Free Will, Loving God, and the Problem of Evil

Free Will, Loving God, and the Problem of Evil October 17, 2016

As I’ve been reading student papers about the problem of evil, several have offered the free will defense, arguing that free will is necessary for there to be love.

That seems to me to be correct, but it has some corollaries that should not be missed.

If creating free beings who can love you freely is preferable to creating robots who have no choice but to serve you and are incapable of loving you, then what happens when the idea of God threatening people with punishment and torture if they fail to love God? Surely that too is a form of compulsion, one that compounds rather than alleviates the problem of evil?

It seems to me that one can make the case that a universe with free beings in it, even if those beings use their freedom to harm one another, could be better than a universe without freedom or evil. Some second-order goods may be valuable enough that they make the second-order evils worth the price.

But if one then goes on to depict God as seeking to coerce love, as though that were possible, then does one not undermine both the reason freedom was allegedly given in the first place and also the potential to use that gift of freedom for the purpose of theodicy?


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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Does God threaten to torture people who don’t love Him?

    • Depends on what depictions of God you believe in.

      • Right – some certainly do think that God does this, others do not.

  • What is free will? When you take away my biology, my experiences, my environment – all the influences that bring me to every decision I make – what is left over that can somehow be subject to judgement. And if there is something left over after you take all of those influences away, why would that something (a soul?) bear more burden of responsibility than the something (God?) that created it the way it is?

    Depictions of a coercive God (bad as they are) are hardly necessary to find free will theology deeply flawed. Free will doesn’t explain all of what people associate with evil in the world. There are plenty of tragedies (probably most tragedies) that are not caused by human choice. And one of the most common biblical depictions of God – as a father or parent – makes it clear that complete freedom to cause pain and complete roboticism, are hardly the only choices available. All the good parents I’ve ever known provide their children with limited freedom to fail.

    • I’m not sure I follow your point, which seems to be about the question of whether free will should render us liable to judgment, whereas my point was about the incompatibility of threats of judgment with a free will defense that focuses on God preferring free beings to robots precisely because of our capacity to love God freely.

      You are right that natural evil is not explicable along these lines, unless one explicitly argues that a cosmos that develops under its own autonomy is inherently better than one that is predetermined to follow a particular course – and one can perhaps connect the two by arguing that a free cosmos is the only or best way to bring about the existence of free sentient beings.

      • I agree with your point about the incompatibility of threats of judgement (hell?) with a free will defense. I was addressing the base problem of free will as a defense against the problem of evil – which your students suggested.

        You may be right that a cosmos that produces sentient beings requires millennia of death and abject suffering, though it’s impossible to know, given that we don’t know all of the possible ways that sentient beings might arise. I just don’t see what the concept of a “God” contributes to this picture.

        • God simply denotes the ultimate reality, whether that which brought such a universe into being, or if that universe always existed, then the universe itself.

          • The second option is pantheism?

          • Yes, or something like it.

          • I still that my questions about the validity of free will apply, even if we are talking about our capacity to love rather than our liability to judgement.

            I value love, of course, but I also recognize that who I love and how I love is the product of my biology and past experiences. I don’t see what “essence” can be separated from those things that might experience love in “free will”. How is such a will “free”?

          • I’m not sure, once again, that I have understood the question. I think the question is whether a human person is more able than a billiard ball to not merely reflect, but also resist, the direction that prior influences have bestowed upon us.

          • There are many ways that a human is more capable than a billiard ball, of course. But why do we suppose that the “something” that resists influence is “free will”. It may well be simply other influences. My body compels me to eat excessively; my intellect and past experience tells me that gluttony is unhealthy. We are awash with influences.

            In fact, our influences are obvious. We refer to them purposely in our decision making.

          • I confess I am confused that you would refer to your intellect and your decision making, and still question “free will.”

          • What is confusing? Intellect and decision-making are also emergent, rather than fundamental, phenomena.

            But in what sense is our will free? What is it free of?

          • I never suggested that it was something other than an emergent phenomenon.

            Free will, to me at any rate, means not so thoroughly determined by prior influences that an outcome is completely inevitable. It is extremely unlikely that I will go to a restaurant and order a food that I tried previously and disliked. My behavior may be to a large extent predictable. But I could choose to order it if I wanted to, perhaps out of a desire to prove a point in a comment on my blog. Even my determination to do that is shaped by influences on my character. But ultimately there is a genuine choice that I can make to order what I like or what I dislike. That is what I mean by free will.

          • jekylldoc

            I think you have arrived at a sensible position.

            I also think that God’s influence on us, conceptualizing God as the spirit of love, is directional without being irresistible. The notion of threats of Hell can be subsumed within that conceptualization just as parents threatening their children may be subsumed within parental love.

            And it is still possible to critique either one, threats of Hell or parental threats, as a less-than-optimal manifestation of the spirit at work. And that is the nature of a spirit, a relationship related to itself: it can evaluate an approach and evolve superior options.

