Christianity from an Existential Perspective..

The Free-Will defense to the problem of Evil.

An advocate for the argument from design reasons that when a person notices the natural order, fine-tuning, and beauty inherent in the universe, he will draw the conclusion that a supernatural designer was responsible for it. The atheist has the burden of arguing against simple reason and natural inclinations with a method of sceptical and metaphysical intricacy. When the suffering and gratuitous evil in the world is noticed, however, the positions are reversed. It is the theist who now has to (in Hume’s words) “tug the labouring oar, and to support your philosophical subtleties against the dictates of plain reason and experience.”[1] This essay will evaluate Alvin Plantinga’s attempt to tug the labouring oar with his “free will defence” to the logical problem of evil.

The problem of evil is that a theist believes in an all-powerful and all-loving God as the creator and overseer of this universe, despite the grandiose amount of evil present in this world. The atheist asserts that there is a logical contradiction between these two beliefs. Accordingly, the problem of evil is often quipped as the counter-attack for atheism, since atheists have the opportunity to prove that not only is there no evidence for the belief in a God, but that belief in one is positively irrational and incoherent.[2] Nevertheless, there is no obvious logical inconsistency unless the following proposition is made:
(1): A being that is omnipotent and omniscient would have no morally sufficient reason for allowing instances of evil.[3]

Theists can either limit the power of God in order to surmount the logical inconsistency or falsify that proposition with counter-examples. Indeed, to solve the problem of evil, God must possess a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil. Plantinga endeavours to accomplish this with the free will defence, which provides a possible scenario where an all-loving and all-powerful God allows evil for a greater moral good. Since the logical problem of evil can be solved by merely showing a logically consistent reason why God would allow evil, Plantinga does not need to prove his theory as credible or plausible but rather show it is logically possible.

The free will defence argues that God can’t create humans that have significant free will (thereby having the potential for moral goodness) without permitting the abuse of that free will for moral evil. Free will is characterized here as a higher good, and that a world containing significantly free agents is better or equal than a world that does not have significantly free agents (even if the non-free agents produced no moral evil).[4] This allowance of moral evil does not count against God’s omnipotence or benevolence, however, because if God prevented all instances of moral evil it would remove humanity’s freedom.[5] Since free will and the good that is derived from the exercise of free will is a higher good, it outweighs evil and makes it into an unintended side-effect.

Mackie raises the most significant objection to the free will defence. The objection is why God couldn’t have created persons that always freely chose the good. There is nothing logically inconsistent with this idea, and since God’s omnipotence allows him to actualize anything that is logically consistent it follows that if God was both omnipotent and benevolent then he would create a world containing these persons.[6] Mackie is making the assumption that before the creation of the world God was able to choose between a huge array of possible worlds. Since a world where beings always freely choose the right is logically possible, there is a question as to why God didn’t create such a world.

Before examining Plantinga’s response to this objection, a presupposition that is made concerning the conception of free will ought to be explored. Plantinga is correct to say that if God caused a person to perform moral goodness he would not be exercising free will.[7] His conception of freedom becomes controversial, however, when he asserts that any kind of antecedent cause leading up to our decision impinges on our freedom.[8] Plantinga is an incompatibilist, meaning he believes that free will and causal determinism is not compatible. He upholds a contra-causal free will that appears to rely on the idea that our free decisions are influenced by internal causes but not made because of them. According to Plantinga the free will defender must not believe that free actions are made due to causal determinations.

Mackie declares incompatibilism as deficient. An individual could be free but causally determined to always do what is right. Causal determinism itself means that when we freely decide between two options, our choice is determined by our nature as a person and many additional antecedent causal factors. However, a determinist still holds that if an action is to be free it cannot be restricted by either external barriers or adverse psychological conditions that would deter a person from choosing what his nature desires.[9] Plantinga objects by using the common sense notion that whatever a person chose to do, he could have done otherwise. His incompatibilist thesis could be formulated as:

(2): “There is nothing at all that excludes either possibility, in particular, no set of antecedent sufficient causes for doing X rather than Y.”[10]

There is no evidence to support this proposition, and a freedom which relies on arbitrariness and variance is not plausible or able to be demonstrated.[11] Similarly, Mackie points out that the feeling of a “sense of freedom” whenever a person picks between two choices that both seem appealing does not mean that the decision was devoid of any antecedent causes. It is not possible to be aware of certain antecedent causes, or know for sure that a free choice flowed from no causal history.[12] All of the valuable connotations of freedom are compatible with determinism; the only thing determinism is not compatible with is a randomness or unpredictability in free choice. If causal determinism is compatible with free will then it would seem correct that a God could have made perfect beings that have significant freedom.

