Can free will solve the problem of evil?

I recently read a good post on the problem of evil by another blogger. There was one thing I disagreed about, however, and I thought it deserved a reply long enough to be its own article.

As for what the problem of evil (or theodicy) is, I’ll just quote the mentioned article:

One of the many variations of the problem goes as follows: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” This is often contributed to the philosopher Epicurus, summarized by the theologian Lactantius. However the actual authorship remains debated.

The point remains, if God is an omnipotent being, then how does evil exist without God himself being at least in some form evil?

Well, I would put it as “god must not be perfectly good” rather than “god must be evil” if evil exists, but never mind that now. What I’m actually taking issue with is the discussion of one alternative solution to the problem:

The second issue is that many people claim free will, or more simply any human action at all, creates this evil. This is a sort of pessimistic view, but still a valid one. It claims that as humans have the ability to choose their actions, the result of those actions create the very evil itself, not god. I always found this argument to be curious just based on the fact that it uses free will to justify both evil and God. The discussion of God and free will has had an odd history, and for many people the Doctrine of Predestination pops up in their heads, but nevertheless it is a valid argument. To me it seems in many ways the existence of free will negates the omnipotence of God, and therefore changes the entire essence of God for so many defending it.

The question that sorely needs answering now is: What is free will? What are the options for what it could logically be — and do those allow god to avoid the responsibility for human evil?

Before I get to this difficult main point, though, let me point out another objection that can be presented more quickly. The “free will” answer to theodicy is only answering a part of the question and is useless against the other one. (Though, if you’re Charles Hartshorne, you could use the same answer to both. But I digress. Look up his Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes if you’re interested.) The world contains not only evil committed by persons, but also so-called impersonal evil — things like natural disasters. Of course, a tsunami killing people is not itself a moral agent and in this sense it’s not “evil”, but the point is that it causes suffering, and it seems clear that an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being wouldn’t allow that. Bad things can happen without the intervention of an agent, so without free will being involved.

So what about human evil? Would god be culpable for creating that too? There are two very bare basic options here:

  1. God determined human choices in advance.
  2. God did not determine human choices.

If you assume that the defence that human choice creates evil works, then you are probably thinking god would be responsible for the evil in the first case but not the second. But what does the second one mean?

We might think the second option can mean two things:

  • 2a. God left things to happen randomly.
  • 2b. God gave humans free will.

After all, if option 1 is determinism, where the future is determined exactly by the past, then one alternative is that what happens next is just random, not following any kind of rules or reason. On the other hand, it’s also common to oppose determinism to the freedom of the will. It should be said it’s actually more or less common among philosophers to accept compatibilism of free will and determinism, saying that there’s no actual contradiction there. But there’s also a common assumption that determinism is the opposite of free will. Yet, free choices aren’t just completely random, so we might think there are three options: determinism, randomness, and freedom.

Well, kind of. But not really. Not strictly speaking and not in this context. There are only two options.

Before I go into why, I’ll say why it’s relevant. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the only two options are these:

  1. God determined human choices in advance.
  2. God let things (human choices) be random.

In either of these cases, god would be responsible for human evil. In the first case, he would orchestrate it; in the second, he would neglect to stop the possibility. Now, only if there is a third option of free will in which the choices flow genuinely from the human subjects as their ultimate originators, can we even try to start saying god is not responsible for them. (Although, putting it this way, I see it would be problematic even so. But this is a digression again.)

What I want to argue now is that the idea of free will as a third distinct alternative is an illusion, and logically impossible. My view is a compatibilist one — that idealised free will is determinist in the strictest sense of the word, though it’s important to separate this from many things that are called determinism (like the myth of genetic determinism). But that’s not the point I’m making here. The point is simply that there are only two options, and even if you believe free will is indeterministic, you’ll have to accept that it’s then randomness. (Which is why I don’t believe that.)

So, let’s get to it. First, either everything that happens is completely determined by the past or it’s not. If it is, you could in principle predict everything that’s going to happen if you just know everything about the world at an earlier point, though of course in practice this would require a godlike intellect or an infinite computer.

If everything is not completely determined, then there is at least some thing that’s unpredictable even in principle. This also means that there is no reason why this particular thing happens. If there were a reason (let’s assume all reasons have to be in the past), you could predict it and it would be deterministic. So it’s random.

