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Indian of the Gaps

My grandfather hunted arrowheads, and he found them, hundreds of them.  I was awed by his collection, and one of my most prized possessions is a frame containing 48 of his best specimens that I inherited from him.  Nearly two decades after his death that frame is still hanging on the wall in the room where I am typing this post.

Sometimes when I was a kid I went arrowhead hunting with him, but I was not much good at it.  Many times I brought a promising specimen to papa for inspection, only to have him cast it aside and say, “Just a rock boy; shah, shah, shah.”  To this day I don’t know exactly what “shah” means, but from context I gathered he was not being complimentary of my efforts.

But now I’m not so sure my grandfather was playing it straight with me.  You see, my arrowhead hunting adventures came to mind today when I was reading Michael Liccione’s review of John Haught’s new book Is Nature Enough?  Truth and Meaning in the Age of Science in this month’s First Things.  Liccione writes that agency cannot “show up within the layers of scientific explanation, for to do so would invoke the “rightly dreaded God of the gaps.”

I can’t tell you how relieved I am to find out after all these years that I was right all along and my grandfather was wrong.  Papa frequently thought he saw a specific and complex pattern in small stones, and each time he saw this pattern he attributed its presence to the efforts of some unseen and unknown Indian in the distant past and labeled the stone an “arrowhead” and added it to his collection.  He said he didn’t see these patterns in my rocks and refused to add them to his collection.

Now, thanks to Liccione, I now know papa was simply deceived. He had succumbed to an illusion of design and was invoking the “rightly dreaded (at least by all right thinking people) “Indian of the gaps” to account for the patterns he thought he saw in his “arrowheads.”  This enabled him to favor his stones with special status and arbitrarily reject mine.  He didn’t have sense enough to know that natural causes are sufficient to account for these patterns, no matter how specific and complex.  The fact that science hasn’t done so yet does not mean science can’t do so; it just needs more time.  So now, armed as I am with the latest in materialist philosophy, all I have to say to my grandfather’s unfair (and emotionally damaging I might add) rejection of my perfectly satisfactory stones is “shah, shah, shah.”

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22 Responses to Indian of the Gaps

  1. Is nature enough? Clearly not, if “nature” is interpreted to mean purely reductionist materialism. Common human experience screams this from every corner, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear — for those who have not invested a tremendous amount of time and effort in explaining away the obvious.

  2. The salient question here is “Is there design at all?” If the answer is no, then all sorts of problems arise. If the answer is yes, then to restrict it to identifiable corporeal entities is purely arbitrary. “God of the gaps” is a bullying tactic used to coerce adherence to materialist ideology.

  3. Nice post, Barry.

  4. I’m always struck by the seemingly unavoidable scientific anti-realism that the naturalist who rejects the possibility of a designer out of hand is required to adopt. Especially while thinking that that is exactly what they are not doing.

  5. Good post Barry.

    It can’t be disputed that we have proven means of detecting design and interesting things occur when we apply them to biology.

    Granted, they upset certain people.

    A whole, whole lot.

    But it is still interesting.

  6. Naturalistic science is a tautology. We tell ourselves that science, in order to BE science, must be naturalistic. Why? Because if we don’t, we allow for supernaturalism, which is unscientific because it is not naturalistic.

    In other words, we HAVE to exclude notions like God at the outset of any scientific investigation–because if we don’t, notions like God can’t be excluded at all.

    We need to stop defining science in terms of naturalism and re-adopt the Aristotlean methodology that says to follow the evidence wherever it leads. Only by removing the naturalistic blinders can scientific inquiry ever be free.

  7. Maybe this would be the place to bring up something that’s been bugging me. Over on the right-hand side of this page under “Additional Descent” are a couple of items about a book by J. Scott Turner. Can someone more familiar with the work comment?

    It doesn’t seem like it is as ID-friendly as you might think once you read the summaries on the author’s web page. It seems (and here’s where it’s somewhat relevant to this thread) that it is an attempt to explain-away the “apparent” design in nature by adding some adjunct to Darwinism that involves environmental factors. In other words, it doesn’t so much say that Darwinism is wrong, but that it is insufficient; that Darwinism + [something else] can explain everything within a materialist framework. Like the author is saying “ID is wrong, but the proponents raise a good point about apparent design, so here’s my answer to that within a strictly materialistic, Darwinistic worldview” (he doesn’t REALLY state it in those words, but that’s my understanding of his gist).

