Thursday, June 9, 2011

Addressing the Free Will Defense


During the first semester of last year, I took a very enlightening philosophy of religion class. One of the most complex pieces of work we studied was the so-called "free will defense" propositioned by the Protestant analytical philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Little did I know that this response to the ever famous problem of evil would continue to rear its head as I furthered my knowledge of Christian religious belief. I've heard variations of the free will defense used by everyone from VenomFangX to the Priest at the local Russian Orthodox Church. It's quite widely accepted among modern Christians and yet I personally found it unconvincing.

In a nutshell, the free will defense attempts to counter the notion that an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient being couldn't possibly have created a world in which evil and suffering is so rampant. The idea is that God allows evil to happen so as not to infringe on human free will.

My objections and questions concerning this line of reasoning can be explained thus:

1. Is human free will actually possible considering God's omniscience? 

Most Christians pose that God is not only all powerful, but that He knows everything. Our innermost thoughts, every detail of our past actions, all of the wisdom in the universe. Logically, we can deduce that a truly omniscient God must also know the future. However, if the future is already known, that must indicate some sort of set, predestined future. In other words, if the future is already in place, we as individuals can't possibly have any choice in how it plays out. Some Christians (and many Muslims as well) assert that God does not know every detail of the future, but rather, all possible futures and it's up to the individual which future they will choose. However, if God does not know our ultimate future choices, then there are things that God does not know. In that case, God would not truly be omniscient. No matter how the situation is spun, God's omniscience appears to be incompatible with human free will.

2. What About Human Suffering? 

Ignoring my above objection, the free will defense appears to address the problem of man's evil actions. However, it does not address the problem of SUFFERING, especially suffering caused by natural disasters that people have no control over. Surely, man having free will has no effect on whether or not hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes happen. Some would argue that such disasters are God's punishment for evil done by man using their own free will (Westburo Baptist Church, anyone?). Even in this case, natural disasters seldom, if ever, only effect "evildoers" and generally result in the deaths of many innocents. The original question stands, how can God allow the suffering of countless innocent people if He is truely omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient?

3. Why Don't People Freely Choose Good? 

Some, such as J.L. Mackie would argue that free will and determinism are actually compatible. Theoretically, couldn't God have created humans with free will who freely chose good rather than evil? Why would God have given the supposed characters of Adam and Eve the tendency towards rebellion in the first place and/or why would he give the serpent the ability to tempt them? Plantinga argues that free will and determinism are utterly incompatible. Still, the notion of compatiblism gives us something to chew on in this situation.

4. Is Free Will Really Compatible With Biblical Events? 

Since we're speaking mainly in the context of Christianity here, this needs to be addressed. The Bible is full of examples of God intervening in the lives of both His people and His enemies. Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 7:13, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4 and 14:8 all state very plainly that God Himself "hardened the heart" of the Pharaoh of Egypt so that he would not allow the slaves the leave-- sapping pharaoh of his free will. Romans 8:29-30 also states very clear that salvation is predestined. Romans 9:22 indicates that our actions are also preordained to some extent. These are only a few examples of places where God is said to have intervened in people's lives. Furthermore, many Christians believe in the power of intercessory prayer and in miracles performed by God. It seems that, all things concerned, there is little in traditional Christian teaching that validates the notion that humans have free will.

Is Free Will Really a Good Thing? 

When I discuss the issue of the problem of evil and free will with Christians, such as VenomFangX, they often react as if free will is something absolutely necessary for God to give us because He loves us so much. My question is simply "what's so great about free will??". VenomFangX asserts that without free will, we would be forced to love God and forced love isn't love at all. This is also a common explanation for why people are sent to hell, they, essentially, "choose" to go to hell by not loving God. Yet, it seems nonsensical that a loving being would allow us to have complete freedom if the consequences of making the wrong choices are as dire as eternal suffering. Let's, for a moment, use the analogy of a parent and child, one that is often used to describe the positions of God and man. Parents are responsible for loving their children and part of this involves allotting the child some manner of freedom, I will grant you that. However, if the circumstances are dire enough, the parent will forsake some of the child's freedom in order to protect the child. When we cross a busy street with a young child, we would restrain the child if it tried to run out into traffic. Anyone who didn't would be branded a terrible parent and perhaps even, a terrible person. The child wouldn't be blamed for running out in traffic if he or she simply did not know any better. We may as well apply a similar situation to God and man. Why is absolute freedom so important to God that He would allow a majority of His beloved creation to run out into metaphysical traffic and risk suffering eternally simply because they don't know any better? Was it not God who created free will and thus, put such an emphasis on it Himself? Was this choice truly benevolent, or do our morals come from some cosmic truth apart from God? If the latter is true, is God really omnipotent?


Who is Really Making This Argument Anyway? 

One of the big problems I see with the free will defense in general is that it is obviously the product of a modern society in which we are granted the luxury of freedom and where suffering is minimal. This is little more than an educated assumption, of course and I don't consider it a part of my actual argument, but I think it's worth discussing. When we see the after effects of natural disasters, for instance, the religious involved rarely shrug their shoulders and chalk the disaster up to God allowing man to be free. Those who are oppressed don't thank the Lord for granting their oppressors the freedom to do evil. People in these situations assert that God has a plan to get them out of their mess or at the very least pray that He will intervene. These people seem to be invoking some sort of fate NOT free will. How often have we heard the phrase "everything happens for a reason" as a means of consolation? Free will isn't a biblical value, it's an enlightenment value. The use of free will as a defense is one of the most obvious projections of modern values onto ancient beliefs in order to keep them relevant. This leads us to wonder how much we really need these ancient beliefs if we're so good at forming positive values without them.

Lastly, I'm not even completely convinced that we as humans HAVE free will, all talk of God aside. I don't believe in fate or cosmic "reasons" for things, but it seems that much of what we do is guided by what happens around us. We are thrust into situations that we seldom choose and are forced to make decisions. Often, these decisions are influenced by biological instincts/natural laws, manmade laws and social pressures. In other words, I tend to think we have some freedoms, but we are anything but completely free. I guess it all comes down to one's definition of "free will", which is an entirely separate discussion.

My point is simply that I don't see free will as an apt reply to the problem of evil and not simply because I have no desire to believe. Actually, the problem of evil/suffering is NOT in and of itself an argument against to existence of a deity. If one believed in a cruel God, a God with limited power or a God with limited knowledge, the problem of suffering would be no problem at all. However, when we want to have our metaphysical cake and eat it too, we have to accept that what we're trying to do is inherently contradictory. Ultimately, we must accept, in this case either the agnostic position of "I guess I don't know how it works" or the "faith rather than reason" position. Either way, I see no justification for my own belief.

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