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Free will and the problem of evil

The most prominent responses to the problem of evil revolve around the value of human freedom. The problem, it will be recalled, lies in our dismal world having such a perfect governor as God. There is at least a tension here, as we expect a lot from God and are decidedly underwhelmed by the state of the world. Why doesn't God improve matters? End some suffering? Stop some iniquity? The answer, some say, is that God couldn't interfere without wiping out human freedom. You can't have free will without evil, and God justifiably opts for both.

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The response should be explored. Why should free will lead to evil? The answer is that humans are corrupt at heart, and they consequently choose to harm their fellows. It is not that, to possess freedom, one must do evil. After all, God is traditionally alleged to be both free and morally perfect. Rather, as a matter of contingent fact, humans happen to choose evil by their exercise of freedom. And if God were to 'get involved' and start influencing human actions for the better, then the actions wouldn't be free any longer. Human freedom means that God cannot guarantee human perfection.

Why should it be better for God to respect human freedom? What's so great about free will? The answer is that free will is what makes us valuable moral agents. If God were to deny us our freedom, human society would be like an assemblage of robots. Perhaps there would be some value in such a world, but nothing compared to the free moral agency possessed by God and real-world humans. All the cruelty that we humans freely perform is indeed regrettable, but it is a small price to pay for freedom.

Complications and challenges

No matter how successful this response, it cannot countenance all the evil in the world. After all, there is much catastrophic horror that has nothing to do with human choices. Think of earthquakes, floods, and disease -- so-called 'natural evil'. We cannot confront a paralyzed, demented, and blind Tay-Sachs child and his despondent parents and then chalk up the entire wretched scenario to free will. No one chose it. Healing that child wouldn't tread on anyone's freedom. At its best, the value of free will is relevant to, and can only excuse God for, a mere portion of the evil we find. Consequently, we must stick with the evil that we humans freely create -- so-called 'moral evil'.

But there is another, similar problem. Some instances of moral evil already involve violations of free will -- e.g., rape. For God to step in and deny the violator his freedom would also be to protect the victim's freedom. In such cases, it all comes down to whose free will is more valuable -- which instance of coercion would be worse? And it is morally implausible that the best thing to do is to respect a rapist's freedom to rape unhindered rather than protecting the victim's freedom. So, for a large category of moral evil -- all moral evil involving coercion -- it's automatically implausible that the value of free will can justify God's inaction. We must then narrow the domain of admissible evil yet again.

With the candidate evil suitably restricted, we can ask: Is God off the hook? Many say no. Hard determinists deny that we have free will, and so can dismiss the entire proposal as mere fiction. Free will cannot excuse God if free will doesn't exist. Compatibilists sometimes attack the essential premise that God cannot influence our choices without thereby cancelling our freedom. After all, compatibilists believe that determinism is consistent with human freedom. And if determinism can allow for freedom, perhaps so can appropriate divine meddling with our decisions. The upshot of these challenges is that, to absolve God, we need a reason to think that he really couldn't influence our choices without cancelling our freedom. The customary theistic appeal is to a libertarian conception of free will, but such a conception is under heavy fire from its rivals.

Another challenge focuses on different ways to interfere with freedom. One way is to 'jump in' and take control of the agent, dictating its every movement and thought. This is the kind of coercion we envision in mad scientist stories. But it might also be the kind of coercion that motivates our above intuition that if God got involved, we'd all be 'robots'. We should remember that there are other, softer kinds of coercion. Look to policemen and jailers. They don't take control of an agent's decisions. They just threaten the agent with physical force and restraint, and carry out their threats if necessary. Policemen and jailers restrict our freedom, but it's a restriction we're willing to accept, for our own protection and safety. Now, return to God. If he were to get involved as a Divine Policeman, making threats and enforcing them, then would we be 'robots'? Seemingly not. Instead, we'd be citizens of a divine nation-state, and a very safe and reliable nation-state at that. But then the moral claim is dubious -- it's no longer clear that God should hold back. Taking total control of our decisions would be wrong, but laying down the law might be right. So why hasn't God done it?

