Response to Michael Shermer, Part 3 (of 3)

Response to Michael Shermer, Part 3 (of 3)

This is the third and final part of the response to Michael Shermer’s “God-of-the-gaps” argument1 against Christianity, as presented at a meeting of Reasons To Believe Orange County Chapter in November 2008.

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 Part 2 discussed philosophical and theological reasons for why positing God as the causal explanation of certain explanatory gaps in natural phenomena is realistic despite Shermer’s objections.)

Shermer 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.

His argument refers to philosopher David Hume’s dictum. As quoted by Shermer, Hume’s idea is “that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.”3 To adequately respond to Shermer, we need to figure out what Hume means.

According to Hume, miracles are violations of the “laws of nature” that “firm and unalterable” experience has solidly established.4 Only a superior testimony of experience may override this proposition, but, unfortunately, there cannot be such a testimony, for if there were, miracles would no longer merit their name.5

Hume’s argument against miracles is well-known by Christian philosophers and theologians and has been answered many times. Several points can be brought to bear.

First, Hume’s dictum assumes that miracles are violations of the laws of nature, a definition that Christians do not accept. Christians believe that God is intimately active in his creation, sustaining and governing it at every moment of its existence. To remove God from the universe would mean that the universe would utterly collapse. God acts within the creation, either directly or indirectly, through the laws of nature, to accomplish his will. As philosopher and theologian Colin Brown states, “Miracles are not random occurrences but expressions of God’s purposeful, gracious activity.”6 Thus, when God accomplishes a miracle, he does not violate the laws of nature, even though it may look that way to us. Instead, we may think of miracles as God working within nature (not annihilating or suspending, but superseding forces of nature) to accomplish his will.

Indeed, God’s work within nature may be analogical to human expression of free will. For example, I may, at will, decide to start walking, so I begin to move my feet. Yet, doing this is hardly a violation of a law of nature even though I seem to be acting against causal physical laws and the law of gravity. (Without exercising my free will my feet would not move forward, and certainly not upward.) So also, God may work within nature without violating it, to accomplish his will.

Second, Hume curiously succumbs to the same error that he claims others make. He believed that even though our experience tells us that the future will be like the past (sometimes called the principle of the uniformity of nature), we are not really warranted in making this assumption because we don’t know for certain if the future will, in fact, be like the past. So also, just because we have a lot of experience to substantiate natural physical laws, this experience does not tell us whether a miracle will ever occur (or has occurred). We are not justified in coming to such a conclusion from the testimony, for it does not follow, according to Hume’s own critique of induction. The most we could say that is that natural laws have generally obtained in the past.

Third, C. S. Lewis gives one of the better-known responses to Hume:

Now of course we must agree with Hume that if there is absolutely ‘uniform experience’ against miracles, if in other words they have never happened, why then they never have. Unfortunately we know the experience against them to be uniform only if we know that all the reports of them are false. And we can know all the reports to be false only if we know already that miracles have never occurred. In fact we are arguing in a circle.7

Here, Lewis points out that Hume engages in circular reasoning or question begging Hume has not provided us with a refutation of the possibility of miracles, but has instead redefined miracles in such a way that they could never occur. So, in as much as Shermer’s argument relies on Hume’s dictum, it also begs the question.

Now, just because Hume’s dictum has problems does not mean Christians ought to indiscriminately attribute to God gaps in our causal knowledge regarding natural phenomena. Shermer is correct in stating that we ought to seek causal explanations in the world before we look outside it. Each of the unknown causes of natural phenomena ought to be investigated to find out whether God has indeed acted directly to cause it or has acted through secondary agents, such as the laws of nature.

How might we do this? The response to this question is outside the scope of this short article. However, in brief, if through scientific research we discover that the explanatory gaps of a certain scientific problem continue to multiply and if research seems to point to a causal explanation outside of itself, it may be time to look elsewhere.

So, just as with the case of the abandoned scientific theories of alchemy and phlogiston there comes a point where it is prudent to give up on certain theories. Here, we may want to consider Imre Lakatos’s degenerative research programmes or Thomas Khun’s state of crisis of scientific paradigms, as examples of descriptions of scientific theories that ought to be abandoned. However, the difference in our case is that instead of discussing when to abandon a specific scientific theory, we are discussing the abandonment of naturalistic explanations altogether.

As an example of such a troubled theory, consider the relatively new academic field of cognitive sciences. Most researchers in this field assume there’s a naturalistic explanation for human consciousness. Much progress has been (and continues to be) made on the “easy problems,” which have to do with finding and explaining the brain processes involved in consciousness. On the other hand, the explanatory gaps in the “hard problem”– regarding what brain processes have to do with our subjective or first-person phenomenal experiences–seem to grow or at least remain unsolved. That is, cognitive researchers thus far have not been able to explain how neural processes relate to consciousness. In other words, our understanding of neural processing does not help us to explain human subjective experience, such as the felt experience of viewing the color green or of taking in the fragrance of a rose. Researchers have made no progress in explaining this problem of experience or consciousness. For this reason, some claim that it may now be wise to look elsewhere for a resolution to this explanatory gap.

During his speech 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. As a matter of fact, he states as much in his writings: “There is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is only the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain.”8 This is not an argument, but an honest expression of a presuppositional belief. Nonetheless, we may ask questions such as, “How does Shermer know this? Did science tell him this? If so, which empirically testable observation told him this?” It is curious to me that Shermer, who is a self-proclaimed skeptic, has so much faith in science.

It seems that Shermer’s “God-of-the-gaps” argument is unduly influenced by his faith in science and scientific explanations to the point of begging the question. Given these shortcomings, Shermer’s three-pronged God-of-the-gaps diatribe against the veracity of Christianity does not hold.

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
  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. Shermer, 48.
  4. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 2nd ed., Eric Steinberg, editor, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1993), Sec. X, Part I, 76
  5. Ibid., 77.
  6. Colin Brown, That You May Believe, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 73.
  7. C. S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960), 102.
  8. Shermer, 53.