What questions were once thought insoluble by science, and therefore evidence for God?

For a God-of-the-gaps thing I’m gonna write soon, I’m trying to find a list of problems that were once considered insoluble by science and therefore used as evidence for divine intercession.  I know of some of these, like the complexity of organs like the eye, the planetary motions that baffled Newton, and so on, but I seem to remember a list where many of these things were collected in one place.

The point, of course, is to warn people that what is considered a mystery in one generation, and therefore proof of God, is often solved in the next.

If you know of any such list, or simply want to adduce some examples, please post them below.



  1. gbjames
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    The tides! You can’t explain that. Never a missed communication.

    (Sorry, couldn’t help myself)

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      *reads post – is reminded of Bill-O – plans to make hilarious joke – loads comments – d’oh!*

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink


    • Nilou Ataie
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

      That is the closely related God-in-the-head-gap argument.

  2. strongforce
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink


  3. Galand
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    I always liked the “Hammer of Thor” for thunder..

    • poxyhowzes
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      It has never been clear to me what Thor’s “hammer” pounded against, and so I’ve never understood whether it was the hammer or the cymbal that created noisy thunder.

      Also, did Thor’s hammer also strike flint, or some such, on the way to the cymbal to create the lightning that inevitably precedes thunder? — pH

      • steve oberski
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        Obviously Thor’s hammer exceeded the speed of sound and generated a sonic boom.

        The fact that the ancient Norse were privy to this advanced scientific information is proof that the Norse Eddas were the divinely inspired works of supernatural beings and the Norse pantheon are the true gods.

      • nickswearsky
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        Thor’s hammer pounded against the heads of the Jortuns.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:09 pm | Permalink


        – What cymbal?

        – Mjölnir was Thor’s hammer (from “crusher”), but it was Thor (from “thunder”) who commanded the weather and its connection to fertility. “Adam [of Bremen] details that “Thor, they reckon, rules the sky; he governs thunder and lightning, winds and storms, fine weather and fertility” …” [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thor ]

        • poxyhowzes
          Posted July 19, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink


          The diaresis on the “o” in your name, plus the “bj” force me to accede to your superior mythology.

          Obviously, King James’s English translators got it all wrong. And if there were no cymbals, then, OMG!! It’s a total redefinition of “tinkling!!!” counter to g-d’s expressed will!!!

          /irrational parody


      • Posted July 19, 2013 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

        You know “headdesk”?
        Well, Thor made that noise via “headhammer”.

      • qbsmd
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

        What did you think anvil clouds were for?

        • Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:05 am | Permalink

          You might be on to something, there!


          • Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:06 am | Permalink

            (Oh! I can post again! (For how much longer this time?))

            • gbjames
              Posted July 20, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

              Were you in purgatory? Was it as bad as they say? Should I follow the pope’s tweets?

              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

                I’d rather follow the Pope’s tweets than be unable to comment here.


              • gbjames
                Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

                Wow. Purgatory is bad!

      • Petroglyph
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

        Thunder was the sound of Thor’s chariot being driven over the clouds (and the hooves of the goats drawing it).

        • gbjames
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink


          Ghosts, perhaps? Or ghosts of goats?

          (For fans of Firesign Theatre)

  4. bonetired
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Disease for a big kick off. During the Black Death people believed that the wrath of God had come to visit them; flagellation was frequently performed to remove the sins from the flesh; churches were full of prayerful, tearful humans begging God to forgive them …

    Not that it did a jot of good …

    “But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
    And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”


    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      darn, beat me to it!

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      Now we have the Detroit bankruptcy, with churches full of prayerful, tearful humans begging God to forgive them.

  5. Neunder
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink


  6. Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    For so many believers “everything” is one big gap. The universe cannot account for itself they believe, and only God can explain it.

    As for particulars, everything from love to rainbows to beautiful music can only be explained by God.

    • Ludo
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:55 am | Permalink

      Put in more general wordings: “Why is there something rather than nothing nothing?”
      It is interesting to check Wikipedia and Conservapedia on this (very old) quote.

      • Ludo
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 5:58 am | Permalink

        Sorry – one ‘nothing’ is sufficient fot this deepity.

      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

        That question barely even gets out of the starting gate. I’m surprised it gets so much attention.

        The common religious answer — that one or more gods are responsible — doesn’t even pretend to make sense. Either the gods are also something, in which case you haven’t answered the question at all (whence the gods?) or they’re nothing and therefore don’t exist and couldn’t have had anything to do with it.

        From a philosophical perspective, the “nothing” that philosophers generally would have us consider as an alternative to “something” is indistinguishable from the married bachelors who live death in lavishly frugal studio mansions north of the North Pole. And, once again, if you ask why something incoherent doesn’t exist, the answer should be obvious.

        It’s only from the physics perspective that you can even begin to consider the topic rationally, in which case we see that the quantum vacuum is inherently unstable and constantly generating a storm of virtual particles. Considering that the Big Bang was a very similar quantum phenomenon, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the same basic thing happened. See Lawrence Krauss for details.



    • Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      Robert Nozick, in “Philosophical Explanations,” interestingly turns “why something rather than nothing” on its head, suggesting that it’s nothingness that would be puzzling; there being something is unproblematic.

  7. Andrea
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Earthquakes, and natural disasters in general.

  8. Alex Shuffell
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    A 17th Century theologian named Leo Allatius claimed that the rings of Saturn to be Jesus’ foreskin, he took it with him to heaven, in an essay called “De Praeputio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Diatriba (Discussion concerning the Prepuce of our Lord Jesus Christ).”

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      I have never heard of that one, but it’s a funny one.Honestly, Saturn with its looks more like a condom still in its package, than on a foreskin.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        I think that was on an episode of QI that Brian Cox was on and he exclaimed that he had a new respect for Jesus now! 🙂

        • Alex Shuffell
          Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

          That was where I first heard it. Found the full episode – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmEH8cPvrUU – The relevant part starts at about 5:45

        • Bric
          Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

          Can God explain this?

          • lanceleuven
            Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

            Oh…My…God. That is freakin hilarious!!! Cheers, Bric. I’m going to be sharing that with a few people now!

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

              Search for the music videos for more 80s Brian Cox hilarity.

              • lanceleuven
                Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

                Well, that’s my Friday night sorted! 😉

              • Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

                These’ll get you started, from each of the only two albums (I think) he recorded:



              • Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:20 am | Permalink

                Don’t forget, he was also with D:Ream.


          • Grania Spingies
            Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

            Oh come on, if anything is going to prove God, this is it, surely?

  9. docbill1351
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Louie Gohmert.

    Science can’t explain that.

  10. Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Biodiversity and speciation ..

    (An alarming number of people STILL don’t buy into the reasons “why evolution is true”!)

  11. Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    I heard one from calculus in my undergrad days.

    Luigi Guido Grandi thought of a series of 1 + -1, so adding a bunch of sums that equal zero should be zero.

    (1 + -1) + (1 + -1) + … = 0

    But if we rearrange additions

    1 + (-1 + 1) + (-1 + 1) + … = 1

    You get a series of adding zeros but with an extra nonzero, so you just proved 0=1.

    He argued this was a proof of god making something from nothing.

    I would think you could argue this proves a god isn’t necessary and the universe could come from nothing.

    Of course this series is divergent so it has no sum. So really, you could argue anything you want when your premise is incorrect.

    • jimroberts
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      You can make this series add up to any positive or negative whole number. To get a million, just bring a million +1’s to the front. There are still enough +1’s left to balance out all the -1’s.

    • DV
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      where’s the step equating the two series?

      1 + (X) 0 + (X)

      also we can’t say two infinities are equal to each other.

    • Nikos Apostolakis
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      Of course this series is divergent so it has no sum. So really, you could argue anything you want when your premise is incorrect.