          • And I appreciate the argument that you’re making in the post as a whole – that the notion of a God who coerces love (via a threat of hell or other means) undermines and is incompatible with the notion of a God who creates “free will” in order to have creatures that freely love Him.

            However, I’m not sure that “free will” as an emergent property is good evidence of a God who set the universe in motion in such a way that “free will” would emerge. Partly because it’s easy to imagine a universe in which free will does not emerge (the comet that ended the reign of dinosaurs might just as easily have ended the reign of primates), but also partly because “free will” itself may simply be just as much an illusion as our concept of “I”. We can imagine that we are choosing between two influences, but it’s nearly impossible to prove that our final decision does not arise from yet another influence.

            In fact, it’s difficult for me to imagine some core part of myself that is not the result of biology or experience. And what it would even mean for that uninfluenced core to make an uninfluenced decision.

          • I don’t think that one can argue from human free will to God. The question was simply whether the free will defense works logically as a response to the problem of theodicy.

            I don’t think that it is necessary to say that our decisions are uninfluenced for there to be free will. It is only necessary to say that human beings have the capacity to consciously and successfully resist influences.

          • I’ll only add that there is no way to establish that our resisting of influences is not simply the result of giving in to other influences.

            The meaning of “consciously” is another difficult-to-define can of worms.

  • John Thomas

    The problem of free will and determinism is another intriguing question about reality. One way to look at it would be metaphysically: whether entire events in this world are unfolding in a determined fashion like an unwinding of a clock as Stoics viewed it or there is an element of determinism based on natural order or law and element of randomness where there is allowance for deviation from order and there is an element of free will choices made by sentient beings which together determines the way reality is unfolding. I go for the latter as it makes more rational sense to me from my experience.

    Next question would be whether free will and determinism are mutually exclusive positions so that one has to reject one in favor of another. I think not. It seems to me that free will exist within a broader deterministic framework. For example, I don’t have the free will to prevent my death or ageing processes that occur in my body. It seems to be determined the moment I was born and I have to just deal with it. But I do seem to make choices within that framework using my will regarding various lesser events during my short life in this planet.

    Next key question is, whether we have a will that is fully free of all the previous influences and experiences and not being at all influenced by them and takes a decision independent of them or whether we have a will that develops out of our previous experiences and influences. As far as I have read neuroscience and philosophy of mind, there is not much support for the former and has more support for the latter. The former position is mostly seen in Christian theological circles, where we have this notion of libertarian free will with the assumption that there is a soul within us independent of our physical body and which is ultimately responsible for our personal actions and choices. But I go for a will that is developed out of our previous experiences and influences, not independent of it.

    • I agree, and a will that is developed out of previous experiences and influences might be “free” of some other influences, but is certainly not “free” of influence in any general sense.

      If our choices are the end result of our biology and all previous experiences and given circumstances, then to what extent is our will not deterministic?

      • I think the question is why our biology and previous experiment ought to be counted as evidence against our experience that we can deliberate and can choose to act – even if we do so with much difficulty – in ways that push back against those earlier influences.

        • If we’re talking about evidence, then what is the evidence for “free will” (we have plenty of evidence for the influences of biology and experience)?

          But more basically, what the heck is “free will” supposed to be? What is that “essence” that is supposed to be pushing back against other influences? What makes this essence capable of decision-making, and why should such decision-making be more important or more highly touted than a brain informed by past experience.

          I know that the traditional concept is a soul; but if a soul is simply that part of us which is separate from all biology and experience – what is the evidence for it, and what makes it more capable of love and judgement than a brain with a lifetime of influences?

          • Herro

            I think you have very crude ideas about free will. Free will is simply the ultimate freedom, i.e. the *ground* of free choice itself. Ok?

          • Would you like to demonstrate why my ideas (questions, really) are “crude”?

            I’m afraid that slapping the word “ultimate” onto the word “freedom” doesn’t really answer anything.

            Most philosophical debates about free will center on whether free will is compatible with the evidence for determinism found in the sciences. You’ll find that quite a number of philosophers find the very notion of free will incoherent; others argue for a compatibilist version of free will. But free will (much less “ultimate free will”) is hardly a settled issue in philosophy. In fact, compatibilists (I believe the majority in philosophical circles) would argue that free will is an emergent property, not an “ultimate” or “fundamental” property, as you deem it.

            i do think that “free will” is a useful way to talk about day to day decision-making, because it is our emergent experience as humans. But as a fundamental property of the universe, free will seems no more real than (as Sean Carroll says) baseball. Baseball emerges from human experience; but the universe as whole did not require, and is hardly influenced by, the emergence of baseball.

            If we consider free will on a fundamental level: if a soul (or other entity) has free will, outside all other influences (biology, environment, experience, etc.), then in what sense is it “free”? On what basis does it “will” decisions?

