Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Free Will card in Theodicies

Traditionally, some people have tried to explain the existence of evil in the world with different theodicies. The most popular of these is the free will excuse. These folks will say that a world with evil allows those living in it to freely choose between doing good and evil. It makes free will possible and they argue that a world with free will is better than a world without it even if the world without it is evil-free. But a world with free will entails that, sometimes, people will choose to do evil.

This is obviously a bad argument for several reasons. The most obvious is that many evils had nothing to do with peoples' willing them into existence; they are natural evils like floods and earthquakes and famine and pestilence. (Additionally, the argument assumes that we have free will which is not at all obvious to contemporary philosophers even though most would agree that we do, they would say that there are tremendous difficulties in explicating a coherent and plausible theory of free will)

But consider these other arguments:

Another reason why the free will card is a bad argument is because of the existence, possible or actual, of moral saints or sages. If these beings are possible (and perhaps the Buddha, Confucius and Jesus were actual historical examples), then God could have made everyone like them. So even if there were evil options like there is in this world, a moral saint or sage would not choose it. It is reasonable (and maybe even an a priori truth) that such a being has free will, like you and me. So why didn't god make everyone a moral saint or sage? It is, I think, reasonable to believe that a moral saint or sage is the way she is due to these and only these reasons: her environment and her innate endowments. So why didn't God give everyone the innate qualities these beings posses and the environment which produces and cultivates their moral rectitude and perfection? The Christian/Islamic apologist cannot answer, I doubt, coherently or persuasively on these issues.

Another argument is that one can have free will even when their choices are limited to only good options (perhaps, even if there is only one option(!) on a famous Frankfurtian compatibilist conception of freedom). Say you have the option of A. to eat cake, B. To eat pie, or C. to torture babies. By making it impossible to choose C, (either by making it unthinkable to everyone or by taking the means away to make torturing babies possible or by bilking such attempts to torture, etc) we will still have free choice to choose to eat cake or pie. No evil will be permitted if we choose either provided we like both, everyone gets enough of what they want, there are no bad consequences from having a little cake or pie, etc. So having free will is not to be confused with having the actual options to choose. God could have taken evil options away without robbing us of having free will. I am not free to violate the laws of gravitation, that doesn't mean I lack free will.


  1. The Christian students in my 100 class seem to find the free will theodicy really convincing, but I have no idea why. It’s not even compatible with common forms of Christianity, like Calvinism, and the other ones still have to go to a lot of work to explain how divine foreknowledge doesn’t interfere with free will.

  2. Glad to see you here Carl! I am really interested in the Calvinist conception of foreknowledge. Divine foreknowledge, determinism, or fatalism and omnipotence makes a really interesting concept plausible: prepunishment. Imagine that before we're born, we had existed for an eternity. There was no time at which we had been created but we kept approaching the moment of our births. This eternity is either heaven or hell. Once we are born, we don't know if it had been heaven or hell but as we get older, we get more clues. If we live a virtuous life, we'll know we had spent an eternity in heaven in reward for living such a life. If not than we'd know we had suffered an eternity in hell. Of course, we just get epistemic access but we really have no power to change things because in order for prepunishmeht to be just, we would need to be destined (either because of determinism or fatalism) to live our lives as sinners or the good.

  3. Ha, that sounds awesome.

    It seems to me, to be a really good Calvinist, one must become an Hindu of some sort, and accept that one’s soul is fated to undergo certain experiences (possibly heaven, possibly hell), but given that God is crazy jerk, one is best served by learning to ignore perception all together.