      You can have similar arguments with convergent series also. If you take any conditionally convergent series, e.g. the alternate harmonic series ∑(-1)ⁿ/n, you can rearrange it’s terms to make it converging to any real number, even make it diverge to ∞ or -∞. So you can use such a series to prove that 0 = ∞, ergo God.

      • Nikos Apostolakis
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        prove, of course, should be in quotes: “prove”

    • Posted July 22, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      Even Leibniz was tempted by this argument, amazingly. (Not because he should have known better about convergence, but because it would seem “too good to be true”.)

  12. Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    As I understand it, the greatest scientific achievement of all of human history was figuring out where the Sun goes at night.

    Sure, we’ve known the answer for so many millennia that it doesn’t even seem to make sense to phrase the problem the way I did. But I think you’ll find that most religions have a Sun god as one of their most important deities, often the single most important (Christianity is a prime example), and that one of said deity’s most important functions was…well, doing everything that the Sun does. Like bringing us our daily bread by causing his face to shine upon the Earth and her crops, and by watching over everything from his golden throne in the heavens. And he turns water into wine (through the mechanism of the grape), and he walks on water (just look at the reflection of the Sun on the waves). And every year he dies, lays low in his grave for three days, and the full glory of his birth is celebrated on Earth with new births here.

    Indeed, once you understand that the Sun is the Capital-G-God of most of our forebears, it becomes clear that asking for evidence is silly, for the evidence surrounds us. It’s just gotten smudged slightly from all the layers of patina from ancient metaphor and telephone games.

    It’s just that the actual, real Sun is even more awesomely incredibly powerful and life-giving than any of our ancestors — and most religious people today — could ever possibly imagine. And the most amazing part of it is that it has nothing to do with magic.


    • Rhetoric
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

      Also, if you try and look at it to figure it out it will blind you.

      • Grania Spingies
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        Nah, that’s wanking you’re thinking of.

        • papalinton
          Posted July 19, 2013 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

          Ninety-wight, ninety nine ….
          Don’t care if I do go blind
          Change hands.

    • Mattapult
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      Many believers think a person cannot look into the face of God and survive. I suspect this belief is partially due to what you’ve said; partially due to our ancestor’s experiences with sunburns and eye damage from looking at the sun; and God’s tendency for killing everything.

  13. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Blood letting (and more) including leechings as part of the practice of humorism (four bodily fluids affect human personality: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic.

    Gory details: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_temperaments

    • poxyhowzes
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

      Oh, yes! I met the Good Humor man most afternoons in my early youth, and, with a couple of exceptions, he was almost always able to diagnose the exact, frostily cool treatment I needed.

      — pH

      (Chocolate-covered apologies on a stick to non-USAian readers!)

    • Dale
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      With the associated “murder” of George Washington by his doctors.

    • JBlilie
      Posted July 22, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      This crap still has traction under the heading of Aryuveda. I know several people who have studied (seemingly seriously) this bollocks.

      • gbjames
        Posted July 22, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

        Argh. Aryuveda. My mother, bless her 95 year old heart, believes this woo.

  14. gbjames
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Where babies come from.

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      Nah, that one has always had a ‘natural’ explanation: Storks!

      • Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        If it’s not storks, then how do you explain MY STORKBITE?!

        • Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

          Checkmate, Astorkeists!

          • Reginald Selkirk
            Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

            It’s storks all the way down.

      • Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        I thought it’s been recently discovered that it’s actually ducks, not storks…?


        • Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:05 am | Permalink

          Nonsense! There are REALLY old books that say it’s storks!

          • Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

            Yes, but all the hot chicks are going for ducks these days, not storks. Because I prefer the modern duck narrative to the old and lonely stork story, that’s the one I’m going with.

            Checkmate, pre-post-modernists!


    • DV
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      My little girl (4 years old) asked me: “Daddy where do babies come from?”.
      Me: Where do you think?
      her: Babyland!


    • docbill1351
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Took me three tries.

      Finally, I was, like, “Oh, that …”

  15. ladyatheist
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    Mental illness. If you hear god’s voice you’re a mystic. If you hear anyone else’s voice you’ve been possessed by demons, or you’re a witch and you’re destroying the town well or burning the barn or whatever

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Yes Joan of Arc!

      • ladyatheist
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        …and Eve, and Moses, and David, and Joshua, and Paul, and Joseph Smith, and L. Ron Hubbard (if he was honest), and Oral Roberts, and Charles Manson, and…

        • Randall Tavistock
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:54 am | Permalink

          We still have barely any good idea what causes mental illness. And many very bad ideas.

  16. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    From a political perspective, divination like augury & haruspicy also come to mind. Romans relied on an auger & a haruspex when making political decisions.

    • RFW
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Note that not all Romans were themselves fooled by the haruspices and augurs. I think it was Cicero who remarked that he couldn’t understand how one haruspex could look another in the face without laughing.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:08 am | Permalink

        And look what happened to Cicero! 😛 I do feel bad thinking of his head and hands on the rostra. Even Augustus felt bad having it done!

  17. Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Don’t know whether these fit the criteria, but leaving aside ‘irreducible complexity’, the three most popular ‘gap’ arguments from the ID camp currently seem to be:

    1) abiogenesis… no robust theory

    2) oldie but goodie… Cambrian explosion (hence Meyer’s new book)

    3) The new biggie… digital ‘information’ in DNA (expect next ID bestseller will argue that only intelligence can produce ‘coded’ information)

    • RGBowman
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Regarding #3:
      You mean like the hidden messages in the bible?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      FWIW, Lane’s & Martin’s latest publication on abiogenesis makes the “no robust theory” iffy. They wan’t to describe their find as a homology, which if accepted means the details of the process from chemical evolution to biological evolution is neither here nor there.

      Or at least that is how I understand phylogenies, that you don’t need to know every fossil in between finds or why they evolved as they did.

      [More in my longish comment, such as a suggestion of *one more* non-cellular to cellular homology candidate. But even more loosely, admittedly.]

      I don’t know the reception of precisely that (formulation of their) claim, but I know people got excited by the overall paper.

  18. Hempenstein
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I remember reading several yrs ago in what was probably a description or excerpt from one of the Icelandic sagas, an account of a father and son – the son asks the father what causes the volcanic eruptions they’re witnessing, and the father replies that it is some force deep in the earth, or something along those lines. Absolutely not a whit of supernatural attribution. It brought a tear to my eye in reading it, because it showed that it was possible, 1000yrs ago, to explain things without invoking any god, even if the actual explanation wasn’t known in detail.

    It’s possible that this was in Helge Ingstad*: Land Under the Pole Star. Wherever it was, I remember sending it up the line, but it was so long ago that I probably won’t be able to find the email. If this sounds familiar to anyone, pls comment and save me the trouble of digging.

    *who discovered L’anse aux Meadows

  19. Alex Shuffell
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Lightning Rods were once thought blasphemous. Lightning is proof of the power of God and we can’t control him, lightning is punishmenet, etc. Lightning rods are on every steeple today.

    I first found this information is from Bertrand Russell’s essay “An outline of Intellectual Rubbish.” You can read it here – http://www.personal.kent.edu/~rmuhamma/Philosophy/RBwritings/outIntellectRubbish.htm – Or in his “Unpopular Essays” book.

    More information on the lightning rods opposition – http://etb-pseudoscience.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/lightning-and-enlightenment-ben.html – Their sources are referenced, but I don’t know how well. THey do mention an interestingbook I have never heard of – A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by A.D. White. Written in 1896!

    • gbjames
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Oh… and thunder.

      • RGBowman
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        White was the co-founder of Cornell U. I have that 2 vol set, which is based on his conflict thesis. His interest was in keeping the school secular. Although it has been rebuffed, it is an interesting read, with some interesting religious rituals.

