Problems with Plantinga’s free will defense: the way detailed version

This is the one section of chapter 6 of the book that I’m particularly confident in.

The lack of agreement about much of anything is widely recognized by philosophers themselves. But sometimes, a philosopher will say, “True, we philosophers cannot agree on the big questions, like ‘is there a God?’ or ‘what is free will, if it exists at all?’ But over time we’ve managed to settle a number of smaller questions, and the answers to these smaller questions help us better understand the big ones.” I am not sure this claim is false, but I do know that every time I’ve looked closely at a specific claim that philosophers are unanimous on a specific “smaller question,” the specific claim has turned out to be false.

I gave one example of this in the last chapter: the claim that thanks to Plantinga, it’s now agreed that none of the older versions of the problem of evil work. Here, I’ll give a more detailed, updated explanation of what that claim is wrong. I’ll start with a quote from philosopher Gary Gutting’s book What Philosophers Know:

Consider a standard atheistic argument from evil: An all-good being would have wanted to prevent the Holocaust, and an all-powerful being would have been able to do so; therefore, since the Holocaust did occur, there is no being that is both all-good and all-powerful – hence no God in the traditional sense. No one familiar with Plantinga’s free will defense can think that there is a compelling case for the initial premise of this argument. It is logically possible that an all-good being would permit the Holocaust for the sake of avoiding even greater evils and that even an all-powerful being could not have prevented the Holocaust and avoided greater evils. The argument as formulated is demonstrably inadequate, and anyone who rejects the existence of God on the basis of this argument has been misled. (p.232)

In a blog post written for the New York Times website, Gutting makes similar but more sweeping claims:

When philosophers disagree it is only about specific aspects of the most subtle and sophisticated versions of arguments for and against God’s existence (for example, my colleague Alvin Plantinga’s modal-logic formulation of St. Anselm’s ontological argument or William Rowe’s complex version of a probabilistic argument from evil). There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals. Accessed 22 Dec 2011

I have heard many people make claims like the ones in these two paragraphs. However, the claims in both paragraphs are easy to disprove. In an essay published after his death, philosopher David Lewis (1941-2001), writes:

The most ambitious versions of the argument [from evil] claim that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and completely benevolent deity…

In my view, even the most ambitious version succeeds conclusively. There is no evasion, unless the standards of success are set unreasonably high. Those who try to escape the conclusion have to insist that no use can be made of disputable premises, however antecedently credibly those premises may be. But philosophers can and do dispute anything. Some, for example, are prepared to argue about the law of non-contradiction (p. 231).

The fact that Lewis had previously written about Plantinga’s free will defense disproves the claim the first quote about “No one familiar…” etc., etc. It helps that a substantial minority of philosophers think Lewis was the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Lewis also gives a nice explanation of what’s wrong with the line in the second quote about “uncontroversial premises.” Lewis may recognize the needed premises are disputable, but he disagrees with other philosophers in thinking the argument “succeeds conclusively” anyway.

This is enough to show that Gutting is wrong to say no disagreement exists. But someone might claim that Lewis, in spite of being well-respected, was hopelessly confused and therefore he doesn’t matter. So I’ll explain one reason why there’s disagreement about this issue. “Plantinga’s free will defense” is a response to a specific argument J. L. Mackie (1917-1981) gave in the 50’s. Mackie’s argument went like this: God is defined as omnipotent (all-powerful) and good, “a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can,” and “there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do.” That means that if God exists, evil cannot, but evil exists, so God does not.

Plantinga argued that, on the contrary, maybe no matter how God created the world, as long as he allowed people significant free will, people would make at least some bad choices. (Bad choices are a kind of evil.) And maybe God foresaw this, but decided that free will was worth the price of bad choices. If that’s possible, it seems possible for God and evil to coexist after all.

In Mackie’s original paper, he talked a version of the free will defense, and said he thought the notion of free will was incoherent. The key issue here is the “incompatibilist” or “libertarian”  view of free will. Incompatibilism says that free action is incompatible with the action being determined. Libertarianism (no connection to the political view) is just incompatibilism plus the claim that free will in fact exists.

