Science Ch.2 - God Does Work in the Gaps

We tend to ascribe to God only the things we don’t yet understand, such as how life began – that is, the gaps in our knowledge. But there’s a different kind of gap that would allow him to do anything he wished without breaking any of the observable laws of physics.


The phrase “God of the gaps” is a derogatory way to point out that our “proofs” for God tend to rely on things that science can’t explain yet – with the result that God’s activity appears to shrink as our knowledge grows. When we didn’t understand lightning, we assumed that God sent it and that he was carrying out his judgment on anyone it struck. And when we didn’t understand why harvests failed or why a couple was childless, we assumed that God was the one who sent fertility, so we had to pray that crops would grow and children would be born – otherwise they wouldn’t.

       When we look back at societies that worshiped storm gods such as Baal and performed fertility rites such as those around Asherah poles in Old Testament times (e.g., Judg 3:7; 1 Kgs 15:13; 18:20-19; 2 Kgs 23:7), we regard them as naive or credulous. This isn’t because we think God isn’t involved, but we realize that these things will happen according to natural causation, whether or not we pray for them.

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Shrinking gaps

The belief that God personally directs every event has persisted even in scientifically sophisticated societies. When Benjamin Franklin invented lightning rods in 1752, most churches refused to fit them because they thought they interfered with God’s ability to smite people. Dances around maypoles were still being regarded as fertility rituals even in the 1800s.1 Now that we understand more, we generally regard lightning strikes, famines, and infertility as random evils that occur without any specific direction from God. As our knowledge has gradually increased, there are fewer and fewer unexplained events that we would previously have attributed to God. This means that we end up thinking about God’s role in fewer and fewer actions – those that remain within the shrinking gaps in our understanding.

       As Christians, we might assert that God can still send lightning and infertility as he wills – but do we really believe this? Our actions don’t bear this out: When, for instance, did you last hear a prayer asking God to strike an evil person with lightning? Or a prayer asking God to stop making someone infertile or stop punishing a particular country with famine? Instead, we pray that God would protect people from bad weather and help them overcome infertility and bad harvests. This is because we regard fertility of land and people as normal, so we don’t normally pray for fertility unless something goes wrong.

       We no longer consider that God has given himself the job of making the sun and stars move, or showing birds where to migrate. We wouldn’t think of pleading with God to bring back the sun when we reach the winter solstice – because we expect that to happen without our prayers. And as weather prediction becomes better, it seems increasingly strange to pray for sunshine or rain. We now understand, as Jesus taught, that sun and rain are delivered equally to good and evil people (Matt 5:45).

Holding it all together

Perhaps we have lost sight of the fact that God in the Bible does claim to run the universe. The same verse with Jesus’ saying that good and bad weather arrive irrespective of whether people are good or bad also says that sun and rain are delivered by “your Father in heaven” – he makes the sun rise each day. But how literally should we take that? Does God really intervene so constantly and predictably in the world? Does Jesus personally supervise every force of gravity and atomic forces? This is certainly how some people would interpret Paul’s words “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17).

       When science started making progress in the eighteenth century, a new type of religious thought became popular: deism. Deists believe that God created the world, gave it natural laws, set it running, and now merely watches its progress. In contrast, theists agree that creation runs by itself according to natural laws, but they also believe that God intervenes to influence personal affairs.

       The Bible implies something similar to theism because it describes God personally interacting on specific and rare occasions in a special way, commonly called a miracle. Of course, there may be many more unseen miracles, but the implied principle is that the world runs by itself – albeit imperfectly because of the presence of sin – and God intervenes when necessary.

       Does this mean that God occasionally breaks the laws of physics in order to perform his special will? Of course, this is possible, but it is also possible that God works by using his own creation within the parameters he has given it – even when performing a miracle.

       A possible way for him to do this lies in the tiniest of all gaps in the universe: the quantum gaps of uncertainty in subatomic events. We will see that this allows God to do things that we normally call impossible, but that should really be described as extremely improbable.

Quantum gaps

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that the exact position and movement of a subatomic particle, such as an electron, can only be determined up to a specific built-in limitation. It is impossible to pinpoint the exact position of any particle more accurately than 10−35 meters. This can’t be solved by making instruments more accurate. It is due to the way that particles such as an electron act like a wave or area of force, so that their position is literally uncertain. It might be in one position, or it might be in any other position within the small radius of uncertainty. This is not just a theoretical issue, because its dual nature – being both a wave and a particle at the same time – is employed in electron microscopes and GPS systems.

       One consequence of this uncertainty is that we can’t predict what will happen when two particles collide. When a photon (a particle of light) hits an electron inside a solar panel, it may or may not knock it off the atom it is attached to. If it does, some electricity is generated, and if not the panel will just gain a little heat. What actually happens doesn’t only depend on the energy of the light or the exact type and position of the electron: even if the circumstances are exactly the same, there is still uncertainty about the outcome. We can predict that an electron will be dislodged a certain percentage of occasions, but no one can know what will happen on any one particular occasion. It is literally uncertain.

