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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