From the archives: Gary Gutting on Mackie, Plantinga, and the problem of evil

Part of a series I originally published when leaving grad school, this may also be the longest discussion of a point I like to hammer a lot: no, there is not a consensus that Plantinga basically took care of the problem of evil. See here for part 1 of the series.

Now the part of my review that will talk about things non-philosophers care most about: philosophy of religion, Alvin Plantinga, and the problem of evil. This is also the part I find most difficult to write, because I know Gutting personally and don’t want to be too harsh criticizing him.

I’ll get straight to the point, though: the careful discussion of the first few chapters vanishes when Gutting starts talking about Plantinga. Gutting was remarkably cautious about the supposed accomplishments of Quine, Kripke, and Gettier. With Plantinga, though, his attitude becomes uncritical acceptance. He not only insists Plantinga was right about his major claims, but that Plantinga’s claims deserve to be counted as items of philosophical “knowledge.”

One of the claims is one I’ve discussed here, the claim that Plantinga decisively refuted J. L. Mackie’s version of the problem of evil. Here’s Mackie’s argument, from the 1955 paper “Evil and Omnipotence”:

In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions…

However, the contradiction does not arise immediately; to show it we need some additional premises, or perhaps some quasi-logical rules connecting the terms ‘good’, ‘evil’, and ‘omnipotent’. These additional principles are that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible.

The initial thought in Plantinga’s response to Mackie was not new. Plantinga argued that “omnipotence” need not include the ability to do what is literally impossible, and it is impossible to determine a person’s actions and at the same time allow them free will. Plantinga then develops the point this way: true, God had many different options when it came to how to create the world, and God would have been able to see how people would act given each possible set-up for the world.

But, Plantinga says, that it’s possible that when God was creating the world, he foresaw that no matter how he created it, as long as he allowed for there to be free will, people would make some wrong choices, and wrong choices are a kind of evil. So maybe God couldn’t create free will without allowing evil, but it’s possible that God decided free will was valuable enough to allow evil for the sake of it. So there’s no impossibility of God and evil co-existing, because God might have allowed evil for the sake of free will.

In his original paper, Mackie had not addressed this exact response, but he was perfectly well aware that some theologians had attempted to solve the problem of evil by appeal to free will, and countered that that response depended on a confused conception of free will. Mackie’s point can be refined by saying that the free will defense depends on a libertarian view of free will, which says that being free is incompatible with being determined. However, the most widely-held view among contemporary philosophers is the compatiblist view of free will, which says that being free is compatible with determinism. If the compatibilists are right, Plantinga’s argument doesn’t work.

I’m a recent convert to the compatibilist view of free will, and hopefully I’ll remember to do a post explaining why at some point. But for now, I want to look at Gutting’s response to this problem:

Plantinga’s discussion is specifically directed at contemporary analytic philosophers, such as J. L. Mackie, who maintained that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the Christian God, that a contradiction can be deduced from the assumption that both evil and the Christian God exist. If so, the undeniable existence of evil proves that God does not exist. Responding to this strong version of the problem requires only a proof that a world with both God and evil is logically possible, not that it is actual or even probable. Accordingly, a defense against the objection may appeal to the most outlandish assumptions as long as they are logically possible. This immediately allows Plantinga, in formulating a free will defense, to avoid complex issues about the nature of freedom.

I agree that if Mackie is read as asserting a formal contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil, he’s in trouble. But that’s an absurd reading of the debate. It’s not the reading Plantinga himself used in his best known work on the problem of evil. In Nature of Necessity, for example, he says:

Presumably the atheologian—he who offers arguments against the existence of God—never meant to hold that there was a formal contradiction here; he meant instead that the conjunction of these two propositions is necessarily false, false in every possible world. (p. 165)

So if the compatibilist view of free will is necessarily true and Plantinga’s libertarian view necessarily false (as I’m inclined to think they are), bringing in libertarian free will is of no help to Plantinga. Also, as David Lewis pointed out, simply looking for formal consistency would make Plantinga’s free will defense completely unnecessary, because you might as well “reconcile” God and evil by appealing to absurd moral views, such as the view that:

We are partly right, partly wrong in our catalogue of values. The best things in life include love, joy, knowledge, vigour, despair, malice, betrayal, torture, . . . . God in His infinite love provides all His children with an abundance of good things. Different ones of us get different gifts, all of them very good. So some are blessed with joy and knowledge, some with vigour and malice, some with torture and despair. God permits evil-doing as a means for delivering some of the goods, just as He permits beneficence as a means for delivering others.

