April 23, 2009

Evil and the Free Will Defence

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, April 23, 2009)

Evil and the Free Will Defence
Christians often appeal to the Free Will Defence to avoid the apparent logical incompatibility between the existence of moral evil and the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God.

Here's the defence: (1) The existence of creatures who can love God is a great good, so God creates them; (2) love requires freedom; (3) the creatures choose not to love God; (4) because God is the supreme standard of goodness, the choice not to love God is the same as choosing evil; (5) hence, evil and God co-exist.

Some critics of Christianity object to the Free Will Defence as follows. Surely, an all-powerful God could do anything. Surely, an all-knowing God would know how to do anything. Surely, too, an all-good God would want to be rid of evil. Surely, then, this God could have made people who are free to reject God, but never do. Therefore, because evil exists, God doesn't.

I think that this objection fails. Here are my reasons.

That people always freely choose to love God is a logical possibility. Significantly, however, the objector's claim describing God's task of making people who always freely choose to love God is not a logical possibility. Such a claim is self-contradictory.

The creaturely freedom under discussion is a freedom that stems from being made in "God's image," what philosophers call Metaphysical Libertarian Freedom. This is a freedom of decision-making the outcome of which cannot be brought about by a force outside the free agent and cannot be guaranteed in advance.

More simply stated, it’s a freedom that puts the creature squarely in the driver’s seat. The creature isn’t a puppet or a robot.

So far, so good.

But now consider this: The objector's task requires God to make people make choices that are made without God's making them make those choices (think about it).

In other words, the objector's task requires God to create people so that (1) they are guaranteed to choose X and, at the same time and in the same respect, (2) they are not guaranteed to choose X. But, of course, this is a contradiction—a logical impossibility.

Philosopher Stephen Davis puts the matter this way: Asking God to force or guarantee the outcome of free choices is like saying to a sculptor "make a sculpture such that independent of any effect you might have on it, it will have quality Q." Davis adds: It's like saying to a scientist, "please conduct an experiment in which independent of any and all influence you might have on the experiment, it will lead to result R."

Clearly, whether people freely choose to love God is up to people, not God.

Hence, the Free Will Defence stands: God and moral evil are not logically incompatible.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, ManitobaThe views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.)


Pvblivs said...

     Well, I tend to think that the claim of omnipotence is logically incoherent. If I can make a choice (any choice) about which this god can do nothing, then he is not omnipotent. Essentially, the assertion of free will denies the omnipotence of the stated god. Of course, this is not an argument that there is no god. It is only an argument that the properties you claim are not held by any such god.

Jordan said...

Thank you for raising this objection; it is an important one that needs to be discussed. Please allow me to attempt a response that will hopefully clarify some things.

First, any discussion of sovereignty, omnipotence, or free will hinge on one’s definitions. Terms can be ambiguous, so let’s make sure that we’re all discussing the same thing. The majority of philosophers agree that “God’s omnipotence means that God can perform any action the performance of which is logically consistent, and consistent with God’s own nature” (Peterson et. al, Reason and Religious Belief, 3rd ed., p. 67). Notice the two qualifications here. First is logical consistency: God cannot perform tasks which are self-referentially absurd. For example, He cannot make a ball blue all over and red all over at the same time and in the same sense. This is not due to a limitation of God’s power, but instead due to the incoherence of the task being demanded of God. The second qualification is God’s nature: due to His unchanging and morally perfect nature, God cannot act against it. His will (and His omnipotence) stems from His nature. So, for instance, this means He cannot sin or break a promise He made to us.

I think a good, simple definition of human self-determination (free will) is Norman Geisler’s: “Whatever influence there may be on the will, the agent could have done otherwise” i.e., chosen another course of action. This definition acknowledges that there are influences on the human will, including God’s influence. But there are other views. Compatabilists hold that a human action is free if: (1) the immediate cause of the action is a desire, wish, or intentional internal to the agent; (2) there is no external event or circumstance that compels the action to be performed and (3) the agent could have acted differently if he/she had chosen to (Peterson et. al, RRB, p. 158). Libertarians say free will means a person “has it in his/her power to choose to perform A or choose not to perform A. Both A and -A could actually occur; which will actually occur has not yet been determined” (ibid.).

Now let’s get to your objection specifically: if I can make a free choice which God can “do nothing” about, then isn’t God unable to bring about a certain state of affairs, and thus not omnipotent? Free will is necessary for our actions to have meaning. Omnipotence is necessary for God to be God. I, like you, certainly can feel the force of this line of reasoning, although I think it has some problems.

Let’s begin by noting that this objection starts to take us away from the problem of evil, which is the focus of Dr. V’s column, and leads us into the problem of reconciling divine sovereignty and human free will. Also, I think your objection is tied in not only with the logic of omnipotence, but also with theological concepts like sovereignty and foreknowledge. The objection may confuse omnipotence with foreknowledge and/or sovereignty. God could exercise complete power over His creatures, but he chooses not to. He is able to exercise His sovereignty without requiring humans to be automatons.

