The Free Will Defense
The free will defense can be viewed as an attempt to show that there some kinds of good that even an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God can't bring about without permitting evil. The version below is modeled (loosely) on what Alvin Plantinga says.
Here's a slightly looser way of putting the basic idea: free will and causal determinism are incompatible. Because of this, not even an omnipotent God can causally determine creatures, if they are free, to always do what is right. ("God causally determined Tim to help his sister" might be possible, but "God causally determined Tim to freely choose to help his sister" would be contradictory. And even an omnipotent being can't make contradictions true.) And so, if God creates a world where there are beings with free will, even He can't guarantee that those beings won't sometimes choose to act badly, so that even God can't guarantee that that world won't contain evil. But a good God still has good reason to create that world, since--even though it may well contain evil--it will also contain the great good of creatures with free will.
- Creatures who are significantly free cannot be causally determined to do only what is right.
- Thus, if God creates creatures who are significantly free, He cannot causally determine them to do only what is right. (from 1)
- Thus, if God creates creatures who are significantly free, he must create creatures who are capable of moral evil. (from 2)
- Thus, if God creates a world containing creatures who are significantly free, it will contain creatures who are capable of moral evil. (from 3)
- If God creates a world containing creatures who are capable of moral evil, He cannot guarantee that there will not be evil in that world.
- Thus, if God creates a world containing creatures who are significantly free, He cannot guarantee that there will not be evil in that world. (from 4 and 5)
- A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more morally good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all.
- Thus, God has good reason to create a world containing creatures who are significantly free. (from 7)
- Thus, God has good reason to create a world, which He cannot guarantee will not contain evil. (from 6 and 8)
For the sake of brevity, I've left out a few (I think obvious) premises, which you can supply if you wish to make the argument deductively valid. Objections can be brought up against many of the steps here:
- Natural evil. This is the main objection. Although the free will defense, if it succeeds, might seem to help explain why an all-good god would have good reason to permit the evil that is a result of free human choice ("moral evil,"), it doesn't seem to cover so-called "natural evil," e.g., suffering caused by earthquakes, birth defects, etc., which doesn't result from free human choice. Some thinkers try to remedy this by saying that natural evil is a result of free Satanic agency.
- Objection to step 1: compatibilism. The free will defense assumes that free human action cannot be causally determined. Many philosophers have denied this, and think that determinism and freedom are compatible. They would say that free human actions (or, alternatively, free human choices) aren't ones that are not causally determined (because this would seem to make them simply random), but ones that have the right sort of cause. As long as I'm not coerced in what I do, or physically forced, and my actions 'flow' from my character (my desires, beliefs, etc.) then my action is 'free' in the relevant sense.
- Even if you don't buy compatibilism, some people would object to premise 5. They would say that there isn't anything contradictory in the notion of a world in which everybody always freely chooses to do what is right. (They can choose what's right.) So why can't God create that world, in which He foresees that people will freely choose to do what is right, rather than one in which He foresees that they will freely choose to do wrong?
- Even if you don't buy the previous objection, some people would object that God can still do lots of things so that people will more often choose to do morally right things freely, even if He can't absolutely guarantee it. (See this cartoon for examples of this.) After all, people's evil decisions don't come entirely from a vacuum. God can do lots of things to make it more likely that people would freely do morally good actions (things having to do with genetics, the environment, the temperament that people have, etc.), so that not all of the evils caused by people nowadays are necessary in order to have a world in which people are significantly free.
- Also, even if God couldn't prevent all of the evil acts that people do and still have people exercise significant freedom, wouldn't the world be better if he stepped in to prevent certain particular evil acts? E.g., couldn't God, seeing what was happening, cause Hitler to die of a brain embolism in 1936, without significantly impairing the value of the world?
- Step 7: Some people might ask what the value of people being significantly free is (we can discuss this in class).
Return to the Great Questions of Philosophy course web site.