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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2 responses to “Free Will Paradoxes and the Problem of Evil

  1. Dude,

    Arguing or implying that the world would be better had the highest life form been a butterfly is not a very persuasive argument from evil against the existence of a good god. Speaking for myself, I’m very grateful for my chance at being alive.

    As far as whether we couldn’t all desire good, haven’t some of the worst atrocities been committed on one or another formulation of the good, right, proper, just, etc. thing to do? Right and wrong don’t come that easily to finite creatures.

    For your thoughts or feedback:

  2. Thanks for the comment, Roman.

    I don’t think that a world in which butterflies were the highest life form would necessarily be a better world. I’m suggesting that such utilitarian calculations would be difficult to make. I’m also suggesting that the Christian notion of God entails the view that since nothing in creation adds to the perfection of God, God needn’t create sentient creatures. God would be perfectly justified in creating a world of butterflies (or nothing at all). A world of sentient creatures is not necessarily a ‘better’ overall state of affairs given the relevant concept of God (perfect being theology). Yes, it’s counter-intuitive but it does seem to follow. I’m saying it’s a problem for the Christian, so if you don’t find it persuasive, that’s quite natural. Think of it as a reductio of the Christian position.

    I’m glad that you’re happy to be alive. Of course, if you didn’t exist you wouldn’t be happy or sad about it. It’s kind of like asking if you’d be disappointed if you hadn’t been born. Your non-existence would not be an evil per se. Also, we have to consider the people who aren’t happy to be alive, those Marilyn McCord Adams (a theist by the way) says don’t experience their lives as good or worth having because they’ve been subjected to horrendous evils.

    Right and wrong don’t come easily to us, but I think it’s an overstatement to say that they don’t come naturally to finite creatures without qualification. As I said, I think we’ve simply failed to exercise our imaginations with respect to what kind of creatures an omnipotent God could create. He could have created finite creatures with an overwhelming desire to do good. This need not override freedom, as understood by compatibilism (Some theists, e.g. Calvinists, are already compatibilists). God is presumably free but can’t do evil. Could he not create finite creatures in his image on this score too?

    Thanks for your comment and I’ll check your website for further answers to these questions.

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