    Here is a direct quote from the author: “This would be a good point to note the second thing the book is not: it is not a critique of Darwinism, which, as Dr Seuss might have put it, is about as true as any thought that has ever been thunk.”

    Note I’m NOT saying I agree with this, because I don’t (first of all, I’m not a scientist, so my opinion is of little weight anyway, and secondly, I’m NOT an ID opponent). I’m just confused because this work would seem to be more foe than friend, but is presented as though it were a critique of Darwinism. Moreover, not having a scientific background and thus susceptible to being “snowed,” I’m a little troubled by what appears on the surface to be a workable critique of ID, and it would set my mind more at ease if someone more knowledgeable than me can comment on it and give a good rebuttal to it.

    (Particularly troubling is a chapter in which the author attempts to explain away consciousness. Maybe Ms. O’Leary could have something to add about that, given the subject of the book she’s working on.).

  8. Thank you to antg and tribune 7.

  9. I do not have access to the First Things article but if Liccione is invoking a “God of the Gaps” argument, he is essentially endorsing atheism. This seems strange in a religious magazine.

    By invoking the God of the gaps argument someone in reality is saying that there is no role for God to have done anything, not one solitary thing. Science will eventually find a natural explanation for any hypothesized instance of agency. If God has never done anything, then He has essentially been neutered and might as well not exist. He is a fairytale that we tell children till they are about 10-12 years old when they learn the realities of life for themselves.

    So with the God of the Gaps argument you have either the Deist God who set things in motion and never did anything else or you have the modern evolution of the Deist God which is that there wasn’t even a need for a God to set anything in motion and is atheism. The Deist God of the 17-19th centuries which many scientists in that era believed in is essentially gone.

  10. Jerry, in First Things’ defense, the journal allows both sides to present their views in its pages. They publish Dembski asserting ID and they publish Stephen Barr advocating a sort of Thomist “cause of causes” position that I personally find indistinguishable at the practical level from naturalism.

  11. Barry,

    As you know Aquinas’s first cause argument is not an argument that God never did anything else.

    This whole way of thinking goes back to when Newton was the god of science in the 18th century and espoused that God interfered in the orbits of the planets by sending comets to correct them and then Laplace showed differently essentially neutering Newton’s arguments and making him look silly in this instance and eliminating the need for God to interfere to correct orbits but probably in anything else. Ever since it has always been thought that any role of God interfering in the universe would be explained away.

    If people like Barr and Liccione are defending a God of the Gaps defense against seemingly improbable natural events then they should be asked what has God done since starting the ball rolling. And if He has done something, have any of those instances of agency affected the natural world in any way that could possibly be measured. And if not, why not?

    I do not think they will say He has done nothing but it will be interesting to see what they say He has done when pressed. At least it will be out on the table where everyone can look at it.

    I understand their position which I believe is that a God Who could set up the initial conditions to make everything happen is much, much more impressive that One Who just designed the parameters of the universe and then had to interfere later on to create life and adjust it periodically. Which God is more impressive? The answer is obvious.

    But the problem is that just on the opposite side of the ridge where you have this incredibly powerful God is nothingness and in the current world the majority is headed for the other side of this divide.

  12. Jerry, I don’t think they are talking about “first cause” so much as “sustaining cause.” See my discussion here: http://www.uncommondescent.com/archives/1544

  13. Barry,

    Thanks for the referral. It will take a day to read it all between actually doing work and if the thread is still going, I may ask you some questions.

  14. jb:

    Here is a direct quote from the author: “This would be a good point to note the second thing the book is not: it is not a critique of Darwinism, which, as Dr Seuss might have put it, is about as true as any thought that has ever been thunk.”

    You are right that he does not endorse ID but I personally think that is a good thing for UD to explore all sorts of ideas.

    If you read the rest of the website it is clear that he is critical of Darwinism. The Dr Seuss sentence is just another example of what DaveScot calls the ‘secret handshake’.

