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Sep 23

Free Will and Evil

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:

  • Obligations
  • Non-obligatory permissions
  • Prohibitions

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.

 

Conclusion

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.”

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77 comments

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  1. Ryan

    There is a troubling lack of imagination in several theistic arguments. Here, the theist appears unable or unwilling to imagine a world with different possible choices. In Pascal’s Wager, the theist appears unable or unwilling to imagine that God might not be that of Christianity. And so on.

    I think this is one of the best arguments we have. Good work.

  2. Jon Topping

    Loved your counter argument. It shows a decent problem in that particular freewill argument. Most will say something like, “we need evil in order to recognize good.” This is the same kind of claim as made above.
    I’d like your comment on, what I think is, a strengthened version of the argument.

    In order for love to exist, the person must have the option to either love, or not love. Forced love is no longer love. Love involves choice, or freewill.
    If God took away our ability to not love, we could not experience love.
    My ability to rebel against God’s love is the active ingredient in my being ability to love God.
    In the Christian worldview, if we choose to rebel against God, we are “sinning”, and sin is the cause of all suffering, pain, evil, and death.
    If God wanted to kill all evil, He must take away our ability to reject Him, or rebel against Him.
    If we are forced to obey Him, forced to love Him, then it is no longer love, or virtuous obedience.

    A situation where we are capable of love, but evil is a possibility, is better than a situation without the possibility of love.

    The reason I think this is strengthened is because I agree with your point made in your counter argument. Taking away the possibility of evil does not take away the possibility of good. I do, however, think that taking away the possibility of rejecting love takes away the possibility of love.

    Look forward to your response.

  3. Mike

    Hello, Jon. Thanks for the comment.

    So, I’m not sure why the model I’m suggesting would take away the ability to not love. It would take away the desire to hate (assuming hate is worthy of punishment), but not loving is not synonymous with hating. So, I coud have met my wife just as an acquaintance and not loved her. that wouldn’t mean I have any bad feelings about her – just that I didn’t love her. There is no forced obeying or anyting else. We just wouldn’t have the desire to do something like murder, just like you don’t have the desire to punch the person giving you your change at the grocery store. If we can lack the desire for minor thins like that, surely we can lack the desire for something like the holocaust.

    If you’re wanting God to still be able to reward those who freely choose to love him, then I think my model still allows for such a thing. (Of course it raises the problem of evil again, so that would be your barrier to accepting it, rather than the love issue, but we should follow reason where it leads us.)

  4. Tom Gilson

    I would be interested to see whether you can formulate a defensible argument on these lines with the stipulation that we are talking about morally significant free will–the ability to choose good or evil. That is the form of free will theists generally defend. I trust you can see why that would be the case.

  5. Jon Topping

    I’m not trying to claim that your method of saying that there can be good and not evil at the same time is wrong. I’m claiming that if you eliminate the freedom to reject love, then you eliminate love. If (as under the Christian worldview) you define evil as anti-God, then in order to eliminate evil, you must eliminate the possibility to reject God. Thus, you eliminate the possibility to love God by your elimination of evil.
    It’s under the assumption of the Christian worldview. In Christianity, we cannot kill evil without killing the possibility to love God.
    In the atheistic worldview, God doesn’t exist, so evil couldn’t be eliminated by God.
    In both situations love is possible because the choice of anti-love is available. It’s merely a way of showing the “problem of evil” as a proof against God doesn’t logically follow due to the premises associated within Christianity, which is usually what the “free will defense” is trying to do. Thoughts?

  6. Mike

    Tom, thanks for the comment.

    One thing I’m questioning is the very need for the distinction of morally significant free will. So, we might ask “why is the ability to choose good over evil a necessary feature of our world?” What does God want from us?

    Does he want us to choose good full stop? If so, my position provides that. Does he want us to instead have to deny and overcome evil impulses and choose good? That doesn’t seem to make sense and I think multiple parts of my argument apply to that.

  7. Mike

    Jon,

    Think of how you would define love. Does the definition include anything about it’s opposite? If so, I would question the definition. If not, then I don’t see how eliminating the opposite means eliminating love. I don’t think part of what choosing to love is includes rejecting some kind of ultimate hate. I’m not sure, but I think this addresses your point.

  8. Ryan

    Here’s another way to look at it. If the possibility of human rape were removed from the world through some alternative design of the human body, would free will and morality as we know them fall apart? No. We would go about our business normally, just without rape. I agree that not committing rape would no longer be morally significant because rape is no longer possible, but that changes little. So we can still ask in the real world: Why did God create us in such a way that we can be raped? God could have prevented a horrible, violent crime without taking away our free will any more than it already has by creating our world and bodies the way it did. Even in this world, I cannot, after all, choose to make someone spontaneously explode.