To answer your objection, Christians divide into different “camps.” But most traditional theists, whether Calvinist, Molinist, or Arminian, agree that God’s foreknowledge means that He knows infallibly what will come to pass. But, of course, how can this be if we’re supposed to be free? As Geisler puts it, “How can God bring about a necessary end through contingent means?” One answer is that God knows for sure exactly how everyone will use their freedom. So, from God’s point of view, the act is determined; from our point of view we are free. Remember too that God can use persuasion (though not coercion) to influence human activity. God can prearrange circumstances and limit our choices in a certain situation, too, meaning things come about in a natural way but they were still guided, in some sense, by God. So Christians believe that, though humans have free will, there are nevertheless certain external conditions which influence us or bear on our decisions. Christians believe this is true for all humans, not just Christians. See Romans 2:4 and Philippians 2:13.

Finally, let’s consider the alternative: a world in which God made humans so that they could not make a choice about which God “could do nothing” about. I think this would be a terrible world. We would have no real free will and our actions towards God, whether hatred or worship, would be meaningless, since God would merely be the puppeteer controlling His puppets. If God violated our free will whenever He felt like it we would have even bigger problems than the difficulties we are discussing here.

God has given us freedom as a gift. We use it to either love or reject Him. It doesn't mean that God is no longer in charge. He gives us the opportunity to make our own decisions and be responsible for our actions. Nevertheless, God is not threatened by us, since giving some freedom to creatures is not the same as losing total control. Also, we should remember that God's foreknowledge reflects our free choices.

God’s power and plan are overarching, over all human affairs. He knows the end from the beginning and moves history toward its end, which He carefully orchestrates. Regarding Dr. V’s column, God also guarantees the final and permanent triumph of good and justice over evil and injustice. God’s sovereignty, omnipotence, and wisdom mean that He not only works in spite of human free choice and evil, but through them.

So in the end, it’s perhaps not entirely accurate to say that humans can make choices about which God can do nothing about. Anyways, I hope that clarified some things.


Pvblivs said...


     Circumlocutions are seldom clarifying. The only meaningful restriction to omnipotence would be that of logical consistency of the action. Saying that something "goes against his nature" so he can't do it denies omnipotence.
     Free will and the omnipotence of any other being are logically incompatible. If this god can force my actions, then my will is not truly free; it is only an illusion. If he cannot, then he is not truly omnipotent; that is an illusion.
     The author of the post attempted to use the existence of free will as a defense against the problem of evil. The problem of evil states that, since evil exists, no being can be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. He tries to invoke free will as an excuse for why evil can coexist with such a being. I argue that the defense fails because free will cannot coexist with an omnipotent being. I do not even need to consider omniscient or omnibenevolent here.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Jordan and Pvblivs,

Thanks for your input concerning my column, “Evil and the Free Will Defence.” I am inclined to characterize Jordan’s reply to Pvblivs’s objection as thorough, not circumlocutory. (I may be slightly biased here, because Jordan is a student—an excellent student—at the college at which I teach.) At any rate, allow me to set out succinctly a couple of arguments for thinking that free will can coexist with an omnipotent being. The conclusion of argument 2 is that free will can coexist with an omnipotent being, but argument 2 relies on the success of argument 1.

Argument 1

To make someone freely do something is a logically impossible task. As I wrote in my column, such an undertaking requires God to make people make choices that are made without God's making them make those choices. Clearly, this is a logically contradictory requirement, a logically inconsistent “task”—a pseudo-task, like making a round square or skating without skating. (Or it’s like God making a stone too heavy for God to lift; for further discussion of God and the stone see Apologia, October 30, 2008.) The descriptions of these pseudo-tasks are merely strings of words whose concepts contradict one another and therefore cancel each other out and fail to refer—they are nonsense. But this means that not being able to do the alleged “task” of making someone freely choose X does not count against anyone’s ability or power, just as not being able to make a round square or skate without skating does not count against anyone’s ability or power. Therefore, not being able to do these “tasks” doesn’t count against omnipotence.

Argument 2

An omnipotent being has the power to give creatures free will and, in the exercise of omnipotence, choose not to interfere with/ take away the creatures’ free will. If an omnipotent being could force my actions, thereby making me not free, but chooses not to force my actions, then not only does my will remain truly free, but also the omnipotent being remains truly omnipotent. The omnipotent being could still do whatever tasks are within the power of an omnipotent being to do, that is, the omnipotent being could perform all tasks whose descriptions are logically consistent. In other words: (a) God’s not being able to make me make a specific choice freely doesn’t count against God’s omnipotence, because (according to Argument 1) such a “task” is logically inconsistent; and (b) God’s choosing to give me freedom doesn’t impinge upon God’s omnipotence, since God’s power to interfere with/ take away this freedom remains. An omnipotent being can still do all logically possible tasks, if the being wants to. Therefore, free will can coexist with an omnipotent being.

I hope that the above arguments are helpful. I am going back to my research and writing project...after I find a good cup of coffee.