For the sake of argument it will be supposed that freedom is not “fettered” by antecedent causes, and Plantinga’s response to the initial objection will now be examined. Plantinga challenges Mackie’s assumption that God could have created any possible world, which constitutes the crux of the free will defence. The idea that God chose from a huge range of possible worlds when creating the universe (also known as “Leibniz’s lapse”) is false.[13] Plantinga argues this by revealing possible worlds in which God would not have been able to actualize. To begin with, God is a contingent being; therefore He would not be able to actualize a world in which He does not exist (even though such a world is possible since God is contingent). Furthermore, when a person makes a free choice, say if Bill decides to ride the train to work instead of taking the car, Bill taking the car to work remains a possible world. God cannot actualize this world, however, since it came from Bill exercising free will which God can’t change or alter. Bill taking the car to work is a possible world, but one which God could not have actualized. God can only actualize a world in which Bill is free in his decision, not one where his decision has already been performed.[14]

If the supposition that God is a contingent being is granted, then the logic appears to be solid. Now Plantinga must demonstrate how a world where persons always freely choose the right is a possible world that God cannot actualize. He formulates the principle of “transworld depravity”. If a person suffers from transworld depravity then God cannot actualize a world in which they are both significantly free and perform no evil, in that in every world that God can actualize the transworld depraved person somehow makes a wrong decision.[15] In addition, if it is possible that one person suffers from transworld depravity then it is possible that all persons might suffer from it.[16] Therefore, it is possible that God could not have actualized a world in which there was moral good but no moral evil.
This begs the question as to why God didn’t just create different persons from the ones who had transworld depravity. Plantinga rebuts by pointing out that that transworld depravity applies to our “essences” and not to persons.[17] An essence is a combination of our properties, and God can only actualize essences. Perhaps every essence that has the property of being created by God suffers from transworld depravity.[18] If the only essences God could actualize were transworld depraved, then it follows that he was not able to create a world with no moral evil.

The success of Plantinga’s free will defence relies on the possibility that transworld depravity could be universalised to include all essences, and this is where certain philosophers disagree with him. Mackie’s objection is quite simple, stating that if universal transworld depravity was true then God would only have had a limited number of essences to actualize at creation, which is a logical contingent.[19] This is not possible since there can be no logical contingents for an omnipotent God before the creation of the earth and free will itself.[20] For Mackie the free will defence is unsuccessful.
Howard and O’Leary take a different approach to criticising the free will defence. To say that God and evil are compatible is an epistemological task, and to prove the possibility of their compatibility requires meeting certain epistemological standards.[21] Although the epistemic status of transworld depravity is irrelevant for the defence, it becomes crucial when the claim that “transworld depravity is possible” is made.[22] Plantinga’s argument will fail if it is reasonable to refrain from believing in the possibility of universal transworld depravity, and Howard & O’Leary assert that it is reasonable to refrain from believing it.
They demonstrate this by using a hypothetical proposition called “transworld sanctity”. If an essence is blessed with transworld sanctity, it always freely chooses right. If transworld depravity extended to every possible essence then it is impossible for a single essence to be transworld sanctified. Transworld sanctity is no less plausible than transworld depravity, and if it is possible then it is reasonable to refrain from believing that every essence is transworld depraved.[23] There is no reason to think that no world contains an essence that is blessed with transworld sanctity, and so it is reasonable to refrain from believing in the possibility of universal transworld depravity.[24] While it is possible that there are an in-denumerable number of essences suffering from transworld depravity, it does not follow that every essence suffers from it. Howard and O’Leary use the following example to demonstrate the impossibility of universal transworld depravity:

I’m going to show you that it is reasonable to believe that there at no possible world do bill and Jane marry. You can imagine one world where they don’t. And you can imagine two worlds where they don’t. So, is not reasonable to think that at every possible world they don’t marry?[25]

Both Mackie and Howard/O’Leary make convincing points. It is reasonable to cede that many essences could suffer from transworld depravity. The problem lies when the principle of transworld depravity is universalised to include every essence, or more specifically the idea that every essence created by God has the property of being transworld depraved. It counts against God’s omnipotence in a definitive way, or redefines in it a sense that his power is limited to the point that it is not real omnipotence anymore (omnipotence defined as the ability to do anything logically possible). Also, when you universalize transworld depravity it makes transworld sanctity in a single essence impossible, and both propositions have the same epistemic status. Plantinga’s principle of universal transworld depravity fails to be logically possible.