    The complete elimination of evil in the world might be another matter. I’ll have to think about that. But perhaps we can agree that God could have allowed a world in which violent crimes are impossible. That it chose to do otherwise–and it did choose–suggests that God is perhaps not so wonderful.

    Another matter to consider:

    Person A has the desire to commit murder and does so. Person B has the desire to commit murder but resists it. Person C has no desire to commit murder and does not do so.

    We can agree that B and C are morally “better” than A (even if you hold that the very desire to kill is a sin), but what about B vs. C? Is C any less “good” a person because he did not have to resist the urge to kill? We might say that there is something admirable about B, but would we really claim he is morally superior to C? If so, I ask: why did God not give C the same evil desires so that C would have the opportunity to prove himself? If not, then the argument that freely choosing to not do evil is important is apparently false.

  9. Jorge Laris

    I agree with you, God has a mean nature if you study him deeply.

    May you add a +1 option in the link section below your page.
    Just saying.

  10. Mike

    Jorge, I added it.Thanks for the suggestion.

  11. Ryan

    It occurred to me that someone might object to the language (e.g. “better” or “morally superior” person) in my last paragraph. If that is the case, simply pretend that I was talking about “better actions” instead. Nothing should change.

    Mike, when I click +1, I get some text in Italian. I don’t know if this is just on my end or yours (or no one’s), but give it a look.

  12. Jon Topping

    Mike

    My definition would merely include that the person doing the loving has the choice to love. I would argue that if you don’t have the choice to love, then it’s not true love. Following this rationality, for love to exist, the possibility of choosing not to love must also exist.

  13. Mike

    Jon,

    I see no problem with that definition, and I think I’ve accounted for that. Not loving someone is a non obligatory permission.

  14. Mark

    Mike – could you express some of your positions on this in syllogistic form? I am having a hard time getting the ideas in order. Maybe Bedard will do the same.

    thanks

    Mark

  15. Tom Gilson

    My apologies–my schedule today got radically altered so I’ve been slow to come back here and respond.

    Mike, thanks for your response. You wrote,

    “One thing I’m questioning is the very need for the distinction of morally significant free will. So, we might ask “why is the ability to choose good over evil a necessary feature of our world?” What does God want from us?

    “Does he want us to choose good full stop? If so, my position provides that. Does he want us to instead have to deny and overcome evil impulses and choose good? That doesn’t seem to make sense and I think multiple parts of my argument apply to that.”

    Morally significant free will is essential if humans are to be morally significant creatures. If we could only choose good, our choices would never be moral choices, and our freedom would not be moral freedom.

    Does he want us to choose good? Sure, but your position does not provide that. Your position allows us to do good but not to choose good.

    What he wants is for us to be morally significant creatures, so that when we do good, it’s really a choice to do good. That entails that we be able to choose otherwise. Why, and how does that fit into his overall plan? That’s not a one-paragraph discussion. I would suggest you look here and at the following items in the series that begins there.

  16. Mike

    Sure Mark. I’m doing this quickly, so I may mis something, but we can at least get the major ideas down in a simple form.

    The first argument was against the claim that the free will to do good requires the free will to do evil.

    1. Free will is the ability to choose to do not-x, rather than x.
    2. Non obligatory permissions (not-x) can be chosen rather than obligatory intentional actions (x). (In addition, there are multiple actions within each category)
    3. Therefore, the removal of prohibitions as a choice does not entail the loss of free will.

    The case of gravity was just to provide some common sense backing in support of this idea that we don’t have to consider constraints as eliminating free will in intentional action.

    The second argument was against the claim that not having the desire to do evil robs our free choices as described in 1-3 of value.

    1. I do not have a desire to commit murder.
    2. My good actions have value.
    3. Therefore, overcoming desire to commit murder is not necessary to derive value from good actions.

    I chose a specific evil action for simplicity, but we can create a larger case against all evil actions. My point is that no one really acts like this value claim is true. It seems to just be trotted out during these arguments.

    Does that help? Let me know where I can expand/clarify.

  17. Tom Gilson

    Ryan, in answer to your question,

    Here’s another way to look at it. If the possibility of human rape were removed from the world through some alternative design of the human body, would free will and morality as we know them fall apart? No. We would go about our business normally, just without rape.