Obviously, such “solutions” to the problem of evil do not accomplish much of anything.

Gutting also uses an out-of-context quote from Mackie to claim that Mackie accepted Plantinga’s argument as successful:

Plantinga’s free will defense has been generally accepted as a successful response to the claim that God’s existence and the existence of evil are logically inconsistent. J. L. Mackie himself acknowledged that “since this defence is formally possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another.” (pp. 110-111)

The problem is that if you trace down the original quote from Mackie’s book The Miracle of Theism, he wasn’t talking about Plantinga’s argument at all. Rather, he was referring to a general greater-goods defense (the idea that God allows evil for the sake of some greater good), which he had already complimented as “particularly subtle” in the 1955 paper. What Mackie actually said about Plantinga in The Miracle of Theism was quite critical. Here is his final verdict on attempts to reconcile God and evil:

In short, all forms of the free will defense fail, and since this defense alone had any chance of success there is no plausible theodicy on offer. We cannot, indeed, take the problem of evil as a conclusive disproof of traditional theism, because, as we have seen, there is some flexibility in its doctrines, and in particular in the additional premisses needed to make to make the problem explicit. There may be some way of adjusting these which avoids an internal contradiction without giving up anything essential to theism. But none has yet been clearly presented, and there is a strong presumption that theism cannot be made coherent without a serious change in at least one of its central doctrines. (p. 176)

Does this sound like Mackie accepted that he had been refuted?

Bad as all of this is, the discussion of the problem of evil gets even worse in the last chapter, where Gutting says:

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)

This is a giant non-sequitur: the fact that it is logically possible that something is false does not mean a compelling case for it has not been made, or that the contrary view is remotely plausible. And it’s especially difficult to see how Plantinga did anything to touch versions of the problem of evil based on specific evils like the Holocaust. For reasons I’ve explained here, when the problem of evil is put that way, I think it’s a very powerful argument, even though I’m “familiar with Plantinga’s free will defense” and can’t see that I’ve been “misled.”

Remember that Plantinga argued that possibly, God had no way to allow free will while ensuring that no one ever did wrong. Surely, though he still could have allowed free will while preventing the Holocaust. For example, he might have created a world with free will, not intervened for several thousand years, allowing people to make various bad choices, and then miraculously intervened to prevent all the horrors of the Holocaust from occurring.

Gutting also has a discussion of Plantinga’s book rranted Christian Belief, but that discussion is, if anything, even more uncritical. Here, not only can I not see any good reasons to think Plantinga’s arguments are conclusive, I can’t even see why Gutting would think so.

I find the situation a bit embarrassing. Based on my personal contact with Gutting, I don’t think he should be dismissed as just a hack apologist, but that’s what he sounds like in the parts of What Philosophers Know that deal with religion. The most I can think to say in his defense is this: he isn’t really doing anything any worse than the philosophers who’ve said that Quine refuted the analytic-synthetic distinction.

If it’s not any worse intellectually, though, it’s certainly more frustrating. I know there are smart, sincere inquirers who’ve gotten into philosophy of religion, but bought into unsupported assertions about what Plantinga has supposedly proved, just because the people who are most involved in the discussion insist on this so loudly. My hope with this post is that those folk will read it and learn to take the things philosophers say with a grain of salt.

  • Steven Carr

    Planting’s argument can be summed up as follows :-

    It is as though his god had an almost infinite number of DVD’s. Each DVD is a film of a possible universe and records the particular free will decisions made in that universe.

    Naturally, there will be DVD’s which record you returning that purse you found in the street to its rightful owner, and which record you not kicking the dog after a bad day at the office.

    After all, those were possible free will choices you could have made. You do have free will and could at least theoretically choose good, which is why your sins are so bad. You had the chance of choosing good and blew it.

    The strange thing, according to Plantinga, is that although there are plenty of DVD’s which record people’s free will choices to do good, no matter which DVD his god settles down to watch with a 6 pack – that DVD will always be classified in the ‘horror’ section.

    I wonder how that happens.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    but it’s possible that God decided free will was valuable enough to allow evil for the sake of it.

    Any theist utilising this defense should be forbidden from making the “atheists should be all mopey mopey” argument heard most recently from Damon Linker. If free will is really that valuable, God’s nonexistence would ensure its freedom.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      BTW, “free will” occurs nowhere in the Bible.

  • josh

    Why does Plantinga seem to get so much credit for recycling old arguments? I don’t see where he’s done anything original with the free will defense, which is a hoary chestnut if ever there was. Similarly, I started reading through C.S. Lewis’s “Miracles” and find that Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism is pretty much lifted from a couple early chapters there. I don’t know from whom Lewis got it.

