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May 10, 2018

The State of the Gaps

Kuznicki draws a parallel between the “God of the Gaps” fallacy and how some people justify the state.

The God of the Gaps fallacy looks like this:

  1. We don’t know how to explain phenomenon X without God.
  2. Therefore God caused phenomenon X.
  3. Therefore God exists.

In the eighteenth century, the God of the Gaps was a popular argument in the natural sciences. In particular, the seemingly designed features of the living world brought natural scientists to infer that there had to be a Designer who had created it all.

The trouble with this argument is that the gaps keep getting filled in, and it’s always by something other than God: We thought God brought down lightning, but then we learned that lightning was a form of static electricity, and we could take simple, dependable steps to avoid the danger.

We thought that God caused plagues, but then we learned that tiny harmful organisms sometimes live inside us. After that, we could fight these invaders, and we became much healthier.

We thought that God caused life to develop into distinct species, but then Charles Darwin showed that speciation can occur through purely natural mechanisms. Not only that, but speciation of the type Darwin described would leave certain predictable traces, and he and other scientists soon found these traces and documented them.

Once we found this evidence - things like the haphazard construction of the eye, or the weaknesses of the human knees and abdominal walls - we found it difficult to believe that a specific divine intervention could have been so clumsy. Inherited characteristics, occasional random mutations, and constant environmental selection pressures were a better explanation for the data. And all those things certainly existed.

God might still have created us, but if so, His methods appear to have been gradual, natural, and understandable rather than sudden, supernatural, and incomprehensible. Understanding those natural methods has been a boon to humanity. Biology before Darwin was a confusion of speculations. Biology after Darwin has given us better and better health, with an ever greater understanding of how we can live well in, and profit from, the natural world around us.

Yet the God of the Gaps dies hard. Even today, some people declare that abiogenesis - the development of life from nonliving precursors - is simply impossible without divine intervention. But the fact that some people cannot imagine a natural origin for life does not mean that life’s true origin is supernatural. The universe is not so closely tailored to human minds that whatever ideas we happen to hold are always going to yield the full explanation of everything.

Ultimately the God of the Gaps is a pretty sad divinity. He’s always disappointing His followers, and He’s always retreating in the face of what ought to be joyful news for humanity. And if that’s the only God we have to speak of, then maybe we should never speak of Him at all.

From a logical perspective, one problem with the God of the Gaps as an argument is that it seemingly proposes to derive knowledge about a thing from our ignorance about exactly the same thing. But if we cannot explain the origin of a thing, then we cannot explain the origin of that same thing using God, because the conclusion to an argument can’t stand in formal contradiction to any of its premises. We can’t say “I don’t know how this happened” and proceed to say “Therefore I know how this happened.”  If we could somehow erase from our minds the correct explanation for lightning, the ignorance left by this erasure would not be suitable as a foundation for the idea of God, or for any conclusions at all.

Nor can we say that we have tallied up all of the possible explanations for a phenomenon, and that we have ruled them all out - except for God. This approach might be workable if we had only a finite and known set of explanations, and if we could test them all, but this simply isn’t so. For almost any phenomenon, we aren’t even able to imagine all of the possible explanations that might lie behind it. That’s why saying “therefore God did it” appears to be a hasty move. We may have other and better arguments for God’s existence, but this one will not suffice.

The State of the Gaps is a related fallacy. It looks like this:

  1. We don’t know how to achieve desired social goal X without the state.
  2. Therefore the state should achieve desired social goal X.
  3. Therefore the state should exist.

This approach might be workable if we had only a finite and known set of methods for achieving a desired goal, and if we could test them all, but this simply isn’t so. For almost any desired social goal - ending poverty, universal literacy, world peace, you name it - there are many conceivable paths, and we aren’t even able to imagine all of them. Some could be stateless, and voluntary, and perhaps these methods are even better than the use of the state in other ways, too. That’s why saying “therefore the state should do it” appears to be a hasty move. We may have other and better arguments for why the state should exist, but this one will not suffice.

This is a serious problem, because the state itself is on some exceedingly weak ethical footing regardless of the purposes to which we might like to put it. The state always extracts value from individuals in the form of taxation and/or compulsory service, and these extractions certainly appear unjustified in almost any nonstate context. The philosopher Michael Huemer asks us to consider our intuitions about private individuals who rob, kidnap, or murder their neighbors in the service of some good end. He argues that if these actions were undertaken by anyone other than an agent of the state, we would never exonerate them. On the contrary, we would immediately call attention to the fact that the ends don’t justify the means, and we would be quite correct to do so.

