May 09

Is Divine Freedom Possible?

You will often encounter the idea that freedom can explain away certain problems in theology and the philosophy of religion. One well-known case is Alvin Plantinga’s book, God, Freedom, and Evil. In it, Plantinga provides a counter to the Argument from Evil that many consider devastating. We can see an example of that type of counter argument in this recent post by Alexander Pruss.

So, that’s one way in which freedom is considered important in this area. Another of the major themes in these discussions is the idea that freedom is somehow better than a lack of it, or that freedom somehow makes actions praiseworthy. For example, you may have heard the idea that you have to be able to do evil for good to have any meaning; or if God showed himself clearly, then accepting Jesus Christ in your heart would lose its significance. Consider the following two quotes from William Lane Craig during his debate with Sam Harris:

 If there is no free will, then no one is morally responsible for anything.

His [Harris’s] thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties because, on his world view, we have no control over what we do.

Craig clearly thinks that, without agency, we are not morally culpable for good or evil. With that in mind, let’s consider part of the argument from Can God be Free by William Rowe.

One interesting thing about the previously mentioned arguments is that they focus on human freedom. But what of God’s freedom? Is it fair to say that, if God did not act freely, then his creation of us is no more praiseworthy than blinking?

Rowe defends a position held by Leibniz that argues, if God has certain perfections (like being perfectly good), then that entails certain things. One of them is described by Rowe as follows:

Given his necessary perfections, if there is a best world for God to create then it appears he would have no choice other than to create it.

This is because God would otherwise be doing less good than is possible, thus, allowing for there to be a better possible being. Anyone familiar with theology can recognize that a better possible being would be an unwelcome conclusion to traditional theists. That is precisely why Leibniz defended that God would have to create the best possible world and also defended that this was, in fact, that best world. Many will at this point criticize the idea that this is the best possible world; however, I want to focus on freedom.

If God had no choice to create this world, then why are we obligated to praise him? Why are his obligatory actions praiseworthy? I think this problem deserves serious consideration from theists.

In parting, I will note that I see a possible, if non-traditional, way out of the problem. One could maintain that Heaven (or something along those lines) is actually the best possible world. Perhaps you could say the best possible world cannot avoid some amount of freely choosing wrong, so Heaven is the world where it happens only once (Satan). Then, you could say God has created at least one other world freely that is not as good as Heaven – namely, our own world. This would even allow for alien worlds, multiverses, and the like, which some might find attractive. Under this view, it would still not be praiseworthy for God to have created Heaven, but I suppose you could say it is praiseworthy for God to have created us and to allow us into this best of all possible worlds, if we make the cut.

What do you think  of the problem and possible resolution?

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  1. Mike

    As I think more about this issue, I wonder if it doesn’t actually pervade everything about God? If God must do the best possible thing in each situation, then why praise anything god does?

  2. John

    Hi its me again.

    It seems to me that to even begin to talk about The Divine Reality you should throw all of the usual Christian presumptions about Reality away with both hands. After all you are no longer a Christian, so why not throw it ALL away.

    Please find some references which are very much about Freedom and right life.






    Plus essays on religion and Reality


  3. Mike

    I don’t have a clue what you’re saying. Please clarify.

  4. Philonous

    I don’t see why God’s benevolence (or goodness) must necessarily entail creation. Before I give my reasons why I think this way I want to show what I think about the logical relation between creation and benevolence. Creation does necessarily entail benevolence, since creation alone does not specify what the intentions of the creator is. The intentions of the creator could be malevolent (in that he wants to create something just so he can torture living things) or simply aesthetic (Creator might simply enjoy creating something). While Creation does not entail benevolence, does benevolence entail creation? My answer is probably not.

    An analogy I can use to prove my point is that you can have benevolent married couples who are kind to their neighbors and emotionally supportive to their immediate families. However while the married couples are clearly benevolent people, this does not necessarily entail that they will reproduce children. Perhaps while the married couples are kind and supportive, they are also very busy with their lives such that they are not ready to have children of their own. Now I am aware of the weakness of the analogy, since human beings and God are different from each other (if God exists), so I will continue to show why I do not think benevolence entails creation.

    I define benevolence or goodness as the tendency/disposition to treat people in so far as the treatment is intended to be conducive/beneficial to their wellbeing. If we accept this definition of benevolence then obviously the creation of the universe itself is not a benevolent act because the universe is not a person and the universe does not necessarily have to be inhabited by intelligent life forms. I would even argue that creating people is neither benevolent or malevolent since this act alone is insufficient to constitute an act that is beneficial or conducive to them; something is beneficial and conducive to someone if that person already exists and the act maximizes his/her well-being. Merely creating things do not maximize well-being but simply establish beings that merely have the capacities (or potential) for well-being.