    • Reginald Selkirk

      It fails miserably, no matter who came up with it.

  • Darren

    The DVD comment reminded me of this comment I wrote in Leah Libresco’s Unequally Yoked blog on the occasion of debating the Problem of Evil and the necessary existence of evil given God’s desire for humanity to have Free Will. It was a thought experiment on how an Omniscient / Omnipotent / Omnibenevolent God might create an actual “Best of All Possible Worlds” while still maintaining free will.

    I had made the claim that an Omnipotent and Omniscient God could have created a best of all possible worlds, a world in which each inhabitant’s every thought, word, and deed was virtuous, and yet where each of those thoughts, words, and deeds would have been freely chosen, thus satisfying God’s supergoal of Free Will. I had claimed that God’s infinite foreknowledge would allow this, but it was objected that God does not have foreknowledge, that God exists extra-temporally, ‘outside’ of time, with all temporal moments occurring simultaneously (to the extent that it is logically coherent to use the words “occurring” and “simultaneous” when one is outside of time). Thus, it was claimed, my reasoning that God could have created a best of all possible worlds was invalid.

    Thus, a though experiment! I call upon one of my favorite conceptual spaces, the Library of Babel, and shall endeavor to do it justice.

    Imagine, an infinite library. Well, not infinite, not by a long shot, really, but still quite large. Enormously, stupendously large, in fact; a library extending a far as one can see, or ever could see in one’s lifetime. Spend a day walking in a straight line, still one would be within the library. Spend a week, and still one would be surrounded by nothing but shelves upon shelves of bound volumes.

    And what might be in this near infinity of books? Every story ever told, or which ever could be told. Not just that, but every possible variation of those stories.

    Let us restrict our wanderings to one very small, though still almost infinitely vast, section of the Library of Babel wherein we find one, and only one, story: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (I pick this one as most are familiar, and I know it intimately).

    In our small little corner of the library, we have HPtPS and every variation, slight or massive. Let’s ignore the versions with typographical errors, the versions in German or binary, the versions which are actually completely different stories altogether, the versions which are incoherent. It would still be a vast collection: every possible version of Harry Potter, where every possible thought, word, and deed of every character, extending backwards into the characters timelines, and forwards into their futures.

    Now, these characters exist within the confines of their universe, the book. From their perspective, events proceed from past to present to future, moment following moment, page following page. Yet, we readers exist outside of this time, and are free to disregard it at our pleasure. We can skip to the end, we can read through and then begin again at the beginning, though we know already the fate of each character.

    From the perspectives of the characters, each of them exercises free will in choosing their own thoughts, their own words, and their own deeds. Yet, from the perspective of the reader, we know that each is fated to play his part, to speak his lines, to enter and depart, love, hate, rejoice, and suffer as the author has decreed.

    Recall, though, that for every action, every decision, there is a sister volume where that choice was different. Prior to the decision, whatever that decision might be, grave or trivial, the two volumes were identical, in effect the same story, but after the choice, they diverge, each becoming distinct.

    Every choice, every possible decision from that choice, and every choice proceeding from that decision, and every possible variation on those choices and decisions for every character are to be found.

    The math escapes me.

    Now then, the reader might well ask, “Of all these endless varieties of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which is the real one?”

    I think we would have to say that all of them are real, or at least that any one volume is just as real as any other volume. It would depend upon what the reader preferred. Somewhere, in this library, is the version of Harry Potter where: every thought, word, and deed of every character is Evil; all suffer in the most horrifying manner describable; all live in abject misery; a version that is an almost perfect Hell, the worst of all possible Harry Potters. I should not like to read it.

    There is also, though, a version where every thought, word, and deed of every character is Good, none suffer, all are happy and fulfilled. There are, in fact, many versions where all is virtue and happiness, but would they not be ‘boring’? What possible artistic merit might such a story possess? What reader would wish to read them? I might answer that a reader who wishes for his characters to be happy, to be virtuous and fulfilled, a reader who distained from inflicting torments for the sake of art might like to read it. But I do not have to give such an answer, I have one better.

    Somewhere in the library, is a version of Harry Potter where all is virtue and goodness, where none suffer, and all are fulfilled. Yes, we have already said so. But let us continue searching, for within the many versions just described, also resides one version possessing artistic merit, and not just some merit, but which is a most meaningful book, a book to draw forth tears from stone – the best of all possible Harry Potters.

