest essay is that this way of thinking depends on a view of matter as something inert that must be designed and set in motion from outside, as if it can have no teleology built into it by which it changes and develops toward its own ends. In other words, on the part of both religious thinkers and scientists, nature is too often regarded in an entirely mechanistic way, with atoms like so many billiard balls, moved either supernaturally or randomly into their various configurations and interactions.
As Schönborn points out, this modern viewpoint is singularly limited; other understandings of nature can bear greater intellectual fruit. For example, he cites St. Thomas Aquinas: “Nature is to be distinguished from technology only in that nature is an internal causal principle, while technology presents us with an external principle.” Thomas continues: “If the technology of a ship’s structure were immanent to the wood, then the nature (of the wood) would bring forth the ship, such as normally happens through technology.” And a little later, he says: “Nature is nothing other than a certain technology, namely, the skill of God, which is infused into things, and which is directed towards its determinate end by the things themselves.” To sum up: “This is as though the builder of a ship could impart the capacity to the wood pieces of being moved from within themselves to bring forth the structure of the ship.”
What Cardinal Schönborn is suggesting is that once nature is viewed in this fashion, the possibility is open for an investigation of both its mechanisms by scientists and its teleology by philosophers without any conflict between the two. What he is further suggesting is that scientists need to recognize where their scientific inquiries end and their mechanistic presuppositions begin. After all, might not this inner ability of natural things to develop toward their own ends be ultimately one of the greatest proofs of the existence of God?
In other words, properly viewed, everything discovered by science is a contribution to our understanding of nature’s teleology, not an attack upon it. By rethinking our attitude toward nature, as well as the presuppositions which accompany that attitude, a new kind of consideration of science, faith and reason may well be possible.
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