Atheist Philosopher Explains Why Intelligent Design is Not a ‘God-of-the-Gaps’ Argument

Jeffrey Jay Lowder is an atheist philosopher and author, whom I would rate as among the top tier of intellectual critics of theistic belief (you can watch him debate Frank Turek here). Not only is he an extremely balanced and nuanced thinker, but he is also quite amicable. I consider him a friend, and we have met for dinner or drinks a couple of times. On Twitter (I refrain from calling it by its hideous new name, “X”), he goes by the handle “Secular Outpost.” Recently Lowder posted the following remark:

Unpopular opinion (among nontheists): the arguments for intelligent design defended by the likes of Moreland, Craig, and Meyer are NOT god of the gaps arguments.

My colleague David Klinghoffer asked Lowder to clarify his thinking on this. In response, Lowder linked to two blog posts he had written addressing the subject. The first, published in 2016, responds to Victor Reppert, who had asked whether there is “any theistic argument [from/in natural theology] that can’t be accused of being a god-of-the-gaps argument,” and if this rejoinder may serve as “an all-purpose reply to all natural theology.” Lowder answers the first of those questions in the affirmative and the second in the negative. 

Why Intelligent Design Is Not a “God of the Gaps’ Argument

Lowder puts forward the following syllogism as representative of a ‘god-of-the-gaps’ argument:

(1) There is some puzzling phenomenon P which science cannot at present explain. 
(2) Theism does explain P. 
(3) P is more likely on the assumption that God exists than on the assumption God does not exist.

I have no issues with Lowder’s reconstruction of a god-of-the-gaps argument. As he explains, “The key feature of this argument — and what makes it a ‘God-of-the-gaps’ argument — is premise (1). The focus is on science’s present inability to explain P.” How might one construct an argument that is not vulnerable to the god-of-the-gaps critique? Suppose you want to advance an argument for theism based on the existence of consciousness. Lowder proposes that the following formulation of the argument (where E is the existence of human consciousness, T is theism, and N is naturalism) evades this charge:

(1) E is known to be true, i.e. Pr(E) is close to 1.
(2) N is not intrinsically much more probable than T, i.e., Pr(|N|) is not much greater than Pr(|T|).
(3) Pr(E | T & B)  > Pr(E | N & B).
(4) Other evidence held equal, N is probably false, i.e., Pr(N | B & E) < 1/2.

Put into straightforward English, the argument is as follows:

  1. The existence of human consciousness is known to be true.
  2. Naturalism is not intrinsically much more probable than theism.
  3. The probability of the existence of human consciousness given theism and the background information is greater than the probability of the existence of human consciousness given naturalism and the background information.
  4. Other evidence held equal, naturalism is probably false (i.e., the probability of naturalism given the background and the evidence is less than 50 percent).

Lowder concludes that “Whatever problems may exist within that argument, being a God-of-the-gaps argument clearly isn’t one of them.” I completely agree with Lowder’s assessment. Intelligent design makes the argument that various specific features of life and the universe — in particular, the informational properties of DNA, and the irreducibly complex nature of molecular systems — are rendered vastly more probable than they would otherwise be by the supposition that a conscious mind was involved in their origins. Thus, they are positively confirmatory of design. Since confirmations of design in the universe are significantly less surprising (or, more probable) given the hypothesis of theism than on its falsehood, the evidence of design also translates into positive evidence of the existence of God. Perhaps there are vulnerabilities in this argument structure — but, whatever may be wrong with it, it is certainly not wrong by virtue of being a god-of-the-gaps argument. I would like to commend Lowder for his intellectual integrity in pointing this out, despite our disagreements on the larger question of whether intelligent design is in fact true.

Jeff Lowder Reviews Signature in the Cell

The second article linked by Lowder is a critical review of Stephen Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. I had more disagreements with this article than with the first. Lowder remarks that “We are fortunate that Meyer explicitly provides the logical form of his argument,” which he quotes as follows:

Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information. 
Premise Two: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information. 
Conclusion: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell.

Lowder, again to his credit, notes, “I agree with Meyer that it would be a mistake to dismiss his argument as an argument from ignorance.” Furthermore, “We should consider the possibility that the origin of life is a source of potential evidence for intelligent design (and for theism).” What, then, is Lowder’s principle objection to Meyer’s argument? He writes,

The objection I have in mind is this: the design hypothesis is not an explanation because, well, it doesn’t explain. Regarding the origin of biological information, it still isn’t clear to me what Meyers [sic] believes the design explanation is. I don’t find in the book a description of how an intelligent designer created / designed / programmed — not sure what the right verb is — the first biological information. In order to explain biological information, it’s not enough to posit the existence of an intelligent designer as a potential cause of biological information. In addition, it seems to me that a design explanation must also include a description of the mechanism used by the designer to design and build the thing. In other words, in order for design to explain something, we have to know how the designer designed it. If we don’t know or even have a clue about how the designer did it, then we don’t have a design explanation.

However, this seems to me to be mistaken. For example, suppose that future scientists are able to capture high resolution images of Alpha Centauri, the closest star to our sun, and were to discover that a vehicle resembling a Volkswagen Beetle were orbiting a planet there. Presumably, we could justifiably infer design if we had no idea what equipment or processes were used to assemble the vehicle, and even if we could not identity the agent responsible. Those are interesting downstream questions, to be sure. But our inability to answer them does not negate our ability to infer design as an explanation of how the Beetle came to be there. 

Moreover, we all believe that our conscious minds interact with the material world, even though we lack an understanding of how consciousness works. Thus, to postulate that a conscious mind is responsible for complex and functionally specific information content, or an engineered system, is a legitimate explanation, even though we currently cannot give an adequate account of how our minds animate our bodies to accomplish engineering tasks.

Theism and Explanation

Lowder quotes Gregory Dawes’s Theism and Explanation, in which he asserts, objecting to Richard Swinburne’s argument for theism (p. 119),

“It is only when you have specified the divine intention in question that we can test your explanation, by asking what else would follow if God did indeed have this intention. And as we have seen, it will not do merely to substitute the explanandum for the posited goal… As we have already seen, this would be a spurious kind of explanation, seriously lacking in empirical content.”

However, to make a compelling argument for theism, it is not necessary to posit that there is a high probability of God having a particular motivation or intention for creating, for example, complex life. It is enough to posit that it is not immensely implausible that God would have such a purpose for creating. Suppose, for example, that God’s purpose in creating a world containing complex embodied creatures is that they might participate in an arena of moral choice, providing them opportunities to mold and shape their character, developing in morally significant ways. In such a scenario, for actions to have predictable consequences, the universe would have to be governed by fixed natural laws. And it is being physically embodied — in a world of pushes and pulls — that accentuates our ability to engage in moral decision-making. I think most readers can see that such a scenario is not at all wildly implausible on the supposition of classical theism. However, the existence of such a world is rendered absurdly improbable if we assume the falsehood of theism. Therefore, the world we observe constitutes strong (I would say, overwhelming) evidence in favor of theism.

Despite our many disagreements, I sincerely appreciate Lowder’s spirit and intellectual honesty. I hope the next generation of secular thinkers follow his lead.

This article was originally published, on February 20th 2024, at Evolution News & Science Today.