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Oct 26

A Brief Point on Evil and Free Will

There are a number of potential problems with the free will defense (FWD) to the problem of evil and its many varieties. Here is one very simple potential problem.

Let me begin with a quick story. I have a young son. We have an open stairway leading into a finished lower level. We have a gate blocking this open stairway for safety.

Now consider the story told by many Christian philosophers, including Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. In response to the logical problem of evil (i.e., whether there is an impossible-to-overcome inconsistency between the existence of God and the existence of evil), they will claim that at least some of the evil might be attributed to free will. After all, God can only do what is self-consistent, and they say it would not be self-consistent for God to both (a) allow creatures to have free will; and (b) ensure those creatures only made God’s preferred choices.

Now, I think we can allow this point, but still maintain there is a problem. There is a gap between making choices and real world undesirable outcomes. Consider back to the example of my son. He is allowed to try to open the gate, go down the stairs, etc. In other words, his choice is perfectly available to him. Yet, I (in my all-knowing, wise, and loving epistemic state) know that this choice could potentially bring about terrible consequences. So, I prevent the outcome without preventing the choice. It’s not at all clear why God is not in a similar position. “Bad” people can make free choices to try and kill someone. Allowing them to be free doesn’t include the requirement that they succeed. There is precedent for this. As I’ve discussed before, I have the ability to try and will myself to jump into outer space, but I am physically not able. This is not considered a violation of my free will. Or I could try and shoot someone, but they may have a bullet-proof vest that prevents the bullet from harming them. Again, this is not a violation of my free will. This scenario still allows me to make free choices, which people often call a greater good, and it even still allows God to judge me based on my choices, if that’s what your religion says will happen. Imagine, there could have been no Holocaust, no violation of free will, and Hitler would still end up in Hell for being a rotten son of a bitch.

So, here is one way in which the FWD may not be a good solution to even the strictest form of the problem of evil.

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  1. Paul

    Mike,
    I made the similar argument a long time ago to one of my theist friends, arguing that free-will is very much possible without success. A bank robber can freely rob the bank without much success since it is heavily guarded OR in Exodus the Pharaoh tried to catch up to Moses and his people but failed when God prevented this. I think the latter case is interesting because it’s a biblical example in which God allowed someone to make his/her choice but prevented the possible outcome. I wondered to myself “If there is a biblical example for this, why do Christians assume that free-will and the outcome must somehow be intrinsically tied together?”. Why can’t God just prevent outcomes that are harmful instead of just preventing us from freely acting; For example, a murderer can shoot a gun at the potential victim, but God can just make the bullet vanish into thin air (well, forget that this violates the laws of conservation of matter and energy). I asked my theist friend, who is a theology student, his only response was that free-will is quite meaningless if we do not get the desirable outcome. I’m not sure if I agree since God does not prevent all desirable outcome of free-will, but God could prevent only the ones that are harmful.

    What do you think?

  2. Paul

    Also, couldn’t a theist like John Hicks argue that free-will without consequences (including harmful ones) would prevent us from evolving our souls?

  3. Mike

    Paul, I’d say three things in response to your comments. First, I agree that biblical examples are excellent ways to counter the idea that God ought not intervene. Even if they dismiss Old Testament stories as metaphor, you still have Jesus doing a lot of stuff that is altering what would have been. Second, it seems absurd to say choices only matter if their consequences occur. We would want at least some to occur, I think, but we don’t need them all to do so. Under typical Christian theology, they would still have consequences (Hell). Finally, in response to Hick, I would bring up potential counterexamples. So, I’m never going to commit a murder meaning thy outcome will never occur. Does that mean my soul will not evolve? If it still will, then that outcome is not necessary for soul making. And so on.

  4. David E

    The free will defense is pretty obviously nonsense. The freedom to sin and rebel against God doesn’t require that one be able to commit horrendous acts against others. There’s more than enough sins that don’t involve tangible harm to others to allow full scope for the freedom to choose or reject the biblical God’s laws regarding right and wrong.

    “Also, couldn’t a theist like John Hicks argue that free-will without consequences (including harmful ones) would prevent us from evolving our souls?”

    How exactly would the freedom to rape or murder or molest children be necessary for the evolution of our souls? There are plenty of sins that involve harm to ourselves (drugs, sloth, gluttony, etc). It’s absurd to claim that we’d need to be able to do terrible things to oothers to evolve spiritually.

  5. Paul

    “How exactly would the freedom to rape or murder or molest children be necessary for the evolution of our souls? There are plenty of sins that involve harm to ourselves (drugs, sloth, gluttony, etc). It’s absurd to claim that we’d need to be able to do terrible things to oothers to evolve spiritually.”

    Sure, I agree but I brought it up to see how Mike would respond to the argument since Hicks could argue that if God prevented all undesirable outcomes then we wouldn’t grow from suffering. You should at least try to read Hick’s article called “Soul Making Theodicy” (I think), he makes the argument that the point of free-will is for “souls” to evolve. It sounds ridiculous but reading it fairly interesting, although I personally think it’s a very dubious argument.

  6. The Vicar

    Christians (and most other monotheists) say that god is omnipotent. If god is omnipotent, then he can simply rearrange the universe so that sin does not exist. I’m not saying “he can take away our free will so we won’t sin” but “he can alter the universe in such a way that no sin cannot happen”. (Heck, if god is omnipotent, he could rearrange the universe so that 1 + 1 = 3 and make it work. Getting rid of sin should be a doddle in comparison.) In fact, since sin is usually defined by theologians as “going against god’s will”, a truly omnipotent god could simply arrange it so that all possible actions are willed regardless of choice.

