Reasons to Believe

Response to Michael Shermer, Part 1 (of 3)

On November 15, 2008, Michael Shermer, PhD, president of the Skeptics Society, presented arguments against Christianity at a Reasons To Believe Orange County Chapter meeting. This series of articles is a response to the first of his arguments.

Shermer argued that people shouldn't believe in Christianity because much of the evidence touted in support of it suffers from an appeal to the "God-of-the-gaps." (Examples of such evidence include consciousness, the bacterial flagellum, the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the fine-tuning of the universe, etc.) He postulated that all God-of-the-gaps arguments follow this format:

  • X looks designed.
  • I can't think of how X could have been designed naturally.
  • Therefore, X must have been designed supernaturally.1

As an example, Shermer referred to Sir Isaac Newton's attempt to resolve an explanatory gap in astronomy called the Problem of the Plane, which referred to certain anomalies of planetary motion. Newton accounted for the anomalies by claiming that God directly moved the planets. Science eventually provided a natural explanation for Newton's gap. According to Shermer, as science continues to progress, any and all remaining causal gaps will be closed, which means that many current arguments for God's existence based on scientific data will dissolve.

In his presentation, Shermer listed three points intended to illustrate how appealing to God (or anything supernatural) as accountable for unexplained natural phenomena proves useless. First, Shermer claimed that positing God as a causal answer explains nothing because terms like "God" function merely as linguistic placeholders for something science has not yet discovered.

Second, he exhorted the audience to consider what is more likely: that God is responsible for the explanatory gap, or that science has not yet discovered a natural explanation. Implicit in this exhortation was the claim that the latter is more likely. Furthermore, Shermer suggested that people ought to look for explanations within the natural world before looking outside of it.

Third, Shermer went so far as to say that there is no such thing as the supernatural, further implying that appeals to God as Designer are useless.

Shermer correctly criticized illegitimate appeals to God as the causal explanation for natural phenomena, particularly in his critique of Newton and the Problem of the Plane. Nonetheless, just because science has closed many explanatory gaps regarding natural phenomena, it does not mean that science will close all of them. Nor does it mean that positing God to explain some of the gaps proves useless. Here it seemed that Shermer embraced a type of methodological naturalism, the philosophical presupposition that stipulates that scientific explanations of natural phenomena must have only empirical (based on observation and experiment) causal explanations.2

Methodological naturalism is a controversial theory within the philosophy of science. Due to the multifarious theoretical problems they encompass, all criteria that have ever been proposed to draw a distinct line of demarcation between science and nonscience have not been commonly adopted by philosophers of science.3

However, scientists and philosophers of science agree that clear cases of science do exist, such as astronomical investigation, as do clear cases of nonscience, such as astrological speculation. To believe that we can never distinguish between the two would be to commit the "beard fallacy."4

Invoking methodological naturalism to dismiss God, a priori (apart from investigation), as a causal explanation for natural phenomena won't work. After all, what if it turns out that God really did engineer the fine-tuned parameters of the universe and he really did design the information-rich DNA structures in all forms of life? According to methodological naturalism, this would mean that scientific investigation into explanatory causes could not be seen as science. But, this position seems false. Scientists doing this type of research are, in fact, engaged in scientific research.

Yet it wouldn't make a difference for Shermer's claims even if all philosophers of science adopt methodological naturalism and claim that proposing God as Designer lies outside the bounds science. It doesn't matter whether or not appeals to consciousness, flagella, etc. to prove God's existence conform to methodological naturalism. The issue is whether the arguments themselves are sound, not whether scientifically based arguments for God's existence follow scientific protocol. Of course it is important to follow the proper scientific method to obtain the data used in certain arguments for the existence of God, what I'm claiming is that Shermer's dismissal of God's existence based on so-called God-of-the-gaps arguments is logically improper. Even if he believes that these arguments lay outside the bounds of science, the question of God's existence still remains. All things that exist are not scientifically verifiable. Furthermore, if Shermer and others don't agree with defenses for the existence of God, then they must state specific weaknesses of the individual arguments. Blanket statements do not work for countering these types of arguments. In fact, employing methodological naturalism to dismiss, a priori, the possibility of God acting in the natural world is to beg the question (assuming to be true what needs to be proved) regarding God's existence and activity.

Thus, Shermer's predisposition to methodological naturalism suffers from at least several shortcomings: it goes against the grain in the philosophy of science, it limits science, it has little to do with whether God exists and Christianity is true, and it begs the question.


Dr. Miguel Endara

Dr. Miguel Endara earned a PhD in Philosophy from Saint Louis University in 2002, and currently teaches philosophy at Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, CA) and at Los Angeles Pierce College (Woodland Hills, CA).


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Subjects: Atheism, Worldviews

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Endnotes:

  1. Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters (New York Henry Hold and Co., 2006), 52.

  2. In his writings, Shermer appeals to methodological naturalism as a response to God-of-the-gaps arguments, see Shermer, 52.

  3. See, Achinstein, Peter (1998). Demarcation problem. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (London: Routledge). Retrieved January 30, 2009, from http://www.rep.routledge.com/article/Q024A.

  4. The beard fallacy refers to the fallacious line of reasoning that claims that just because we cannot give precise criteria for when stubble turns into beard, we cannot recognize clear cases of what is a beard and what is not a beard.