        • ivy privy
          Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

          I also own, and have read, that book, the full text of which is available online. It’s very interesting (and of course, very lengthy).

          As a reaction to the proposed secular nature of the new college, it became known as “godless Cornell.”

          I have seen remarks that the scholarship of the book has been questioned, because it is wrong about X or Y or Z. But it’s about 900 pages long, a thorough rebuttal would have to be pretty substantial.

          The most interesting bit to me is in the introduction:
          My hope is to aid–even if it be but a little–in the gradual and healthful dissolving away of this mass of unreason, that the stream of “religion pure and undefiled” may flow on broad and clear, a blessing to humanity.

          White takes a very modern, scientific view in that book, even to admitting that the Bible is a collection of myths. I have to wonder, what did he think was left?

          • RGBowman
            Posted July 19, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

            I don’t recall where it is, but White describes the 2nd century comment by a Bishop (?) that, and I’m paraphrasing; “A day to the Lord is like a thousand years” comes from an attempt to equate the 6 days of creation to the 6,000 years between the first Adam, and the beginning of the Christian era, with Jesus being the 2nd Adam.

            I don’t recall if there were any citations referencing it.

    • Smith Powell
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Not only was the cause of lightning not understood, it was also thought that lightning rods were a blasphemous interference with God’s actions. See the delightful book, “Stealing God’s Thunder. Benjamin Franklin’s Lightning Rod and the Invention of America” by Philip Dray.

      Ironically, since churches were generally the highest buildings in a town, they seemed to be singled out for God’s wrath.

  20. Galand
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Both “God created the Universe” and the “Big Bang” are pretty unsatisfactory mythological explanations. But the “It’s always been there” idea is also not very helpful.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      “It’s always been there” could be helpful if it is what eternal inflation predicts. Some argue it does (e.g. Susskind et al).

  21. Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    This film has a good explanation of the god of the gaps.
    A Flock of Dodos

  22. Omar M. Omar
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    What is before the big bang
    Al Kalaam cosmological argument

  23. gbjames
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    The shape of continental land masses.

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Well, is it a fact that the Scandinavian fjords were shaped by Slartibartfast.

      • Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        Some of his best work, too!


        • Marella
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:16 am | Permalink

          He got an award!

          • Dale
            Posted July 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

            He so loved the fiddly bits

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      oh that’s just continental drip.

      and the earth is slightly oblate because of the pressure of the wingnuts at the poles

      (heard these long ago. no idea the sources anymore)

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

        I have been getting the impression that most of the wingnuts are now in Washington DC.

        • gbjames
          Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

          Your impression isn’t right. Visit Texas. Florida. Ohio. Indiana. Virginia. Or, Wisconsin, my home.

          We are well supplied with wing-nuts all across these United States.

          • Pete Moulton
            Posted July 20, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

            Don’t forget Arizona!

  24. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Asclepius – the god of healing. Greeks would lay down in with a bunch of non venomous snakes called Aesculapian Snakes in healing areas like Epidaurus thinking the god Asclepius would heal them.

    The tradition is still with us even though we now know better: the original Hippocratic Oath invokes Asclepius and even though it’s not actually a depiction of the rod of Asclepius the caduceus harkens back to the whole snake thing.

    • Posted July 20, 2013 at 1:51 am | Permalink

      Yeah… Someone early on in the US military seemingly got their mythology in a twist. The winged staff entwined with two snakes is Mercury’s caduceus, appropriately used in the UK by the Royal Corps of Signals. The rod of Asclepius has only one snake and no wings.


      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

        I used to like to call Asclepius’s rod, “Asclepius on a stick” since they were Asclepius snakes.

  25. Jeff Chamberlain
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    You might take a look at the table of contents of A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology, by Andrew Dickson White.

  26. ladyatheist
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    If you dig a hole in your background and you keep going and going and going, eventually you will pop out in China

  27. Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    See “The Perimeter of Ignorance” by NDT (Neil Degrasse Tyson), from a Natural History mag column, for a fairly aggressive, cosmos-heavy rundown.


  28. Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    The origin of atoms, as described by Newton, Opticks: “It seems probable to me, that God in the beginning formed matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, movable particles… even so very hard, as never to wear or break in pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God Himself made one in the first creation.”

    But Bill O’Reilly was actually, if incompetently, making (or misremembering or garbling) an excellent point; the laws of nature remain constant, which fact is for believers a manifestation of the constancy of the divine will, while the rest of us do indeed lack an explanation. The argument, I think, dates back to al Ghazali.

    • eric
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Cosmological fine-tuning is certainly an example of a current gap argument. But I think that the people who argue it have gotten cagey about the question of whether science could solve it. They are no longer making the argument JAC is writing about, i.e. “this is insolvable through science, therefore God.” Instead they are making the somewhat lesser claim “science hasn’t solved it yet, therefore the current best explanation is God.”

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      What, lack an explanation? Nöther’s theorems!

      They don’t predict _all_ laws, but:
      1 – symmetries and symmetry breaking vs preserved charges (aka constant laws)
      2 – action principles

      And not only that:
      – 1 goes into the vacuum, so except for the huge finetunings it predicts the quantum fields we see today.

      – 2 goes into the quantum void, so except for the quantum laws it predicts how fluctuations can result in universes.

      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 12:33 am | Permalink

        Interesting. Stephen Law describes the argument from constant laws of nature as the one that comes closest to being convincing.

        A theist replying to Torbjörn Larsson would ahve two moves open: pointing to the extent to which the laws of Nature are *not* constrained by Nöther’s theorems (a subject I do not know enough to discuss) and asking why the Univese should be, and remain, symmetrical.

        You probably know what a hard time Hilbert had getting her a recognised position in Goettingen.

        • Posted July 20, 2013 at 6:33 am | Permalink

          why the Univese should be, and remain, symmetrical.

          Conservation is the only stable option.

          If “stuff” can diminish but not increase, you’ll eventually wind up with no “stuff.” And if “stuff” can increase but not diminish, you’ll eventually wind up with nothing but “stuff.” Only when the net amount of “stuff” remains constant is the universe sustainable.

          It’s worth noting that magic in all its forms boils down to a violation of conservation. Wave a magic wand and mumble some fake Latin and your friend’s glasses are repaired. Furrow your brow and hold your hand up and your space fighter lifts out of the swamp. Raise your hands like an orchestra conductor and anything metallic dances for you. In every case the output is vastly amplified over the input, and there’s nothing being added along the way to make up the difference.



          • Posted July 22, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

            Historically it is also important, as at least by Epicurus (or maybe, Lucretius) we have the naturalistically inclined stating basic conservation principles.

            As for the thread subject, the formation of certain social groups and cultural patterns are often held to be divine in origin; now we have social sciences to help with that and show how they arise from predecessors and so forth.

  29. Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink


  30. Posted July 19, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    What hasn’t been misunderstood by religion? No matter how long a list anybody could compile, it would only be a tiny fraction of what religion has gotten wrong at some point in our history. The reasons given for the necessity of a god have simply grown more sophisticated, now that they can’t claim lightning bolts are thrown by an angry god. Now it’s all about genetic “language” and “information,” and complexity of the cell. But whatever you do, please don’t leave out the tides. “The tides come in, they go out – YOU CAN’T EXPLAIN THAT!”

  31. Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    Having a kid with Down syndrome was once thought as punishment.

  32. Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Jerry, I presume you’re aware of William Paley’s “Natural Theology”, which is stuffed full of such arguments (including making a big issue of the eye, which then led to Darwin choosing the eye as a main example in OofS)?


  33. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    The homunculus! I can’t believe I forgot the homunculi! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homunculus

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      I guess that’s not really god of the gap-y though. Neither is humors.

