Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Problem of Evil part 2

(see part 1 for the intro)

The most common Christian response to the problem of evil is the “free will” defense. There are a number of differences between various versions of this argument but they all essentially rest upon the premise that God cannot be held responsible for evil since it is the result of the free choices of created beings, whether angelic or human. The first person that I am aware of to give this type of defense was Augustine although the most famous articulation of it in our time is by Alvin Plantinga.

Often it is an argument based upon the hierarchy of priorities of God in creation. God, for some purpose, determined that it was more valuable for Him to create creatures that were free to choose either good or evil than it was to create a world where evil did not exist. Usually this is thought to be in order to create a world that has the best possible reality. As I already indicated, there are many versions of this argument that differ from one another in a number of details. A common (although simplified) version of the argument is as follows:

The Free Will Defense

1. Although God is all powerful (omnipotent) there are still things that He cannot do. God cannot do what is logically impossible for Him to do. For example, God cannot create square triangles or rocks too heavy for Him to lift etc.

2. God desired to create a world where at least some of the creatures have a free will. (Some versions argue for why this is the case and others do not)

3. It is not logically possible for God to create a world that contains free beings without allowing the possibility that they would make evil choices. If He did create beings without the capability of choosing evil then they would not be free (choices of moral goodness would also not exist).

4. Evil is therefore the result of the free choices of created beings. God cannot logically eliminate evil without undermining another purpose of His, namely that creatures would have free wills.

Often the additional argument is given that God brings about the best possible world given the existence of free moral beings.

This is a strong argument, particularly as Plantinga states it, because it demonstrates the possibility that God, as described by Christians, is not logically incompatible with the existence of evil found in the world. It is not necessary that the argument is sound (true) in order for it to defeat the deductive problem of evil. It shows that there exists at least one possible scenario where the God of the Bible and the world as we know it can coexist logically. If there is at least one logically possible scenario for that to happen then the deductive problem of evil is overcome. Many non-Christian philosophers have admitted that the modern version of the Free Will Defense has demonstrated that evil is not logically incompatible with the Christian God while others have continued to work on restating the problem to account for this defense.

There are, however, also weaknesses to this argument, many of which are too technical to cover in this kind of introduction but I will briefly mention a few.

1. This argument relies upon the premise that freedom is incompatible with determinism. Meaning that in order for someone to be “free” there can be no other force that determines what they will choose with certainty. There are many theologians and philosophers (both Christian and not) who do not accept that freedom is logically incompatible with determinism. If in some sense determinism and freedom are compatible then it is not a logical impossibility for God to create free creatures while also ensuring that evil does not exist.

2. Even if freedom and determinism are logically incompatible and that free creatures will eventually make an evil choice it does not mean that God could not have created a world of a particular duration so as to contain no evil. Meaning that in light of the limitations imposed upon God by the freedom of His creatures God could have chosen not to create, created a series of worlds that would cease to exist at the first introduction of evil, or provided for the immediate judgment of those who do evil (this would presumably be an effective deterrent to the spread of evil).

3. Some argue that freedom of choice is a freedom of “opportunity” rather than a freedom of “success”. This means that even if God must logically allow free creatures to choose evil He does not have to allow those choices to be successful in bringing about evil. God could have included in creation circumstances that prevent free choices from having evil effects. The choice would be freely made but the realization of those choices would be thwarted.

Although this is the most popular kind of response to the problem of evil it is certainly not the only one. We will look at another type of response in the next posting on the topic.

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