Now, of course, if there is at least one thing that’s undetermined, that leaves a lot of possibilities as to how much still is determined. It could be that everything is random, or it could be that just some particular thing (like certain events in quantum mechanics or free choices) are random. It could also be that what happens in the undetermined cases still happens with a probabilistic pattern (quantum mechanics again) — you can’t tell what’s going to happen, but you can know there’s a 30% chance of thing A happening and 70% chance of thing B happening, say. And on the opposite edge from complete randomness, it might be that there’s so little randomness that everything happens almost exactly as if everything was determined.

Whatever the case, indeterminism still means randomness. Things happen without a definite reason, because that reason would allow predicting them. Maybe the randomness is small, maybe it’s statistically “determined”, maybe it only happens between certain options. Whatever the case, the indeterministic component is still a dash of randomness.

There is, in particular, no third option of free will. (Remember I’m not saying there is no free will.) As for human decisions, so for everything else: either they have reasons fully determining them or not. Even some philosophers have tried to deny this, but it makes no sense to do so.

So now we come to the god case again. Assuming an omnipotent and all-knowing god, either he made human decisions deterministic, in which case he is directly responsible for every evil act; or he made them happen randomly, in which case he’s responsible by omission, creating the general possibility of evil acts when he could have done otherwise.

This concludes the argument. There are only to possible options, and an omnipotent creator god would be choosing to create at least the possibility of evil in either case, hence the answer to the problem of theodicy does not work. This is all true as far as it goes, but of course it raises so many other questions — particularly what free will actually is. I don’t want to write a book here, but I will address some of these briefly below.

Appendix 1: On free will

So what is free will? It’s an important question, and just arguing that it has to be either deterministic or random isn’t spiritually very helpful.

Well, I can tell you what I roughly think, but I can’t take the time to make it very understandable. Free will in a meaningful sense should mean rationally acting according to your best judgement of what advances all your values on the whole. This strictly speaking implies determinism, because you will act according to your own reasons, not randomly. But it’s distinct from what we usually think of as determinism, because in that way of thinking, a person would be determined by certain reasons (again, think genetic determinism) rather than being able to weigh all of them against each other. This leads to free choice being open-ended even while it’s deterministic; you’d have to know the unique circumstances of a particular choice to predict it, whereas how we normally think of determinism involves more general laws that can’t be transgressed. It is this latter that really threatens our implicit view of freedom, and negates things like responsibility.

I don’t know how helpful that is, but it will have to do for now. Do check the free will tag on my blog if you’re interested in more. I haven’t got the full answer written out anywhere, but I have a lot of posts looking at bits of the question.

One more thing. If you think that indeterministic free will is what we want, consider the following example. You are in the kitchen with your mother, and you’re chopping vegetables with a big knife. It would be possible in principle for you to instead turn around and stab your mother with the knife, but of course you don’t want to do that. Now, consider these two options:

  1. You won’t stab your mother, because you don’t want to.
  2. Since you’re so free in your choice whether to stab or not, you could, as they say, do otherwise; so you might stab your mother for no reason, against all of your desires, and since this is freedom, this would be considered your choice you’re responsible for.

The first one is compatibilist, the second indeterministic. So which one do you want? (And if you think this is a straw man and you’d hold an incompatibilist view that doesn’t imply this, doesn’t that mean you want determinism in just the important cases?)

Appendix 2: Something like a solution to the problem of evil

The problem of theodicy as here formulated is no problem for atheists, of course. You can just say, why try to distort the evidence to support something it clearly does not? But that, though true, is again a spiritual dead end that does not give the further answers we might want. So while we’re at it, I’ll present an interesting take on the problem. This derives from Nicholas Maxwell, but I’m not sure I am giving the details completely the same way he did.

So, the problem is the idea of an omnipotent and good being allowing evil. I agree with Maxwell that pretending that this makes sense is perverse. To pretend that the highest moral ideal would allow for the evil existing in the world trivialises both. But from this, we also get a simple solution: stop supposing that there is one “being” that embodies both the power and the goodness.

