Reasons to Believe

Response to Michael Shermer, Part 2 (of 3)

This article continues my response to Michael Shermer's "God-of-the-gaps" argument against Christianity, which he presented to the Reasons To Believe Orange County Chapter in November 2008.

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

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. Thus, appealing to God (or anything supernatural) as an answer to unexplained natural phenomena proves useless. (In part 1 of this series I critiqued Shermer's embrace of methodological naturalism, the philosophical presupposition that stipulates that scientific explanations of natural phenomena may have only empirical causal explanations.2)

Some scientists and philosophers of science suggest that empirical testability be used to draw the line of demarcation between science and nonscience. Shermer seemed to agree with this criterion when he stated that "God" is merely a linguistic placeholder that explains nothing.

The problem with this view is that many philosophers of science take an instrumentalist or antirealist view of science. That is, these philosophers believe that scientific theories are not always empirically provable, nor that science should always strive for empirical proofs. Instrumentalist science implies that appeals to God may have a legitimate explanatory function even if God is not empirically testable. Proponents of this concept reason that many scientific theories tell us a story that may or may not turn out to be true, but that at least account for phenomena in question in a seemly coherent manner. For example, astronomers posit "quarks" (nonempirical entities to which particular attributes are bestowed) as one type of building block or elementary particle of matter. Even though quarks are not empirically testable, using them as a plausible explanation is still considered legitimate within science.

Shermer's insistence that invoking God explains nothing wrongly implies that no positive evidence exists for God as a causal answer. To the contrary, there are philosophical and theological reasons for positing God as the causal explanation of certain explanatory gaps in natural phenomena. For example, it makes sense to posit a personal and transcendent being with great power and free will as the causal agent or force behind the creation of the universe.

How so? First, this causal agent or force must transcend the universe because he or it had to exist prior to the universe in order to create it. Second, the agent must possess great power in order to create the universe. Third, the causal agent or force must be personal or possess free will to be able to decide when to create the universe.

The universe was created approximately 13.7 billion years ago, but it could have been created earlier or later. If this assertion is true, then a set of eternal, impersonal conditions could not be the universe's causal agent. These conditions would have been triggered an infinite time ago, which means the universe would be infinitely old. Thus, given that we know the universe's age, it makes sense to postulate a personal entity with free will voluntarily decided when to start the universe.

Physical transcendence, great power, personhood, and free will, are among the attributes the God of the Bible possesses. Thus, these concepts serve as good grounds for proposing the biblical Creator as a causal agent.

God may be the most profound explanation that gives intelligibility and meaning to the world. Positing the existence of God may not only explain a common origin for certain natural phenomena (such as the existence of the universe and the specified complexity of DNA codes, etc.), but may also connect these phenomena to the purpose of the universe and the purpose and meaning of human life. This scenario integrates scientific knowledge with philosophy and theology. No other causal explanation outside of God unites so many fields of study and coherently blends them together. Because of this coherence, the appeal to God as the source of explanatory gaps possesses the epistemological virtues that scientists seek in their own theories,3 including explanatory power, integration with other theories, and simplicity.

Contrary to Shermer's claims, proffering God as the explanatory cause for certain natural phenomena is not useless. First, if Shermer assumes that explanatory causes demand empirical testability in order to mean something, then he is implicitly denying the legitimacy of instrumentalist science. Second, Shermer is not considering the fact that arguments for the existence of God possess a component of positive evidence and may be the most profound, sensible, and effective explanation that unifies otherwise unaccountable natural and human existential phenomena.

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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  1. Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters (New York: Henry Holt 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. Within the philosophy of science, epistemic virtues are properties or characteristics sought out by scientists in their theories that—philosophers of science believe—make a theory more appealing. See "The Unity of Science" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as an example of how epistemic virtues are used.