Is it time to let go of our obsession with the truth?
“The God of the Gaps” might be one of the most poetic concepts in the history of science. Since I heard it from (I think) writer Neil Gaiman, about 2 years ago, it keeps creeping back into my mind. I always knew that I was going to write something about it, and I guess that that day has arrived. (I feel the need to insert some dramatic music here, but will resist the urge.)
So what’s it about? Well, the God of the Gaps illustrates the long lived and complex relationship between religion and science. It’s about the fact that science has frontiers; gaps if you will: things that it cannot yet explain with the current body of knowledge. And, by some, these gaps are taken to be evidence or proof of God’s existence.
Image from Adam Grant on www.adamgrant.net
Things we don’t know
That science has evolved so much over the past centuries, and so fast over the past years does not change the fact that there are many fundamental phenomena that it cannot yet explain:
- The gap between classical physics (how objects behave on a macroscopic level) and quantum physics (how tiny particles — like neutrons, electrons, photons — behave)
- What is the origin of life on earth?
- Why are the largest structures in the universe larger than expected?
- Why does biological aging occur?
- Why does biodiversity increase when going from the poles towards the equator?
- How do consciousness and the brain work? (We know some things, obviously, but far from everything)
- Do dark matter and dark energy really exist and what exactly are they? Just so you know (if you didn’t already), that would mean that we have no real knowledge of about 95% of our current universe.
Same goal, different approach
It is in these exact gaps that religions crawl to fill them with their own dogmatic stories. Take 3 minutes of your time to listen to Neil DeGrasse Tyson brilliantly explain the concept:
Neil DeGrasse Tyson — On God of The Gaps
This God of the Gaps phenomenon is completely logical, because science and religion basically have the same goal, much like mythology and art: to explain how life, the universe and everything works. But unlike religion, science is fluid. It develops. It changes course. And it is not afraid — though sometimes reluctantly — to admit that it was wrong, after a Kuhnian paradigm shift like the Copernican revolution.
Religion knows one truth. (Except for some exceptions like the Hindu belief, which accepts all other faiths and religious paths.) But when it comes to explaining the gaps, science tends to have many.
I believe that you can find this “God of the Gaps” phenomenon, everywhere, not just in religion.
Culture — the God of the Companies
Companies, too, have “Gods”, sacred-like entities that are attributed a lot more power than they actually hold onto themselves. Technology is one example. But the ultimate one is probably Culture, with a big C. Culture is pretty much the equivalent of “dark energy” for organizations: a mysterious force which is supposed to drive success (or failure) as we don’t seem to be able to crack the exact formula for what works (and what doesn’t) in business. If there even is such a thing, of course.
But even though we love to talk about culture, no one can define what it really is, where it comes from and — above all — how you can change it for better performance. The consensus is that it is something that “emerges”: something that makes the whole (the company) bigger than just the sum of its parts (the employees). Consciousness is said to be an emergent property as well. But if you think about it, emergence seems pretty much like the intelligently sounding equivalent of “and then magic happens”. In other words: we don’t know how it works.
In many ways, Culture is the God of the Gaps for companies.
We can pretty accurately pinpoint the origins of our infatuation with company culture, if we can believe Dr. Richard Claydon. In the 1980s and 90s, western companies were absolutely obsessed with the Japanese way of doing business — like Toyota’s — and their perceived strategic advantage: the hard-working and loyal commitment of their employees, which was very different from the individualistic American worker. And after our obsession with strategy — led by the likes of Drucker and Porter — we became convinced that company success was driven by culture. Even if we didn’t completely understand what it was. If you’re interested in that, I recommend this podcast conversation with Claydon.
The power of naming
I’m not trying to be glib here. I’m not saying that company culture is an empty vessel. Quite to the contrary, the act of naming and defining something can be already incredibly powerful. Many of us may have experienced that doing so can change everything. I had severe anxiety attacks when I was young. Just having a doctor name them and realizing that there were books and papers on the subject, and that many others had them too, made me somehow feel a lot less insane and broken than when I started having them and had no idea what they were. Even if there wasn’t (and still isn’t) any rule book for managing anxiety attacks. It’s not like you can take a pill and everything is allright again. Well, there are pills, but they manage the symptoms, not the cause. But I’m side-tracking here.
So, yes, there is great power in naming. It can even be the prequel to knowledge. Not always, but it certainly was when Higgs named the boson — ironically called the God particle — and was later able to prove, with François Englert — that it did exist.
The mind of an explorer
Frontiers, or gaps are exciting places, though. They are places of magic, of temporarily hidden facts, of hypothesis, of doubt, of fake news, of religion and of pure unadulterated possibility. They are preludes, serving as an introduction to something important. They are liminal spaces of transition between stories (or hypotheses) and what we will (sometimes temporarily) come to see as “the truth”, whatever that is. And what we fill them with, will often shape our future for many years to come.
It’s time that we learn to celebrate these frontiers as the mysterious and uncertain places that they are. Ironically, it is our obsession with the (one) Truth, with clarity and certainty which often leads to “God-of-the-gap-ism” and even disinformation.
We have to learn to respect the fluid nature of those gaps and not become obsessed with the one track — godlike — answers that sometimes emerge from them. Lack of clarity and certainty should never make us doubt science but fill us with awe for those pioneers who keep pushing back the frontiers. In fact, we need to approach them with the open, exploring mind of the scientist.
Nature abhors a vacuum, if we can believe Aristotle, and others after him. But information seems to hate that vacuum just as much, and it will do anything to occupy it. Filling gaps with dogmatic tales that bare no evidence just to get rid of them is clearly dangerous. We have to learn to accept the search as well as the solution. And that the gaps can be the home to several scenarios at the same time until one day (maybe) we’ll find out how it does work.
We need to recognize that sometimes we just don’t know (yet). And that that’s ok. That that does not mean that science is not to be trusted. If we do, people will hopefully get a hell of a lot less mad when science changes course or evolves slower than we would have wished (like in the case of the vaccines, the source of COVID-19 or the many contradictory opinions about wearing masks at the onset of our current pandemic).
By chance, just before I was going to send this, I came across this illustration of Adam Grant — his hierarchy of rethinking styles — which perfectly illustrates the openness of mind of scientists and why it’s so important for people to be humbler about their knowledge and stay open to learning and changing their minds. According to him, their mental flexibility and the willingness to let go of bad ideas are much more important for long term success than strong convictions. Which seems to be the perfect antidote for ‘God of the Gaps’ thinking.
As a final note for those of you who may be upset with my clickbait title: to be clear, I do not mean that we should not strive for ‘the truth’ (though I really don’t like that concept, as it is the source of great polarization), for more knowledge. I do not mean we should settle for un-truth or disinformation. I mean that when we don’t know, we should acknowledge that. And not let our fear of the unknown have us spin simple tales that do more harm than good. There is a huge difference between a possibility, a hypothesis (which is looking for the truth) that turns out to be wrong later and disinformation (which wrongfully claims to be the truth).
This is a repost from an older story from June 4, 2021. I transferred it here because, in two days, Twitter will discard the Revue platform, where this was first published and I did not want to lose this post.