Maxwell’s view is nothing like traditionally theistic, but it’s still a spiritually relevant answer. It’s also in harmony with science and not supernaturalistic. There is a “god of power” and there is a “god of value”. The god of power is natural law or nature itself as everything that just impersonally happens. It approximates omnipotence in containing all the causal power of the universe. Morally, though, it is indifferent. The god of value, on the other hand, is the intangible highest moral good that we should all strive for. It does not control the whole universe. If it did, there would be no need to strive for the good. (I think it’s pretty absurd that a perfect being would create an imperfect world in the first place, but that’s another topic.) The highest good exists only as a goal to aim for, and really, it is in the nature of goodness that it must.

I don’t expect to convert any supernaturalist monotheists here, but this view is certainly something to think about.

Appendix 3: The ultimate origin of a choice

See this next article: Can you be the ultimate origin of your own choices?

16 thoughts on “Can free will solve the problem of evil?

  1. I believe evil is the absence of God.

  2. Evil fills the voids left when God and mankind a separated.
    The Garden of Eden is where this change began. Sin separates mankind from our Perfect Creator.
    God respects our free-will as beings who have enough of a moral compass to choose. This was also part of the change in Eden.
    And the more distance we choose to put between us and God, the more evil we experience.

    • VVK says:

      I could agree with this interpreted slightly differently than how you must mean it. Consider the god of value: then, certainly evil is when we are more distanced from this god. I think this shows that in some ways we could mean the same things even though by the sound of it we have very different metaphysical assumptions.

      • As darkness is nothing in and of itself but an absence of light, and envelopes everything to an eventual pitch black the further we get from the source of light, so it is with God and mankind in regard to good and evil. God is the light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.

  3. The worst kind of evil is when an intelligent person actually enjoys doing evil.
    This flys in the face of Kant’s theory and evolutionary supposition, because intelligence is present, yet used to do harm.
    Sometimes the evil intelligence is superior to the general population.

    • VVK says:

      Such sadistic evil does exist, but it’s much rarer than people assume.

      I expect Kant would have some answer to you as to why it’s not a contradiction, but I’m not too interesting in defending him. His ethical theory, insofar as I understand it at all, is philosophical perversion.

      I see no problem at all for evolutionary explanation. You can formulate the problem in detail if you like, and I bet I can answer you. It’s probably going to involve saying “No, evolutionary theory doesn’t say that” at least once.

  4. noblethemes says:

    Though I may not agree at every point, still your presentation is comprehensive and quite cogent. Very good, intellectually stimulating article! All the best to you

  5. I think you are totally skipping over the most important aspect of God
    ‘s nature, which explains why He allowed evil to be possible. Free will in itself cannot explain evil, but God’s desire for relationship with a creature who was not deterministically caused to do His will, does, IMO. Sure, God could have chosen a world where evil was impossible, but to do so, He would have to make it impossible for his creation to love Him. So, my answer is that God desired humans to have the ability to truly love Him without coercion over even His hatred of evil, even though He was aware of what that love would cost him personally.

    • VVK says:

      If we acknowledge that indeterminism is randomness, why is it better to throw the dice on whether a creature will love god or not than to determine it in advance? You seem to be doing the same thing as so many others – speaking as if free will is some third thing besides determinism and actual indeterminism. It is a separate category in some psychological and moral contexts, but here we need to acknowledge there is no logically possible third option.

      We as limited beings can have a meaningful concept of someone else doing something of their own free will independently of us, but this falls apart if you extend it to an all-knowing being who created everything. I could meet someone and hope for them to love me of their own accord. I could be Victor Frankenstein and create a creature and hope for it to love me (not that he did in the book) of its own choice because I as a finite creator didn’t determine everything about it. But if I was god and were in total control of everything I desired in my creation, including all the consequences of everything because I could foresee them, I could only determine everything in advance or leave bits of randomness. Those bits of randomness would then be as much out of control of the creature itself as me; they would hardly represent genuineness.

      • If God has given each of us some degree of self determination, how is the choice to love or not out of our power? God being all powerful doesn’t mean he has to use all his power, or even that he can’t choose not to know things. Your logic only works if you remove the spiritual dimension from your equation. You can’t know the mind of God by human logic.