    Here’s how to think about that. Either you are asking for a once-existing possibility of rape to be removed from the world, or you are suggesting that rape should never have been possible. I can’t think of a sane way to propose the former. Shall all rapists and likely future rapists be suddenly struck dead? Shall every attempted act of rape be interrupted by a shining angel, or perhaps, starting, say on October 1 and continuing from then on, by the dreaded failure of male biology? Or will God change every man’s mind so that he wouldn’t dream of doing that, say, on October 1? Which would you propose? And then where would that leave us? There would be another injury you would want God to prevent, and then another, and then another, until no morally significant choices would remain.

    Or would you rather God had made the world so that rape were impossible from the start? How would that have been possible for morally significant persons? And how do you know that some injury x wasn’t prevented by God from the start? You’re asking a what-if question of the sort that cannot be answered, for if that what-if had obtained, then we wouldn’t have the word “rape” in our vocabulary. Who knows what possible form of injury there might be that has never entered our vocabulary?

    Don’t think that I’m taking that as a stronger argument than it is. We still have rape in the world. We have morally significant persons in the world, too, who can choose good or evil. My answer here is admittedly incomplete, but what I wrote and what I linked to in the previous comment fill in some of the blanks.

  18. Tom Gilson

    Further, Ryan, you asked,

    We can agree that B and C are morally “better” than A (even if you hold that the very desire to kill is a sin), but what about B vs. C? Is C any less “good” a person because he did not have to resist the urge to kill? We might say that there is something admirable about B, but would we really claim he is morally superior to C? If so, I ask: why did God not give C the same evil desires so that C would have the opportunity to prove himself? If not, then the argument that freely choosing to not do evil is important is apparently false.

    We cannot look at killing as if it were the only moral question on the table. I have never had a genuine urge to kill, but I have had genuine urges to do other wrong things. So have you. The person who (on the whole) makes more actual choices to do good when there was at the same time a live option to do evil is morally better than the one who makes less good choices. Again, if C had a global lack of interest in doing anything bad ever, then C would not be human in any sense that we understand the word “human.”

    Let’s not forget that these moral choices extend to the spiritual sphere. (The Ten Commandments do not begin with Item #4 on the list.) To love God is good, and not to love God is not good. To love God in a world where no possibility existed except to love God would not be to choose to love him; it would be good, but not morally good, for it would not be in a moral category of choice. God created men and women so that we could make morally significant choices not only with respect to one another but also toward him.

  19. Mike

    Tom,

    I asked whether God wants us to choose good or whether he wants us to overcome evil impulses and then choose good. I feel like you rejected the first part of the question without affirming the second. Do you think the second accurately describes what God wants from us in order to make valuable moral choices?

    Plus, I’ve already accounted for being able to choose not-x where x is doing good (obligatory intentional actions). In addition, prohibitions would still be technically possible, it’s just that no one would choose them because the only reasons for intentional action include desires and we would not desire to do evil. This already exists within us; I would just expand the scope.

    I don’t think what you’ve said thus far provides a problem for what I’ve sketched (even though that wasn’t my particular target).

    Thanks.

    By the way, I appreciate all the comments by theists. It really helps expand the discussion and foster understanding and conversation.

  20. Tom Gilson

    Mike,

    I don’t see how I failed to address the first part of your question. I wrote that choosing good when there is no possibility of choosing otherwise could not be a moral choice.

    If you’ve accounted for being able to choose not-x where x is doing good, well, I thought I had answered that. So please help me by explaining how I missed answering it, if I did.

    A world where no one desired to do evil is a world without morally significant decisions. I think I addressed that, too. Please let me know more specifically how I missed that, if I did. Thanks, and thank you, too, for the word of encouragement.

    But I should say at this point that I have a very early morning ahead of me tomorrow, and a very full day in which I doubt I’ll be on the Internet, so it may be late tomorrow or sometime Sunday before I can come back to this conversation. I’ll be looking forward to it when I do get the chance.

  21. Stephen Bedard

    I will do my best to make it clear what I am saying. I am NOT saying that to have freewill, we must have an infinite number of choices. What I am saying is that in the current world, we are free to choose good or choose evil. If the option to choose evil is removed, doing good is no longer a choice, it is simply what has to be done. I am suggesting that there is value in being able to choose good rather than being forced (through removal of choices) to do good.

  22. Mike

    Stephen,

    Removing evil is not forcing people to do good. If doing good is x, then not-x consists of a larger group of things than evil actions. I’ve already demonstrated this in the article. Plus, you’ve simply repeated your same assertion over again. The whole article was a refutation of your claim.

