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.



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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  1. Mike

    One of the questions addressed was whether choosing between good and evil was required for choices valued by God. We’ve seen that is not the case. I would say that if the choice is valued by God, then it is morally significant. What you are really doing is circular. I gave reasons why we do not need to choose good specifically over evil. We don’t need it for free choices and we don’t need it for valuable choices in the eyes of God. If choices valued by God are not morally significant then please define that term without begging the question.

  2. Mike

    Let me just add to that – Jesus presumably never desired to do evil, yet Christians think his life was filled with morally significant choices, I’m guessing.

  3. Tom Gilson

    Still getting nowhere. “Valued by God” is not equivalent to “morally significant.” You have no good reason to think something that loosely stated and undefined has been established.

    It’s not my burden to show that “choices valued by God” are not morally significant. It’s your burden to show that “choices valued by God” is equivalent to “morally significant,” which you have only waved your hand at and assumed. (Here’s a hint: some choices valued by God are of course morally significant. I’ll let you do the rest of the work.)

    Jesus’ choices are a matter of some considerable theological depth and nuance, having to do with his dual human and divine nature. I suggest you look up the Chalcedonian Creed as one piece of essential background. It’s easy to find on the web. In order to get a real entire picture of the matter, you’ll need to understand the background of the controversy that led to that statement being made. Do you want to go there?

  4. Mike

    So what is your definition of a morally significant choice?

  5. Mike

    Tom, you may be done with the conversation. That’s fine. At least answer this question: Are my choices to love my wife morally significant even though I have no desire to kill her? Yes or no.

    Answer that an I’ll explain why everything you’ve said completely misses the point. Then you can respond or not. Up to you.

  6. Tom Gilson

    A morally significant choice is (roughly) a choice between two live options, where one option is morally superior to the other.

    Your love for your wife is morally significant because God made you in such a way that you might not have loved her. The fact that you have no desire to kill her does not negate the fact that as a human you have the possibility of not loving her, and even the possibility of not desiring to love her. Your loving her when the possibility of not loving her, or not desiring to love her, is morally significant because it is a choice you make that is superior to another possible choice.

  7. Mike

    “A morally significant choice is (roughly) a choice between two live options, where one option is morally superior to the other.”

    Ok, let’s go with that. This is a bit frustrating because my post accounts for this. You can perform obligations, which are morally superior to non obligatory permissions, which you can also perform. Therefore, my post covers your concern about allowing for morally significant choices.

    Now, as for saying value is synonymous with morally significant etc., that’s not actually what I was arguing for. Rather, I was arguing that the definition of morally significant did not contain any reference to choosing good over an evil desire. You have basically said this above, so I won’t expand on why this is the case. Because of this, there is a possible world which contains morally significant choices but which contains no desire to do evil. This is my point and it has significant implications for the PoE.

  8. Tom Gilson

    I don’t accept, and you give no adequate reason to believe, that performing obligations is morally superior to performing non-obligatory permissions, when the nature of the agent is such that there is never any desire to do that which is not permitted, and never any desire to fail to do that which is obligated. You’ll have to work much harder to establish that.

    And what is the nature of “obligation” under those circumstances, anyway? What does the word even mean, when there is no possibility of doing anything other? It sounds a lot like the obligation my cat feels to meow for her supper if we feed her late. Is that morally praiseworthy?

  9. Mike

    You don’t accept that seeking out the person who lost their wallet and returning it is morally superior to just walking by and doing nothing? I find that hard to believe. By the way, I specifically did not say there was never a desire to fail to do perform obligatory actions. If that were true, your accusation might actually be correct. But it isn’t and just further shows your misunderstanding.

    If we are in a universe created by God and do not have a desire to do actions worthy of Hell, then here is one way we could make sense of obligatory and permissable (we could come up with others). Actions specifically commanded by God are obligatory (love your neighbor). Actions not specifically commanded by God, but also not specifically prohibited by God are permissable.

    If you want to, you can still in this example world give preferable treatment to those who perform obligatory actions, like preach the good news. And you can have someone who just sits around all day. They don’t specifically do anything wrong, but they don’t deserve any special reward either. That person is possible, though, which is important. You can still even imagine a heaven here and maybe everyone else just goes away, but is not punished, etc. That is all just running with an example and may need altered, but you can see hopefully that we can sketch a world with differences in actions and people are still freely choosing the good ones.