       This means that if God made the light dislodge an electron on one particular occasion, no laws of physics would be broken. Of course, no one would notice one electron, but in a system where normally only 10 percent of electrons are dislodged by photons, God could make 50 percent of the electrons be dislodged. Suddenly the solar panel would produce five times as much electricity – which certainly could be noticed. This still would not break any laws of physics, although it would be very improbable; and the longer it continued, the more improbable (i.e., miraculous) it would become.

Using the improbable

Improbable events happen all the time – as, for example, when an atom of carbon-14 decays into nitrogen, which is the process by which we measure archaeological time. Carbon-14 is a rare form of carbon created by cosmic rays in the atmosphere. Plants make carbon into food for us, and about one in a trillion of those carbon atoms is carbon-14. In about fifty-seven hundred years, half of our carbon14 will be gone – but no one can predict which atoms will have decayed and which ones will remain. Now and then, at a totally unpredictable moment, one of the neutrons in carbon-14 will split into a proton and an electron, so that the carbon atom becomes a nitrogen atom. If this carbon atom happened to be part of an important gene that prevents cancer, this could have terrible consequences.

       The improbable but normal process that turns carbon-14 into nitrogen is called tunneling – an electron tunnels out through the barrier that keeps it within the neutron. This barrier is a like a wall of energy, and the bigger that wall, the less likely that the electron will escape. If the energy wall is small, this will happen often, but even if the wall is high it will still happen occasionally. It is like a sea wall that successfully keeps the town from being swamped on a stormy day, but occasionally you’ll taste salt on your lips because a drop of water has made it over the wall.

       Now imagine a jug of water, made of hydrogen and oxygen. It also contains some dissolved air – which will bubble off if you boil it – consisting of nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. If some of those atoms moved out of their molecules and joined together (three nitrogen, five carbons, and nine hydrogens) and collected in the shape of a double-ringed amine, then a molecule of histamine would pop into existence. This is the chemical in bee stings that makes us reach for antihistamine cream, and it is also the chemical in red wine that is thought to give us headaches. Producing a histamine molecule in this way would be a very improbable event, though not impossible. And even if that improbable single molecule of histamine was produced, we certainly wouldn’t notice it – so we don’t have to be wary of drinking water. It is vanishingly improbable that more than one molecule would be formed, and even more massively improbable that other similar amines or other organic compounds would form in measurable quantities. However, the probability never reaches zero, so we can’t call these transformations scientifically impossible.

       You have probably guessed what I’m leading up to: a massive occurrence of specific quantum tunneling could turn water into wine. This has been seriously discussed by philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga and physicists such as Paul Davies.2 They point out, in much more erudite detail, that this is so unlikely that it is nonsense to calculate a statistical probability – but it is, nevertheless, theoretically possible. So, when Jesus turned water into wine, this was certainly miraculous, but he didn’t need to break any laws of nature to do this.

       They conclude that most of the miracles of the Bible can be regarded in a similar light – as instances of extremely improbable quantum tunneling. This process enables atoms (and the objects they make up) to move virtually anywhere, and even allows one element to be changed into another.

       Now, this kind of description doesn’t explain away miracles. Miracles are still impossible in the sense that they are too improbable to ever occur during the lifetime of the universe – let alone at a significant moment. However, quantum tunneling means that these statistically impossible events are not scientifically impossible.

Changing the world

It turns out that God’s actions might be found in gaps after all – but not in the gaps of our knowledge. God’s action may be situated in the quantum gaps we can’t predict or control. These tiny gaps of uncertainty can never be predicted, and although they appear to be insignificant, the tiny quantum actions within these gaps add up to the actions that our observable world is constructed from. Therefore God could, without breaking any laws of physics, change the physical world in all kinds of ways. If God controls all of these gaps at the quantum level, he would have no difficulty making any number of observable events occur in a way that is statistically improbable but not impossible – for example, producing wine from a jug of water.

       Deists argue that God simply leaves his creation to run the way that he has designed it, so he doesn’t need to interact with it. But several accounts in the Bible suggest that God does occasionally step in and make things happen in a miraculous way. Using the model of quantum tunneling, we see that a miracle can happen when God moves his creation in unusual directions – and that he can do this without breaking any of the physical laws he has built into the universe. This does not mean that we have definitely discovered the way that God interacts with the world, but the important conclusion is that he could use this method. So if God does act in quantum gaps – where no scientific instrument can detect that anything impossible has happened – the conclusion we can come to is that something extremely improbable has just occurred exactly when we needed it or when he promised it to us – that is, a miracle has happened.

Summary


• Ancient people believed that every individual natural event was personally directed by God.
• God’s role appears to diminish as the gaps in scientific knowledge are filled.
• Quantum tunneling allows God to direct even improbable events.
• Proposal: Miracles are extremely improbable events directed to occur at a predicted or helpful time.

1^ Sir James George Frazer, writing in 1894, was still finding such customs being linked to fertility. See The Golden Bough (New York: Macmillan, 1894), 1:72-81 (tinyurl.com/FrazerMaypole).
2^ See an interview with Paul Davies, “Does God Play Dice?,” Australian Broadcoasting Company (tinyurl.com/DaviesDice), and a discussion of Plantinga’s ideas by Bradley Monton in “God Acts in the Quantum World,” Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion 5, no. 7 (tinyurl.com/PlantMont).

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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