      • I’m only making a statement that any believer in God would affirm if he really spends any time on it. To think we can know how God thinks is foolishness. That doesn’t mean we can’t have the discussion, but should acknowledge up front, that our best guesses are just that, guesses.
        By self determination, I mean God has given us a degree of authority over our minds and wills and this physical world. Add that to being made in God’s image and we see that God has delegated some of His Authority, without strings attached. To arrive at determinism, you have to conclude that there are strings attached and really, that we only have the feelings of free will but not the reality. What you are doing is the same thing I hear the Calvinists doing all the time, saying “God is sovereign, therefore he must do such and such. Which is rather amusing when you think about it. God is all powerful and sovereign, yes, and by merit of that, he can choose not to flex his muscles when he like and choose not to be a total control freak.
        If, as you allege, determinism is true or randomness meaningless, then I’m not sure why we are having this discussion, because what you have said would also be meaningless, or they would not be your words at all, but God determining what you have to say.

  6. VVK says:

    “You can’t know the mind of God by human logic.” If you really mean that, all of what you say about this is pointless, too, because you shouldn’t know any of it. (See also: https://thoughtsonx.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/a-note-on-things-that-we-cannot-understand/ ) I’m not sure what exactly you try to say by this, but I know people sometimes go so far as to assert that a logical contradiction is not a logical contradiction because we’re talking about god or some such thing and it’s a transcendental mystery we just can’t understand.

    You’ll need to make a choice: Either, as you’ve been doing most of the time, you think we can talk and reason about this and that there is an actual possible way for god’s granting his creations freedom as you think to work. In this case, you should show me how it’s supposed to work without introducing randomness – and do so without inserting the concept of self-determination or freedom or whatever as an unanalysed whole when I have argued that it needs to be analysed and can’t be a third option. What does it mean that we were given a degree of self-determination? Does it involve determinism or indeterminism? How?

    Either that, or you assert that it is a contradiction by all our best reasoning but you have faith that it’s not. You can’t have it both ways. It’s surprising how often people try to do that. They think they know exactly what to think, but then when some hard question comes up, suddenly the whole thing is humanly impossible to understand so that they don’t have to answer the question.

    • VVK says:

      “To think we can know how God thinks is foolishness. That doesn’t mean we can’t have the discussion, but should acknowledge up front, that our best guesses are just that, guesses.”

      Okay, that’s fine. I take a similar attitude about the world for different reasons; and in this discussion, I’m only talking about logical possibilities, not actualities.

      That said, I’m not sure there’s much point in continuing this. My main argument right in the original post was that there is no third option besides determinism and indeterminism and what follows from that. You haven’t engaged with this once. Now when you try to explain what self-determination means you say it’s a degree of authority over ourselves. This is merely tautological, it doesn’t say anything new. You haven’t actually considered the questions I put to you in the first place. (Of course, this is the same thing that happens half the time when I try to talk to someone about free will and determinism.) But let’s try anyway.

      “To arrive at determinism, you have to conclude that there are strings attached and really, that we only have the feelings of free will but not the reality.”

      No. If you loo at what I actually said in the first place, I support the notion that determinism and free will are compatible. Of course, inserting god into this makes it more complicated. But that wasn’t a question I was discussing, and I’m not going to get into it.

      As for the rest, I’ll say what I did in the first place, that if god chose not to determine how something went, he’d have to let it happen randomly instead. And then he’d be responsible for that as well. I’m not saying as you seem to insinuate that god would have to determine everything, just that if god didn’t, there’s nothing else that did either. If a finite being didn’t determine everything about something, like another person’s behaviour, something else could determine it instead, something that was never under that being’s control. But if you create everything and know how it will turn out, there isn’t anything or anyone else that can determine any part of it outside your making them do it – all of it is under your control, unless you choose to let it be random, and in this case it’s not under anyone else’s control either, so the only choice made was yours and you’re responsible for it. That was the original argument.

      Of course, you don’t believe this because you still think as if freedom is a third option that’s neither determinism nor indeterminism. But that’s just what I argued against, so you can’t go on talking like it is. If you think there is a third possibility that is not logically incoherent, explain it – in a way that defeats my argument instead of ignoring it. If you just say we have control over ourselves etc., you’re not addressing my argument.

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