Monday, March 14, 2005

The Problem of Free Will

The problem of evil argument is one of the toughest arguments against theism. It's also one of the oldest going back at least as early as classical Greece and the time of Epicurus. The basic form is like so:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?

Basically saying that if God is omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent then evil should not exist in the world. Yet evil does, therefore that conception of God (typical theistic belief) does not exist. Hume weakens the argument somewhat by saying that although that conception of God may exist, the state of the world gives us no reason to come to that conclusion.

Anyway, there are a number of responses to this argument. Many theodicies, some not. But the one I'm going to focus on here is the most common proposed by theists: the free will response.

The basic free will argument is that God gives man free will and that it is man who chooses badly, that man is responsible for evil, not God. Some might object: But why is free will so great? Is the high price of evil worth free will? And the theist responds: Indeed, God creating man without free will is pointless. The very purpose of creation is for man to choose God and the way of God. Plantinga even posits that man without free will is a logical contradiction.

Now, I had heard this and I thought I came up with a good counter-argument to the theist. However, although I did come up with it independently, I was not the first to think of it. My argument attacks the assumption that the existence of free will in man automatically means that some men must choose evil. It is not contradictory to think that all men can have free will and that none will choose evil.

But how? By brainwashing them? No. Because as John Hick has shown, even if a person thinks he is free in that way, he is in fact enslaved to a will other than their own. A person might think he wants to run around and act like a duck, but really it is the hypnotist who controls that desire.

My argument is that as God is omniscient, He knows before he creates any person how that person will act. He knows if a person will be good or bad before he even brings him into existence. Why can't God, with his foreknowledge of how people will act, only create those who do good? Free will is still maintained - but only those who would choose well are created. They are not compelled to choose that way, it is their free choice to be good. So now that free will has been maintained and the necessary evil from free will debunked, the free will objection to the problem of evil is no longer useful to theists.


avian30 said...

This is a minor point, but you should be aware that many psychologists are skeptical of the claim that hypnosis can be a form of mind control. An alternate perspective is that the subject cooperates with the hypnotist to fulfill his social role. That is, if a subject acts like a duck, he is willingly acting like a duck because this is what both the hypnotist and the audience expects of him. More information can be found in this article:

To comment on the free will defense of the problem of evil: there is one other counterargument that I find particularly compelling. In a case where an evil person hurts an innocent person, it is the evil person who is exercising his free will. Thus, the innocent person must suffer so the evil person can exercise its free will. Even if we assume that free will has so much value, we can understand why the innocent person would be entitled to free will (which in this case he cannot even exercise), but why is the evil person entitled to this free will?

Orthoprax said...


Sure, I'm familiar with the skepticism towards hypnotism. I was just relating how Hick presents it as an example. It's not so important if it's a valid example or not, but it gets the point across.

"but why is the evil person entitled to this free will?"

It's the nature of the beast. If you go by Plantinga's view, it's not about entitlement but that a human being simply cannot be created without free will. And the creation of man is the superceding good here.

My argument cuts that response before it gets started. Man is still being created with his free will intact.

Orthoprax said...

Another huge problem with the free will response is that it doesn't explain natural evil in the least.

Why is nature set up so that animals must cause pain and death to others to survive? Why do tsunamis kill hundreds of thousands of people? Earthquakes, storms, lightning strikes, etc etc. How does free will account for them?

I know some Christian fundamentalists who assert that it is actually the free will and inherent evilness of man which causes natural disasters. But I think that's ridiculous. A guy robbing a bank in Utah creates a flood in India? Uh huh.

Though Hick says that this world is made for "soul making." That's why there are all these travails, so we can show how good we are in terms of helping others, caring, etc.

But of course, that doesn't explain why there needs to be _so much_ evil. Did we really need six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust to show empathy? Three million wasn't enough?