    Back to your first point, in our example world, surely we recognize the moral difference between the person spending their time spreading the good news and the person sitting around all day watching tv or something.

  10. Ryan


    I think that my person A/B/C hypothetical parallels Mike’s argument. Since I agree with him, I’m just going to point to what he has been saying as my own case rather than start this up again.

    Tom and Lee,

    You have both criticized my argument that (essentially) God could have created a better world with fewer evils but maintained morally significant free will. You both seem to think that, in the absence of rape and murder, our moral conceptions would adjust and assign, say, dishonesty to the highest evil. I’m not sure that this is true.

    First of all, just because we cannot commit some evil does not mean that we cannot imagine it. I can already commit murder, but I recognize that it would be worse if I could commit murder with just a thought and on a grand scale. In a world without rape, we could still imagine that we would be worse off if we had the necessary parts (or desires) to commit the act. In a world without murder, we could still imagine death caused by another person. We would grant in both cases that the world could be worse just as we grant that this world could be worse. This does not change the fact that this world could also be better.

    Second, Tom, your “trugnort” hypothetical seems to make my case for me. We live in a world without trugnort, yet we also have morally significant free will. If it is okay to eliminate such possibilities as trugnort, why not eliminate every other possibility except something fairly harmless? We would still be able to choose whether or not we commit that one sin, but the sin itself would not cause terrible harm to anyone else. Again, God could minimize–not just lessen, but minimize, which it clearly has not done–the damage that our sins do.

    I consider this argument (as opposed to person A/B/C) to be “soft” because it accepts, for the sake of argument, your premise that free choices are only morally significant when evil is possible. It simply points out that only one, relatively harmless evil need be possible to maintain morally significant free will. Even if I accepted that our moral code would adjust to make that one sin as repugnant as murder is to us now, it remains true that a world in which only a pinch is possible is preferable to a world in which murder is possible. Just look at the results and the pain caused… unless you somehow think that extraordinary pain, loss of life, and the sadness of friends and family are comparable to a momentary sting.

    One more, relatively minor note about the trugnort case. You have created not just an impossible sin, but an unimaginable one. If we cannot even imagine it, what reason do we have to think that it could exist? I’d rather work with imaginable but impossible sins, like murder by thought, which are already plentiful. But even if sins beyond our very imagination could exist, they do not harm my argument.

    And Lee, we jump into their sandbox to make a stronger case. If we can demonstrate internal inconsistency, we are much more likely to convince. This is how it worked for me.

  11. Tom Gilson

    You don’t accept that seeking out the person who lost their wallet and returning it is morally superior to just walking by and doing nothing? I find that hard to believe.

    You forgot the conditions of the question you are asking. Of course I think seeking out a person to return a wallet is praiseworthy, because I live in a world where we know that persons have a choice to do something else with their time (and with the wallet). Given that there is a morally significant choice there, failing to help the person who lost the wallet would be at least somewhat blameworthy.

    But you posit a world where no one would ever desire to do anything morally blameworthy. In a world like that, no, I don’t think there is anything morally superior about helping. It’s just following one’s desires, just as my cat follows her desires when she meows for her dinner.

    If you want to, you can still in this example world give preferable treatment to those who perform obligatory actions, like preach the good news. And you can have someone who just sits around all day. They don’t specifically do anything wrong, but they don’t deserve any special reward either.

    That is not a possible world under theism. It is wrong to just sit around all day and not to love. If you want me to defend some-possible-world-ruled-by-some-possible-god-who-is-not-the-God-of-Christian-theism, well, I have no more interest in defending that than you do. If you think that God should have not been a God of love who commands humans to love in order to make a less evil world, then you are calling for an absurdity.

  12. Tom Gilson

    Lee, your idea that God could have made moral free will possible with just one type of sin actually parallels quite closely with the message of Genesis 3. But it too imagines a different kind of theism than that of Judaism or Christianity; for in Judeo-Christian theism, one of the great goods, actually the foundational good for all other goods, is to live in a yielded, loving, worshipful relationship with God. To do wrong is (among other things) to break away from that good relationship; and to break away from the source of goodness. Breaking away from that relationship has consequences, for when separated from the source of goodness, we lose track of it. We go our own way.

    Humans are contingent creatures. There is nothing in us that defines good. (Desire is certainly not it!) We derive that definition from a transcendent source. Separated from that source, God allows us freely to go a certain distance in that wrong direction. And he lovingly calls us back to truth and goodness, through Christ.