  34. Daniel Engblom
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I’m going to say the obvious one which Jerry probably already has on his list: Alfred Russell Wallace when it came to human evolution and intelligence.

  35. Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Seasonal change might be a good one, as many ancient and primitive cultures believed it necessary to propitiate the gods with animal and human sacrifice.

  36. moarscienceplz
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Henry VIII argued that the fact that his first wife only bore him a daughter was proof that god was displeased with their marriage due to the fact that she was his older brother’s widow. Thus, that marriage should be annulled and he should be allowed to marry Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately for him, almost nobody bought this idea.

    • bonetired
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      And to show how small the world is now, I am sitting less than 1K from where Prince Arthur, Catherine of Aragon’s first husband, is buried.

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      Unfortunately for him?

  37. eric
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    While the eye is Darwin’s most famous example, IIRC he also spent a some part of OOS explaining fig wasps. I think the coevolutionary aspects of the fig and the wasp ‘bespoke design’ to naturalists of his time.

    Come to think of it, coevolved species as a group might yield a whole bunch of examples of ‘observations considered insoluble by scince, therefore god.’

  38. Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    If I understand the question, the key is “considered insoluble by science” – not merely a laundry list of everything religion has gotten wrong… which is essentially nearly everything we now know.

    The question would appear to focus on “science” more narrowly construed, i.e. mostly since Copernicus, but including various methodologies (trust in observation/experiment) preceding that, when they were known to have happened.

    So it might help to focus on the more recent “Goddy” scientists and their writings and talks. Faraday comes to mind. Here, he gets it spot-on:

    The force of the temptation which urges us to seek for such evidence and appearances as are in favour of our desires, and to disregard those which oppose them, is wonderfully great. In this respect we are all, more or less, active promoters of error. In place of practising wholesome self-abnegation, we ever make the wish the father to the thought: we receive as friendly that which agrees with, we resist with dislike that which opposes us; whereas the very reverse is required by every dictate of common sense.

    Royal Institution Lecture On Mental Education (6 May 1854), as reprinted in Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics, by Michael Faraday, 1859, pp 474-475. (pulled from the wiki, needs verification of course)

    …and of course, here, he goes off the rails:

    Yet even in earthly matters I believe that “the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, and I have never seen anything incompatible between those things of man which can be known by the spirit of man which is within him, and those higher things concerning his future, which he cannot know by that spirit.

    Jones, B. 1870. The Life and Letters of Faraday: Volume II. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 325-326. But be sure to check this ref, as it came from the Institution on Creation Research website.

    The distinction is subtle, since Faraday concerned himself with what we now consider to be classical physics and chemistry. But such thinking would clearly have hobbled him in the newer physical sciences including cosmology, neuroscience, and modern understandings of ecology, psychology, sociology, anthropology… it is also very telling that the two statements conflict, as the second is a clear demonstration of Faraday falling for the same problem he outlined in the first, considered in the light of modern physics (esp. the Higgs, as Torbjorn points out frequently)

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Essentially, when one considers observational science to be a process of discovering some kind of road map or code handed to you by some deity, it precludes a proper understanding of stochastic processes – true randomness, and how this background of randomness gives pattern, structure and form to everything we can observe. One is left either looking for underlying “order” behind everything, as if a deity is some kind of physical traffic cop, or one might have to take it a step further and congratulate the deity for so cleverly creating randomness to begin with.

      It’s an infinite regress of stupid, which consigns quantum fluctuations, potentially the big bang, and even better understandings of social forces behind disease transmission — to perpetual obscurity.

      Another good resource: “Descartes Error”. – which muddles our thinking on the nature of consciouness to this day. I still shudder to think of his live animal vivisection experiments, carried out with a clear conscience, because of this stupid error.

      • Marella
        Posted July 20, 2013 at 3:04 am | Permalink

        Which causes me to think of the invention of the maths necessary to explain probability. Gamblers are notoriously superstitious, but one of them decided to forgo gods and look into the maths to explain his luck, or lack of it. In 1550, Geronimo Cardano wrote a book called Liber de Ludo Aleae which means A Book on Games of Chance (David, 1962).

  39. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    The evolution of the bacterial flagellum?

  40. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    The big one from my field (disregarding the juicy, example-full fields of palaeontology), would be the century or so of interplay between geology’s need for long periods of time to build and erode mountain chains (the “rock cycle”, first clearly enunciated in Hutton’s 1796-ish dictum of seeing “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end”), against the physicist’s inability to provide enough time for it to happen in. Originally, Hutton’s saying betrayed an absence of appreciation of thermodynamics, energy and temperature questons. But as physicists became clearer and more quantitative about such matters, for the best part of a century, things didn’t add up. It was only with the discovery of radioactivity and then isotopic dating that things started to form a coherent whole. To me, this is an excellent example of the iterative and probably asymptotic approach of the scientific method to “truth”.

  41. Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    A more recently disproved example might be the theory of maternal impression. The idea wasn’t completely abandoned until the advent of modern genetics.

    From Wikipedia:

    For example, it was sometimes supposed that the mother of the Elephant Man was frightened by an elephant during her pregnancy, thus “imprinting” the memory of the elephant onto the gestating fetus.


    (Just to be on the safe side, though, it might be a good idea for expectant mothers to avoid watching The 700 Club.)

  42. Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Probability theory. Before, if you rolled a certain number, drew a certain card, etc., the God’s wanted that outcome to happen. There was no randomness, it was all according to God’s plan.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      Numerology may be another. Sorta like this one but around all sorts of things like healing etc. some related to the gods.

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      But God is so clever and all-powerful, that He (God has a dick, by the way) was able to make everything appear to be truly random, while still getting what He wanted in the end. (see my comment above). Or giving us what he wants to (in our ends). Either way, it’s checkmate, you atheist scum.

      • Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        I wonder what non-Mormon theists think he does with it.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

        Checkmate? More like snake eyes.

        • Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

          Many snakes have absolutely gorgeous eyes.


    • Mattapult
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      There are plenty of stories the Bible, where the characters cast lots to make an important decision based on God’s will. I guess that counts as “another way of knowing.” Or they cast lots to determine who God was angry at, such as Jonah.

  43. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Oh, another “formerly insoluble” problem would of course be predicting the weather. We’ve understood the basic physics (gas laws ; latent heat of evaporation and condensation ; pressure differences leaing to mass movement of fluids), but as we’ve approached the problem incrementally, we keep on finding new wrinkles (e.g., cyclonic systems, discovered in the 1860s from observations on Ben Nevis ; or the need for condensation nuclei (not sure of the date, but James “Gas Chromatograper par excellence” Lovelock was working on the sources of conensation nuclei in the early 1960s when he discovered natural methylene sulphide (IIRC), which lead him on a road landing at Gaia). And with those neew wrinkles, we find ever more complexity in a situation whose essential physics we unerstand the components of, if not how they actually fit together.
    Annother big one, of complexity, is “consciousness” ; but we’ve got a better grasp on “weather” than we have on “consciousness”.

  44. ed.betty burns
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    One topic that is true but makes me feel bad, after all our society has done to “native American Indians,” is to wipe out their religious belief about “origins” that they, “the people,” came up out of the earth or some variation of that theme. When our scientists provide genetic data, from nuclear DNA or mitochondrial DNA, showing how populations traveled across the Bering Land mass or via boats to spread along the western shores all the way to the tip of south America. And it these populations that spread into America not from mother earth. The look on their faces when scientists were explaining the genetic pathways was devastating. I don’t know if this fits your story. I love your web-site. Thanks,

    Ed Burns

    Date: Fri, 19 Jul 2013 16:49:00 +0000 To: ed_betty_burns@hotmail.com

    • gbjames
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      Why is it more sad for Native Americans to confront reality than for anyone else? And why are the scientists “our” scientists?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      I know natives that still refuse to believe it; they are as bad as creationists.