    The objection that is forming is that these are only characters. They do not possess free will, they are fated to speak their lines as they are written. Whatever their apparent happiness or the profundity of their story, they are not free beings, they are mindless automatons; slaves to the author’s pen.

    Firstly, were one to be such a character, one might well disagree. From one’s own perspective, one feels free, one chooses freely this or that; it would seem nonsensical to be told otherwise. But, how would a character know? What test could one perform?

    You reply that the characters may not know, but we readers would.

    Fair enough, but I can do better.

    Let us now imagine the same library, the same section of Harry Potter, but now let us imagine that there is no author. No J.K Rowling to pen version after version, each slightly different than the last. Let us imagine instead that the books write themselves. The characters do, in fact, have legitimate and real free will. They choose this or that and chart their own fates.

    How, then, does this library look?

    It looks exactly the same.

    Free agents or not, every possible permutation is still present, the worst of all possible Harry Potters is still there, but so too is the best possible Harry Potter, not a word changed from before, but this time with all of the choices made freely by the characters themselves.

    • Steven Carr

      Your analogy is spot on , and is powerful logic.

      I already used the Tower of Babel concept in 2005 to highlight the contradictions in Plantinga’s thoughts at http://stevencarrwork.blogspot.com/2005/09/god-omniscience-free-will-and.html

      • Darren

        Nice!

        I am afraid I don’t get the counterfactual part, though…

        In a related note, I can recomend the movie “Stranger Than Fiction”.

  • MNb

    “God might have allowed evil for the sake of free will”
    I have said it a hundred times and I’ll say it again. This sounds so nice when phrased in an abstract way. Apply this to a concrete case, like you do in your letter, and it falls flat on its face. I only think you could have phrased it sharper. A role play might make it crystal clear.
    You are the pastor of your church. Elisabeth Fritzl, who has been raped two, three times a week by her father for 24 years living in a basement enters and has some questions for you. You are an honest man and are convinced that your belief system can provide some meaningful answers and even comfort, because that’s what you have learned when studying.

    EF: pastor, is god omniscient?
    Pastor: yes, Elisabeth.
    EF: is he omnipotent?
    P: yes, E.
    EF: is he omnipresent?
    P: yes, E.
    EF: then he was there in that basement, had the power to help me, knew what happened to me and what would happen to me when my father locked me up when I was 12?
    P: yes, E.
    EF: what did god exactly do about my suffering?

    What is the christian apologist going to answer? Something like this?

    P: well, my girl, it’s a bit unfortunate what happened to you, but robbing your father from his free will by giving you the opportunity to escape after two weeks, now that would be a misery. So there wasn’t much he could do.
    EF: and what about my free will?
    P: no theologian, philisopher of religion or other apologist has thought about that, so I guess your free will is not that relevant.

    Thát’s what the problem of evil is about. The free will defence only shows a complete lack of empathy for the victims.

    • Darren

      Nicely written, MNb.

      I call that one the “Evil isn’t that bad” defense on the Theist Top Ten list…

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    However, the most widely-held view among contemporary philosophers is the compatiblist view of free will, which says that being free is compatible with determinism. If the compatibilists are right, Plantinga’s argument doesn’t work.

    Compatibilism doesn’t refute Plantinga’s argument, because the essence of compatibilism is that despite the fact that everything is determined, what we have is a deterministic process that makes decisions and choices, and therefore we still make meaningful choices. Plantinga’s argument is essentially that it is important for us to make meaningful choices, and to make meaningful choices we have to be able to make bad choices. Compatibilism says that we still make meaningful choices, so we’d still have to be able to make bad choices. The only way to refute Plantinga by referring to free will is to take the Determinist tack, and argue that we don’t make meaningful choices at all.

    • Chris Hallquist

      You seem to not understand the relevant jargon here. For starters, “determinist” isn’t an alternative to compatibilism. Rather, compatibilism is precisely the view that determinism is compatible with the existence of free will.

      If you feel really sure that you’ve got Plantinga right, though, can you try to find where he says what you claim? I don’t have the relevant texts handy, but I don’t think Plantinga ever says what you claim he says.

      • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

        I don’t want to start an argument over terms, but here is how I break down the positions:

        Incompatibilist – Free will and determinism are incompatible; you can’t have both.

        Compatibilists – Free will and determinism are compatible; you can have both.

        Under the Incompatibilist term, you have two broad positions: Determinist, which says that since everything is determined we therefore don’t have free will, and Libertarian, which says that since we have free will everything can’t be determined.

