Monthly Archives: August 2012

Free Will Paradoxes and the Problem of Evil

Free will is often thought to be the friend of the theist when it comes to the problem of evil. It’s probably the most ubiquitous response to the age-old question “If God, why evil?” However, in a number of respects, it’s found wanting. The assumption behind the Free Will Defense (FWD) is that free will is an overriding good that justifies instances of evil. The non-theist can begin by simply asking ‘What’s so great about free will?’ It’s quite possible that free will, understood contra-causally, is not all that great, at least not great enough to justify the permission of vast amounts of suffering. After all, if God is omnipotent, God can create any kind of world. He’s limited only by his imagination (which is presumably infinite) and the laws of logic. God could create a beautiful world without free creatures, or even sentient creatures. Of course, some theists would argue that such a world would lack the great goods of sentience and free will, but presumably, a world like that would also lack much suffering. How one makes the utilitarian calculation and decides which world on balance is better, is difficult to say. But there’s another issue here. God is perfect. Perfection lacks nothing. If God were the only entity in existence, perfection would already be attained. Creation does not add anything to the grandeur of God. Orthodox Christianity says as much. So the act of creation is entirely free on God’s part. Moreover, since creation adds nothing to God’s perfection, a world with sentient creatures would seem to add nothing more to the perfection of the total state of affairs than would a world of creatures no higher on the sentience scale than butterflies. Granted this seems counter-intuitive, but nonetheless, it seems to follow.

But assuming that God does want to create sentient creatures, he could have done so in ways that don’t entail the presence of evil. I think that we’ve simply failed to exercise our imaginations with respect to the possibilities available to omnipotence. First, compatibilist free will is an option. God could have created beings such that they never use their freedom for evil. We’d still be free even if we only ever desired the good. If it’s possible that I do the right thing on one occasion freely, then it’s possible that I do the right thing on every occasion freely. This is presumably the case in heaven. So it’s at least a possible world and one that God could have actualized. Some theists, while agreeing that this is a possible world, say that it’s not a feasible world for God to create. Alvin Plantinga famously proposed the notion of transworld depravity, which states that for any world God creates that contains free creatures, those creatures would go wrong. However, this is difficult to believe. If God foresaw, for example, that Adam would go wrong, God could have created Joe instead, who would have made the right choice. But transworld depravity entails that there is no possible world in which Adam, or any substitute, does right. The problem with this view, besides its prima facie implausibility, is the fact that it undermines free will, the very good the FWD is based upon. If you’re arguing, in effect, that a given outcome is determined, then for all intents and purposes, free will doesn’t exist. This paradox is at the heart of the FWD and doesn’t seem to be solvable.

There’s also the problem that free will is an instrumental, rather than intrinsic, good. It’s value is as a means to an end. So whether free will is a good or not depends entirely on the end being achieved. As Stephen Law has argued, it’s quite possible that an Evil God (EG) would create a world very much like this one. The standard FWD can be flipped on its head. For example, a believer in EG could say the reason that there is good in the world is because EG has given us free will. The EG creates free will so that we might use it for evil, but that also entails that we sometimes use it for good. This is a trade-off EG is willing to make in order to bring about the evil he intends. Of course, nobody believes in EG on the basis of this apologetic, but that’s precisely the point. Why credit the argument when presented in defense of the Christian God? The more general point, however, is that if people consistently use their free will for evil, it ceases to be a great good. On balance, it becomes an evil. So we have another paradox. In the interest of using free will as the good that justifies the permission of evil, we must concede that free will is being used perversely, but then it ceases to function as a justifying good.

The final problem is that of social evil. This term comes from Ted Poston who has written a paper on the subject. The basic idea is that there is a category of evils, social evils, that arise from game-theoretic actions among creatures. Each creature pursuing his or her own rational self-interest will have the effect of hurting some other creature. This seems unavoidable. Note, however, that social evil is distinct from moral evil. The creature does not necessarily misuse his or her free will. The harm in this case is simply a consequence of game theory. The upshot of this argument is that even in a world without moral evil, free will would still entail the harm of social evil. Again, what’s so great about free will?

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Free Will is Not the Ability to do the Opposite

In thinking about free will and compatibilism, I’ve often thought that free will isn’t the ability to do the opposite of what one does. This is not to say that one cannot do otherwise than what one does. Nor is it to say that one cannot act contra-causally (although I suspect one can’t). It’s simply to say that free will doesn’t entail the power to do the opposite. This has a consequence with respect to the problem of evil. Free will often comes up as a reason why evil must be at least possible. If God gives creatures free will to do good, this means that they must also have the power to do evil. However, this isn’t necessarily true. I have an unlikely ally in this cause: William Lane Craig. In answer to the question ‘Is God Able to Do Evil?‘ Craig responds as follows:

[Y]ou assume that freedom entails the ability to do the opposite of what one does. I’m persuaded that this is not true. Consider the well-known illustration of someone who, unbeknownst to him, has had his brain wired up with remote-controlled electrodes by a mad scientist who is an Obama supporter. When the man enters the voting booth, if he votes for Obama, the mad scientist will do nothing. But if he goes to vote for Romney, the mad scientist activates the electrodes, which trigger him to vote for Obama instead. Now clearly the man has no power in this situation to vote for Romney. But if he goes in and votes for Obama, doesn’t he do so freely? After all, the scientist did nothing in this case! It is just as if the man were not wired with electrodes at all. This thought experiment suggests that what is crucial to freedom of the will is not the ability to do the opposite but the absence of external causal constraints upon one’s choice: it is entirely up to you. In God’s case He is clearly free from such external causal constraints and therefore does the good freely. So He is not at all a moral automaton, but a free agent. 