Essentially, the only real place theists can rest is that they have faith that God has good reasons for why there is evil. Since they have so much faith anyway, a little bit more is not hard to come by.

Sarah said...

My big problem with free will is the fact that the Jewish people believe in a certain destiny. If there is a specific event that MUST happen at some point (meaning, Bayit Shlishi or Moshiach), then basically everything must lead up to that point. After all, if there's free will there's no guarantee that this will happen, b/c in the end I can choose to change it. The "free will" concept can only be thought of as an illusion in my mind, as a concept that really doesn't exist except in our mindset, but is necessary in that mindset for daily life.

Orthoprax said...


That's a good criticism too. Though we can also come to that same conclusion under a materialistic view of the world.

All matter in the universe is subject to physical and natural laws. Matter subject to these laws operate in predictable ways. Humans are made of matter and humans are in the universe. Therefore humans are just as subject to making predictable actions as a rock in a gravity field is. That's determinism in a nutshell.

If we knew in entirety what each particle's mass and energy is in the universe at any point in the past, theoretically, we'd be able to predict what the universe would look like at any point in the future. If you're familiar with Asimov and the concept of psychohistory you'd know what I was talking about. If not read the Foundation series. They're classics.

Though, the problem with determinism telling us that we can predict anything given such knowledge, it neglects the aspects of quantum theory and the uncertainty principle which shows that such knowledge is inherently unobtainable. So even at the best case of knowledge possible, we could still be wrong about events half the time.

Also, given the extreme complexity of the unnumerable actors in the universe (or even of the past events of a single person's life) chaos soon overwhelms the ability to calculate such things.

So although we may be subject wholly to our past experiences, there is no way to actually predict in what ways we'd choose to act.

There have also been some scientific experiments done on this subject. People were told, while watching a clock on the wall, to tap a button when they felt like and record the time. The results were that awareness of the intention to push the button happened a third of a second after EEG signals indicated brain activation for movement. The actual pushing of the button happened 200 msec after that.

The subjects were only aware of the intention to push the button after their brains had already sent out a message to push it. That doesn't say much in favor of free will.

Sarah said...


I don't know that I really see a problem with the incaculability of determinism. That's sort of my point. When you think about it, free will seems fairly impossible, but because the illusion is strong enough and we ourselves have no way to calculate what the future would be, it makes no essential difference in our everyday life.

The difference this makes for me is people who act as though free will gives them an excuse to condemn those with different views than themselves - i.e. he'll be punished because he doesn't follow this, this and this. The assumption that there's no real free will allows a person to see people in their context, and see why they do what they do, rather than why "they're wrong and I'm right."

As for the future not being able to be calculated, I'm not even sure that we can say this definitively. Schools of nevi'im from Nach -- who actually knows what those were?? I mean, if you think of God giving a person a certain intellect, if they had the intellect to learn it, perhaps thats what made the prophecy God-given rather than him actually telling it to them . . . (just a try - not sure this actually makes sense in the long run.)

Orthoprax said...


"As for the future not being able to be calculated, I'm not even sure that we can say this definitively. Schools of nevi'im from Nach -- who actually knows what those were?? I mean, if you think of God giving a person a certain intellect, if they had the intellect to learn it, perhaps thats what made the prophecy God-given rather than him actually telling it to them"

If you believe that God has the power to break natural laws and to do the impossible, then sure. But as far as we know of the quantum reality, it is not just that it is technologically unfeasible to collect the data, it is fundamentally _impossible._ In quantum theory, nothing can be predicted with 100% accuracy. All one can say is that A is the most likely event, with 74% of the time it happening. B happens 18% and C is 6% and D through infinity making up the last 2% of possible conclusions.

Determinacy requires there to be actual particles with actual velocities and positions. Quantum theory shows that there really is no actual particles out there, they're all wave functions, what we perceive as a particle is simply the most likely place that a function will resolve itself.

For even the simplest of situations involving a single particle, only probabilities of events can be found.