  45. johnpieret
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Two examples from Darwin’s time which, though the proponents were not making a god of the gaps arguments themselves, were certainly used by creationists against Darwin:

    Lord Kelvin’s eztimates of the age of the Earth as being 20 million years or less (done in by Curie) and Fleeming Jenkin’s argument that (assuming “blending heredity” as most people of the time, including Darwin, did) that any any new variation would be swamped by the greater numbers of the old version (done in by the rediscovery of Mendel’s work).

  46. Rikki_Tikki_Taalik
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    The angular momentum of the Sun. CreationWiki link here.

    I think the TalkOrigins response could use an update. As I understand it, now that we have a better estimate of the amount of material in the solar system that is creating drag on the Sun’s magnetic field (dust, asteroids, etc.) there really isn’t any discrepancy. CreationWiki only takes into account the planets.

    The physics analogy is that of a figure skater with a heavy skirt. Creationists are looking at the solar system as if a skirtless figure skater has her arms folded up tight to her chest and sides, creating a fast spin. Which of course “can’t be explained”.

    If fact, her arms are hanging out and she’s got a really heavy skirt creating the drag that has slowed her down.

    • Rikki_Tikki_Taalik
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, I’ve been screwing up hyperlinks lately …

      CreationWiki link.

      TalkOrigins response.

      • Rikki_Tikki_Taalik
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        I also wasn’t very clear but the links are. When I said …

        “Creationists are looking at the solar system as if a skirtless figure skater has her arms folded up tight to her chest and sides, creating a fast spin.”

        They are claiming the skater should be spinning faster but they are ignoring her skirt at this point.

        Therefore the Big “J”.

  47. JimV
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I think that all of the “irreducibly complex” (and hence inexplicable by the ToE) examples that Behe proposed have since been shown to have precursors (including the mouse trap).

    Whale fossil precursors is a classic example. (“How could a land animal evolve into a whale?” was considered a poser within my lifetime.)

    I like this one: Aquinas’s assumption that everything that happens has a cause (hence the universe, hence God). Not so much, according to Quantum Field Theory. (I would have said Quantum Mechanics, if not for today’s xkcd cartoon.)

    If you go back far enough, everything (rain, fire, crop growth, wine fermentation, …) was explained as the action of some god.

    “The problem of consciousness” is still a current one. (Well, I guess all of them tend to persist whether or not they have been dealt with.)

    • Thomas
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 6:45 am | Permalink

      The problem of consciousness and in particular the problem of intentionality – see Edward Feser.

  48. Posted July 19, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Wow! Am I ever late to the party!!

    I was going to write you a direct e-mail regarding this subject, but since it is out there as a “post”, I will transmit my information herein:

    I have been reading (for the second or third time) one of Joseph Martin McCabe’s books:

    “The Forgery of the Old Testament”

    Joseph McCabe (1867-1955) wrote many many tracts describing religion v. science, and you would do well to delve into his texts before writing your own. They are available through Prometheus Books.

    McCabe entered the Franciscan seminary at age 16, and at age 23 (as Father Anthony) was appointed to teach philosophy. As a young priest he began to increasingly doubt, and finally rejected both Catholicism and belief in the supernatural (God, etc) and the authenticity of Jesus (fabricated) and words ascribed to Jesus (all originated centuries later).

    In fact I was going to send you a passage from the-above book where he claims to have debated seven different clergy re science v. religion, and all clergy were swept back in defeat. You could dismiss other invitations to debate by citing McCabe and claiming, “Already debated about ninety years ago. No new religious information, so not worth rehashing.”

    Now, from McCabe, an item once believed to be divinely intervened, but proved to be a matter of science: women lactating after giving birth. Why else would a woman suddenly begin to issue milk, just exactly when it was needed for feeding her child? God knew when it was needed. McCabe goes on to explain that an enzyme was isolated that caused lactation, and could be injected and cause lactation without being pregnant.

    Apart from McCabe, I saw a quote (I will find later) ascribing all the forms of memory to the supernatural realm, and even in the 19th century was considered outside of science, and a matter of religion and metaphysics.

    Another matter which seems “magic” and “supernatural” is the dissolution of salt in water. It becomes invisible, yet, you can taste it. And, if the water evaporates away, the salt reappears!! Magic! Or, supernatural, in the least sense. How can something become invisible, then visible?

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

      Great first example. As for the second, I think the Koran has an explanation in that salt water and fresh water do not mix.

      Or something like that… I haven’t thought it completely through yet.

      • Posted July 19, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

        But when you have salt crystals, and you put them in water (salty, or fresh) the crystals (if not too many) disappear. They dissolve.

        Why? Why does that happen?

        And if you boil that salty water until all the water evaporates, you have salt crystals … a solid, in the container. How does that happen?

        • Posted July 19, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

          They never dissolved in the first place. Satan wants you to think they dissolved, to shake your faith in the veracity of the Quran.

          Or if you are less literal minded, of course they mix… you can see the shit right in front of your eyes. And the Quran was talking about how rivers stayed sweet while oceans remained brackish, and this is all fine and good, according to the wonders of the way perfect Allah orders reality around.

          Either way, the good book is right, RIGHT? (eyeing you suspiciously, and sharpening the scimitar)

        • Posted July 22, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

          It is interesting to note that this problem was explored naturalistically in antiquity by many of the great schools of natural philosophy. Eric Lewis (McGill) and others have done some work on these “ancient theories of mixture”.

  49. M Janello
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    The fact that bananas are so handy. They have a nice skin to protect them, they fit right in your hand, they open easily.

    Seriously, you can’t explain that.

    (Just in case you haven’t heard this, creationist Ray Comfort used this banana argument as irrefutable evidence of God. Stop laughing. He actually used the phrase “pointed tip for ease of entry” as part of his proof.)

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Explains cucumbers, too. The wax on the outside that God so nimbly provided really helps in that regard.

  50. frank43
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Violent, impulsive behavior due to the effects of environmental lead exposure in early childhood, rather than to the devil, or some deficiency of “moral reasoning.”


  51. Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    1. The cause of epilepsy: “Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.” Hippocrates of Kos, ca. 400 BC.

    2.Crop failure and livestock illness: “Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.” Carl Sagan, 1996.

  52. Dave
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    The shower curtain effect. Still a mystery? Don’t know what gawd has to do with it but if you can’t ‘splain it, it’s gawd.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

      Venturi effect. Or is it the Bernoulli effect? One of those Italian gents causes it.

  53. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    If I start out close to WEIT topics, I am impressed with the prediction of species geographical locations (their close appearance, especially on islands). But I don’t think it was ever offered as divine intercession (DI).

    Something similar happened with the problem of Earth’s core heat, I’m sure. The problem is solved, it is compatible with evolution et cetera, but I wonder if it was offered as DI.

    Also the heat source of the Sun has been explained. Even if abrahamistic religions never bothered with it (or did they?), sun “god” religions did.

    But from my own home turf, I would offer the predictions of major physical laws that Noether did in her two theorems.

    They don’t predict _all_ laws, but:
    1 – symmetries and symmetry breaking vs preserved charges (aka constant laws)
    2 – action principles

    And not only that:
    – 1 goes into the vacuum, so except for the huge finetunings (more laws, perhaps) it predicts the quantum fields we see today. E.g. it predicts, through quantum field theory, what fundamental forces are. Say, EM forces up to and including magnetism.

    – 2 goes into the quantum void, so except for the quantum laws it predicts how fluctuations can result in universes. Hawking’s no-boundary scenarios for that was perhaps a major reason why the catholic church backed off from that their magical agency _must_ have made the universe! I don’t know the history, maybe they backed off earlier.