            If there is no basis on which a free will entity makes decisions then isn’t such a will simply random and arbitrary?

            On the other hand if there is as basis upon which a free will makes decisions, then in what sense is it free? Any “basis” for decision-making would simply represent another outside influence.

          • You and I may not be baseball fans, but I think there are many who would say that the existence of baseball makes a difference, however small, in the grand scheme of things…

            And just to be clear, I am no more positing an immaterial soul than a Platonic ideal form of baseball. Baseball may depend on human conceptions and players, without which it does not have a tangible existence. But in our universe it exists nonetheless, at least from time to time.

          • I completely agree. At this point in time, on the planet earth, baseball exists. I can attest to playing in the Little League myself.

            I’m not sure that a version of free will that has no tangible existence outside of human conceptions is what Herro was referring to as “the ultimate freedom, i.e. the *ground* of free choice itself”.

          • jekylldoc

            “Ultimate” does not mean “fundamental” in the sense that you are using the word. There is no implication that it has no constituent parts, or that it is a necessary property of any system with parts like its parts. (Although I have argued that Asimov’s Laws of Robotics are incompatible with truly free AI, not by the definition of freedom but because no such intrusive determinants of limits on possible strategy choices is compatible with a reflective ability to choose strategies.)

            Rather, ultimate means “which cannot be surpassed” in the sense of James McGrath’s restaurant example above – any prediction about my choice may be made false by my ability to go in the opposite direction. And if you reflect on the implications, that means that symbolism has a kind of topological flexibility – as soon as we declare something a symbol of something else, “facts” which resist this label can be identified.

            Does Washington symbolize renunciation of ambition? Read a biography. Does Lincoln symbolize honesty? Ask Hillary. Does Michelle Obama symbolize submission? Don’t make me laugh.

            Yet we tirelessly create symbols, because we have to decide in real time about unclear matters. The term “free will” simply recognizes that there is a decision process.

          • I don’t have any major disagreement with your comments as far as they indicate a “decision process” at work. But “ultimate free will” even in the sense of that “which cannot be surpassed” is a subjective and unprovable notion. Especially in the way that Herro presented it: as the “ground” of free choice itself (I’m betting this is an indirect reference to the “ground of all being”).

          • Herro

            I was just being sarcastic in that comment and mocking some silly definitions of “god”. Sorry for the lack of a “/s” 🙂

          • Got it.

  • Les Burch

    Good discussion and big subjects. Too big for snippets. Free Will and the whole issue of the existence of evil are no doubt intertwined especially when we put a God Who creates into the mix. How can this be resolved? Philosophy has never been able to do it. Are the answers in Scripture? What if we stopped trying to absolve God from evil and we hung more loosely to free will and the idea of robots? Would welcome your review of 2 chapters in “It Still Isn’t the Way We Think It Is” , (What Good is Evil? and iRobot: How Free is Free Will?) Think of these as yet more ‘student papers’!

  • John MacDonald

    Bart Ehrman mentioned how the problem of suffering led him away from his faith. Presumably, for instance, if there was a loving, caring, personal God who watches over us and has a plan for our lives, there wouldn’t be tragedies like three year old children dying of cancer. But this really isn’t evidence against God, just evidence against an omnibenevolent God (God may still exist, and just be malicious, indifferent, or impotent in the face of wanting to help us). And calling cancer evil is like calling polio evil. Polio is no longer the source of suffering it was because we found the vaccine. If God isn’t only thought of as a parent, but also a teacher who’s viewpoint is not just the individual’s suffering, but also to give the human race a sense of itself in terms of identity, accomplishment and overcoming, the problem of suffering vanishes. What would we be as a historical people if not for adversity? The core of humanity is in flourishing in the face of adversity. Maybe one day we will terraform the planet, cure disease, and conquer death. God as a “teacher” fits in the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of John as “rabbi,” which means “teacher.” And even if you don’t agree with this, Christians I know (I’m a secular humanist) believe in justice in the next life, not in this life.

    On the other hand, the secular humanist in me doesn’t know why people defend God. It’s the whole “God is to thank for everything, but blame for nothing.” I’m agnostic, but my thoughts on God are that if I was a prosecutor of the divine, I would prosecute God for “depraved indifference” to human life. In United States law, depraved-heart murder, also known as depraved-indifference murder, is an action where a defendant acts with a “depraved indifference” to human life and where such act results in a death. In a depraved-heart murder, defendants commit an act even though they know their act runs an unusually high risk of causing death or serious bodily harm to someone else. If the risk of death or bodily harm is great enough, ignoring it demonstrates a “depraved indifference” to human life and the resulting death is considered to have been committed with malice aforethought. The example that comes to mind for me is God creating a world with earthquakes, which have killed millions over our history. On the average about 10,000 people die each year as a result of earthquakes. God could have easily created our world without earthquakes.