Several further challenges attack the idea that evil-eliminating divine interventions must cancel human freedom. These challenges suggest different ways for God to eliminate evil, all the while leaving our free will untouched -- "innocent interventions". One proposal is that God allow sinful acts, but stop their evil consequences. So if I fire a rifle at your head, God allows me to make the decision, but then makes the trigger stick, or the rifle misfire, or the bullet pop out of existence. Such interventions would, happily, divorce evil choices from the subsequent suffering. Another proposal is for God to fortify humans as to render us less vulnerable to the sins of our fellows. We could be bullet-proof, invulnerable to poison, etc. That way, humans would retain the capacity for evil choices and activities; it's just that such evil behavior would be harmless to the 'victims' and futile for the evildoers.

Human nature

Another, more subtle proposal is for God to alter human nature for the better. Now, talk of improving our nature immediately strikes us as coercive -- surely, it would rob us our freedom as moral beings! But remember that we already have a nature, a bundle of tendencies that influences our choices. Now, the most ardent determinist must grant that human nature does not completely determine our choices (not by itself, anyway!). But the most ardent libertarian must in turn grant that our choices are significantly influenced by our natures. It is easier for a sociopath to kill a child than it is for the rest of us. It is easier for us to send money to help our children than to help complete strangers. This is true, even if ultimately we each have final say on our decisions. Now note that this human nature is flawed. We are disposed to be cruel and callous in many ways. The world would seemingly be a better place if humans shared a more virtuous and generous nature.

But would it violate our freedom for God to have given us a better nature? Perhaps not. Most of us would choose a kinder nature, if we had the choice (if virtue came in pill form). We regret our depravity. We wish it were easier for us to do good. This suggests that an improved nature would be in accordance with our free will, and not contrary to it. Moreover, if God exists, then surely he had a large hand in crafting human nature. As long as he's giving us some nature or another, why not shoot for a virtuous nature? If it's wrong to make humans virtuous, then why should it be less wrong to make humans corrupt?

One salient theistic reply is that our corrupt nature is due to the Original Sin of the first human couple. Their free choice changed us for the worse, and for God to change us for the better would be to disrespect their free choice. But this reply raises too many troubling issues of its own. First, the wholesale corruption of mankind was, for Adam and Eve anyway, an unforseeable consequence of Original Sin; one can no more allege that they truly chose human corruption than that Gavrilo Princip truly chose to plunge Europe into war. Big mistakes don't count as freely chosen outcomes. Second, even if Adam and Eve really did choose human nature for the rest of us, why should their choice count for so much? Don't the rest of us have a say? Invoking Original Sin only makes God look more and more morally confused.

Contemporary philosophy of religion

J. L. Mackie, in his now classic article "Evil and Omnipotence", argued that human freedom is consistent with human perfection, and that God should have opted for both. Mackie reminds us that human misconduct is a contingent matter -- we can choose to do good or evil, with both alternatives being possible. He then asks us to imagine a world in which everyone always chooses good and never chooses evil -- a virtuous and sinless world. Finally, he notes that God could have chosen to bring about any possible world, from the one that is actual, to a world in which people choose more wickedly, to the good world Mackie just described. So why not go with the good world? The only reply can be that, in choosing to bring about that world, God would thereby deny humans their freedom. But that can't be true. For if it were, then God would have denied us our freedom by bringing about the actual world. Bringing about a world in which people make choices is not freedom-cancelling, and so God should have brought about a world in which people make better choices. This argument is the seed of contemporary discussions of the logical argument from evil, which aims to show that theism and evil are logically incompatible.

Alvin Plantinga, in a response that has also achieved 'classic' status, rebuts Mackie. Plantinga's celebrated "free will defense" argues that evil is consistent with God's existence, because there are some possible worlds that God cannot bring about. This seems curious enough, considering that God is by definition omnipotent. Shouldn't he be able to bring about any possible world he wants? But Plantinga reminds us that there are always trivial limits on omnipotence -- God can't make 2+2=5 or create a married bachelor. Plantinga's trick is stretching these trivial limits to very non-trivial results.

