Getting reliable knowledge can be tricky. But contriving explanations for what we don’t know with what’s itself unknown is slippery. We humans are naturally disposed to see patterns and intentional agency in nature. It comes quickly and easily to us.
But the best explanations we’ve found for things in our experience have consistently and reliably been natural, rarely obvious, and almost never simple. Each and every time. Never has any successful inquiry undertaken ever uncovered any explanatory agents outside, apart from, or in any way above nature.
As our knowledge improves, this gives whatever such agencies we invoke ever-shrinking responsibilities, them being reduced to what Neil deGrasse Tyson has called “an ever-receding pocket of ignorance.” However it’s used to explain things not currently understood, it’s often called the God of the gaps fallacy, for, so the argument goes, wherever there are gaps in our knowledge, there lies God…or any other sort of extraordinary entity we might give a name to.
From here on, I’ll call this the X of the gaps fallacy, with X standing in for any concept we choose as our unknown causal agent.
It’s the same argument when we use any sort of extraordinary or otherwise unknown or unknowable entity; witches*, wizards, demons, angels, ghosts, psionic abilities, aliens, faeries, cloud nymphs, computer pixies, evil secret conspirators, quasi-evil conspirators, pseudo-evil conspirators, diet cola of evil conspirators, such elusive things as souls and free will***, and the list goes on.
A few examples of this argument follow:
- This study has produced statistical results that appear to rule out chance.
- So something other than chance must be at work.
- I don’t know what that something might be apart from psi.
- So that something must be psi.
- Witches cause all kinds of misfortune with their evil spells.
- My milk got curdled, my best ram died after eating them funny-looking weeds, a hailstorm wiped out my crops, and all my cats have hairballs again.
- So witches must be responsible for all of this!
- We do not know, to an arbitrary level of detail, the exact naturalistic mechanisms giving rise to the origin of life, its diversity, or the origins of the universe.**
- No one is smart enough to figure out the answer.
- So the Intelligent Designer™ must have done it all, in ways we know not at all, for the Designer’s ways are Mysterious™.
While there’s no absolute guarantee that our knowledge will continue to progress as it has, it does us no good to invoke things we don’t really know or understand to explain other unknowns based only on our own subjective or even collective ignorance.
After all, why not just be honest with ourselves and admit that when we don’t know, we just don’t know. It’s better, more effective and more rational to make a real effort to look for answers instead of making them up, and either convincing ourselves that we have all the answers or throwing up our hands and declaring that we if don’t know something now then we’ll never understand.
That is simply intellectual laziness.
That’s no judgement on anyone’s persons, but an observation of the sort of thinking process at play.
Lazy thinking leads to fuzzy understanding and unreliable knowledge claims that don’t stand up to the test of reality, and we all do it, both we ordinary mortals and those Sophisticated Theologians™ alike.
*This does not include Wiccans, but only those now stereotypical witches and warlocks imagined during the European witch hunts, and the modern witch hunts going on in African nations, many of which horrifically involve the old and the helpless, like young children.
**It should go without saying that these involve different branches of science, but Creationists and many Intelligent Design proponentsists (sic) tend to treat them as though they were the same.
***thanks to Benjamin Steele for mentioning that last. It had slipped my mind in the original writing of this post, so I’m adding it in this edit.