        So when Mackie claims that Plantinga’s argument relies on Libertarian free will and that the compatibilist views don’t allow for that move, this is the context I’ve put it in, which seems reasonable to me.

        Now, as for Plantinga’s argument itself, I haven’t looked at it in detail, but reading your summary and knowing issues around arguments like that, I think that my point’s fairly reasonable. Taking your summary (a reminder fo what we should remember):

        Remember that Plantinga argued that possibly, God had no way to allow free will while ensuring that no one ever did wrong.

        If this reminder is even remotely accuate — and iIhave no reason to think it isn’t — then it comes right back to my argument: Plantinga is arguing that God could not allow us to have meaningful decisions and choices while ensuring that we never made the wrong or bad decisions. Under compatibilism, we still make meaningful choices, despite the fact that everything is determined. Thus, the traditional free will defense still holds: it may not be possible to allow meaningful choices without allowing bad or wrong choices. Only if you say that we don’t make meaningful choices at all can you sidestep this, at least easily.

        • josh

          Verbose Stoic,
          The compatibilist, in the terms used above, holds that determinism and free will can coexist. Therefore on that view, generally, God could determine a perfectly good universe without impinging on free will. We would all choose to do the right things, and this would be free choice but God would have set everything up to work out that way. (I don’t find compatibilism terribly cogent but let’s accept it for the sake of argument here.) What you are apparently doing is introducing a new, ad hoc distinction: free will doesn’t entail meaningful choice. I.e. God determines the fate of the universe, since it is deterministic, and free will is present, but all the best universes lack some new property, which you call meaningful choice. I have no idea what it means to have determinism plus free will plus no meaningful choice. One can play this game of adding new properties indefinitely, but it quickly becomes clear that the property these good universes lack is really just the property of being at least as bad as the real word, and they are simply being added without justification to fend off the argument from evil.

          • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

            What you are apparently doing is introducing a new, ad hoc distinction: free will doesn’t entail meaningful choice.

            My answer to that is that if under compatibilism’s definition of free will we don’t have meaningful choices then, to steal a line from Dennett, “we don’t have free will worth wanting”. You can argue that the compatibilist notion of meaningful choice is one where Plantinga’s specific argument doesn’t work, but that doesn’t follow from determinism and free will simply existing. In short, for compatibilism to work we still need to have some notion of meaningful choice, and it is not obvious that you can have a meaningful choice that doesn’t allow for bad choices.

        • hf

          First, you’re not explicitly looking at the most difficult problems for the position you’re defending. Chris has pointed out specific real-world events that pose difficult problems for Plantinga.

          Second, on a closely related note, you ignore the Child-Proofing Objection. I think Chris pointed out before I did that Plantinga conflates choices with the results of those choices. The Bible describes cases where supposedly people chose to hurt others, but God stopped them from doing so. Apparently the authors did not think this destroyed free will. Or imagine a world like the Matrix, one which has high-level ‘physical’ laws restricting what humans can actually accomplish in the fields of pain and bodily damage (with no need for direct intervention by the designer). How would that restrict free will more than the law which prevents me from traveling faster than light? (If you tell me that Thomas Aquinas should have believed he did not have free will because he thought he could prove his God’s existence from physics, I’ll spit in your eye.)

          Third, you seem to just be defining “meaningful” choices so as to entail your conclusion. What does it mean to “allow” bad choices, even ignoring Child-Proofing? Does it just mean that running our could-function leads us to call those choices ‘possible’? Then we seem to have no problem. When we run a Pearlian counterfactual – taking a causal picture of the world and changing part of it in order to calculate the counterfactual’s answer – we screen off any ‘parents’ of the part we changed, so as to avoid a contradiction. This (causal) process of calculation would still tell us that we ‘could’ have made bad choices even if God set the starting conditions to prevent this.

          • hf

            Not sure what happened with the link: http://lesswrong.com/lw/rb/possibility_and_couldness/

          • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

            First, you’re not explicitly looking at the most difficult problems for the position you’re defending. Chris has pointed out specific real-world events that pose difficult problems for Plantinga.

            Yes, I am indeed only challenging the claim that compatibilism would take out Plantinga’s argument, and am not in fact arguing that the argument itself works in general or anything like that. I was explicit about that at this point, and don’t feel bad at all for not defending the argument beyond what I specifically wanted to comment on [grin].

            Second, on a closely related note, you ignore the Child-Proofing Objection.