    More arguably, where not all or even few would agree, from the last year:

    – The confirmation of a flat universe says it happened mostly or entirely spontaneously. To put a wedge into that gap is like saying that a bug softened a car collision!

    – The completion of the standard model which a Higgs field makes, never mind if it is by a standard Higgs which we won’t know entirely before ~ 2020, means biochemistry is protected. That is, the brain and its operation must be entirely chemical, and it can’t communicate its state.*

    Hence, arguably, a whole swat of magic falls, often those offered as DI: souls, life after death, rebirth, prayers, et cetera.

    – Abiogenesis must follow, if we accept Lane’s & Martin’s suggestion that early chemoautotroph metabolism (methanogens, acetogens) is “homologous” with pH-modulation of the chemistry of alkaline hydrothermal vents. I take it that usually a phylogeny is enough, the fine print doesn’t matter if you have it.

    If same chemistry can be considered for a trait-based phylogenic comparison, I would then also add the potential “homology” of cell’s CHNOPS usage vs the most frequent chemically active elements. Or maybe I misunderstood L&M.

    * I had reason to check this earlier this week. A simple estimate show it works out:

    – The correspondence between particles and heat (work) is Boltzmann’s constant of ~ 10^-23 J/K or an energy of ~ 10^-21 J at room temperature. Any way to extract work needs more, so let us put in 10 kT or ~ 10^-20 J for a round figure. (As we will see, it won’t matter for the result.)

    – A human brain is estimated to contain ~ 10^11 neurons, with an average of ~ 7 000 connections. This is why children has an estimated ~ 10^15 connections, while an adult brain has pared them down to ~ 10^14. [Wikipedia]

    Say that the minimum state information needed to update a “soul” is a binary bit of signal/no signal. Moreover, say that the update frequency is a minimum 10 Hz. (I think a neuron can recuperate much faster, but we want to under-estimate.) Then a “soul” would need ~ 10*10^14*10^-21 J/s or ~ 10 uW.

    – The LHC result says, through the standard model with a Higgs field capability to predict EM parameters, that any non-standard interaction affecting chemistry needs to be less than 10^-11 times the chemical power. And the particle physicist’s vacuum is such that (by Noether, I think) it must expressly suppress unwanted interactions, everything that can happen will happen, every interaction that isn’t forbidden (suppressed) will happen.

    A human brain works at ~ 100 W, so a “soul” must drain less than 10^-9 W or ~ 1 nW as it gets its information out of the particle physicist’s vacuum. Or its workings, as part of the quantum field vacuum, would have been seen at the LHC.

    But 10 uW = 10^4 nW >> 1 nW!

    There is no way a “soul” can be at work.

    As for “prayer” magic, the brain is constantly engaging various parts. So I think that a similar analysis works for a “prayer transmitter”.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink


      – We want an average (or maximum) 10 Hz update frequency.

      – ~ 10*10^14*10^-20 J/s or ~ 10 uW.

      The point is that such a low missing energy is hard to measure in the existing system. But the new physics makes that difficulty mote.

    • Peter Ozzie Jones
      Posted July 21, 2013 at 3:23 am | Permalink

      According to this piece at the UK Guardian newspaper in Feb 2012, there are only about 86 billion neurones in the human brain:


      Not that it spoils your point of course!

      Any idea where that 100 billion myth started?

      • Posted July 21, 2013 at 3:46 am | Permalink

        Read the comments.


        • Peter Ozzie Jones
          Posted July 21, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

          Ah, hadn’t thought of that ;).

          I was really after what source Torbjörn had as I’ve seen both Prof Dawkins and Prof Pinker quote that 100B without a source.

      • Posted July 21, 2013 at 3:49 am | Permalink

        Oh, and this isn’t really news as Wikipedia states 85 billion citing a 2009 paper.


        • Peter Ozzie Jones
          Posted July 21, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

          I used the Guardian ref as it is accessible, in there it is in fact about that 2009 work. I wasn’t claiming it was news, just that someone has actually done the counting.

          • Posted July 21, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

            Ah, my fault for not reading the article carefully enough, then… 😉


  54. Jim Norman
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    I think there are two flavors of God-of-the-Gaps: the traditional argument from ignorance, and the attempt to apply a pathway to God through scientific non sequitur.

    A caller into the Atheist Experience this week claimed that the two slit experiment indicates particle awareness, and (by some undisclosed method) therefore God. Evidently, God gets credit for both the unexplained and the weird.

    We have hoped, and continue to hope, that GotG will abate as its failures accumulate. But I’m afraid type II GotG arguments will likely rise as science presents further esoteric and seemingly paradoxical explanations of nature.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Maybe the magic thinkers will spout as much inanities as before. We lack statistics.

      But we can observe from your very anecdote that this time they have to use ignorance of already known physics. Entanglement is, when you get down to it, just superposition of wave functions. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_entanglement ]

      If wave functions, who are linear, didn’t superposition, it would be be very mysterious! *Waves hands*, *looks at water waves*.

      No, really, if you can describe it by math, is it “awareness”? It sounds like, oh horror, _scientism_!

  55. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Who wrote the Book of Love?
    Who put the Bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp?

    • Dave
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      Casanova or one of those Italian gents. PS, I don’t think Bernoulli would qualify as Italian.

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

      What about…. flowers?

  56. RGBowman
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a few: Position of the stars/astrology, comets, meteors, eclipses. Fossils of marine animals in the rocks of hills and mountains. Disease/epidemics, mental illness (demonic possession=Trepanning), the age of man and earth, prehistoric weapons, storms/thunder/lightning, earthquakes/volcanoes/mountains, saltwater/freshwater, Ethnicity, Language.

  57. Charles Sullivan
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Here are links to two sites with lists. You’ll definitely want to double check these if you use them.



  58. George Rumens
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Another big one, of complexity, is “consciousness” ; but we’ve got a better grasp on “weather” than we have on “consciousness”. …

    Ah, but I have solved the problem of consciousness. (Maybe!) And it sounds at first sight, highly improbable. The problem for us all is the common assumption of the homogeneity of humankind. Humans are NOT all the same, and differ enormously by group belief and behaviour, rather like differences within the social insects and social animals. You should all know this.
    The differences between Sub-Sets of humans are in the form of differing forms of consciousness. Just as a computer can run on MS Dos, Apple, Linux, etc., so the human brain can be programmed at adolescence by one of several Brain Operating Systems (BOS). The most obvious evolved BOS is the one enjoyed by a certain class of people roughly in the ‘Cleric-Admin-Professional-Educational’ group who tend to live and work within hierarchies of authority. I call them ‘Drones’ because for most within that group, all knowledge comes from authority. A significant Sub-Set within the Drones are religious people. Drones exhibit certain characteristics (I should mention that I have a ‘Worker’ consciousness) Drones believe that they may best self-actualise by finding their place within a real or imaginary authority-structure. They believe that they must show overdue regard for those above them in the hierarchy and never to question authority. This throws-up a serious conflict when external reality fails to match the authority view. (The holy books clash with reality) Much of a school education clashes with reality, which is why most of what is taught in education has a half-life of about fifty years. You never see a teacher say to his class, “Much of what was taught in this classroom as fact a hundred years ago will now self-destruct’, but that is what happens. ‘Drones’ are able to avoid the conflict between the beliefs of authority, and the intrusions of reality by dropping the ability to ‘process experiential information’. It is what we see as deliberate stupidity among religious people who cannot see nor understand the scientific reality of our world. They have deliberately abandoned any ability to process experiential information. SEE WEIT passim.
    So, what is ‘consciousness’ as far as Drones are concerned? It starts with a foundational base of subconscious precepts. Perhaps the ‘Personal Laws of Reality’ Those precepts may sound crackpot to the rest of us, but they are the beginning of self-actualisation for Drones. The boot-up their brains upon dodgy assumptions. They use LOGIC, (yes, religion a position of logical possibility, based upon ludicrous assumptions) –They use logic to rationalise external reality with their core foundational beliefs.
    I wrote-out “‘Human Sub-Set Theory” and it ran to 1800 pages because it seemed to explain so much about the dodgy History of Ideas whereby for most of human history, most of humanity have lived embroiled in crackpot beliefs. I get the usual loons telling me that it is all pseudoscience (meaning that it is above their heads) New ideas provoke considerable anger among Drones… teachers and the like. I have no emotional attachment to Human Sub-Set Theory. It just seems to explain so much of what is opaque in the social world. In a sentence, Human Sub-Set Theory proposes that different and significant social groups may have different forms of consciousness. Doesn’t that explain religion? Maybe?

