The heart of the Free Will Defence is in denying any logical contradiction between the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent God and the existence of evil in the world. Simply put the argument goes that a ‘good’ God would create a world containing evil if he had ‘good’ reasons for doing so. The Free Will Defence suggest that creating meaningfully free moral creatures can logically be defended as a possible ‘good’ that defeats any logical contradiction.
A key objection however comes from Anthony Flew and J. L. Mackie, both of whom object on the grounds that it is logically possible that God could create a world where meaningfully free beings always choose to do good. Mackie states it this way:
“If God made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good? If their is no logical impossibility in a man’s freely choosing the good on one, or on several occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion.”1
A quick response is to affirm the logical possibility of what Mackie proposes, but to point out that in order to defeat the Free Will Defence it is not enough to establish this as a logical possibility, but a logical necessity. In other words it could be possible, but it doesn’t have to be.
In support of this response Alvin Plantinga proposes the possibility of “transworld deprativity”, which essentially suggests that human freedom being what it is, it is possible that in any world that God could actually create people would make at least one evil choice. As James Dew Jr. points out: “we need not worry about whether transworld depravity is actually true. All that needs to be noted is that it is at least possibly true. And if…possibly true, then it is not necessarily true that God could eliminate evil without eliminating human freedom.”2 At the level of logic then, the Free Will Defence stands.
Now unless you are a philosophy student talking to like minded peers, dissecting this objection at the level of technical logic and name dropping prominent philosophers may leave you cold. At the street level the person you are talking too may not even know the “official” arguments, but if they are an honest thinking person they may be grappling with the issues non-the-less. And so, though they might not present the formal argument, they may raise the objection in thoughtful layman’s terms, saying something like this:
“But if God controls and knows everything, including every decision we make and what causes us to make them, isn’t it possible that he could have made people who are meaningfully free and yet would alway choose good?”
Responding in Gentleness and Respect: (Things You Might Say)
Since our goal is to offer a reasonable response as a part of open minded and honest dialogue rather than trying to win philosophical debates, I would suggest respectfully offering the following two responses for their consideration:
- You know, it does seem logically possible that God could do that, but I think we have to admit that things that are logically possible are not always actually possible. Take my own existence for example. I clearly exist. Now we can agree that my non-existence is a logical possibility since it is possible that my parents may have never met, resulting in my never having been born. But given that I really do exist my non-existence is actually not possible. Another example is infinite numbers. An infinite number set is logically possible, but an actual infinite cannot exist.3 So, when we say that something is possible even for God, we have to recognize that there is a difference between what is logically possible for God to do and what is actually possible.
Now, when we think about the world and how human nature and decision making is a unimaginably complex web of contingent cause and effect; and given the degree of freedom that God has apparently given us, while we may say that it’s possible (logically) that he could have made meaningfully free people who always chose good, it may not have been actually possible for him to do so while still ensuring the level of freedom that we indeed have.
- It seems that your question depends upon the term “meaningfully free”. Philosophers have lots of views on what human “freedom” means, but whatever your view doesn’t common sense seem to tell us that if God works to ensure that we always choose good, then our freedom is somehow diminished? Doesn’t it seem that a world populated by free people of this diminished kind of freedom would be less good than a world populated by people whose greater freedom entailed the actual ability to choose evil?
Flew and Mackie’s objections notwithstanding, the general consensus even among atheist critics is that evil presents no logical problem for God’s existence. Even atheist philosopher of religion William Rowe admits that no one has succeeded in establishing a logical contradiction; rather “there is a fairly compelling argument for the view that the existence of evil is logically consistent with the existence of God.”4
Most critics of God’s existence therefore tend to focus not on the logical problem, but on the existential problem of evil, (that is our experience of evil) in particular pointing to what they see as examples of gratuitous evil in the world. Hence questions like: “Where was the God of the Bible during the holocaust, or Rwanda genocide or Tsunami of 2004?” These are examples of what philosophers of religion refer to as ‘evidential’ arguments from evil against the existence of God that have been made popular in recent days by pundits such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or the late Christopher Hitchens. In our next segment we will begin looking at such evidential concerns and how we might offer a reasoned and respectful response to the questioner.
See William Lane Craig, Wallace Matson and the Crude Cosmological Argument, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/wallace-matson-and-the-crude-cosmological-argument, accessed May 30, 2013. Craig supplies a brief treatment between logical and real possibilities.