    In this sense God’s benevolence or goodness is not necessary and sufficient condition to logically entail an act of creation. It would even be awkward if calling God’s creation of the world “good” or “benevolent” or “praiseworthy” if creation in itself does not constitute something that is either good or bad, since creation does not maximize well-being of any intelligent being but possibly initiating it’s existence.

    In regards to God’s freewill, perhaps one can make the deterministic argument that whether or not an intended act of an agency is free or not, it is still blameworthy. Likewise, even if God is not “free”, God’s actions are still praiseworthy or blameworthy, based on the consequences of God’s actions rather than the intentions or nature of God. In principle, some theists, like the Calvinist, can go so far as to accept theological determinism.

    P.S. BTW i’m not a theist, i’m just pointing out the possible objections…I hope you fin this relevant.

  5. Mike

    Hi, thanks for the comment. I think ultimately we’re going to find that moral perfection, along with other sorts of omni properties, just don’t really make sense. I think they all end up like Guanilo’s Island objection where you can keep getting better and better.

    However, as I sit here thinking about moral perfection, if we take it seriously, then I wonder if it wouldn’t actually entail the opposite of what I wrote. I might be having a change of heart.

    Think about this. If God is morally perfect, along with omnipotent and all-knowing, then that seems to entail that you would continue to maximize moral perfection. The best way to do that is to just continue to exist and not bring any lesser beings into existence that sin, cause harm, and basically mess up this moral perfection in a variety of ways. So, there’s an interesting argument there that is completely opposite of what I originally said. It would say that our existence disproves the traditional definition of God. Thoughts?

  6. Philonous

    I think you’re bringing up the problem of evil in reference to the contradiction between two propositions. 1) Human existence is full of suffering and moral atrocities 2) There exists a morally perfect God. The two propositions do not necessarily seem to contradict each other explicitly, but rather there seems to be an implicit contradiction. You make the contradiction more explicit but adding in another proposition: If God Moral perfection and benevolent then God would maximize moral perfection of others (not himself since God is morally perfect).

    The propositions form into a syllogistic argument:
    1) If God is morally perfect and benevolent, then God will maximize moral capacities of of others
    2) Human suffering and atrocities are evident
    3) Therefore God is not morally perfect and benevolent.

    It seems here that the second proposition is denying the consequent, which seems to bring problem with the first half of the first proposition, that God is morally perfect. While the second proposition denies the consequent, it seems that the conclusion that follows denies the antecedent. I think this is a logically valid argument, since it neither affirms the consequent nor deny the antecedent.

    In the light of the argument, I would agree with you that Theists would have problems. However there are two things that Theists could do to counter your arguments: 1) To truly maximizing moral perfection requires freewill, and 2) Suffering and atrocities that occur in human life-time are permitted to lead to the higher good.

    The problem with the first proposal is obvious, since we already discussed the problem of free-will. If Human beings are only held morally accountable if they are free, then can we praise God’s moral perfection? If God’s moral perfection is not praise-worthy since it does not pertain to free-will, then how can we praise God for maximizing the moral worth of others? If moral perfection requires free-will on part of the humans, then doesn’t it follow that God’s moral perfection also requires free-will?

    The second proposal is probably the only argument that does not have the problem that the first proposal. Perhaps God did indeed permit evil and atrocities to occur to fulfill the highest good, perhaps in this sense God is morally perfect. However the problem with this argument is that if that is what Theists admit, then this world is not the best possible world YET. It seems evident because if this world is the best possible world then why does it require improvement or further fulfillment of highest good? If God needs to accomplish a higher good, then it seems that the present world that we live in is nothing better than the future world that we live in. It seems that the future world is the better or authentically best possible world we live in, in contrast to the present. However this is still consistent with God’s moral perfection, since God is still seeking to maximize moral perfection of beings by achieving the highest good for them.Nonetheless, it is still problematic since achieving the highest good requires atrocities and suffering. To us this seems counter-intuitive to the conception of moral perfection, and more or less a vulgar utilitarian-consequentialist type of ethics.

    So yeah, I personally agree with you that the notion of moral perfection of God does sound ridiculous. As I said before, I’m not a theist, probably for the same reason that you are not a theist. I would, however, still say that moral perfection/benevolence does not necessarily entail creation in general.

  7. Philonous

    I forgot to mention omnipotence above, please read it as if I included omnipotence. Sorry for that lol.

