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What’s so Special About Freedom?

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One of the most controversial topics in the philosophy of religion is certainly the problem of evil. Evil as a philosophical problem emerges out of two conflicting propositions: 1) the alleged existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent god, and 2) the presence of evil in the world. 1 and 2 are inconsistent because it would seem that an omnipotent and omniscient god, who loves humans unconditionally, could, and should, prevent evil in the world. Yet, evil is present in the world. But what is it meant by evil in the world? It is meant evil perpetrated by humans upon other humans, animals, and the environment—i.e., murder, torture, pollution, etc.—and evil caused by natural factors, such as earthquakes, diseases, birth defects, genetic disorders, and so on. Theists try to reconcile the presence of evil in the world in concomitance with God by proposing various justifications. Such justifications are known as “theodicies.” 

In this paper, my concern is to show the flaws in one of the most celebrated theodicies, Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defence, which has received wide acceptance among contemporary philosophers. His theodicy dos not adequately justify the presence of evil on two grounds: 1. God could have created a compatibilist world, giving humans the possibility to act freely in an evil-free world, or at least in a world where evil is limited, and 2. God allegedly did create a world with no evil populated by free-willed beings—and that is, Heaven.

Plantinga’s argument, in a nutshell, is that God, despite being omnipotent, cannot create a world of free-willed beings that never choose evil because if he did, he would deprive these beings from freely choose between good and evil. Consequently, he argues that evil exists because certain humans choose evil. Another important theodicy is Adams’s, which argues that God is not required to create the best of all possible worlds, but rather a world containing creatures that are as happy as they can be in any possible world in which they exist.

Plantinga’s (1971) argues the following: 

A world containing creatures that are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good (p. 199).

In the first place, is it true that a world containing free beings is more valuable than a world containing no free beings at all, as Plantinga argues? To answer this question, we first need to clarify what is meant by “valuable,” i.e., valuable to whom? Then, we have to explain why a world with free beings is  more valuable than a world with no free beings because to say that a certain world is more valuable than any other appears to be arbitrary. And third, it is necessary to show whether we are indeed free. (There is always a possibility that we are totally determined).

In the same order, Plantinga suggests that a world with evil populated by free beings is more valuable than a world with no free beings and no evil. And though it is not clear why God could not have at least limited the amount of freedom in order to reduce the amount of evil, a question we must ask is “More valuable to whom and why?” In fact, it might be argued that a world populated only by plants or a world with only one perfect being—a god—or a world populated only by animals is more valuable than a world with free beings that can choose to do evil and suffer from the evil produced by other beings and by nature. Given the amount of evil and suffering that have been present since the beginning of the world, famine, slavery, natural disasters, birth defects, the Holocaust, etc, and granted that we are free-willed beings, it is just not clear in what sense the world as we know it is more valuable than a world where the evils I mentioned are not present.

At any rate, the fact that Plantinga thinks that a certain world is more valuable than any other worlds is irrelevant and false because it merely constitutes Plantinga’s arbitrary judgment. Only a god, if a god existed, could say “I created this world because it is more valuable than…” Also, the implication here is that if, as Plantinga holds, a world with free beings that can choose to do evil is more valuable than a world with no free beings at all, then either Heaven is populated by beings who are free to choose to do evil or God made sure evil would not be present in Heaven, in which case there is no freedom in Heaven, and, oddly enough, it would seem that Earth is a more valuable world than Heaven.

With regard to the statement “Even an omnipotent god cannot create a world inhabited by free-willed beings that never choose to do evil,” it is necessary to make two points: the first point is that omnipotence, by definition, means that a deity is able to do anything that it chooses to do. The second point is that the statement is false, given the existence of Heaven. First of all, the definition of omnipotence I provided, of course, might be rejected by theologians who object that “being able to do anything that one chooses to do,” for example, does not include creating a world without evil. But the problem is that if God is omnipotent but there is one thing he cannot do, it follows that omnipotence is not one of God’s attributes or omnipotence is a misnomer. In any case, omnipotence intended as “a deity’s power to do whatever that deity wants to do except for creating an evil-less world,” is false because God allegedly did create a world without evil where beings freely choose God—and that is Heaven.

Plantinga then discusses which worlds God could have created. The issue, as he says, is whether God could have taken certain actions such that he would bring about a world that contains moral good without evil. Plantinga argues that God cannot create a world containing moral good without including evil in the same world. (One implication is that Heaven must contain evil.) He writes  

     “If God brings it about that I refrain from A, then I do not freely refrain from A.” (p. 99)

The trouble here is the definition of “freedom”. What I mean is that “freedom” is always relative and may change with respect to the particular world that a god can bring about. A fish in a tank has a significant amount of freedom, for it may swim about the tank up, down, left, and right. The same fish would have a greater amount of freedom in a pool, and even greater in the ocean.  But a fish that was born in a tank, oblivious of the greater amount of freedom it might have had were it born in an ocean, is nevertheless free. Only if the fish were born in an ocean and then taken into a tank can one argue that the fish in question is now refrained from doing whatever it was doing in the ocean. Therefore, a world without evil might even contain beings that are less free than they would in this world, but nonetheless free. In other words, the freedom of certain beings is relative to the particular world in which these beings exist.

