Unjustified Agnosticism: Micah Edvenson’s case for skepticism

I was impressed with Edvenson’s exploration of Leibniz’s argument in his article, Justifying Agnosticism. He approached Leibniz with an open mind and fair considerations. I thought it worthwhile to respond to the concerns he raises in support of naturalism (thus balancing out the case for theism and leaving him agnostic). Perhaps you are concerned with some of the same issues as Edvenson.

Since this is a reaction article, I recommend that you read the section of his writing (linked above) labeled “Ontological Simplicity and Predictions.” 

Brief Summary

Edvenson holds that naturalism provides a better explanation of the world in which we live. He cites two criteria: simplicity and explanatory power.  

Edvenson contends that naturalism is theism minus the supernatural. He sees theism as merely the addition of the supernatural to naturalism. The apparent result is that theism is committed to more than naturalism, and thus, theism is more complicated. He rightly points out that, all things being equal, we should prefer simple explanations to complicated ones. Why believe in X, Y, and Z if you only need X? Why choose all the extra stuff in theism if naturalism will do?

According to Edvenson, naturalism also enjoys greater explanatory power. He holds that many things are tricky for theism to explain (such as life’s very recent appearance in cosmic history). He also appeals to two common complaints against theism: divine hiddenness and religious disagreement. His point on divine hiddenness relies on the notion of “non-resistant non-belief.” If God exists and loves us, why allow people to remain in unbelief if they are not resistant? Why not provide them sufficient reasons to believe? For that matter, even those who believe in God don’t all agree about who he is. Why not make it clear which religion is right?

Response

Edvenson seems to misunderstand the implications of naturalism. Naturalism is more than mere theism minus the supernatural. Consider, for example, the many-worlds hypothesis to which naturalists often appeal to explain fine-tuning. This hypothesis entails the commitment to a near-infinite number of universes like ours. The theistic commitment to only one universe is more simple. We’ve only got the one! Consider also the B-Theory of time to which naturalists often appeal to stave off the challenge of a cosmic beginning (and the theistic implications that result). This commitment entails the actual existence of all moments throughout time. The theist is only committed to the present’s existence. We’ve only got one moment! The naturalist has a near-infinite number!

One might reply, “Yes, but the naturalist can refrain from answering those questions. He can say, ‘I don’t know.” Such a response runs afoul of Edvenson’s second criteria, explanatory power.

I couldn’t tell from Edvenson’s article why he thinks things would be so different with God at the helm. Why believe God should have created life earlier than he did? You and I might grow impatient, but an eternal God? I have to admit I laughed a bit at his reference to wisdom teeth as vestigial organs. No one thought they were vestigial until the rise of modern dentistry. Only in recent history have people managed to keep all their teeth throughout their life. We run into a problem when we label body parts “vestigial.” Often the label is later removed when the part’s function is determined. I’m old enough to remember when they used to teach about “junk DNA” in one’s chromosomes. They thought it was a vestigial holdover. Now we know that it serves a function in regulating gene expression. [1]

At any rate, many of his points here seem to stem from unjustified assumptions about what God would do. Edvenson can comment on what Edvenson might do, but how could he ever comment on what God would do?

His point about Divine Hiddenness relies on his assumption that there is non-resistant non-belief. He asserts that such a thing exists, but we’ll see that such an assertion is tricky upon reflection.  

Consider my claim, “God exists, and God raised Jesus from the dead.” Do you believe me? If not, you resist the belief “God exists, and God raised Jesus from the dead.” You can’t be non-resistant if you resist. Only people who have never heard or thought of the concept of God can be genuinely non-resistant non-believers. I’ve never met such people, and I can’t say God doesn’t give them direct experiences of himself (as many people claim to experience). 

So Edvenson’s issue here can’t be non-resistant non-belief. The problem must be certain types of resistance. Presumably justified resistance. If God exists, then why not make belief undeniable?

Here we see the circularity of Edvenson’s case. He takes his unbelief as justification for his unbelief. He thinks that divine hiddenness justifies skepticism (he cites it as a reason to remain agnostic), but Edvenson only believes in divine hiddenness because he already thinks skepticism is justified. He believes hiddenness justifies skepticism and justifies hiddenness based on justified skepticism. To avoid this circularity, Edvenson must concede that divine hiddenness cannot justify unbelief. If his skepticism is to be reasonable, he must justify it on other grounds.

Religious disagreement does not fare much better. First and foremost, it assumes something about religion that all religions would reject. Namely, Edvenson seems to think that God’s primary concern is with the state of one’s beliefs. None of the world’s religions hold this position, so why does Edvenson?  

In particular, Christianity is concerned with the state of one’s heart (not just their head). The Apostle James compares those with mere belief to demons (James 2:19). We have no reason to think that God would be overly concerned that someone believes he exists if they would not come to him in faith.  

Perhaps Edvenson might respond, “Yes, but belief in God is surely a prerequisite to faith in God! Wouldn’t at least SOME more people come to faith if his existence was more obvious?” Here we’re saying that God would not allow anyone to disbelieve who would come to faith if they believed. If this is true, then if God does exist, there are no such people. We can summarize our reasoning in this way:

  1. If God exists, then none disbelieve who would have faith. (Our new contention)
  2. If none disbelieve who would have faith, then all who disbelieve would not have faith.
  3. Therefore, if God exists, then all who disbelieve would not have faith.

This conclusion fits well within Christianity since the Bible teaches that God has so arranged the world that those will seek him who would find him (see Acts 17). Neither the existence of unbelievers nor religious disagreement can give us reason to doubt God’s existence.  

Explanatory Deficiencies of Naturalism

Edvenson spent a lot of time considering perceived deficiencies in theism, but he doesn’t seem to weigh naturalism’s explanatory shortcomings. In his article, he points out that naturalism cannot account for consciousness. He also understands that naturalism is deficient in explaining the existence of contingent objects. Naturalism also fails to explain how the universe began to exist, the fine-tuning we see in the constants and quantities of nature, objective moral values and duties, and the historical facts surrounding Jesus’s death. His conclusion that naturalism has greater explanatory power is highly suspect.

In my next post, I’ll review Edvenson’s arguments from evidential evil and animal suffering. If you found this post helpful, please remember to subscribe.

[1] Meyer, Stephen. (2009) Signature in the Cell, pp 125. New York, NY: HarperCollins.


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