    This is all very, very sparsely outlined. I’m afraid it won’t be complete enough to cover it all for you.

  13. Mike

    “In a world like that, no, I don’t think there is anything morally superior about helping. It’s just following one’s desires, just as my cat follows her desires when she meows for her dinner.”

    That is the world we already live in. Please give a single example of intentional action where you did not follow your desires. Give the action and your specific reasons for action. Desires combined with beliefs and means are the only reasons for intentional action.

    I disagree with the other things you’ve said, but it’s really not even necessary to defend. We’ve already established enough to say there is some possible world with no desire to commit evil and yet there are morally significant choices. That’s all I need.

  14. Tom Gilson

    No, Mike, we do not already live in that world. The “world like that” of which I was speaking (why should I have to repeat this?!) was “a world where no one would ever desire to do anything morally blameworthy.”

    You triumphantly pronounce yourself as having all you need to show there is some possible world with no desire to commit evil and yet with morally significant choices, and you can’t even connect one sentence to the next, not even a pronoun to its antecedent.

    I think this is enough for me, for there is too much of this kind of recurring logical disconnect going on here. I’m bowing out. Thanks for the conversation.

  15. Mike

    I’ll just note a few things:

    1. That was an example of ad hominem.

    2. The world like that referred to “just following one’s desires.” You can hopefully tell that’s what I meant because I quote it just above what I said. Nice try, though.

    3. I don’t think your zombie god approves of condescension. Better run along and talk to the wall some more with the hopes that you’ll be forgiven of your misdeeds here today.

    4. Just for good measure, here is a possible world that meets my criteria: There is a possible world that only consists of me and my wife. In this world, I choose to love her, and I never desire to kill her. This world provides a morally significant choice with no desire for murder. One instance with one evil is all I need, but I could expand this further easily.

    Good day, Tom. Thanks for showing off that winning Christian charm and biting intellect.

  16. Tom Gilson

    A few responses as I close, too.

    First, the antecedent to “that” in “a world like that” was not. Here is the full passage:

    But you posit a world where no one would ever desire to do anything morally blameworthy. In a world like that, no, I don’t think there is anything morally superior about helping.

    The antecedent was clearly, “a world where no one would ever desire to do anything morally blameworthy.”

    Second, I’m not sure how you mean ad hominem. It was not a technical ad hominem, because I did not say, “You are a bad person (or some such thing), therefore your argument is wrong.” That’s an ad hominem in the technical sense; but that’s not what I said. I said in effect, “There is something wrong with the way you are reading my arguments, therefore I do not think there is any point in continuing.”

    Now there is a non-technical, casual sense in which ad hominem is used, which is for any kind of put-down, usually of a gratuitous kind. I think my remark was accurate, and I stand by that. You have not demonstrated the ability to connect an antecedent to its pronoun, and your logic has suffered badly as a result. I presented this as the reason for my departure from this conversation (which will be complete following this last comment). Whether it was gratuitous or not is a matter of personal opinion.

    Third, I don’t follow a zombie god.

    Fourth, when you triumphantly announce your point established when it hasn’t been, then I think it is appropriate for someone to point out that your claims of victory are premature.

  17. Tom Gilson

    I mean to include: if you meant ad hominem in the non-technical sense (for surely you couldn’t have meant it in the technical sense), you might apply the same standard to yourself: accusing me of following a “zombie god,” and the rest of what you included with that, accusing me of condescension, and your closing sarcasm.

    Hypocrisy is as hypocrisy does.

  18. Mike

    I’m tempted to say LOL, but I don’t really ever use that.

    1. I think it’s pretty clearly stated that you think my argument should be dismissed because in a few of the comments you claim I was not able to string together coherent statements. Of course, even that claim (along with all others you’ve made) is wrong as shown in the next point.

    2. The antecedent I quoted was not the antecedent you quoted. They are both open for criticism. You chose to describe your antecedent in that way and I criticized it. You have your panties in a bunch over a manufactured problem. If you don’t want a description of your own devising to be criticized, then don’t use it. If my critique of your own description is not criticizing what you meant then do a better job of describing it. Not my problem.

    You never answered my challenge to that, by the way.

    3. I don’t know. It sure sounds similar to a zombie.

    4. I established it right there in virtue of you granting that that counts as morally significant. Seriously?!?

    Finally, I never said I wasn’t being hypocritical. That doesn’t absolve you of your sins. Better get to praying. The end of the world could come at any moment! Or don’t you believe in your own bible?