For example, let A stand for “being able to fly.” Now, if God does not bring about A, i.e., enabling  humans to fly, we should not say that we do not freely refrain from A, but rather that nature is such that A is impossible in the world as we know it, i.e., humans cannot fly.  Or, if God brings about a world where cancer does not exist, we should not say that we do not freely refrain from getting cancer; in fact, in a world without cancer no theologian would say anything about God depriving humans from their freedom to have cancer because cancer does not exist in that world. Consequently, Plantinga’s argument does not successfully demonstrate that God cannot create a world without evil.

Another incorrect aspect of Plantinga’s argument is the following statement:

“Of course it is up to God whether to create free creatures at all; but if he aims to produce moral good, then he must create significantly free creatures upon whose cooperation he must depend.”  (p. 115). The problem in the above mentioned statement is to presuppose that God must create the world containing evil if he aims to produce moral good. But why must God do so? Plantinga does not present any argument to demonstrate many points: 1) that God aims to produce moral good; 2) that God’s only way to produce moral good is to create a world with moral and natural evil; 3) that God needs to create first a world with evil where people suffer and then reward some people in Heaven, instead of creating a Heaven in the first place;  4) that God needs to create anything at all; and 5) that if it is up to God whether to create free beings, and to do so he must include evil in the world resulting in human’s suffering, and he interacts with humans during life in the world, and punishes or rewards humans, and possibly continues his relationship with humans in Heaven, in other words, God has total control over the universe, why argue that humans are significantly free when it would seem that the word “freedom” here is a misnomer.  Furthermore, there is an important implication to consider with regard to the proposition “If God brings it about that I refrain from A, then I do not freely refrain from A.” The implication is that either God brings it about that souls in Heaven refrain from A, which means that souls are not free, or God does not bring about that souls in Heaven refrain from A, which means that souls are free to choose to do evil.

Furthermore, Plantinga does not provide a sound justification for the existence of natural evil, i.e., evil caused by non-human factors, such as diseases, genetic defects, natural disasters, etc.  He does mention a possible case,

All natural evil is due to the free activity of non-human persons; there is a balance of good over evil with respect to the actions of these non-human persons; and there is no world God could have created which contains a more favourable balance of good over evil with respect to the free activity of the non-human persons it contains. (p. 118)

This statement contains at least two extravagant points: 1) that there might exist such things as “non-human persons” and 2) that the world as we know it contains the most favorable balance of good over evil.  With regard to the first point, even though Plantinga emphasizes that it need not be true, he nevertheless uses the idea of natural evil being due to the activity of “non-human persons.”  This idea, picturesqueness aside, is a logical possibility. However, it seems that the idea of non-human entities that are responsible for earthquakes, diseases, and the like works against Plantinga. In fact, if Plantinga argues that natural evil might well be due to the activities of non-human beings, it seems illogical to say that an all-benevolent and all-powerful god would create non-human creatures and gives them freedom to bring about earthquakes, diseases, and so on.

To take a step back, Plantinga argues that God cannot prevent evil because by doing so he would deprive humans from their freedom to choose between good and evil, i.e., “If God brings it about that I refrain from A, then I do not freely refrain from A.” But now, with regard to natural evil, Plantinga says that the cause is due to the activity of certain non-human persons. The problem with this line of reasoning is that if God is omnipotent, he could have prevented the existence of such non-human persons that bring about natural evil. And not creating these beings apparently would in no way affect human freedom. But perhaps Plantinga can still argue that omnipotence means neither that God can create a world without evil, nor that he is able to prevent the existence of non-human persons who are able to create natural evil. In that case, once again, we must ask “what does omnipotence entail, then?”

One further point to show that the justification Plantinga gives for natural evil is inconsistent and it works against Plantinga is the following. Plantinga states that “All natural evil is due to the free activity of non-human persons.” Once again, I must point out that I realize that Plantinga emphasizes that this point is not required to be true; however, he uses this point to provide a possible explanation as to the existence of natural evil, and I wish to criticize it. Namely, we can logically substitute “non-human persons” with “God” and read “All natural evil is due to the free activity of God.”

With regard to the second point that “there is no world God could have created which contains a more favourable balance of good over evil with respect to the free activity of the non-human persons it contains” I once again have to rebut that this statement is false because there allegedly is a world that contains a more favorable balance of good over evil with respect to the free activity of the non-human persons it contains, in fact a world where evil does not exist at all—and that, again, is Heaven!

My sense is that the intellectual battle between those who accept the theodicies and those who reject them will never end. Perhaps one of the reasons is the fundamentally different feelings toward religion and God. My view is that God, if indeed existed, would be a reasonable creature who contemplated in advance the problem of evil. There exist solutions to the free will problem. For example, God could have created a compatibilist world, giving humans the possibility to act freely in a limited but evil-free world. But this example is meant only to show that it is false to argue that God needs to allow evils in order to create significantly free and moral beings. In fact, a greater challenge for theists is a theodicy to justify why God cannot create a world without evil and free humans when he allegedly did create a world without evil with free beings—that is Heaven.

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Reference

Rowe L. William (2001). Alvin Plantinga, The Free Will Defense. God and the Problem of Evil (pp. 91-120). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

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Author: Carlo Alvaro

philosopher

3 thoughts on “What’s so Special About Freedom?

  1. God does not exist!

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