Best regards,

Pvblivs said...

     To make someone do something freely is indeed logically incoherent. However, I brought up no such task. Instead, I brought up two possibilities (exclusive of each other.) Possibility 1 is that I can make choices about which any presumed god can do nothing. Possibility 1 must hold if I am to have free will. Possibility 2 is that the god in question can control my every act. Possibility 2 must hold if this god is to be omnipotent. If god is omnipotent, possibility 2 holds and free will is meaningless.
     I find that Jordan talked around my objection because hw was treating it as though I said the inability to compel a free act was a count against omnipotence. The inability to compel an act [note: not a free act] is a count against omnipotence. But... the ability to compel the act is a count against that act being free. You can postulate an omnipotent god or you can postulate mankind with free will. But you cannot have both together. They are not consistent with each other.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...


I think there is a third possibility, which you have missed. I argued for this possibility above (in Argument 2). Let me clarify.

It seems to me that an omnipotent being could have the power to give creatures free will and, in the exercise of omnipotence, choose not to interfere with/ take away the creatures’ free will. An omnipotent being’s ability to compel my act, when coupled with this being’s choice not to exercise that ability (say, temporarily), is not a count against my freedom. Nor is it a count against the omnipotent being’s ability or power. As I argued above (in Argument 2), the omnipotent being can still do all logically possible tasks, if the being wishes.

I know that no analogy is perfect in all relevant respects (otherwise it wouldn’t be an analogy), but here goes anyway. If Arnold Schwarzenegger has the power to lift all the weights at my gym in one shot, but chooses not to—so, say, the other guys and I can lift a few pounds—this doesn’t mean Arnold doesn’t have the power to lift all the weights at my gym in one shot. He still has the power to do so and he’s letting us lift some weights. Similarly, if an omnipotent being has the ability to do all logically possible tasks, but chooses not to act on that ability—so, say, we can have free will—this doesn’t mean the omnipotent being doesn’t have the ability to do all logically possible tasks. The omnipotent being still has the ability to do all logically possible tasks and the omnipotent being is letting us have some freedom.

Therefore, divine omnipotence and human freedom are logically consistent with each other. They can both be true.

I think that the above argument can stand alone. But, for the sake of additional clarity, I will also address the two possibilities that you set out. I think that the two possibilities that you set out can use some qualification/ philosophical nuance which will shed some light onto the third possibility.

You wrote: “Possibility 1 is that I can make choices about which any presumed god can do nothing. Possibility 1 must hold if I am to have free will.”

I think there is an important sense in which possibility 1 isn’t true. There is an important sense in which it is not the case that the presumed god can do nothing about my choices: i.e., the presumed god can take away my freedom, but choose not to. In other words, for the presumed god to continue to give me my freedom is not to do nothing. Maybe a personal illustration will help. When our sons were younger, my wife and I let them sometimes make decisions that had negative consequences (so they would learn that their actions have consequences and learn to take responsibility for their actions). In these cases my wife and I did not do nothing: in fact, we exercised self-control in resisting our urge to intervene. Also, we ensured that the negative consequences had limits, we cried, we laughed.

You also wrote: “Possibility 2 is that the god in question can control my every act. Possibility 2 must hold if this god is to be omnipotent. If god is omnipotent, possibility 2 holds and free will is meaningless.”

I think that we can say, yes, the omnipotent being “can control my every act” in the sense that this being has the ability to control every act, but we can also add that the omnipotent being—in the exercise of omnipotence—can choose not to exercise that ability. In so doing, the omnipotent being remains omnipotent, plus the omnipotent being allows for freedom.

In the end, Pvblivs, it looks like our difference hangs on what we mean by omnipotence. There seem to be two senses of omnipotence occurring in our discussion. Let’s call them Adolf Omnipotence and Arnold Omnipotence. According to Adolf Omnipotence, the omnipotent being exercises omnipotence only by actually controlling every human act, period (and thereby the omnipotent being precludes human freedom). According to Arnold Omnipotence, the omnipotent being can exercise omnipotence by actually controlling every human act (and thereby the omnipotent being precludes human freedom) or, if the Arnold being wants to, the being can choose not to actually control every human act and thereby allow human freedom, but within limits, set by the omnipotent being in the exercise of omnipotence, according to the omnipotent being’s wishes. It seems to me that Arnold Omnipotence not only is logically coherent, but also has more going for it in terms of power than does Adolf Omnipotence. Therefore, Arnold Omnipotence seems to be conceptually superior to Adolf Omnipotence. Hence, Arnold rules!

One last clarification: Yes, I enjoy Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. But only once in a while.

I’ll be back,

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Closing comment:

Here is some recommended reading on the philosophical problem of evil and suffering: William Lane Craig, No Easy Answers (Chicago: Moody Press, 1990), chapters 4 & 5. This book has been re-issued as Hard Questions, Real Answers (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003).

With best regards,

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Philosopher William Lane Craig has a helpful video lecture on the logical problem of suffering here. And Craig's video lecture on the evidential problem of suffering can be found here.