A close cousin of god-of-the-gaps arguments are arguments that argue for something that sounds kind of like a god, but which wouldn’t actually have to be a god. A good example of this is the argument from design, which claims that we can somehow show that the life on Earth and/or the universe was designed, and from there infers God. Now, I don’t think that life or the universe was designed, but even if they were, that wouldn’t show that any particular god exists.
This is something Hume pointed out brilliantly in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The limitations and imperfections of our world , Hume argued, suggest a limited and imperfect designer. But even if we grant the greatness of the world, this does not prove the greatness of the designer. Perhaps He learned the art of world-making by copying others, or by trial and error. And why a He? Why not a She or a They?
Hume goes on: for all we know, the world is an early work of an “infant deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance.” Or the work of an “inferior deity… the object of derision to his superiors.” Or “the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force which it received from him.” Finally, Hume argues, the “strange mixture of good and ill which appears in life” suggests a morally indifferent designer (see chapter 5 for more on that).
Today, we can get even more creative than Hume, who was mainly thinking that the designer(s) might be like the Greek gods rather than the god of the Christian theology. But instead, think of the final scene in the movie Men in Black, where the camera zooms out from our universe to reveal the entire thing contained inside a marble, being used in a game by a funny-looking green creature. The scene is a bit silly, but that’s because the creature is relatively human-like. If there are super-beings outside of our universe (designers or not), they may be stranger than we can imagine.
Another alternative is suggested by Nick Bostrom’s simulation argument, which argues that more likely than not, we are living in a computer simulation. I won’t get into the details here, in part because the argument isn’t really interesting until you accept that we probably will be able to create computer-simulated people in the future. If you’re interested in that topic, I recommend reading “Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap,” which Bostrom co-authored with computational neuroscientist Anders Sandberg. Here, it’s enough to point out that if you think you’ve got an argument that the universe is designed, one way for it to be designed is for it to be a massive computer simulation (or in some other way a massive, carefully-crafted illusion), rather than the work of anything like the gods of theology or mythology.
The argument from design may be the most obvious example of bad arguments for the existence of God of this sort, but it’s not the only one. Believers are also guilty of making this mistake when they tell you they’re going to give you an argument for the existence of God, and then start vaguely talking about “something beyond the physical realm” or somesuch. This raises a bunch of interesting philosophical questions: are mathematical facts physical? What about moral facts? Are all mental properties ultimately physical? Those questions are interesting, but just don’t have much to do with the existence of a god or gods.