    Tom,

    I am trying to specifically ask you if you think God only values good choices that are specifically chosen over evil. For example, is it good of me to treat my wife lovingly even though I’m not fighting through some oppositional evil in order to do so?

  23. Ryan

    Tom,

    You wrote:

    “Or would you rather God had made the world so that rape were impossible from the start?”

    This is what I meant.

    “How would that have been possible for morally significant persons?”

    I specified that rape could be removed from the world “through some alternative design of the human body.” In other words, God could have created us differently. It is possible to imagine a world whose inhabitants cannot be raped because the parts required for the act do not exist. Or we could imagine a world in which murder is impossible because people regenerate instantly or have some innate protection against it. The specifics don’t matter because it’s a hypothetical. As long as you grant the possibility, then you also grant that God has allowed a world in which violent crimes like rape and murder are possible instead of a world in which they are impossible. Unless you think that rape and murder are the only possible bad actions in the world, you would also have to admit that, in the absence of violent crimes, people could still commit immoral actions. We might still lie, for example. A world in which dishonesty is possible but murder and rape are not is preferable to a world in which murder and rape are possible, yet we live in the latter. God could have designed everything differently to minimize the damage our evil desires could produce or to even limit those desires, but it did not.

    You wrote:

    “We cannot look at killing as if it were the only moral question on the table. I have never had a genuine urge to kill, but I have had genuine urges to do other wrong things. So have you. The person who (on the whole) makes more actual choices to do good when there was at the same time a live option to do evil is morally better than the one who makes less good choices. Again, if C had a global lack of interest in doing anything bad ever, then C would not be human in any sense that we understand the word “human.””

    This is irrelevant. The hypothetical neither limits possible immoral actions nor raises the possibility of a being who never had the desire to commit any immoral action ever. The hypothetical simply shows that you have two choices, either of which spells trouble for the belief that God could not design us in such a way that we still have free will but do not commit immoral actions.

    Again: person B has the desire to commit a sin, person C does not; neither commits the sin in question. If you grant person B more credit because he actually had to resist a desire, you are affirming that his choice to not commit the sin is morally significant. Since person C never had the desire to commit the sin in the first place, he gets little to no credit. He also did not choose to not have the desire to commit the sin; that came naturally. But he still has free will, right? So why should the lack of desire to commit the sin not come naturally for everyone in the same way that it comes naturally for him? If God exists and person C can exist (regardless of the specific sin in question) as a being with morally significant freedom, why did God not simply make everyone like person C? The only way out of this that I can see is to argue that everyone does have a desire to commit any given sin (in other words, person C cannot exist), but that is ridiculous. For example: I do not have the desire to rape anyone, so why didn’t God simply make everyone like me? Unless, of course, I’m a robot after all…

    Alternatively, you could grant person B no more credit than person C, but then you are admitting that choosing (perceiving a choice and making it) to not commit the sin is not really important as long as no one ultimately commits the sin.

  24. Ryan

    I realized another way that you could protest my persons A, B, and C hypothetical. If you believe that we are not just responsible for our actions and choices, but even for our very desires (which is to say that we choose them), then my argument is not very effective, though the other arguments here still are. But you would have a difficult time proving that this is true for every desire.

  25. Mike

    I feel like the research literature is pretty clear that we do not choose our desires. I just went to a colloquium yesterday where the topic was the Desire-Belief theory of intentional action (just a coincidence that I posted on this too) and that was definitely the dominant view.

  26. Ryan

    Did they think that we have at least some control over at least some desires?

  27. Lee

    I am of the opinion that determinism is true, and free will is an illusion. I think the confusion on these points can be summed up rather neatly by Arthur C. Clark in his insightful quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Where does that leave the argument? Well, it seems clear that the same discussion could occur, borrowing the language of morality (choice, right, good) while stripping away the ‘magic’. There is still a difference between the smell of the average rose and the smell of an average midden heap, without there needing to be a perfect manifestation of either in principle, and nothing more than preference is required to find one more pleasing than the other. Disagreements as to which is which do not rob us of the distinction, they only underscore the point.

    Moreover, even if humans lack free will, God would have it. As Mike brilliantly pointed out, the existence of evil is not the problem (in talking about moral evils perpetrated by human action), but rather the desire to commit evil. In a deterministic universe, the lack of a desire to perform benevolent actions is as much a product of negligence as the desire to perform harmful actions is a product of malevolence, and both are equally damning for the designer. To put it simply, robots who acted like people would be decommissioned in short order.