  8. Mike

    It’s definitely similar to the problem of evil, but I would say a bit more nuanced (or at least it would be if I fleshed it out fully). I think I would word it something like this:

    1. Any being that is morally perfect would seek to preserve moral perfection
    2. Any being that is omnipotent has the power to maintain said perfection
    3. Any being that is omniscient has the knowledge of what actions will entail non-perfection
    4. God is traditionally said to be morally perfect, omnipotent, and omniscient
    5. The existence of human beings results in a morally imperfect world.
    6. Therefore, the traditional definition of god cannot be completely correct

    I think the big defense here has to be for premise (1). I haven’t thought out a thorough defense, but it sounds pretty good to me. I construct it this way because you would have to get rid of one of the three attributes. You could still possibly maintain the other two (I’m not sure you actually can, but it means defending one less argument).

    I think it’s true that the morally perfect god would maximize perfection in others, like you’ve said, but I don’t want people to say “Well, God has simply made humans as morally perfect as possible.” That’s why I think the argument has to be that we wouldn’t be created at all. If your aim is to bowl a perfect game and you are the perfect bowler, why would you intentionally throw a spare? Even if you could still bowl a pretty good game, it’s not perfect. So, the onus is on me or anyone else who wants to try and defend this argument to say that God would desire to bowl a perfect game – maintain moral perfection.

  9. Paul

    You’re argument can be said to belong to the species of the problem of evil, even though it is not the same thing as one of the problems of evil that David Hume put out. Before I explain why I think this, I want to go through my own examination of your argument.

    I think the argument you laid out is valid, and I do agree that the conclusion follows since the traditional definition of God cannot be completely correct if premise 5 is true. However my problem is that it seems that the first three premises have more or less to do with sustaining moral perfection than maximizing it. An omnipotent being must also have the power to fulfill the capacity for moral perfection of others, while omniscience is knowing which actions/decisions fulfill this goal.Also, Goodness is the consistent desire or motive to fulfill the capacity for the moral perfection of others.

    It’s quite possible to have the motive to fulfill the capacity of the moral perfection of others yet not entirely succeed in this attempt. So if we grant the assumption that God exists prior to the argument you laid out, then premise 5 implies a possibility: that one of the first three premises could be false. If God is not morally perfect, then it follows that the world would be morally imperfect. However if God is morally perfect, it still does not follow that the world would be morally perfect if God lacks omnipotence and omniscience.

    The existence of a morally imperfect world can not only deny one of the first three premises, but it can also tantamount to the possible rejection of all the first three premises. The rejection of all the three premises is consistent with premise 5. However if we are to go in this route, then the conclusion will change from “Therefore, the traditional definition of god cannot be completely correct” to “Therefore, the traditional definition of god is completely false”. However, while the rejection of all the first three premises is consistent with premise 5, it’s questionable if premise 5 is sufficient enough to warrant the rejection of all of the first three premises. The reason why I say this is that premise 5 can warrant several possibilities (Rejection of P1, P2, P3, or all of them). That makes up 4 possibilities, but what requires us to narrow it down to just one possibility? An existence of a morally imperfect world can be interpreted in several ways that rules out one or all of the attributes of God.

    Anyways, I think this is a problem of evil because if we are trying to relate any attributes of God concerning the existence of evil, in so far as any of the attributes of God that can pertain to an expected result of a perfect world is contrary to the existence of an imperfect world. I think this makes up the problem of evil.

  10. Mike


    I agree; it’s very similar to the PoE. Here are my thoughts on your comments:

    I think maintaining moral perfection is all that’s necessary. If the state of affairs didn’t begin as perfect as possible, then maximizing would be relevant, but how can you maximize what is already perfect? So, with only God existing and nothing else to muck up what a perfect and glorious existence this would be, then that would accomplish the goal without the need for maximizing. You can’t make a circle more circular, right?

    I agree that an omnipotent being would have to have the power to fulfill something for others, but it would not have to actualize it – it could just be potential. In fact, if an action violates another property, then it would imply God should not do it, which is precisely what I’m arguing. For example, God has the capability to torture all newborn kittens to an absurd degree, but this would violate the other property of benevolence. So, I don’t think God has to actualize things, just has to have the power to do so.

    It certainly doesn’t have to only narrowly apply to one property, but that is the easiest to defend. Of course, i would give up all of them because I don’t believe in God, but it’s harder to make that case. But it’s just as good to get someone to give up one property. No theist usually wants to give up omnipotence, lovingness, moral perfection, etc. To them it’s basically the same thing as saying there is no God.

  11. Paul


    There seems to be a pretty good point there that you made: namely that if moral perfection is defined as maximizing perfection, then this attribute would certainly be superfluous if there was no creation, and that God cannot really maximize his perfection since it is by definition already perfect.