  15. I dunno, antg, it seems like more than just the “Secret Handshake.” It seems that his whole point is to answer ID with something that explains-away design without a designer in a completely naturalistic framework. So its just materialistic Darwinism taken to a new level that the other current Darwinist have just not taken it yet (at least that’s the impresion given by the author). I guess what I’m asking is for someone to step up and “say it aint’ so.”

  16. jb,

    “I guess what I’m asking is for someone to step up and “say it aint’ so.””

    I’d like to see a review of this book as well, or at least some commentary from one of UD folks. I did my best to turn up more information on the author – he did say rather explicitly that he does not believe in intelligent design (or at least that the movement is wrongheaded) along with some other throwaway criticisms. On the other hand, he also came across as unconvinced that there was no design in nature/evolution, and certainly critical of the frantic reaction to ID (Which he at least credits with asking an important question.)

    I get the feeling he’s going to be disappointing to all sides – at a glance, they certainly didn’t seem to receive him well over at the Panda’s Thumb. Though the people who upset all sides are usually the ones I enjoy reading the most, I admit.

  17. John Haught was a witness for the plaintiff at Dover and Michael Behe reviewed one of his books in 1999. You can find the review at ARN or on the DI website.

    He is a Catholic theologian and I think he is what is called a theistic evolutionist.

  18. jb: “[the] book by J. Scott Turner…doesn’t seem like it is as ID-friendly as you might think once you read the summaries on the author’s web page… it doesn’t so much say that Darwinism is wrong, but that it is insufficient; that Darwinism + [something else] can explain everything within a materialist framework.”

    Thus, materialism is floundering. This is good for ID.

  19. ba: “Liccione writes that agency cannot ‘show up within the layers of scientific explanation’… ”

    Dan Dennett agrees!:

    [Suppose that Steven Pinker's brain is replaced with an artificial substitute, and Pinker] expresses his satisfaction with his…feeling and sight and continues [sic] speaking and writing with humor and eloquence… His body may be just “expressing” his satisfaction… [T]here seems to be a possibility that the apparent animate body standing before us only “believes” it is alive, only “loves” his family and is distracted not by real pain but by “pain”… There could not be an objective test that could distinguish a clever robot from a really conscious person.

    Now you have a choice: you can cling to the Hard Problem*, or you can shake your head in wonder and dismiss it. We’ve learned to do this before: it still seems as if the sun goes around the earth, but we know better. It’s not all that hard, actually, now that we’ve made so much progress on the Easy Problems**. Just let go.

    * “why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one’s head — why there is a first-person, subjective experience.” (p. 61)
    ** “to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved.” (p. 61)

    (Daniel Dennett, “A Clever Robot”, TIME, January 29, 2007, p. 69)

    __________

    “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a…fraid.

    “Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer.”

  20. If agency cannot show up in scientific explanation, then intentional representations cannot show up in a scientific explanation of how Liccione’s letters and words came to be organized to express propositional attitudes; therefore, Liccione proposes the elimination of any meaning from anything he or anyone else writes…or says…or does….

    BTW, I read Dennett’s article in Time. Either he doesn’t understand or is in flat denial of just how hard the “hard problem” really is. As John Searle and William Vallicella maintain, Dennett is an eliminativist with regard to subjective mental phenomena such as qualia and intentionality, and such eliminativism seems impossible to maintain coherently.

  21. Could your grandfather have been saying, “Pshaw”? That’s what my grandmother might have said in that situation.

  22. [...] Long time followers of this site will remember that my grandfather used to collect small stones he called “arrowheads.”  He had the misguided notion that these small pieces of flint had complex and specific chip patterns that he attributed to intelligent agency, i.e., Indians making tips for their arrows.  Later in life I learned that my grandfather was deluded.  Scientists assure us that unguided natural processes are perfectly competent to produce even the most extraordinarily complex phenomena, and the “design” some people insist on inferring from complexity is merely an illusion.  And my grandfather’s misguided resort to agency to explain these chip patterns is an example of the dreaded “Indian-of-the-Gaps” mode of thinking in action.  See my post here.    [...]

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