The New Gods of the Gaps

Recently, I’ve been noticing a trend in argumentation.  As a philosopher, arguments and their uses are a subject of great interest to me.  One of the phrases used by both Christians and atheists to describe a fallacious teleological argument is “God of the gaps”.  The God of the Gaps argument was a description applied by Christian theologians to the arguments of other theists who claimed that a lack of scientific explanation or scientific theory regarding various phenomena was in some way evidence of God’s existence and/or action in this world.

I’ve noticed many atheists joining the Christian theologians in pointing out that it doesn’t make sense to use God as an explanation for anything we can’t otherwise explain at that particular moment.  It is perhaps a form of the argument from ignorance fallacy, one that also gets featured quite a bit in ancient aliens speculations.  The argument is essentially this: “We don’t know how this happened, so ancient aliens must have done it.”

Or for the God of the Gaps argument, it is: “We don’t know how this happened, so God must have done it.”  In both cases, it’s a matter of explaining things which would take a great deal of time and effort to figure out methodically by just assigning it the most powerful and important cause that’s plausible to the person observing the phenomenon.  When it’s not clear (and sometimes even when it’s clearly not unclear) they assume that it was ancient aliens, or God, or whatever else someone might see as a powerful force which can be used to explain lots of things.

I’ve been noticing this form of argument being used quite often in a slightly different context the last few years.  It’s not just the province of a few modern theists, ancient aliens theorists, or vast-global-conspiracy theorists.  It is now also very much the province of many of those who, like me, are interested in advancing social justice causes.  And this isn’t just a bunch of silly young people on Tumblr parroting the social justice terminology used frequently by their role models.  It’s high-level administrators and faculty at universities as well, the people who are the role models.

One recent example was both particular egregious and particularly hilarious.  The Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Beverly Kopper, made what I suspect was an honest mistake while holding the best of intentions.  She condemned the posting of a picture of two college women wearing exfoliation masks.   Specifically, it was “racist” and “destructive to our campus community” in her view.  While racist behavior is indeed destructive to community among many other things, the students were not engaged in racist behavior by wearing exfoliation masks on campus or by posting the image publicly.

Kopper did exactly what most people do: she exercised her confirmation bias and assumed that the powerful force of (in this case) racism was behind something she didn’t understand.  Where she should have been methodical in uncovering the evidence and evaluating it rationally, she instead leaped to the conclusion that this was a matter of injustice and oppression.  Which isn’t surprising; if a person is trained to evaluate most things by way of a particular analytical framework, then they are likely to utilize that analytical framework habitually and to apply it even when another approach is needed.

This is something that lots of people in many fields do all the time, so I don’t want us to get righteously indignant and assume that this is a failing of character on the Chancellor’s part.  She was just doing exactly what we should expect people to do when they are indoctrinated (I’m using that term in the technical sense rather than in the pejorative sense) in a field of study or in an academic culture.  That said, it would certainly be worthwhile to help people, and I’m including myself here, who are indoctrinated in a field of study to understand the limits of their analytical approach and help them mitigate their confirmation bias.

And there are lots of people who need help on this point.  Anyone who reflexively labels something as racism when there are other plausible causal explanations should be encouraged to examine the issue more deeply, but it’s not just racism.  Sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ethnocentrism, cultural imperialism, and so on are all used in the same way quite frequently.  For many people, they aren’t just describing real phenomena which have been carefully examined: these terms are the new gods of the gaps.

These terms are used as an explanation for social events which would take a great deal of time and effort to figure out methodically by just assigning it the most powerful and important cause that’s plausible to the person observing the phenomenon.  For example, the seemingly intractable gender pay gap.  It’s a complicated matter to which a great deal of research has been devoted.  And while it’s highly likely that sexism is a significant factor, simply saying, “Sexism!” does nothing to explain the matter accurately in a way that might lead to solutions for the people who need those solutions.

This is a problem because we need to focus our energy on solutions rather than on simply finding an explanation and/or a scapegoat to blame it on.  We ought to work to better the lives of those who have been marginalized or oppressed by finding ways to bring them in from the margins and end the oppression.  And in the same way, we ought to be using the scientific method to understand the proximate causes of natural phenomena.

But just as the scientific method can’t advance if its practitioners just exclaim, “Ancient aliens!” or “God!” and feel good about themselves while leaving the difficult work of science undone, social justice is not advanced by exclaiming, “Racism!” or “Sexism!” and feeling good about ourselves while leaving the difficult work of social justice undone.

In the same way that no amount of theology or ancient alien theorizing, no matter how elegant and internally coherent, can ever suffice as long as the difficult methodological work of scientific evidence-gathering and experimentation that leads to useful technical solutions remains, it’s also the case that no amount of social justice theorizing can ever suffice as long as the difficult methodological work of social evidence-gathering and experimentation that leads to solutions to injustice remains.

Whether the gods of the gaps being invoked are so invoked to explain the lightning or the gender pay gap, and regardless of whether or not those gods are real, the only use of the gods of the gaps argument is to quickly fill a hole in our personal understanding of the world.  If anything, invoking the gods of the gaps makes other people suspicious that the gods you invoke are just convenient devices for feeling self-righteous, that those gods aren’t real to anyone but the mind that believes in them.

And it would be a real shame to discourage belief in them, especially when those gods such as racism and sexism are very real and we actually need to do something about them.  So when we don’t know exactly how it happened, let’s not just assume that racism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ethnocentrism, cultural imperialism, and so on are to blame.

Instead, let’s do the hard work of figuring it out and subsequently finding solutions to those problems.

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