Step one: Plantinga proposes that there are logical truths -- so-called "counterfactuals of freedom" -- about our free choices in various possible situations, with one choice dictated for every situation. On Plantinga's example, where S is a situation in which Curley is free to take or refuse a bribe, it is either true that "If Curley were to be free in S, he would take the bribe" or "If Curley were to be free in S, he would refuse the bribe" (note that only one can be true). These truths about what we would freely do in possible situations help make us what we are, and are timelessly and necessarily true -- and so, crucially, out of God's hands. Consequently, if the first proposition is true (and Curley would take the bribe), then God cannot bring about the possible world in which Curley refuses the bribe. God can only bring about S and sadly watch Curley's freely chosen venality manifest itself, as timelessly reported by that unchangeable counterfactual of freedom.

Step two: Plantinga argues for the possibility of a person who will sin at least once, no matter what situation God puts him in. Such a person suffers from so-called "transworld depravity". Though he can choose to do good in each situation, though it is possible that he do good in each situation, it is nevertheless true that he will choose to sin, a sad fact reported by his counterfactuals of freedom. And God can do nothing to bring about the sinless possible worlds -- that's up to the sinner, who will, as a matter of fact, choose otherwise.

We've arrived at the conclusion that perhaps even God cannot bring about Mackie's virtuous and sinless worlds. God may be omnipotent, but he can't change people's free decisions, and he can't change the fact that they will freely choose as they do. And if people will make nasty choices, then those possible worlds in which they choose good are beyond God's reach. Plantinga proposes that perhaps all persons suffer from transworld depravity, that perhaps the actual world, though not the best possible world, is the best one that God could bring about, if he is to respect the free choices of the creatures therein. Natural evil? Perhaps it's also the result of sinful actions -- the actions of invisible, powerful moral agents like demons. And this scenario is one in which God's moral perfection is squared with having created a horrid world like our own.

(All of this circumvents the big issue: that God, being omnipotent, could have created a world where no action would result in harm to another -- the only reasonable definition for an "evil" act! The problem lies, not with us, or with our "nature", but with God's deliberate choice to design the world as he did. The whole argument that God in his omnipotence could not create the "virtuous sinless world" described above is contradicted by his own claim to have done this very thing! Heaven is the promised paradise of infinite bounty that fully matches the criteria of this virtuous sinless world. If such a world is not possible, then God is lying about the promise of Heaven. If such a world is possible, and God made one world that way, why wasn't our world also made this way? )

One recent, friendly response to Plantinga is from Daniel Howard-Snyder[?] and John O'Leary-Hawthorne[?]. They claim that, to show the compatibility of theism and evil, Plantinga needs to support the possibility of his sketched scenario -- it mustn't be reasonable to doubt its possibility. And they claim that the possibility of all persons being transworld depraved is unsupported. After all, there is another prima facie possibility, that all persons are in fact transworld sanctified (and so would do no wrong). Both 'possibilities' seem equally possible, and since they rule each other out, only one of them can be possible. Thus it is reasonable to doubt the possibility of either, and it is reasonable to doubt that Plantinga's scenario is possible; so it is reasonable to doubt that God really is consistent with evil. The two critics take to repairing Plantinga's argument, by replacing the "it is possible that" propositions with similar "for all we reasonably believe, it is possible that" propositions. The conclusion is then not that theism and evil are compatible, but that, for all we reasonably believe, theism and evil are compatible. The compatibility is not proven, but the incompatibility isn't reasonable, either. Mackie is still rebutted.

Another, stronger challenge comes from Richard Gale[?]. In Plantinga's scenario, God's decisions cause human behavior and the psychological makeup whence that behavior stems; consequently, Gale maintains, human freedom gets cancelled by God's decisions. Ironically, then, Plantinga's "free will defense" story is a story without human freedom. Now, as Gale notes, Plantinga's God can't change peoples' counterfactuals of freedom; the truth of these propositions is up to the relevant people. But, by Plantinga, God does decide which possible persons get actualized, knowing full well their counterfactuals of freedom; it's up to God who gets to exist and then do their stuff. Moreover, God crafts his creatures' psychological makeup, which in turn exercises significant influence over their decisions. This is freedom-cancelling, even if our psychology doesn't determine our decisions, for it makes God like a mad scientist who implants a test subject with new dispositions and preferences to make her more agreeable. And to decide who gets instantiated is to be a sufficient cause of what decisions get made, even if the persons themselves are sufficient causes in their own right. The result is that Plantinga's God is in charge of too much, robbing humans of their freedom. Or so Gale avers.

(responses to Plantinga, Swinburne, all to come)

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