            Many of those cases are not relevant to the compatibilist discussion because they are God telling people to do things and not making them do things, or God merely arranging conditions where the obvious choice is the one God wants. As for the others, inteference in specific cases where, presumably, there is a good reason is not the same thing nor has the same implications as arranging it so that all decisions all the time are so influenced. Now, a lot of this depends on how you shake out why allowing meaningful choice is important, but again it isn’t simply the case that compatibilism rules out Plantinga’s argument. But more that on the next point.

            Third, you seem to just be defining “meaningful” choices so as to entail your conclusion. What does it mean to “allow” bad choices, even ignoring Child-Proofing?

            You are correct that there are perhaps compatibilist notions of “meaningful choice” that would cause problems for Plantinga. I’d need to look at his argument and the proposed compatibilist view in detail to say so. From my end, I think the one you propose here is problematic, but that would be using my own notions and not necessarily Plantinga’s. Suffice it to say, however, that I am sure that there are compatibilist notions fo free will where Plantinga’s argument would still hold, and so the blanket “compatibilism changes the meaning of free will and is the one most accepted so Plantinga’s argument isn’t as strong” still, it seems to me, doesn’t really work as an argument, and is something that cannot be merely handwaved as it seemed to be here. That being said, perhaps the main thrust of the post was not to do that and so that might be forgiveable, but it’s still a lot more complicated than the initial phrasing made it sound. At least to me.

          • hf

            I am sure that there are compatibilist notions fo free will where Plantinga’s argument would still hold

            Can you name one that doesn’t beg the question?

            By this I mean, do you know a compatibilist account (which someone might actually hold) that does not explicitly rule out another person ensuring what choices you will make, and yet allows Plantinga’s argument to work? You can’t generalize from “other person” to “other causes” without denying compatibilism.

          • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

            hf,

            Well, think of the old thought experiment, where someone wires up your brain so that they can override it and make you shoot someone if you don’t do it yourself. I think that while most compatibilist positions will lean towards saying that you did make a free choice if you decide to shoot, almost all of them will say that if the person actually takes control you didn’t make a free choice to shoot someone. But that’s fairly similar to a lot of ways we claim God could stop us from making bad choices.

            It seems to me that, in general, for free will we allow others to influence our decision making processes but not determine it, even under compatibilist ideas. Compatibilists, however, allow for the laws of nature to determine our choices; we desire what we desire and act how we act in accordance with them. Now, if another agent — even God — deliberately arranged those laws to ensure that we would act a certain way, I think most compatibilists would at least find that a bit suspicious, just like the scientist who wires up our brain intentionally so that we shoot that person. And if that’s the case, there seems to be little room for God to intervene to stop us from making bad choices — at least, from making NO bad choices — while still having us preserve any meaningful notion of free will.

  • Patrick

    The biggest problem with the free will defense is that you can replace “free will” with “fruitcake” and the defense functions exactly the same. It’s not like actual evidence exists that the existence of libertarian free will is such a great good that it justifies non intervention in, amongst other things, the holocaust. It’s not clear what such evidence would even look like. Instead, it’s maintained that it is logically possible that the existence of free will is a moral good that overrides the obligation to prevent moral wrongs.

    Well, it’s logically possible that the same is true of burnt toast. And it’s logically possible that the existence of fruitcake is incompatible with god preventing the holocaust.

    And if the apologist concedes that these things may be logically possible, as he must, but objects that they are not plausible… Well, that’s certainly the death of the free will defense, as it is aimed only at a strictly deductive problem of evil. To maintain the free will defense after shifting the terms of debate to plausibility, you would need to argue that God created the morally best of all possible worlds.

    Good luck.

  • ildi

    Do people have free will in heaven?

  • Steven Carr

    VERBOSE STOIC
    Now, if another agent — even God — deliberately arranged those laws to ensure that we would act a certain way, I think most compatibilists would at least find that a bit suspicious, just like the scientist who wires up our brain intentionally so that we shoot that person.

    CARR
    But this hypothetical god created the universe.

    This hypothetical god allegedly knew what he was creating.

    He could choose to create the universe where people freely called the main town in New York State ‘New York’, or he could choose to create the universe where people freely called the main town in New York State ‘Gotham City’.

    Which universe did this hypothetical god choose to create?

    Whose choice was it which universe to choose to create?

    It was God’s choice. God created the universe. He decided what universe to create. He deliberately avoided creating the universe where there was a ‘Gotham City’ and deliberately created the universe where there was a ‘New York’.

    Do theists complain that god creating the universe with foreknowledge removes their free will?

    No they don’t, when they are explaining how free will and omniscience are perfectly compatible.

    And yes they do, when they are explaining how free will and evil are perfectly compatible.