  59. gbjames
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    The more I consider the question, the more I find the answer to be “Anything for which science has provided an explanation.”

    • Christopher
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I think that’s it exactly! Before the wheels of science started turning, everything (all answers) was the province of god(s). And since then, they (religions) have had to concede more and more and more.

      As AC Grayling once said, God was a person walking through a garden once. Then he was at the top of a mountain. Then he was in the sky. Then he was in the universe. Now he is outside of time and space. Science has pushed him farther and farther away…

    • Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      That was my first thought, but science has gone far beyond explaining most of the things that “God” “explained”.


  60. Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on karaskonjectures.

  61. Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    For some very old examples of things that were deemed insoluble in Biblical times, look at the list that YHWH uses to harangue Job at the end of The Book of Job (chapters 38 and 39, depicted here: http://www.thebricktestament.com/job/god_refuses_to_explain_his_cruelty/jb38_01-03.html ). These things are invoked as examples of what else humanity simply cannot understand, answering Job’s question of why he should not be allowed to understand why he (and, by extension, everyone) has to suffer as part of the divine plan. What’s remarkable is how many of them are no longer mysterious or impossible feats.

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

      Actually, everything on that list is either answered, easily doable, or reflects an incoherent misunderstanding of reality.

      If that’s all that it takes to demonstrate one’s superiority to YHWH, then humans left him in the dust at least a century ago.


    • Posted July 21, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Very interesting, Brett! Thanks for sharing.

  62. Posted July 19, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    What do women want????

  63. cchung90
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I think this aspect of science is very important–whenever we try to put limits on science, it ends up surprising us and breaking through the limits. It may be that there are areas of which science cannot speak, but prudence suggests that we conduct science as if there aren’t any, because the reach of science always surprises us.

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      If you think of science in suitable terms — the apportioning of belief in proportion to a rational analysis of all available empirically-observed evidence — then it becomes obvious that the only way we’ll ever actually know anything is scientifically. Anything that isn’t knowable through science simply isn’t knowable, period — no matter what shamans and hucksters main claim to the contrary.



      • cchung90
        Posted July 19, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

        But I think there is something about science that is also a public endeavor, with critique, defense, rationale, methodology, replication, dissemination, etc.

        And while science relies on rationality, it doesn’t necessarily mean that rationality is limited by what science tells us. For example, in the realm of social interactions we come to hold a number of beliefs (sometimes rational, sometimes not) that don’t have sufficient empirical evidence–yet we don’t withhold belief.

        Thus, I agree that beliefs contradictory to science must give way, and that science is the best way to construct correct beliefs, but I wouldn’t a priori limit beliefs to those generated by the scientific method. I would tend to agree more with your statement about knowability if you replaced ‘science’ with ‘rational reasoning’…

        • Posted July 19, 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

          For example, in the realm of social interactions we come to hold a number of beliefs (sometimes rational, sometimes not) that don’t have sufficient empirical evidence–yet we don’t withhold belief.

          In science, all beliefs are provisional. It’s just that some error bars aren’t as wide as others.

          In those cases where evidence is sketchy, your beliefs should be accordingly sketchy. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have beliefs, or that you shouldn’t make the best guesses you can based on what evidence you have. But it does mean that you should acknowledge that you’re acting on sketchy evidence and moderate your actions accordingly — and be fully prepared to update your beliefs and plans as new evidence (which you should be actively seeking) comes in.


          • cchung90
            Posted July 19, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

            Agreed. Except maybe the part about the imperative to actively seek new evidence, I think that depends on the importance of the belief & the effort to obtain new info…if I suspect my brother’s casual acquaintance thinks I’m a loser, I might not want to take the trouble to confirm this…

          • Posted July 20, 2013 at 11:48 am | Permalink

            « And then I say it would be astonishing to me if there weren’t extraterrestrial intelligence, but of course there is as yet no compelling evidence for it. And then I’m asked, “Yeah, but what do you really think?” I say, “I just told you what I really think.” “Yeah, but what’s your gut feeling?” But I try not to think with my gut. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in. » — Carl Sagan, “The Burden of Skepticism”, Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 12, Fall 1987


  64. Chaos Engineer
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Aristophanes’ play Clouds touches on this question.

    Here’s the first part of a scene about the nature of storms:

    Zeus! what Zeus! Are you mad? There is no Zeus.

    What are you saying now? Who causes the rain to fall? Answer me that!

    Why, [clouds], and I will prove it. Have you ever seen it raining without clouds? Let Zeus then cause rain with a clear sky and without their presence!

    By Apollo! that is powerfully argued! For my own part, I always thought it was Zeus pissing into a sieve. But tell me, who is it makes the thunder, which I so much dread?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 19, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      Gotta love Aristophanes!

  65. DrBrydon
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Look at Andrew White’s A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom.

  66. Nilou Ataie
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Some other primates see God-in-the-gaps when lightening and thunder strike, so maybe that was a G-in-the-g front-liner.

    The foreskin-in-the-rings argument (see comment 8) wins for most creative.

    • Posted July 19, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      The Saturnian Prepuce Theory, though, does give a quite different meaning to the concept of a god of the Gap.



      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

        Wow. Mind duly blown.

        Not only is Gaad one w/ Jeebiz (and Wholly Casper), but Jeebiz was his own Mohel at his own bris. And the size of the Cassini division can be used to estimate how big Gaad actually is, since He made us in His image, and we have excellent records on average human dentition, esp. where it concerns spaces between the incisors. It’s a simple scaling problem.

        …assuming Gaad never wore braces, which should be a pretty safe assumption.

        Science is soooo cool.

  67. Bruce
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Two points:

    (1) Lord Kelvin said there was no time for evolution to have happened because he calculated the sun couldn’t be that old. He was assuming thermochemical reaction, because he didn’t know about radioactive fusion.

    (2) The oldest goof in the bible is where light comes from. Since everyone “knows” that light goes in a straight line, that means it should be 100% dark before sunrise and after sunset, instantly, any time you can’t see the sun directly. Therefore, there “has to be” an independent source of light, other than the sun and the moon. Checkmate atheists, as Edward Current would say. This is why the bible speaks of light in Genesis before it speaks of the creation of the sun. It would almost be logical if there were no such thing as atmospheric diffusion of light, as the astronauts experienced on the moon.

    • Posted July 21, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      Hey Bruce, I’ve been trying for while to find out more info about that “other” light to which the Bible alludes when it says, “Let there be light.” Do you know anything more? I’ve been curious whether the idea of a light source distinct from the sun was common in the Near East, and, if so, where I could find more info about this belief. Any leads would be helpful. Thanks!

  68. Bruce
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Also, some ancient religions thought that there had been a global flood, as described in the Epic of Gligamesh, and in other myths.
    Science has disproved this a million times by simply looking in the earth, and not seeing that. But the hypothesis has also been independently disproved, simply by noting that there is no discontinuity nor any mention of such an event in the continuous records of Egypt’s sixth dynasty, when god supposedly killed all plant life other than Noah.