    Removing the desire for evil action as a solution to this problem, however, implies determinism in, at the very least, it’s weak form (or else it wouldn’t work). Kind of like the shout that starts the avalanche, it seems to me the weak leads inescapably to the strong (i.e. no magic). Like the “distinction” between micro and macro evolution, the line drawn in the sand is arbitrary, and wholly irrelevant.

    The theist will want to cling to free will as a drowning man clings to a life-raft; the desire is irrelevant, choice is king. There is very little(if any) evidence to support the existence of free will, and much evidence putting paid to the fantasy of free choice. I tend to agree with the theist, conditionally, that free will is required for “moral” choices (moral by their definition), but what of it? If the only being with free will is God, whence cometh evil?

    I also think Ryan is playing with fire in his rape analogy; remove rape and you’re talking about lying as the great moral evil. Remove lying and you’re talking about stubbing toes. Bad by comparison is how our minds work, you’ll end up with a universe in which neutrality is somehow the evil; inaction is an evil action, good just isn’t good enough. Moreover, this opens your flanks to the claim that God has already eliminated the greater evils, so what are you complaining about? Slopes don’t get much more slippery than that. We may prefer the valley to the slope, but the argument follows us just the same.

    The problem of evil is an emotional one. A person who is capable of true empathy, and with full knowledge of the suffering in our world, would be left broken and weeping. We instinctively turn a blind eye to a full comprehension, simply because we are largely helpless in eradicating most of it. If the christian god exists, having both the empathy and comprehension, his anguish should threaten to drown the world in his tears. Add omnipotence, and it becomes clear that this state of the world is incompatible with such a being.

    Lee.

    Contra-Free Will:

    Humans do not choose their desires.

    Human desires conflict, and the strongest determine our actions.

    Therefore, humans do not choose their actions.

  28. Mike

    Ryan, to some extent we do in that desires are malleable. That can get pretty complicated but I can give a fairly simple example. For a long time, I had a very great desire to smoke cigarettes. I also had other desires that entailed I stop, like a desire to be healthy. Eventually, these other desires were strong enough that I stopped smoking and over time the desire to have a cigarette lessened. That’s not me willing my desire away or anything, but it does show how processes can mold desires. Of course, we’ll want to recognize that any action against one desire is taken only because of another, presumably stronger, desire.

    Lee, I really don’t know whether there is free will. I go back and forth on it. But if there is free will, it will have to be compatibilist free will able to be reconciled with scientific findings. I can’t make sense of libertarian free will.

  29. Mark

    Mike – thanks. That does help. I agree with your argument as stated this way. You said to Ryan “For a long time, I had a very great desire to smoke cigarettes. I also had other desires that entailed I stop, like a desire to be healthy. Eventually, these other desires were strong enough that I stopped smoking and over time the desire to have a cigarette lessened. That’s not me willing my desire away or anything, but it does show how processes can mold desires. Of course, we’ll want to recognize that any action against one desire is taken only because of another, presumably stronger, desire.”

    I find that in my experience of willing, not only are multiple desires in play but that they each have a singular object. In addition I find that their relative “strength” can be judged by how they exert pressure on me, in two ways, to act on them. The two ways are personal gratification of felt need or want or else how they conform to what I judge to be the good and the right. I suppose we might find a way to collapse those under one heading, but it doesn’t seem warranted to me to do that.

  30. Ryan

    Lee,

    You wrote:

    “I also think Ryan is playing with fire in his rape analogy; remove rape and you’re talking about lying as the great moral evil. Remove lying and you’re talking about stubbing toes. Bad by comparison is how our minds work, you’ll end up with a universe in which neutrality is somehow the evil; inaction is an evil action, good just isn’t good enough.”

    Most people would agree that murder and rape are much worse than stubbed toes. It follows that a world in which murder and/or rape is impossible but stubbed toes are still possible is preferable to a world in which they are all possible. What people who have never experienced murder or rape might think about the greatest evil is not really important anyway, since the issue at hand is whether or not God could have created such a preferable world while maintaining morally significant free will. I still (mostly) agree with you on this point, but I’m not seeing the relevance to this discussion.

    “Moreover, this opens your flanks to the claim that God has already eliminated the greater evils, so what are you complaining about? Slopes don’t get much more slippery than that. We may prefer the valley to the slope, but the argument follows us just the same.”

    Which greater evils? Genocide and endless torture are already possible. We even have the ability to kill everyone on the planet with nuclear weapons. If God allowed much more, we probably wouldn’t be able to survive as a species, which would make our creation pointless. There is plenty to complain about. And again: what is the relevance here? My argument was all in the context of demonstrating that the problem of evil in Christianity is alive and well, that the standard “free will” rebuttal does not truly address the issue.

