[this is cross-posted from NewApps] These reflections are prompted by Mike Almeida’s interesting post on the question of whether theodicy can ever be successful, and if so what success conditions a theodicy must meet. I want consider ta related, yet distinct question: can theodicies be convincing in the light of specific instances of evil, and the immediate sense this provokes: “God, if he exists, would not have allowed this”? In the wake of the tragic shooting incident at Newtown, I have been thinking a lot about the problem of evil and classical theodicies and defenses, such as John Hick’s soul building theodicy and various forms of free will theodicies/defenses (e.g., Plantinga’s; Augustine’s).
One way to approach the problem of evil is to look at it as an abstract puzzle to be solved. Wielding modal logic and other tools that analytic philosophy offers, we can argue that evil is unavoidable even for a loving, powerful and omniscient God, if he wishes specific goods like free will to obtain. A different option is to focus on concrete, vivid examples. William Rowe presented the case of a fawn, trapped in a forest fire that was caused by lightning, the fawn suffers horrible burns, and lies in dreadful agony for days until its death. A pointless instance of suffering that, Rowe argues, God could have prevented. Now for cases like Newtown we could invoke the free will defense, since – unlike the forest fire in Rowe’s example – the incident was caused by a human agent, exercising his free will, and it was made possible by other instances of free will, such as American policies on gun ownership. But it still seems to me quite a different thing to argue in the face of particular, vivid instances like this that suffering is outweighed by the greater good of the unbridled exercise of free will by moral agents. When confronted with concrete evil like this, theodicy, or indeed any theistic response to the problem of evil, becomes a formidable task indeed.
The Faculty of Philosophy at VU University Amsterdam (the Netherlands) is advertising four fully funded four year Ph.D. positions in epistemology / philosophy of science.
The positions are embedded in a research project entitled ‘Science Beyond Scientism’, which aims to clarify the relations between scientific knowledge and other sources of knowledge, esp. in relation to knowledge of free will, morality, rationality, and religion.
More details the positions and information about how to apply can be found through the following link:
More background on the project is available here:
For further inquiries, please contact the project’s principal investigator, RenÃ© van Woudenberg, at email@example.com or +31 20 59 86678. The deadline for applications is January 2nd, 2013.
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The latest batch of notifications coming out of Mele’s Big Questions in Free Will grants includes the winners for the 2011-2012 theology of free will grants. And ll three of the winners are philosophers!
David Hunt, “Freedom and Foreknowledge: Divine and Human Agency without Alternative Possibilities.”
Brian Leftow, “Divine Freedom.”
Hugh McCann, “Free Will for Theists: The Theology of Freedom.”
Congratulations, you three!
- (Premise) If it is not possible that a creature does evil, then it is not possible that a creature is significantly free.
- (Premise) It is possible that God creates a significantly free creature.
- Therefore, it is possible that a creature does evil.
- (Premise) Necessarily, if a creature exists, God exists.
- Therefore, it is possible that God exists and a creature does evil.
A number of theologians and philosophers make the claim, implicitly if not explicitly, that having free will is essential to human nature. This is, perhaps, a fairly natural claim, particularly if one thinks that free will is a capacity of the human soul. But the claim got me thinking, as there may be a counterexample.
The first potential counterexample will depend on the details of what one’s view of free will is. Consider, for example, John Fischer’s view according to which free will requires a certain level of ability to recognize and respond to moral reasons. But then what about psycopaths, who are incapable of recognizing and/or being moved by certain sorts of moral reasons, namely those that pertain to the good of other individuals? Even if psycopathy renders individuals who suffer from it not morally responsible, it would seem odd if they weren’t human. Now, perhaps psycopathy at most takes away certain aspects of one’s ability to recognize or be moved by certain moral reasons, but it leaves one’s abilitty to recognize and be moved by other kinds of moral reasons intact. So perhaps what psycopathy does is limit the range of one’s free will, but doesn’t diminish it all together.
The second potential type of counterexample is young children. My daughter is currently only ten months old, and I strongly doubt she has either the volitional or intellectual capabilities for free will, although she likely will once she reaches a certain age. In response to this, perhaps one could say that what is essential to humans is not the actual having of free will, but the capacity to have free will.
But finally, consider those humans who have genetic disorders that strongly impair their intellectual and/or volitional capacities. Such individuals may not reach the level of these capacities needed for free will even once fully grown. Nor, given their genetic disorders, does it look like even have the capacity for free will in the way suggested regarding young children.
So it looks like the claim the free will is essential to human nature is false.
Here’s a reason to think not.
Premise 1: A perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has a 99.999999999999999% chance of suffering forever. (I’m assuming here that the “suffering” is to an extent that makes one’s life not worth living.)
Suppose you have a dream in which an “angel” tells you that 99.999999999999999% of the people in Gabon, Africa will end up suffering in hell forever given their background culture and innate personalities. Do you believe it? Probably not, and not merely because you don’t believe God exists. You’d probably think this: “A good God wouldn’t permit there to be a person whose chance of escaping infinite suffering is so terribly slim.” That’s the intuition behind Premise 1.
Premise 2: If a perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has a 99.999999999999999% chance of suffering forever, then a perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has ANY chance of suffering forever.
