Christian apologist Stephen Bedard recently made the following claim as part of a broader discussion of evil and the existence of God:
If God took away free will for doing evil, he would have to take away the free will to do good. If we are not free to hate, we are not free to love.
I take issue with this claim. In fact, I think it is demonstrably false. Let’s first understand, briefly, what free will is and then we’ll see whether it can still be had. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, free will is “a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.”
Notice what this definition does not say. It does not require the list of various alternatives to be infinite or even large. It requires simply that a choice is physically possible, not that we have no constraint in making any logically possible choice.
Think of gravity. Many Christians will probably agree that god created gravity as part of his great act of creating this universe. Gravity does a lot of wonderful things for us. It keeps us here on the planet. It also keeps our planet in a nice, comfortable zone around the sun. God has created gravity as a means to our continued survival, which is a good thing. The physical law is in place to constrain what other things can do for some greater purpose (this line of thought is assuming it was put in place by God).
Now, let’s turn back to choices. Imagine you go outside and you want to jump. Do you have a free choice in how high you jump? It seems like it. You can just barely leave the ground. You can do any number of moderate jumps. You could even jump as hard as you can to get the furthest from the ground. But can you jump 30 feet into the air? Can you jump 1,000 feet? Can you jump out of Earth’s orbit and into space? No, there is a physical law built into the fabric of everything that keeps you from doing this. It physically constrains you. And still I’ve never heard anyone complain of gravity robbing us of our free will. That is because choices A, B, C, and D are available to us even if the potentially infinite options above and beyond those are not.
Let’s apply this thinking to moral choices. There are three types of actions where discussions of ethics are concerned. These are:
- Non-obligatory permissions
Quite simply, there are reasons you should perform obligatory actions, non-obligatory permissions are morally neutral, and there are reasons you should avoid prohibitions. Now, we should be ready to consider an example. After explaining some of the concepts above, Stephen asked me the following:
You seem to think that free will would still work, even if all bad choices were taken away from us. I am trying to understand how that would work. You find a wallet with $500 and with all the identification in it. How would free will work if it was impossible for the person who found the wallet to keep $500 himself? Are you suggesting that God should kill the man if he seemed tempted to keep the money? Or should perform mind control and force the man to return it against his will? If the person returned the money, there would be nothing admirable about that as they would have no other choice.
Let’s take the example out of our own world and move our thought experiment into the world I propose as my solution. In my hypothetical world, God creates us without a desire to do anything which deserves a punishment of Hell. So, if stealing is a prohibition that carries such a punishment, no person would have such a desire. Since desire is required as part of intentional action (the type of action we’re concerned about in ethics), no one would intentionally steal.
Now, let’s say someone finds a wallet with $500 in it. What choices are available to them? Technically, the prohibition is available to him, but he will not take the money because he has no desire to do so. So that means that he realistically will perform one of the options that falls under either obligations or non-obligatory permissions. He could take the wallet to the police, look at the license and try to find the person, post an ad in the paper, etc. He could also simply walk by and do nothing. Remember that he doesn’t have to worry about someone else stealing the money because that sort of thing doesn’t happen in this world. Even if no one picks it up, the person who dropped it could retrace his steps and find it again with nothing missing.[i]
Notice that God had nothing to do with the choices being performed in real time. There is no control of anything or stopping anyone of doing anything. He simply did not give us a desire during creation to do things worthy of terrible punishment. Consider this example: I do not have a desire to put my cat in the microwave and kill it (people have actually done this). Does that mean that good things like petting, feeding, and generally caring for my cat were not chosen by me? If I have free will in this world, then I freely chose those things even though I did not have the desire mentioned. This raises a very serious problem for people who want to deny my claim and also say we have free will now.
Seeing this, one might retreat to a weaker position to say, “Ok, so we can have a free choice among different options, but what value does it have?” Again, this raises serious problems.
Does Mr. Bedard have a desire to perform a second holocaust to finish the job Hitler started? I doubt it. Does that mean that his good acts for people are robbed of value simply because he lacks that desire? No, I assume he thinks his good acts do have value in this world even though he doesn’t have said desire. So how can we say that if Hitler had not had the desire to perform the holocaust, then his alternative choices would have been robbed of value? Overcoming a completely evil desire is not required for value. It’s still valuable that I love my wife even though I don’t have the desire to strangle her. This claim simply makes no sense.
Unless there are some good objections I haven’t considered, I think I’ve shown a few things to be pretty conclusively true. First, free will does not require infinite or even a large number of choices. Second, taking away the desire to perform prohibitions does not remove the possibility of free choices. Third, taking away the desire to perform prohibitions does not rob other choices to perform obligatory actions of value.
And the good news for my fellow atheists is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. The so-called free will defense has several devastating problems.
[i] That is the view I defend, but we can make an even stronger claim. Even if he could only perform the actions that fall under obligatory, he still makes a free choice. He still “chooses a course of action from various alternatives.”
- A Brief Point on Evil and Free Will
- The Problem of Divine Hiddenness
- Many Worlds and Ultimate Justice