    As for free will, I’m inclined to agree with you.

    Mike,

    Yes, we’re on the same page here.

  31. Lee

    Mike:

    You weren’t speaking of something we know of being removed, but rather, something becoming impossible to occur before we would have a knowledge of it. Rape, for instance. It is not implausible that some state of affairs could be much, much worse. Read a few fantasy novels and see just how evil, evil can be. Given that possibility, the fact that we are talking about murder and rape as the greatest evil, and worth expunging from both the world and the mind, implies that we would hold the greater evils (already impossible), or evils lesser than murder and rape were the two unknown, in the same light. The argument doesn’t change, the goalpost floats free.

    Why is this relevant? Because if some magical deity were to do as you ask, making the greatest evils we know impossible retroactively, erasing their memory from our minds and bodies, the greatest evils in your argument would change without you having conceded the difference. In fact, this could have already occurred.

    It seems to me this argument needs a finish line, something not amenable to the above criticism. I think the free will rebuttal doesn’t work because free will is an illusion, and jumping into their magical sandbox, where they make all the rules, is playing with fire.

    Lee.

  32. Mike

    Lee,

    I think perhaps you meant that for Ryan. I don’t see that applying to my argument. I said that whatever acts are deemed by God to be punishable by Hell would not be desired. I am offering a counter to the free will defense from within the theistic framework (so assuming things like free will) to show that it ends in a contradiction. On the one hand, they claim that free will must allow us to do things punishable by Hell and I’m saying that’s flat out wrong. It is still possible to have free choices, value, praiseworthy actions, etc. in a world where no one desires to do a specific set of intentional actions. Whether there is free will or not, the criticism still works against theism.

  33. Tom Gilson

    Mike

    Tom,

    I am trying to specifically ask you if you think God only values good choices that are specifically chosen over evil. For example, is it good of me to treat my wife lovingly even though I’m not fighting through some oppositional evil in order to do so?

    Sure. I don’t think God only values good choices that are specifically chosen over evil. I am saying that morality consists in making good choices about one’s actions. Character, by the way, consists in being consistent in that. I am quite sure that you have not been 100% perfect at every moment in wishing only to treat your wife lovingly. Every husband has his moments (every wife has hers, too). So to consider only those moments when there is no temptation to do wrong is to leave out the ones that create and demonstrate character; and the building of character is a great part of God’s intentions for persons.

    Ryan

    A world in which dishonesty is possible but murder and rape are not is preferable to a world in which murder and rape are possible, yet we live in the latter. God could have designed everything differently to minimize the damage our evil desires could produce or to even limit those desires, but it did not.

    Actually, God did do that. He made it utterly impossible for us to commit the sin called trugnort. Can you imagine how awful the world would be if he hadn’t done that?

    Okay, that’s hard to imagine, because you have no idea what “trugnort” means. Now, imagine we lived in a world where rape and murder were impossible. Then this is how your interchange with me might go:

    A world in which dishonesty is possible but torture and war are not is preferable to a world in which murder and rape are possible, yet we live in the latter. God could have designed everything differently to minimize the damage our evil desires could produce or to even limit those desires, but it did not.

    Actually, God did do that. He made it utterly impossible for us to commit the sins called murder and rape. Can you imagine how awful the world would be if he hadn’t done that?

    Okay, that’s hard to imagine, because you have no idea what “murder” and “rape mean.

    What I’m saying is that you have made some an unverifiable assumption when you say that God has not limited the possible evil in the world.

    But I have not yet dealt with your contention that a world without murder and rape is preferable to one in which they exist. But did you notice that when you gave your list of ways rape could be made impossible, everything you listed was freedom-limiting? That’s one problem with your position.

    Another problem with your position is that you have no measurement by which to show your contention is true. Maybe a world in which rape is possible is also a world in which genuine loving care for a woman is more meaningful, and the sum of good and bad in this equation comes out better than one where rape is impossible. You just don’t know. Maybe a world in which God redeems sin and exercises justice to make all things right in eternity is better than one in which no wrong is done. How can you say you know?

    You are basing your position on a vapor. Maybe there is some argument you can bring against God from where you stand, but you have not done so with any success so far.

    Later you add,

    If God exists and person C can exist (regardless of the specific sin in question) as a being with morally significant freedom, why did God not simply make everyone like person C?