    They simply choose the argument which suits them at whatever time suits them.

    And hope nobody notices the inconsistencies. Perhaps they don’t even notice the contradictions themselves. Hell, if you can’t find any contradictions in the Bible, it is easy not to find any contradictions in your own reasoning.

  • Steven Carr

    VERBOSE STOIC
    Now, if another agent — even God — deliberately arranged those laws to ensure that we would act a certain way, I think most compatibilists would at least find that a bit suspicious, just like the scientist who wires up our brain intentionally so that we shoot that person.

    CARR
    There goes Intelligent Design – shot to pieces.

    Who designed human beings to walk on two feet?

    Not God. He wouldn’t create laws so we acted in a particular way…

    Must have been some other guy who designed human beings in his image.

  • hf

    So to summarize: it does beg the question.

    (You can call it “compatibilism,” but in a fully deterministic timeline this position suggests that nobody would be free once they’ve so much as talked to, or interacted with, another person. Their actions would be fully determined by various causes, which would include the other person’s actions. Remember that no cause we know about can determine anything in isolation – changing the laws of physics for example will give you a different result – and that in practice humans as we know them can’t exist without interaction at a young age. Now our own timeline does not appear fully deterministic, but the brain activity which controls our actions seems to follow the old deterministic physics closely enough for all practical purposes.)

    Look, we don’t even need the post I linked to. This one image may clear up a lot of confusion.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Can you highlight what position you think I’m taking that begs the question and implies that no one is free once they’ve talked to someone? Since I explicitly said that under compatibilism influence is allowed but not direct physcial control, and pointed out that having natural laws that determine decisions is fine but setting those laws up specifically so THAT those decisions are made is not, this reply strikes me as you criticizing compatibilism itself more than me, by pointing out that the decision itself would be totally determined and so not free.

      • hf

        What do you think any of those words mean? Whether or not you interact with others at a young age exerts “direct physical control” over whether or not you can speak. Pretty sure we could expand that to include any thought or “decision” you would recognize.

        You seem to be saying that decisions which your parents intended you to make (eg, not eating raw meat in public, or more inherently moral actions you would not have taken by virtue of being dead) are “not free” for the sole reason that someone intended you to make them:

        having natural laws that determine decisions is fine but setting those laws up specifically so THAT those decisions are made is not

        This begs the question under discussion. The image I linked seems like all the counterargument this claim needs or deserves. Though it does take a statistical or probabilistic framework to give it a precise mathematical definition.

      • hf

        To make this explicit: start with probabilistic laws of physics like those we appear to have in this timeline. Then the past and present can both give you information about the future. But if you know enough about the present, learning the same information about the past tells you nothing further about what comes next. (Chris posted on this a while back.) The reverse does not (quite) hold. If you learn the past info first, the present can still rationally change your beliefs about the future. We can imagine a false situation more analogous to your brain-override, wherein knowing your social indoctrination and other facts about the past would make the present irrelevant.

        We could probably find a fully deterministic version of this. For example, the past could tell you everything about the future, but you could only discover what it says by calculating the present exactly (or vice versa).

        If you didn’t mean something along these lines when you wrote, “direct physical control,” then I consider those words meaningless until proven otherwise.

        • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

          If you didn’t mean something along these lines when you wrote, “direct physical control,” then I consider those words meaningless until proven otherwise.

          Ah, I think the problem is that you didn’t understand or recognize the thought experiment I was referring to, and then decided to use a particular definition of those words that is quite foreign to me, at least, which explains why I couldn’t understand what you were trying to say here.

          The thought experiment is this: some mad scientist has put a chip in your head by which they can take complete control of your actions. You happen to hate person X, and so end up pointing a gun at them and are trying to decide if you should shoot them or not. The mad scientist tells you that if you decide not to shoot that person, they will immediately activate the chip, take control of your body, and shoot that person anyway. The question is: do you make a free choice to shoot that person?

          Most people and most compatibilists will claim that you clearly would not be making a free choice to shoot if the scientist takes control of your body. The question is if you could ever choose otherwise because no matter what you do, the outcome will be the same: the person will be shot.

          Thus, what I mean by “direct physical control” is something like that, where the neurons are directly and intentionally altered without, in the compatibilist case, going through your decision-making process in the brain to make the decision come up a certain way. Essentially, an external intentional force short-circuiting your decision-making process so that it makes the decision they want you to make, which is far beyond mere influence, like with words. One main way for God to ensure that we don’t make bad decisions is to do precisely this: intervene in our decision-making process and make it produce the decision God ways. But that seems equivalent to the mad scientist, and that doesn’t seem like a free will worth having.