    This being the case, if you believe in such a god, then you necessarily also believe that part of the purpose of the universe is to contain sin. If you further believe that sin has eternal punishment, then you believe that god deliberately created the universe in order to have eternal punishment.

    In other words: the christian god is necessarily evil. He wants to torture people for all eternity so badly that he spent millions of years just to have people to torture.

  7. David E

    “You should at least try to read Hick’s article called “Soul Making Theodicy” (I think), he makes the argument that the point of free-will is for “souls” to evolve. ”

    I’m familiar with it. I’ve heard more variations on it than I can count—and all have been so absurd (and usually monstrous) that it’s just jaw dropping.

    I understand that you weren’t endorsing the position. Sorry if I wasn’t clear on that.

  8. David E

    ” He wants to torture people for all eternity so badly that he spent millions of years just to have people to torture.”

    That’s why I consider the frequent claim that atheism would rob life of meaning so weird coming from conservative christians. How you can think that a worldview that claims that something like 99% of all human beings who’ve ever lived will suffer an eternity of torture is better than atheism reveals a profound moral myopia.

  9. Mike

    I tend to agree with this sentiment, David E. – “The freedom to sin and rebel against God doesn’t require that one be able to commit horrendous acts against others.”

    It seems to me like there are a lot of varieties of freedom available that are worth having that don’t also include horrendous acts. Like I mentioned in the article, we already don’t have the freedom to do just anything we can possibly desire. So, it’s misleading to pretend its even an argument about freedom vs complete determinism. It’s more like quibbling about where the line of freedom could theoretically be drawn by god.

  10. Paul

    “It seems to me like there are a lot of varieties of freedom available that are worth having that don’t also include horrendous acts.”

    Speaking of which, I don’t like how Apologetic Theologians and Theistic Philosophers defined free-will as “choosing Good or Evil”, I feel like it’s a very narrow definition of free-will. I mean, I can certainly act freely without choosing either “Good or Evil” by deciding whether to go to Movie Theaters or to the Restaurant. I hope this isn’t an uncharitable criticism but I do remember reading from Richard Swinburne’s article (a long time ago) when he defined free-will that way. Any thoughts on this Mike?

  11. David E

    And, of course, there are things like the propensity for sadism or pedophilia. A vast amount of suffering would be eliminated if no one’s brains were wired or could come to be wired to be inclined to such things. And it certainly wouldn’t eliminate the freedom to sin. Most of us, after all, don’t have to wrestle with a sexual attraction to children and we still have plenty of moral choices to make. We are not at any disadvantage in spiritual development for lacking any temptation to molest children.

  12. Mike

    Paul,

    There is definitely a category of choices covering what are sometimes called non-obligatory permissions. The response to this is that God still (for some vague reasons) desires “morally significant free choices” which means there is the option to do evil. This blog post is one potential response to that idea. Even if we grant that this should be an option, there is still a significant gap between choice and realized outcome.

  13. Paul

    Mike,
    I think that your argument might have a potential power against the free-will argument for the following reason:

    Theism attempts to explain the problem of suffering by appealing to free-will. Now a theist might admit that free-will does not have broader explanatory power to encompass all suffering but insists that free-will explains suffering that is specifically caused by evil. This appeal to explanation can account for why evil exists. However this is where your response comes in:

    Free-will actually does not account for suffering because it ignores the actual gap between the outcome qua suffering and a voluntary free act; Free-will does not account for suffering it only accounts for voluntary free acts but not necessarily consequences of those acts, since God can easily intervene to prevent the consequences of those acts but not the act itself. This intervention would not violate free-will but it would be consistent with God not interfering with free-will. A theist cannot say “Oh, but consequences are the byproduct of free-will, so God has to respect that too!” because (1) there are biblical examples when God interferes with the consequences of free actions (2) Intercessory prayers often include God interfering with consequences of free actions (i.e. people pray that a person shot by a shooter would be healed or that the food that was made would be blessed). Thus, the theist’s appeal to free-will is not satisfying since one can logically conceive a possible world where God prevents undesirable consequences that causes suffering but not the voluntary action itself; this would be consistent with God’s non-interference policy of free-will which is one of the basic assumptions of Theodicy and Free-will defense.

    I think it’s a pretty strong argument, but can you think of the strongest objection against it?

  14. Mike

    Paul,

    I would think the strongest potential objection would have to be one arguing that god has some very good reasons for not intervening. For example, philosopher Michael J. Murray argued against the hiddenness argument by saying god’s obviousness, so to speak, affects our ability to freely form a belief about God. You might say it is not very significant to say you believe in a god that is working obvious miracles all the time.

    Now, I actually find that response a bit ridiculous, but it would have to be along those lines. My reasons for not liking arguments like Murray’s are twofold and I’ve written about both on the blog before.

    1. If you think that it’s not significant to believe in God when you get to observe very obvious evidence, like miracles, then you have to call the beliefs of the disciples insignificant. Like you said, biblical examples and claims of answered prayer can be used against this too. Here is something along those lines: http://foxholeatheism.com/the-problem-of-divine-hiddenness/

    2. I think it’s a slippery slope when you start trying to weigh greater goods because you have a standard of greatest good in a theistic universe. Here is something along those lines: http://foxholeatheism.com/greater-good-theodicies-2/

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  1. Logarchism » The Problem of Evil

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