    Why did God not make every person so that they only desire good? Because then there would be no morally significant desires, no morally significant actions, no moral significance to being human. If there is no possibility of doing something blameworthy, then it is meaningless to speak of anything being praiseworthy. If there is no possibility of non-love, then there is nothing praiseworthy about love.

  34. Tom Gilson

    Lee,

    Determinism is a dead end in so many ways I don’t know where to begin. If there is no human agency of choice, then there is no choosing an opinion. If everything is physically caused, then there is no belief that is rationally caused (caused by reasons as opposed to neurochemical reactions). In that case your belief in determinism is not the result of reasoning, and there is no reason (literally!) to believe it.

    And I haven’t even started on how determinism destroys all meaning to the word “moral choice.” But I think you can guess how it would do so, considering how it destroys the word “choice.”

  35. Mike

    Tom,

    I’d like to focus on just one evil desire for the sake of simplicity.

    So, I think you agree that I can make choices valued as good by God even if I never in my whole life have a desire to murder. That means that a desire to murder is not required to make a morally significant or morally praiseworthy choice.

    This does not require a discussion of character or other distractions. We are using this specific thought experiment to isolate the issue. It is one desire – the desire to commit murder. Is it or is it not necessary for morally significant choices?

    If the answer is that it isn’t required (and of course that is the answer), then my post does in fact account for morally significant choices. This is basically what was covered by the last part of my original post. I don’t see what you’ve said as damaging my position in any way.

  36. Mike

    I don’t know if I even need to point this out, but I will just in case. We are talking about possibility here, not the actual world. The free will defense is a modal argument that says we have to be able to do x, y, and z in order to be free or significantly free. For that to be true, there must be a necessary connection. I argue quite simply that this connection is not necessary and no one really thinks this way. So, if there is a possible world where the desire to commit murder is not required or morally significant choices, then the free will defense fails as an answer to the problem of evil.

    If I need to be more explicit and draw this out with formal logic, I can do so.

  37. Tom Gilson

    Mike, we need to focus this discussion on evil, not on “one evil desire.” What do you want to do, knock off every evil desire one at a time? Suppose we did that. Would we reach a point at which you would say, “Okay, that’s good enough. If we lived in a world where there was no murder, rape, torture, incest, but there were Ponzi schemes, and educators who are too lazy to teach children properly, and embezzlers, and since that’s all the evil there was in that world, if I lived in that world I could feel free to believe that theistic morality would make more sense than my atheistic version”?

    The premise of your question is wrong to start with, because if you proved your one particular point you would have proved nothing with respect to any larger matters. You need to keep your eyes on the larger issue.

    And because the question of God and of theism absolutely involves character in any understanding of moral choices, we cannot set that aside. Morally significant choices are largely (not entirely, but largely) a matter of what kind of person each of us is.

  38. Mike

    Sorry, Tom, but that is incorrect. The free will defense is of course a response to the problem of evil. This problem requires only one instance to show an inconsistency in the properties and/or existence of God. So, if I can show the free will defense does not apply to any one instance, then it does not work as a reply. This is not controversial.

    All your side talk just functions as a smokescreen.

  39. Tom

    You can call it a smokescreen or you can respond to the argument I gave by way of explanation in my last two comments.

    You are simply wrong in your assessment that only one inconsistency in this category of discussion functions as any kind of defeater at all. The free will defense is not a particularistic defense. It is a position that says humans have the ability to make morally significant choices, and that certain implications follow from that ability. Take away one single choice from that list of morally significant options and you haven’t begun to touch the list; you haven’t begun to touch the overall question of morally significant choices.

    This is not controversial.

  40. Mike

    Tom, you’re not going to listen to this answer, but you don’t understand the true function of the free will defense to PoE based on that comment. If you understand formal logic, I’ll draw it up for you. If not, I’d rather not take the time.

  41. Tom

    When you attempt to refute such a statement by a theist like Bednard and concede to a moral dualism defined by his theistic beliefs, you have limited your use of logic to functioning within that context. Proving his premise false in this context is a Pyrrhic victory at best. In my opinion, his argument is best refuted in the larger context of his skewed world view based on a moral authority which is not demonstrably true.

  42. Tom Gilson

    Mike, I know the free will defense pretty well. If you want to prove that I don’t you’re welcome to try, but don’t feel obligated.

    Let me go back to your conclusion in the OP:

    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.

    First, agreed.

    Second, agreed, but it misses the point, because if you read the literature (one fairly decent Internet-accessible version is here), it’s not about free choices, it’s about morally significant free choices.

    Your third conclusion statement misses the point of morally significant choices too.