  19. Mike

    Just a general note to readers: You are welcome to criticize me or my arguments and I swear I won’t be a jerk. I think anyone familiar with the site knows my reaction here is not what I always do. However, if you keep restating a point that I’ve already answered or is obviously false, then, yeah, I’m probably going to get pissed.

  20. Lee

    “I don’t care to go into it here, other than to say that your neurophysiology does not perform rational deliberations”

    Both of your comments to me rest on this assumption. You make it, then work forwards. This will be my second request for justification. I am well aware of how little you want to “go into it here”, but you can’t very well assume determinism isn’t true and then argue for why, from that assumption, determinism can’t be true.

    “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.”

    Rational deliberation does not provide reasons for thinking something is true, it is the act of analyzing the reasons for and against. The reasons for thinking something is true are, as I said, everywhere to be found (if it is true). Sense perceptions, evidence, testimony, memory, these provide reasons; rational deliberation only uses them, it doesn’t produce them.

    But it gets worse. If your beliefs or actions are not determined by reasons, but instead chosen freely, you are not believing or acting rationally (except by coincidence). You cannot choose to believe something any more than you can choose to love someone, you do so for reasons.

  21. Lee


    I understand why you jump into the sandbox, yet I’ve found that people like Tom use the response I put forward (and has, here). I’m not saying you are wrong, I just don’t think that method is convincing. It seems to me that a denial of free will is a more effective conversation. You lose nothing, and they don’t get to make up the rules.

  22. Ryan


    I suppose it’s a matter of what we think is more likely to convince someone. It’s fair to criticize the concept of free will, but that is cherished across belief systems, which in turn means that emotions and attachments are likely to produce irrational resistance to your case. I don’t think that this particular issue generally produces as much of that. Either way, Tom has apparently rejected both of our arguments without much cause, so neither of us is making progress.

    As I mentioned before, my own approach worked when I was a Christian. It was partly because I had a dialogue with someone who was willing to accept my premises and run with them to ultimately ridiculous conclusions (if any) that I broke out of that cognitive prison. Had I only been presented with your argument against free will, I might have simply put up walls and walked away. It’s the difference between completely pulling out the foundation of a religion in a flash of deductive reasoning and methodically pointing out the inconsistencies in the rest of the structure.

  23. Hendy

    Wow, reminds me tremendously of one of my own ideas I’d been kicking around for a while. I called it The Impossibility of Evil. I was surprised to find something so similar here!

  24. Mike

    Hi Hendy. Yeah I definitely see the similarities. I think the limits of action point is a great one. Then the ball is in the theist’s court to say where the line must be drawn. Is it love? Morally significant? Those were suggested here and I think both can be covered.

  25. James

    Sounds like semantics to me.

    I think the issues are quite simple. God gave us the ability to think anything we want within the parameters of our intelligence. With this ability–NEW beings can work through what they want to be. I firmly believe that when I go to heaven the ability to think anything I want will be given up. I have prayed this exact prayer before. I dont want the ability to think contrary to God’s will. Its unpleasant. To many..its not..they love it….they lust for it…it makes them feel good. In short…they’re evil and Im not. Not because I dont ever sin..but because I want this ability taken away from me.
    I think people like to get all “pen to paper” with this topic and they miss the point by getting all modal about it.

    The sad fact is, the atheist not only has Zero freewill(as mind cant move matter) but their opinions are no more useful than a clump of dust in a nearby nebula. How they can suggest that whats colliding in their brain is anymore their own than whats colliding in the nebula defies all reason.

    These logic defying gymnastics dont even begin to square with reality and is the price that must be paid when the mind rejects its Creator. How utterly incoherent it is. When people started thinking their equations *defined reality instead of realizing math exists to allow us to Use our world even Einstein became as autistic as most of the myopic nerds who now dominate the fields of Origins. The reason why the “Norm” believes in God and the “Norm” believes in freewill is because they see the forest while the nerds stare at the tree.
    BTW..I actually chose every word, precisely, that I just wrote. I moved matter and directed molecules with my will. If anyone believes they cant do the same then why speak at all.

  26. ruiz

    Main question. Where is the border of free will??? I am atheist and People think about me that I have no border of my free will (I am evil for them in Central Asia). How to understan the”Free will border”?

  27. mental physical

    That’s way the bestest answer so far!

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