    Yet, if God’s moral perfection drove him to create the world where moral agents inhabit so God can at least help maximize their perfection, this wouldn’t be praise worthy if we presuppose that anything that has a potential for praiseworthy must presuppose free-will. It would seem that God’s moral perfection would predispose God to create so he can maximize perfection of others.

    However this is where I begin to suspect that my own definition of benevolence seem anthropomorphic and inadequate. I saw a youtube video from the RSA channel, and in this video there was a short lecture on empathy. In this video the lecturer made the point that we are willing to help other not only because we can feel what they feel, but because when we are aware of ourselves as being susceptible to death and being impoverished, this somehow drives us to be compassionate in the sense that we recognize that our own human condition also applies to others, and that we’re “all in this together”. Consequently, we try to maximize or fulfill their needs, and hopefully in return they will do the same.

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is that while God is not susceptible to death, poverty, and other tragedies, it’s strange that we attribute compassion or benevolence to a being since we do not know what motivates God to be compassionate. We certainly do now know that motivates human beings to be compassionate, namely that they are aware of their own finitude and being-towards-death (to use Heidegger’s term), but we certainly do not even know what would drive God to be compassionate since God’s nature is such that God cannot be attributed with the same motives that humans have. In what sense, then, is God compassionate?

    Perhaps the theist might argue that God’s moral perfection alone is the explanation for compassion, but this only begs the question since moral perfection (at least to theist) already assumes the conception of compassion. While compassion may belong to moral perfection, i’m not sure that is consistent with God’s perfection in the more general sense.

    Also, maybe God can just create a morally perfect world where free-will beings always choose to do good, and since creating morally perfect world is not inconsistent with God’s moral perfection, it wouldn’t see far fetched.

  12. San Diego Dave


    Why not think that there are multiple equally good options for God to choose from?

  13. Mike


    There could probably be equally good options, but could there be equally best options? That seems to conflict with what we mean by best. Now, it’s up for questioning whether there can be such a thing as a best possible world. Objections are generally along the lines of “you could always make one thing better.” I’m not sure that’s true because what if you have a world with only God? It all seems to boil down to how do we define a good or better world compared to others? That’s a worthwhile but very difficult question.

  14. San Diego Dave


    I suppose the question would be whether or not there is a single “best” option. For example, suppose there is a possible world identical to ours in every way with the exception that I have blond hair rather than brown. My intuition is that neither this world nor that other possible world is the “best” one. They would be equally good, since I cannot see any reason to think that my hair color would make a significant moral or ontological difference. Thus, if God could have chosen to create this other world where I have blond hair, then he would indeed possess freedom.

  15. Mike

    I’m not sure hair color is the type of thing people want to say makes God worthy of praise. I mean, even we have the power to change that. Let’s think of a maze. We might say that we find it an impressive feat if someone makes it through a complex maze quickly and we would praise this person. Now imagine the same maze and a new person, but all the wrong turns have been blocked. So the person has no choice but to go the correct way. We would not consider it on the same level as the first even though the person could make incidental choices like what shirt to wear or whether to run, skip, or walk.

  16. San Diego Dave

    Sorry, I was treating freedom separately from praiseworthiness. If God is something like Plato’s Form of the Good, then His actions would be Good (and therefore praiseworthy) simply because He does them (because they flow out of His inherent goodness, because their purpose is His own glorification, etc.). Even if you don’t take that view of God, though, there are other reasons his actions could be praiseworthy. For example, even if we suppose that this is the best of all possible worlds and therefore God was obligated to create it, He still could have chosen not to create at all. Thus His action of creating would naturally evoke a response of praise from us, since without this action we would not exist in the first place.

    In any case, I would not tie praiseworthiness to freedom of possibilities anyway, because that leads to absurd moral conclusions (for example, it would suggest that a man who strongly desires to rape children and comes very close to doing so but then decides at the last moment not to is more morally praiseworthy than someone who never even considers raping children).

  17. Mike

    Yes, freedom is separate, but the assumption is that the praiseworthiness stems from the free choices. So, I was merely pointing out that free choices under this assumption seem to be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.

    Now, according to your last paragraph, this argument doesn’t really apply to you. My aim was those who agree with the sentiments of William Lane Craig quoted in the original post. He seems to feel pretty strongly that freedom is required for an action to be morally praiseworthy (or the opposite). I don’t really have a problem with saying they aren’t tied together. I tend toward either defending compatibilism or saying we have no free will (although quantum physics gives me pause), so I am interested in giving a moral account that doesn’t necessarily have to do with completely free choices whatever that even means.

  18. Eloisa

    That’s a mo-rebreakld. Great thinking!

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