    You call this “the tip of the iceberg” of “several devastating problems” for the free will defense, but it doesn’t even address the FWD as Plantinga formulated it.

    I bring this up here, late in the discussion, to try to help you see that you are not really on topic.

    (And I might as well add this: if you are addressing some other version of the PoE than the logical version, then you have not been clear enough about it.)

  43. Mike

    My conclusion was specifically against the linked argument by Stephen Bedard. I think we can also apply these to what you propose and I have discussed this in the comments, but of course the original post isn’t about Plantinga because I wasn’t criticizing his argument.

    I am addressing the logical version. That is precisely why one instance is all that is needed.

  44. Mike

    Are there two different Toms commenting? I’m confused. I was speaking as if both were the same, but perhaps these are two different conversations.

  45. Tom Gilson

    There are two different Toms here all of a sudden. I’m linking to my web page behind my name, if that helps.

  46. Mike

    That does help. Thanks. The comments make more sense now.

    Perhaps it will be worthwhile to write a separate post specifically on Plantinga. It’s a worthwhile discussion and I’d hate for it to be buried in a comment thread.

  47. Tom Gilson

    Mike,

    Earlier you wrote,

    Tom, you’re not going to listen to this answer, but you don’t understand the true function of the free will defense to PoE based on that comment.

    Are you talking about the FWD or about Stephen Bedard’s argument? Don’t fault me for responding to the FWD after you make a charge like that one!

    Anyway, I think I have just discovered where you got Stephen wrong. He wrote, and you quoted,

    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.

    You seem to have read it this way:

    If God took away free will for doing evil, he would have to take away the ability to do good. If we are not free to hate, we are not free to love.

    If that had been what he had said, then everything you wrote here would have some purchase to it. But that wasn’t what he wrote. When Stephen spoke of the “free will to do good,” he was speaking of the ability to choose good. If there is no ability to choose that which is not good, then even if we can do good, nevertheless we cannot choose the good. Our doing of the good is not a choice, and its moral significance is nil.

    I think you’ve built your argument on a mis-reading of his.

  48. Lee

    Mike:

    Yes, my apologies, wrote that in a rush this morning.

    Ryan:

    “Actually, God did do that. He made it utterly impossible for us to commit the sin called trugnort. Can you imagine how awful the world would be if he hadn’t done that?” ~ Tom

    I did warn you 🙂

    Tom:

    A few minor mistakes:

    1. “If there is no human agency of choice, then there is no choosing an opinion.”
    – There is still choosing, it just isn’t the “free” choice you imagine it to be. The choosing is simply done by your strongest desire(s) (which you don’t choose).

    2. ” If everything is physically caused, then there is no belief that is rationally caused”
    – Rationality being a result of chemical reactions is no less rational. Your brain can still influence it’s future states, and a rational deliberation (physical though it is), can still produce belief in something.

    3. “In that case your belief in determinism is not the result of reasoning, and there is no reason (literally!) to believe it.”
    – Unless it is true. Then there is every reason to believe it, regardless of whether we would be capable of doing so. This doesn’t undermine determinism.

    As to the language of morality, this is irrelevant. Meaning isn’t destroyed, only a theistic definition of morality based on free will. “Choice” isn’t destroyed either, only the illusion of free choice by the abstract agent; choices are made, for good or bad, no matter who is in the right here.

  49. Mike

    Tom G.

    I think the first quote was intended for the other Tom. Whether it applies to you I guess depends in whether you agree with his preceding comments.

    To the second point, I did not misread him. I covered choices.

  50. Tom Gilson

    Lee,

    This is just wrong:

    Rationality being a result of chemical reactions is no less rational. Your brain can still influence it’s future states, and a rational deliberation (physical though it is), can still produce belief in something.

    I don’t care to go into it here, other than to say that your neurophysiology does not perform rational deliberations. That ought to be more than obvious, but I’m not going to belabor it here. Your “unless it is true” answer also fails, because without rational deliberation providing reasons to think something is true, then you have no reasons for thinking something is true—even if it is true. If you think that determinism is true, and if you happen to be correct in thinking it is true, you are not correct on account of your reasons, for it was neurophysiology that led you to that conclusion, not reasons. And neurophysiological processes are not identical with reasons.

    Mike, you covered choices, but not morally significant choices. You covered the ability to choose between two good options, but not the ability to make choices between good and bad. You haven’t caught that yet, even though it is absolutely crucial to the case you are trying to address.

    I think that because this is going nowhere, it’s probably time for me to bow out, unless something happens that gives me reason to think it’s going to move forward productively.

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