Unjustified Agnosticism: Micah Edvenson’s case for skepticism (part 3)

We now turn to Edvenson’s last two arguments against God’s existence: Determinism and Material Causality. You can find Edvenson’s post HERE.

Edvenson’s discussion of determinism seems incomplete in the article. For that reason, I will include what I can gather about his position from his conversation with Graham Oppy on 8/3/2020.

Brief Summary

Edvenson points out an apparent conflict between the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) and the Christian notion of libertarian free will. If every effect has an antecedent cause, the effects of our choices will have antecedent causes.  

Consider if you have a choice between A and not-A. If you choose A instead of not-A, then there must be some sufficient reason for choosing A. There must be some antecedent condition that explains your choice of one rather than the other. If antecedent conditions determine your choice, then your choice can’t be free. Therefore, the Christian must either give up the PSR (which gives up any explanatory advantage theism may hold), or he must give up libertarian free will (which gives up the truth of Christianity). Either way, Christianity loses.

Edvenson points out that we never experience objects beginning to exist without a material cause. He infers from this that all material objects must have material causes. However, if there must be a material cause for any material object, the Christian conviction that God created without preexisting matter is false. Since even the Christian will not say God can accomplish metaphysically impossible acts, the Christian conception fails. Edvenson goes a step further and says this line of reasoning gives us reason to doubt the existence of immaterial objects entirely (which would rule out God).

  1. We cannot get material states from immaterial states and vice versa.
  2. Therefore, either the material or immaterial exhaust all reality and is eternal.
  3. We have only empirically observed material states.
  4. Therefore, material reality exhausts all reality.

If successful, there are no immaterial objects (God or otherwise) in reality.

Response

Edvenson makes a critical mistake in applying the PSR. He seems to conflate the concepts of explanation and arbitrariness.  

Consider your choice of A in his example. Why did you choose A? A sufficient reason will be the exercise of your free will. Edvenson then wants to press, “Yes, but why A instead of not-A?” Here he has departed from the PSR. The sufficient reason for choosing A is the exercise of your free will. If you exercise your free will, you will select A; absent that exercise, you will not choose A. All that the PSR requires is that your reason explains the choice of A. We already have a sufficient reason.  

Edvenson’s further question deals more with whether your choice of A is arbitrary. The reason why you make a particular choice will be different than the reason why you choose at all. Libertarian free will only requires that you have the latter, not the former. Presumably, your choice of A is due to the features present in A. This sort of “reason” for choosing A is different than the “reason” for making choices.

We can understand a bit more of Edvenson’s view from his discussion with Graham Oppy. Edvenson holds that you have different desires, and your strongest desire determines your course of action. You always act on your strongest desire. Since your desire determines your activity, your activity is not free.

Here we need only reflect on our experience. Don’t we have the experience of reflecting on our desires and sometimes suppressing our stronger desires? We do have the experience of exercising discipline, don’t we?  

Suppose Edvenson said, “Yes, but in that case, your strongest desire was to be disciplined. If your desire to indulge were stronger, then you would have indulged. That’s what it means to be the strongest desire.” Such a move would make the circularity of this reasoning obvious. Here we are defining “strongest desire” to mean “that which you ultimately do.” Edvenson’s case then reduces to, “You always do whatever you ultimately do.” While true, this is hardly convincing.

Suppose we set that aside and buy into Edvenson’s reasoning. We can reasonably ask, “What makes a desire strongest?” It certainly seems reasonable to think it is the act of will that elevates a desire to the “strongest” position. In this case, we still have an account of your decision-making process that satisfies the PSR and accounts for free will. Why do you do A? You do A because you have chosen A. Why do you choose A? According to Edvenson, you choose A because A was your strongest desire. Why was your strongest desire A? Because you exercised your free will to elevate A and suppress other desires.  

If Edvenson wants to go a step further and ask why you exercise your free will on behalf of A, he’ll ask if your decision is arbitrary. He will not be asking for the sufficient reason for this choice since your free will is sufficient. At best, Edvenson would find himself asking, “Why is your free will free?”

What are we to make of Edvenson’s arguments for material causality? His entire idea seems to stem from the overzealous use of metaphysical impossibility. He thinks that since we have no experience of material objects beginning to exist “ex nihilo,” we can conclude that it is metaphysically impossible. I can’t see any way that we can arrive at conclusions about metaphysical impossibility from inductive exploration. Induction can inform us about the sorts of things we find in our world, but metaphysical impossibility refers to other possible worlds’ contents. If something is metaphysically impossible, then it will fail to exist in any different world that may have existed. How could the exploration of our world ever lead to such a conclusion?

His argument does not fare much better. Even if we grant premise one of his argument, premise two doesn’t follow from it. If it were the case that material states couldn’t cause immaterial states and vice versa, then nothing would follow about the existence of material and immaterial reality. It could be that both material and immaterial states exist, and neither caused the other. At any rate, we needn’t worry about what conclusions might follow from his argument since premise one seems unjustified.  

Keep in mind that all of the available evidence indicates that material reality had a beginning. The naturalist doesn’t do himself any favors insisting that material reality cannot begin to exist without a material cause. The evidence has the same implications for the naturalist and the theist; material reality began to exist and, therefore, began to exist without a material cause.

Conclusions

Edvenson agrees in his article that there are good reasons to believe that God exists. We’ve reviewed all four reasons Edvenson provides to balance out the case for theism. In the end, none of them seem reasonable. It appears that there are good reasons to believe that God exists and not comparably good reasons to think God does not exist.

If you found this post helpful, check out the first two posts in this series (Part 1 and Part 2). Remember to subscribe for more content like this.