    • Mattapult
      Posted July 20, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      There was a recent research paper explaining how a major flood could have occurred that would have put hundreds of feet of water in that area. That’s about the biggest flood we can justify, but nowhere near the Biblical flood to destroy all men. Of course Christians are still looking for Noah’s Ark at the TOP of Mt Ararat.

      • Posted July 20, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

        I think those efforts to find “the” “real” “historical” ancient flood are waaaaay overthinking things.

        Floods are not at all uncommon. Some floods are bigger than others, some dramatically so. And large bodies of water are also everywhere.

        It takes practically no imagination whatsoever to put that together and think up a story about a really big flood that turns all the land everywhere into sea.

        And why should this one myth be so special? Why not also search for the remains of the Tower of Babel, or for the species of fish that swallowed Jonah, or the footprints of the Israelites as they walked across the dry bottom of the Red Sea? Why not search for all the people Midas turned to gold, or Vulcan’s Forge, or the halls of Olympus or the rubble of Asgard?

        The reason is that Christian superstition places special importance on the Noahic Flood, and that importance has permeated into the rest of our culture. Take that out of the equation and you’re left with just another primitive faery tale.


        • Mattapult
          Posted July 20, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

          I’m with you.

          I think the relevance though is that it bounds how large a flood can be, how often to expect such a flood, and the natural conditions necessary to create a gigantic flood.

          And even with the extreme conditions required for such a gigantic flood, Christians are looking an order of magnitude beyond to justify their myths. I just like pointing out their silliness.

  69. Richard Thomas
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    1. Maybe this isn’t exactly a gaps occasion, but even Isaac Newton was not a complete advocate of a clockwork universe and thought that God would have to periodically (or eventually) make adjustments to the planetary system, because instabilities would accumulate (see Wikipedia article on Newton under Religious Views). (I guess instabilities will indeed accumulate, but no hope of God setting them aright, I gather.)
    2. Spontaneous generation of critters from rotting mean, straw, etc. I’m not sure if this was generally attributed to God (maybe Old Scratch)

  70. drew
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    Forgive if this was mentioned before.

    Decides that the Earth must be the center of everything, but can’t figure out the orbits of planets comes up with the Epicycle ideas that don’t work particularly great. Says in a marginal note:

    I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemoral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies I no longer touch the earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.”

    Newton figures out gravity, can account for motion of two body systems but can’t account for stability of the entire solar systems, says in the Principia:

    “the six primary planets, are revolved about the sun in circles concentric with the sun, and with motions directed toward the same parts in the same plane, but it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give earth to so many regular motions. This most beautiful system of the sun planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of a powerful and intelligent being.”

    And this culminates with LaPlace in 1799 talking to Napoleon after coming up with perturbation theory (thereby solving the problem of greater than two body systems) upon being asked where is the place for God in his theory says the famous:

    “Sir, I had no need for that hypothesis”

  71. elsburymk14
    Posted July 19, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    I can’t wait to read this book. Sorry, have to say it…

  72. Posted July 20, 2013 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    It may be you were thinking of Sagan’s “Candle in the Darkness” which, I think, has a bit of cataloging of various gaps arguments. I could not find it at the moment, though.

    Stenger compiled a few in “God and the Folly of Faith” though. in addition to the planets & the eye though he writes about:

    a) big bang theology in light of conservation of mass (creation ex nihilo), apparent violation of energy conservation/first law of therm seems to be implied, 2nd law of thermo implying something did the ordering in the distant past, and even the mere existence of a “big bang” which spurred Pius XII to declare “Creation took place in time, therefore there is a creator, therefore God exists.” The priest Lamaitre, who proposed the idea initially, advised the Pope not to make this idea “infallible”.

    b) fine-tuning of the cosmological constant and other parameters.

    c) the inability at present to come up with a “theory of everything” … emergent principles presumably giving rise to phenomena greater than the bits that make them up. A discussion of self-organization & strong emergence follows.

    d) abiogenesis – a discussion highlighting that the only thing needed is a plausible assumption to defeat Gawd O’ gaps there… and that we now have plausibility via work compiled by Albrecht Moritz in the Talk Origins archive, and also summarized in the Sept 2009 Sci Am by Ricardo & Szostak

    e) considerations of the existence of justice & morality (or lack thereof on Earth) as some kind of proof of come-uppances in the afterlife. D’Souza claiming morality itself violates the “laws of evolution”, ergo Gawd — getting shot down by simple studies of religious belief vs moral behavior in multiple studies.

    f) supposed dualism demonstrated by NDEs, transcendent experiences countered by simple observations like anaesthesia & transcranial magnetic stimulation (Stenger doesn’t mention Gage’s iron tamping bar through the head, though he could have here). In other words, physical interventions clearly acting upon human behavior attributed to immortal souls.

    g) consciousness itself unraveling under srutiny (Libet in the 80s, Stanislas Dehaene more recently modeling neural architecture and working under the “consciousness access hypothesis” presented within “global workspace theory”). Ongoing stuff this… but an indication that such work would not even begin under the God hypothesis.

    This book and Stenger’s “God: the failed hypothesis” beats up on many GoTG arguments in fairly short order.

  73. Mattapult
    Posted July 20, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    In the book The Disappearing Spoon, Sam Kean has a good section on iodine deficiency: health effects, religious-based resistance to iodized salt, and how it lead Bertrand Russell to conclude “The energy used in thinking has a chemical origin…” The relevant section is the very end of Part III. HTH.

    When your publisher is ready to ship the book, I’m ready to read it!

  74. Tony
    Posted July 21, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    My favourite:
    “A poor prediction about the possibilities of science was made in 1835 by the prominent French philosopher Auguste Comte. In his Cours de la Philosophie Positive he wrote:

    On the subject of stars, all investigations which are not ultimately reducible to simple visual observations are … necessarily denied to us. While we can conceive of the possibility of determining their shapes, their sizes, and their motions, we shall never be able by any means to study their chemical composition or their mineralogical structure … Our knowledge concerning their gaseous envelopes is necessarily limited to their existence, size … and refractive power, we shall not at all be able to determine their chemical composition or even their density… I regard any notion concerning the true mean temperature of the various stars as forever denied to us.

    14 years later, the physicist Gustav Kirchhoff discovered that the chemical composition of a gas could be deduced from the spectrum of its light. This method was later extended to astronomical bodies by astronomers using spectrographs attached to telescopes.”

  75. George Rumens
    Posted July 22, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    An earlier letter provided a link to Rational wiki’s entry on God of the Gaps, and soon to this strange statement…
    “The human brain appears to be hardwired to find causes for any “effect” experienced in the world, from eery sounds, to scary thunder, to terrifying shaking ground, and deadly diseases”
    (Note the spelling mistake: ‘eery’ for ‘eerie’)

    Most of the readers to these pages spend a portion of their lives fighting religion (thankfully in full retreat here in France), and know of the vast hordes raking-up bogus explanations for real phenomena. The Wiki statement above has little truth to it. Humankind is divided. A few have a genuine interest in uncovering reasons, and for much of the time they must content themselves with ‘nobody knows’, but a sizeable minority, about 30%, approach the problem of knowledge differently. They are the group for whom all knowledge comes from authority, and many of that group are religious. They already have a framework of understanding as part of their consciousness, and it starts with the fundamental belief in an ‘Intentional Universe’. For those 30% any search for reasons must be predicated upon their prior assumption of an Intentional Universe. Not for them disinterested inquiry; for those people the world, its contents and its processes has an immediate and satisfactory given explanation. And the final answer to the more difficult problems is that their gods have their reasons for concealing explanations for such things as Tsunamis and Taco Bell.
    In my experience those with a disinterested approach to explanation amount to fewer than ten per cent of any society anywhere. It might be as low as one per cent! Or lower!!

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