          The same thing, then, applies to natural laws. If God sets up a universe with natural laws, and the natural laws are such that we are determined to make certain decisions, then it seems at least potentially plausible that we still make meaningful choices. But if God sets up the natural laws of the universe explicitly so that we do or don’t make certain decisions, it again strikes as being like the mad scientist, setting up the conditions so that it is literally physically impossible for us to do otherwise, and doing so intentionally to make it physically impossible for us to do otherwise.

          Outside of these two methods, it is difficult to think of a method that God could use to guarantee that we don’t make bad decisions that doesn’t also run afoul of the same reasoning.

          • hf

            I didn’t realize you weren’t reading what I wrote. I’ll endeavor not to respond to anything else you say.

          • Steven Carr

            VERBOSE STOIC
            One main way for God to ensure that we don’t make bad decisions is to do precisely this: intervene in our decision-making process and make it produce the decision God ways.

            CARR
            So this hypothetical god didn’t decide to create the universe where he knew people would freely choose to call the main town in New York State, ‘New York’, rather than ‘Gotham City’?

            Who did decide to create that universe? Or can this god only create universes with ‘New York’ in them? He simply just can’t create a universe that will end up with a ‘Gotham City’ in it instead?

            What a limited god that is….

            VERBOSE STOIC
            Outside of these two methods, it is difficult to think of a method that God could use to guarantee that we don’t make bad decisions that doesn’t also run afoul of the same reasoning.

            CARR
            So this god can’t guarantee that we do not freely decide to eat food by putting it in our ears?

            So how did this hypothetical god manage to create human beings who avoid such bad decisions?

          • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

            hf,

            I didn’t realize you weren’t reading what I wrote. I’ll endeavor not to respond to anything else you say.

            Considering that from my perspective I could very much say the same thing about you — and did, but far more politely and without even a hint of malice — don’t you think it might be better to try to figure out why we’re talking past each other?

  • Steven Carr

    I think what Verbal Stoic is saying is that god designed the world so that our brains work in one particular way.

    This hypothetical god designed our brains so that they work as designed , and we have free will, but if this god had designed our brains so that they worked a different way, we would not have free will.

    • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

      Not quite.

      If God designed the natural laws so that we would end up with decision-making faculties — see Sean Carroll for this sort of compatibilist position — that would conform to the natural laws for making decisions, then our brains working as designed would produce free will decisions as per the compatibilist line. Thus, we would have free will as per the compatibilist position. However, if God had structured the natural laws specifically and intentionally so that we would or would not make certain decisions, that would mean that the natural laws were structured as such JUST TO ensure that we made certain decisions and didn’t make others, at which point most compatibilist theories will have a hard time calling those decisions truly free.

  • Steven Carr

    STOIC
    However, if God had structured the natural laws specifically and intentionally so that we would or would not make certain decisions…

    CARR
    SO it wasn’t this god who designed human beings to not make the decision to eat food by putting it in our ears, or to walk around backwards on our hands and knees.

    So who did design human beings so that they did not make those decisions?

    And who decided to create the universe where people freely chose the name ‘New York’, rather than the name ‘Gotham City’?

    • hf

      Seriously, don’t bother. He’s mathematically illiterate. And if he doesn’t understand your response, he’ll decide YOU must not have understood HIM.

  • Pingback: A summary of the problems I see with philosophy–and why I’m thinking of going back anyway

  • Oghmata

    I must admit I fail to see the relevance of talking about compatibilism v. libertarianism in this discussion. Why does it matter if our choices are purely freely made or purely determined, or anything in between, since an omnipotent omnibenevolent God would still be both willing and able to miraculously stop a bullet in mid-air before it reaches the head of an innocent kid, whether the shooter freely chose to shoot or not ?

    To me, even the “greater purpose” argument fails just as miserably. By definition, an omnipotent God wouldn’t be restrained by any kind of physical limit. Thus, what kind of greater purpose could ever require him to let a physical event like the rape of a child happen that even God could not achieve any other or better way ?

    I think we should rebrand the whole thing as “the argument from cruelty”. Not that it would change anything to the cogency of it, but I think if more people understood that we’re not just talking about “bad stuff” but also about the most vile and cruel acts known to mankind that happen regularly, it would help a lot of them understand why it’s so cogent.
    And also I’d love to see how apologists would try to explain explictly how God knowingly decides to allow even the most unnecessarily despicable forms of cruelty to exist and still pretend their God is any kind of good.


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