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Tuesday, November 19th 2013


The Free Will Defense on the Problem of Evil

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: hurting for some reason
  • IN THE BACKDROP: Person of Interest

I've been meaning to write an entry like this one for quite a while. In the process of answering someone's question recently I wound up writing out some of these thoughts and decided I would make further use of them for this little corner of the internet.


Why don't I use the Free Will Defense on the Problem of Evil?

Because if I did, I might just be the only living person doing so. And looking through the past, the only name I can come up with is Jean-Paul Sartre in The Flies (Les Mouches).

Orestes and Zeus are confronting each other.

    Orestes: “You are the king of gods, king of stones and stars, king of the waves of the sea. But you are not the king of men.”
    Zeus: “Impudent spawn! So I am not your king? Who, then, made you?”
    Orestes. “You. But you blundered; you should not have made men free.
    Zeus: “I gave you freedom so that you might serve me.”
    Orestes: “Perhaps. But now it has turned against its giver. And neither you nor I can undo what has been done.”
In this scene, the explanation that human beings have a free will is sufficient to account for whatever people do, particularly in light of the fact that there are no normative moral standards outside of the decisions by human decisions of who and what they choose to be. (“Existence precedes essence.”) In the play God made human beings as free creatures, and now, as Sartre says, God is stuck with whatever people choose. Not that Sartre actually believed in God. His point was that human beings are free to create their own “morality” because there is nothing outside of them to endow their free actions with moral worth. (Please note that this position is very different from that of Albert Camus.)

I would think that no Christian who cares about a biblical world view would go this far in letting the whole problem of evil ride on the simple idea that human beings are free to make their choices. Invariably, a more Christian free will defense ties into some other idea in addition to the proposition that God created humans with a free will. This additional item more often than not is the tenet that God did not just give human beings a free will for no particular reason, but that our freedom carries with it some higher value than would be possible apart from a free will. The argument typically runs along this line:

God, by his very nature, would only create the very best things, and those would include beings who are capable of an authentic relationship with him. That’s us humans. Unless we had a free will, our relationship to God would not really be a genuine one. More specifically, the idea is that God wants us to love him, and in order for our love to be real, it has to be freely offered to him by us. If it would simply be determined by God that we should always love him, it would not really be love, but a coerced set of actions that we perform towards God while God pulls the strings. God wanted a mutually reciprocal relationship with human beings that would be of a higher value than a mechanical, forced relationship. So, in order to create a world with the potential for this state of affairs to obtain, he had to give us a free will. The bottom line is, then, that giving us a free will was the necessary price that God had to pay in order to have an unconstrained relationship with us human beings. He knew in advance that people would misuse their free will and rebel against him, but it was still worth it in contrast to merely programming robots to do whatever he says. Thus, people who argue along this line, may be making use of the idea of a human free will, but their solution to the problem of evil would not mean a whole lot were it not simultaneously tied to a “higher value” defense.

The most common version of the free will defense goes something like this:

    1) The God of theism cannot create a world that contains a lesser amount of good than is maximally possible for him.
    2) A maximally best possible world for God to create is one in which there are free creatures with whom he can have an authentic relationship.
    3) Thus, God created human beings with a free will, knowing that
      a. only those creatures would give him the kind of relationship he desired, and
      b. the freedom that he gave them would also lead them to disobey him.
    4) The disobedience of the free creatures is worth the price of other free creatures having an authentic relationship with him.

Alvin Plantinga stands out to a certain extent because he stays away from the idea that his solution to the problem of evil actually has to coincide with what can be shown to be real. (See his God, Freedom, and Evil, and his Nature of Necessity.) Plantinga’s “free will defense” has a more limited goal under the assumption that all one needs to do is to eliminate an apparent logical inconsistency, namely the one between the two propositions that

    1) “God is omnipotent, omniscient and all-good” and
    2) “Evil exists.” (For metaphysical reasons, I would prefer to say that evil “is real,” but Plantinga isn’t big on Thomistic metaphysics.)

What one has to do is to find a third proposition that is consistent with one, and to demonstrate that those two jointly imply the second one. So, he argues that the following scenario eliminates the potential inconsistency.

God cannot strongly actualize logically possible worlds in which states of affairs are brought about by human free decisions. In less technical terms, God created the world and people who are free. He cannot coerce their actions if they are truly free, nor can he prevent the consequences of their actions. Thus, it is logically possible that they go wrong in their actions. What's more, it is conceivable that in every logically possible world where human beings exist, they will perform such wrong actions. Thus, it is possible that human beings suffer from this condition that he calls “Transworld Depravity.” It entails that both in the actual world and in all other logically possible worlds, people will go wrong. Plantinga concludes that there is nothing logically inconsistent in this idea. Consequently, there is no inconsistency between an all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful God and the existence of evil because it is logically possible that human beings not only have a free will, but also suffer from transworld depravity, which is beyond God's control. To summarize:

    1. God is omniscient, omnipotent and all-good.
    2. Evil exists.
    3. Evil is the result of human beings suffering from Transworld Depravity.
So, to complete the thought, Plantinga’s “free will defense” is not essentially a “higher value” defense, but it would not work either without the possibility of transworld depravity.

Any number of Plantinga’s critics have said that this is all very well, but, even if it does solve the logical problem of evil, people want to know whether what he is talking about corresponds to reality. Is there really such a thing as transworld depravity? Can we really assume that human beings have free will in the manner in which he attributes it to them? Plantinga replies that it is not necessary for him to answer those questions because all he needs to do is to show that there is no inconsistency. Logically speaking, he is right; and any number of atheists, e.g., William Rowe, have conceded that on those purely logical grounds Plantinga’s defense works and have invoked an “existential” or "experiential" problem of evil instead.

So, to summarize so far: A free will defense from a Christian perspective is never just that. It always involves a further factor, and thus becomes, for example,  a "higher value" defense or may a "transworld depravity" defense."

Next installment: Why this is the worst of all possible worlds.

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