Yet many people commonly make the opposite move when they consider the state. That is, many people commonly accept that when the state commits robbery, kidnapping, or murder, the ends do justify the means. If any observers should find the terms “robbery,” “kidnapping,” or “murder” offensive, the defenders of the state will happily alter them: when the state does these things, its defenders will call them “taxation,” “imprisonment,” and “capital punishment.” These actions are regrettable, the state’s defenders may say, but we must differentiate them from robbery, kidnapping, and murder because we do not know how to achieve certain desired goals without them: “Taxes,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., “are what we pay for civilized society.”

But to characterize taxes as a price that we pay already raises some embarrassing questions: Might we buy civilized society elsewhere than the state, and at a lower price than taxation? What if civilized society could be had for free? What if taxes aren’t actually buying civilization at all? How do we know that they are? And aren’t some prices - like participating in unethical behavior - simply too high ever to pay?

Justice Holmes openly committed what I have termed the State of the Gaps fallacy. He did so by admitting that the state’s actions aren’t costless, and by suggesting that we could not do better without them. By putting “civilized society” in the place of the X in the first premise, Holmes made an exceptionally strong State-of-the-Gaps claim, because in doing so he implied that an enormous array of desirable goods could never be had without the state.

I ask readers to challenge this conclusion. As informed consumers, we should ask whether we can find a better deal. And we should mistrust the monopoly that sells us so many different goods and services, confident that it is the only game in town. An armed man’s arguments need not be sound, and often enough, they are worthless.

In the course of intellectual history, the God of the Gaps argument was attacked most credibly not by atheists, but by theologians. Quite understandably they did not wish to describe God as always in retreat, as a weak, makeshift explanation that sensible people would drop whenever a better one came along. This would be a contemptible God indeed, as He would amount to little more than a placeholder to indicate the specific failures of our own intellects.

It is doubtful that we could ever love such a figure, and the same should be said of the state. We should also view the state as a probable placeholder for something more accurate. Use of the state could signal a failure of our imagination, or of our capacity for voluntary social ordering. Or it could indicate that we hold immoderate desires for goals that cannot be had without doing evil. Like the theologians who rejected the God of the Gaps, the defenders of the state should reject the State of the Gaps. They should recognize that this is no proper argument in the defense of their idol.

It should embarrass and even horrify the defenders of the state that they commonly have no better argument than this. They should blush whenever they say that their only path to a desired end is presumptively unethical. They should ask whether they are experiencing what the ancient Greeks termed akrasia, the state of mind in which an appetite wrongly defeats one’s reason. In some cases at least, they should probably reconsider the power that their appetites hold over them.

Not knowing how to attain a desired end without the state does not confer any legitimacy on the use of the state as a method. Rather than a justification, the State of the Gaps is a confession that no justification will be forthcoming, and that we are going to act in an ethically dubious way all the same.

But to those of us who do not worship the state, this argument is more than just a tell that our opponents are up to no good. We can also see it as a research program, and as a mark of the particularly low-hanging fruit in the orchard of voluntary social order. Whenever someone says that they have been resorting to the state, we should identify the problem that they have in mind as precisely and as sympathetically as possible. If it is indeed a problem, then we should find ways to solve it that do not commit us to statism.

Helped by an adequate defense or demonstration, it is possible that more voluntary methods will appeal not only to fastidious libertarians, but to the general public. If such methods are out there, then it is incumbent on us to find them, because it is unlikely that statists will bother to look. We, who are free to read on the slant, may find even in this logical fallacy a blueprint for a free society waiting to be built.

For those who still believe that a state should exist, the implications are not necessarily as dire as all that. After all, there is still conceivably some other argument that may morally justify the existence of the state, say, by justifying at least some of the otherwise morally suspect actions that are inherent to the state in a more direct manner, after which the spoils of these actions can be put to their ordinary purposes. Such arguments would have to conclude that taxation, imprisonment, and death were morally good ends in themselves, at least for certain individuals, regardless of any desired goal to which we hoped they might contribute. To the proponents of such arguments, taxation could not be the price that we pay for civilization, but perhaps it is the other way around: We have a civilization in part so that we may levy taxes on those who deserve them; what happens to the money thereafter is pure profit. We need not consider such arguments here.

What statists should take away, I think, is a greater intellectual modesty about the proper scope of state action. It could be that even on their own terms, certain private methods are preferable in the achievement of their desired goals; and at any rate, we may never exhaust the possibilities that fall into this category. An intellectual openness to things not yet imagined suggests an openness in particular to renouncing the state as a method, at least in some cases, and an admission that for the achievement of desirable and otherwise innocent ends, the state must not be considered the final word.