This seems right to me. But I would ask, from a compatibilist perspective, why God couldn’t create human beings in his image on this score. It seems quite possible that God could create free creatures such that they always freely choose what’s good. They would be free in the same sense that God is free: they would always freely desire the good and never choose to do evil. However, on this definition, they would nevertheless be truly free. Freedom does not entail the ability to do the opposite of what one in fact does. If this is true, the free will defense has a serious flaw. Yes, it’s possible that God would create free creatures that could go wrong. But why would he do so when there was a much better option available, namely compatibilist freedom?

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Further Reflections on the Prosblogion Survey

I’ve taken the Prosblogion survey several times now, and I’m convinced that, given the constraints and assumptions of the questions, one’s answers will always imply that there is a Necessary Being. The argument(s) generated at the end of the survey rely on modal logic, specifically axiom S5, in which ‘possibly necessarily’ entails ‘necessarily.’ I’ll be the first to admit that my grasp of modal logic is less than secure. My understanding of arguments that rely upon it, such as Plantinga’s modal ontological argument, has been greatly aided by this exchange with Rick Taylor that I believe is also relevant here. It’s tricky, even for philosophers trained in making such distinctions, to distinguish between the various definitions of possibility that are at play in such modal arguments. Typically, ‘possibility’ is understood to mean ‘logical possibility’ or some state of affairs that entails no contradiction. However, logical possibility in this sense is not equivalent to modal possibility.

To use Mr Taylor’s example, the following assertions are logically possible: 1) Unicorns exist in no possible worlds 2) Unicorns exist in some but not all possible worlds 3) Unicorns exist in all possible worlds. Although these assertions are all logically possible, they are not all modally possible. That is to say, it’s not possible to construct three worlds in which 1 is true in one world, 2 is true in the second, and 3 is true in a third. That’s because, in S5, if 1 is true in one possible world, then it’s true in all of them, and likewise for 2 and 3. Note that 1 asserts that Unicorns are impossible (metaphysically) even though 2 and 3 are logically possible, i.e. coherent statements. So we have to be careful to avoid such equivocation when discussing ‘possibility.’ In my humble opinion, modal theistic arguments, including those presented at the end of the survey, trade on this equivocation. For example, one might ask, ‘is it possible that there is a Necessary Being?’ This depends on how we understand possibility. If one means ‘is this a logically possible, i.e. coherent or non-contradictory, statement?’ the answer is surely ‘yes.’ If one construes ‘possible’ along the lines of S5, however, this innocent answer has the implication that a Necessary Being exists if its existence is even possible!

If we phrase the question differently, ‘is it modally possible that there is a Necessary Being?’ I think the atheist can safely deny this. Remember, ‘necessary’ in modal terms just means ‘existing in all possible worlds.’ Note that in the above example, statement 3, ‘Unicorns exist in all possible worlds’, just is to say that Unicorns are necessary. Nevertheless, I think one can deny that Unicorns are modally possible, despite the concept being coherent, and one can do the same  in the case of God. One can deny that God exists in all possible worlds, which just is to deny that there is a Necessary Being.

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Interesting Survey on Necessary Being

OK, so maybe I exaggerated a bit in my last post because here I am writing on philosophy of religion again. The Prosblogion is hosting a survey on Necessary Being. I took it and given my answers, the result is that I should logically believe in a Necessary Being. The result is a bit unexpected. I answered honestly, didn’t try to ‘game’ the system, etc. but the argument presented at the end of the survey does seem to imply, based on my answers, that a Necessary Being exists. I’m going to give this more thought, take the survey again (which the designers encourage), and probably post on it in future. For now, a few quick reactions: I’m not sure that commitment to the Principle of Sufficient Reason commits one to the existence of a Necessary Being. Check out this post over at ex-apologist for a plausible argument for that claim. Also, it seems to me that concrete contingent things need a cause, but it’s less obvious that the set of concrete contingent things do. It also seems possible for a series of ungrounded contingent things to go on for infinity. These are all controversial claims — all interesting philosophical claims are — but they seem at least as plausible as their denial. All this to say that I’m not sure my answers have the implications attributed to them by the survey. But again, I’ll have to retake it and pay more attention before drawing any substantial conclusions.

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God Debate Burn Out

I’m a bit burned out with the God debate. Maybe it’s just the dog days of summer talking, but I’ve definitely slowed my output lately. That’s partly due to the fact that I’ve been working on other projects, but it’s also partly because I feel I don’t have much more to say on this topic. I’ve processed the main reasons for my loss of faith on this blog, and I don’t really have much more to add. Maybe that will change over time, but right now I feel like a change of pace. I hope to continue to post on philosophical themes, but plan to take a hiatus from philosophy of religion. I have some topics in mind, but I welcome suggestions  from readers. What would you like to see?

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Stephen Law versus William Lane Craig

Video of last fall’s debate between Stephen Law and William Lane Craig is now online.  I think Law comes off quite well in this one, much better than Craig’s typical opponents. I felt Law pushed Craig’s arguments in ways they needed to be pushed and called Craig out on his ‘skeptical theism’ approach to the problem of evil. As a result, I thought that Craig was left without an adequate response to Law’s ‘Evil God Challenge.’

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