Think about it this way. The difference between 99.999999999999999% and any other percent is FINITE, whereas the consequence is always INFINITE. How could there be a percentage that permits risking infinite suffering but a finitely different percentage that doesn’t? Or think about it this way. For every percentage p, either p is worth the risk of infinite suffering, or it is not the case that p is worth the risk. None of these terms are vague, so if Premise 2 is false, then there’s a p, such that a perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has p chance of suffering forever but would create someone who has a slightly smaller chance of suffering forever. Why should a slight difference in chance warrant an INFINITE difference in the conseqence that may be risked? It seems it shouldn’t.
Therefore: a perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has ANY chance of suffering forever.
Objection: what about the value of free will?
Leibniz famously argued that the actual world must be the best of all possible worlds (BPW). His argument, which he repeated in several places, went something like this:
- The actual world was created by an omnipotent and perfectly good being.
- An omnipotent being can actualize any possible world.
- A perfectly good being always chooses the best outcome from among its choices.
- The actual world is the BPW.
Most people have found the conclusion of this argument incredible, and sought ways to escape it. The logical problem of evil is essentially an argument to the effect that the only premise that can be plausibly rejected is (1). Free will defenders often instead target premise (2). However, premise (3) is also open to question. In fact, many of Leibniz’s arguments (e.g. the opening sections of the Discourse on Metaphysics) seem to be directed against Malebranche’s 1680 Treatise on Nature and Grace, in which the denial of (3) was defended. (3) is also famously denied in Robert Adams’ 1972 “Must God Create the Best?”
(3) is amoral proposition, and so its evaluation will depend on one’s moral theory. (There is one way of denying (3) that is independent of one’s moral theory, and that is to deny that there is a unique best possible world; for purposes of this post let’s set that (epistemic) possibility aside.) The only moral theory on which (3) cannot possibly be denied is pure consequentialism. However, there are two major rivals to consequentialism: deontologism, and virtue ethics. (Mixed theories are also sometimes advocated.) So there are two main possibilities for the denial of (3): either the creation of the BPW would violate some deontological constraint, or the creation of the BPW would demonstrate a less than perfectly virtuous character. (I assume that a being who is perfectly good, at least if it is also perfectly rational, would at least allow goodness of outcomes to play a tie-breaking role, and so would create the BPW unless there was a moral reason not to.)
Malebranche takes the first option. He frequently speaks of “the perfection of God’s ways.” How would God’s ways be imperfect if he created the BPW? According to Malebranche, it seems, the BPW is irregular – it has a lot of miracles. Personally, I think regularity is much more plausibly construed as a good-making feature of worlds than as a good-making feature of God’s creative activity, so to my mind Malebranche’s suggestion is a non-starter. Might there be some other deontological constraint that could stand in here? Well, perhaps we could use a modified free will defense: contrary to the usual free will defense, we allow that God could actualize the BPW, but claim that he could do this only by engaging in some morally objectionable meddling with the freedom of creatures.
Adams is, of course, well known for his work on virtue ethics, and, as might be expected, takes the second option. According to Adams, a being who created the BPW would not be displaying the virtue of grace. This virtue is displayed by treating people better than they deserve. But the beings in the BPW deserve to exist, and deserve to be treated as well as possible. We, on the other hand, do not deserve to exist, since we are not part of the BPW. So God acts graciously toward us by creating us at all, and also by treating us as well as he does. A nice feature of Adams’s view is that it is easy to see how, on this view, it can be maintained that no one has a just complaint against God: the inhabitants of the BPW don’t exist, and therefore can’t have been wronged (even though, in some sense, they deserve to exist); we wouldn’t exist in the BPW, and so can’t very well complain about God’s not creating it, since that would amount to complaining about our own existence.
[cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net]
According to a version of essentiality of origins for events, if an event E is explanatorily prior to an event F, then F could not have occurred without E. Of course, an event qualitatively just like F might have occurred without E, but F itself could not have.
Suppose Molinism is true. For a reductio, suppose God brought it about that George would be shipwrecked, because God believed that
(1) Were George shipwrecked, he would freely behave heroically.
Let F be the event of George’s shipwreck. I shall assume, as is plausible, that it is an essential property of F that F is a shipwreck of George’s. Let E be the event of God’s believing (1) to be true. Then, E is explanatorily prior to F. By essentiality of origins for events, the occurrence of F entails the occurrence of E. But the occurrence of E entails the truth of (1) (by God’s essential infallibility).
Therefore, that George is in F entails (1). Likewise, that George is in F entails the antecedent of (1), since it is an essential property of F that F is a shipwreck of George’s. Therefore, that George is in F entails that George freely behaves heroically. (If p entails a subjunctive conditional and its antecedent, it entails the consequent, because modus ponens holds in all worlds.) But this means that if George is in F, he cannot but behave heroically, and for libertarian reasons, it follows he does not freely behave heroically. Thus he both does and does not behave freely in F. Therefore, we must reject the possibility of the assumption that God brought about George’s shipwreck because God believed (1).
Here is a simple proposal:
A being x is omnipotent provided that in every possible world, x’s free choices are collectively the ultimate explainers of the rest of contingent reality.
In particular, only a necessary being can be omnipotent. Whether omnipotence is compatible with created free will depends on how exactly we spell out “ultimate explainers”. We might think that if y in situation S freely chooses to A, and God creates y in S, and y freely chooses to A, then God’s creation is an ultimate explainer (it may or may not be the case that an ultimate explainer of a proposition is an explainer of the proposition).
This definition is incompatible with Molinisms on which God is not an ultimate explainer of conditionals of free will.
If the above account is right, we have a sound ontological argument along the lines of the standard S5 ontological argument:
- Possibly, there is an omnipotent being.
- Therefore, there is an omnipotent being.