Besides moral evil, for the free will defense to be useful to theists in answering the logical problem of evil it must also be able applicable to natural evils. Since natural evils can’t be attributed to the free acts of man, Plantinga needs a different approach to explain the presence of such evil with the existence of a loving God. Perhaps because Plantinga knows the difficulty of achieving this, he instead tries to make his work on moral evil cover it in an indirect way. Plantinga states that it is a possibility that Satan and his demonic cohorts are wreaking havoc all over the world, and that is how natural evil arises.[26] Because natural evil can now be attributed to the free acts of non-human moral agents, natural evil becomes “broadly moral evil”.[27] Plantinga is quick to make clear that credibility and plausibility does not factor into this “Satan hypothesis”, since all he needs to do is show that it is a logical possibility (not true or even likely).

A lot of philosophers have accepted the possibility of the Satan hypothesis, despite the extreme implausibility in the idea that all natural evil is in fact moral evil conducted by non-human agents. However, for the Satan hypothesis to be possible it must be consistent and coherent with the remainder of the free will defence, and it is not. According to Plantinga, the reason that God allows moral evil is because our free will can produce moral good as well.[28] Evil becomes a type of sacrifice for moral goodness, but this is not applicable for Satan and his demons. Orthodoxy claims that while Satan and his cohorts do possess free will, he will never produce moral goodness from that freedom. God does not have a morally sufficient reason to let demons run amok upon the earth and cause death and destruction, since the positive aspect of their free will is absent.

As a defence Plantinga’s ideas are problematic and disagreeable, yet as a theodicy it fares worse. Implausible propositions such as universal transworld depravity and the Satan hypothesis will be hard to accept for the non-religious thinker. Even more troublesome, the theist will dislike the fact that the free will defence conflicts with certain Christian doctrines. Christianity claims that Jesus did not ever perform moral evil or sin, but also that this perfection did not take away from Jesus’ humanity. This conflicts with the idea that every essence is transworld depraved. Also, heaven (or an afterlife in general) expresses the idea of essences having significant freedom yet always choosing what is right. The free will defence contradicts the notions of Christ’s humanity and a perfect afterlife. It is incoherent with both a religious and secular worldview, and accordingly nobody would be able to accept the possibility of its truth. If a theist agreed that the free will defence was logically possible, but could not accept it as a valid theodicy, then the charge of an inconsistent belief set towards an individual can still be made.

In conclusion, Plantinga’s free will defence never successfully recovers from the initial objection that God could have made essences that always freely choose right. To follow Plantinga’s response the controversial incompatibilist conception of free will must be accepted. The argument fails even with incompatibilist free will, since it is reasonable to refrain from believing in the possibility of universal transworld depravity. Furthermore, Plantinga’s argument fails to offer a coherent explanation of the presence of natural evil. For all of these reasons, Plantinga is unsuccessful in his attempt to resolve the logical problem of evil.

By Tim Neal

[1] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion in William L. Rowe (ed.), God and the Problem of Evil, (Blackwell Publishers, 2001), p.46

[2] John Mackie, The miracle of theism: arguments for and against the existence of God, (Oxford University Press, 1982), p.150

[3] Terence Penelhum, “Divine Goodness and the Problem of Evil”, in Marilyn Adams and Robert Adams (eds.), The Problem of evil, (Oxford University Press, 1990), p.70

[4] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, (Allen & Unwin, 1974), p.30

[5] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, p.30                          

[6] Mackie, The miracle of theism, p.172               

[7] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, p.30

[8] Alvin Plantinga, God and other Minds, (Cornell University Press, 1967), p.134

[9] Mackie, The miracle of theism, p.167

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. p.166

[12] Mackie, The miracle of theism, p.168

[13] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, p.34

[14] Ibid. p.41

[15] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, p.48         

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. p.52

[18] Ibid. p.53

[19] Mackie, The miracle of theism, p.174

[20] Ibid.

[21] Daniel Howard-Snyder & John O’Leary-Hawthorne, “Transworld sanctity and Plantinga’s free will Defence”, International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, 1999, p.2

[22] Ibid.  p.3

[23] Howard and O’Leary, “Transworld sanctity”, p.5

[24] Ibid. p.7

[25] Ibid. p.8                     

[26] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, p.58

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid. p.30