“Determined” here just means determined by starting conditions (and the relevant scientific laws, or something similar). It doesn’t necessarily mean God deciding how people will act just by decreeing it.

So, let me re purpose  one of Plantinga’s examples. Suppose Curley Smith, mayor of Boston, is offered a $35,000 bribe, and given his bad character (and various other conditions, including his financial situation and estimate of the odds of getting caught), it’s a forgone conclusion that he’ll accept the bribe. Maybe if he were more honest, or he felt certain he’d be caught, he’d reject the bribe, but given how things actually are, there’s no way he’s going to reject it. Also imagine, if you like, that the laws of psychology also play a role in determining Curley’s action.

Now, given this, once Curley accepts the bribe, did he freely accept it? Did he chose to accept it? Could he have rejected it? I think the answer to all three questions is yes. So being determinism is compatible with free action, compatible with choice, even compatible in a sense with being able to do otherwise.

I say “in a sense” for the question about being able to do otherwise, because there’s a sense in which determinism means being unable to do otherwise. It means being unable to do otherwise holding all relevant starting conditions and laws exactly fixed. But in these contexts, I think it’s natural to say “he could have done otherwise” if what we mean is, “he might have rejected the bribe if he were more honest, etc.”

The libertarian, however, says that Curley wasn’t free. The libertarian says that if an action is determined by prior conditions, it is not free. Curley’s action was determined by prior conditions, so according to the libertarian it is not free. I think libertarians are wrong about this. I’m a compatibilist, meaning I think freedom and determinism are compatible. David Lewis was another compatibilist. There is evidence that most ordinary people’s intuitions favor compatibilism. Furthermore—and I think I speak for many if not most compatibilists here—I think compatibilism is true as a conceptual matter and I don’t think there’s any way libertarianism could have turned out to be true.

Now that we’ve got all this background, we can see why there’s diagreement about Plantinga’s free will defense. Plantinga is a libertarian. His free will defense requires this. If the notion of free will is incoherent, as Mackie claimed in “Evil and Omnipotence,” then it doesn’t make any sense to imagine God allowing evil for the sake of free will. Similarly, if compatibilists like Lewis and I are right, God could have given people free will, but done things to ensure they would always do right (for example, he could have given them only good desires, or made them very good at resisting temptation.) So on certain views of free will, Plantinga’s free will defense doesn’t work.

To get clear just what I have shown in this section, here are three claims about Plantinga’s free will defense:

  1. Plantinga’s free will defense refuted Mackie’s version of the argument from evil.
  2. No one who’s read and understood Plantinga’s free will defense can deny it refuted Mackie’s version of the argument from evil.
  3. No one who’s read and understood Plantinga’s free will defense can deny it refuted all the more popular versions of the argument from evil, for example, the argument that a loving God would have prevented the Holocaust.

I think all three of these claims are false. However, I understand if you think (1) is true. If you are a libertarian, you will probably think (1) is true. (2) and (3) on the other hand are things no informed person should believe. That is not to say no informed person does believe them; plenty of people who ought to know better have said things like (2) and (3).

(2) is false just because Lewis and Mackie and I all read and understood Plantinga’s free will defense, and were not convinced, in large part because we disagreed with Plantinga’s view of free will. And (3) has an additional problem: Plantinga’s free will defense argues that God might allow some bad choices for the sake of free will. However, just because God gave the Nazis the free will to decide to try to kill as many Jews as possible doesn’t mean he had to let them be so successful at it. After all, there are lots of stories in the Bible where someone tries to do something bad (keep the Jews in slavery, kill baby Jesus, etc.), but God intervenes so that they fail.

I took the trouble of explaining all this in such detail it’s such a great example of a false claim of “no disagreement” on a particular philosophical question. Claims like this, in my experience, never turn out to be true. There is always at least one well-respected philosopher who disagrees (and when I say “well-respected,” I do mean better respected in the philosophical community than any anti-evolutionist is in the biological community). Next time you hear a claim like this, you’d be wise to be skeptical.

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