Free Will and the Problem of Evil

Free-will is big in apologetics, although as we saw in my July post, it is by no means a requirement for theistic belief. Still, for many apologists it is an important response when dealing with the problem of evil.

Q: if God is omnipotent, omniscient and infinitely good (some theists will object to the term “omnibenevolent”) then why does he allow so much evil/suffering?

Apologist: We have free-will. If God is to allow us free-will, then he must allow us the freedom to behave badly.

If my decisions are determined by my genes then (says the theist) they are not really free. I am an automaton, destined to make the choices I make. I cannot be held responsible for them.

“Oh yes you can!” says Daubney, and quite right too, IMO. The choices I make are still my choices, wherever they come from. I am responsible for them and can be praised or blamed depending on what they are.

An automaton does not make choices but mindlessly follows a programme dictated by the agent who programmed it. A thinking agent makes choices.

I would not have free-will if I had no ability to think, or reason, or decide. I do not have free will when I am sleep-walking.

I would not have free-will if I were being coerced, for instance, where someone puts a gun to my head.

To have free-will I need to be capable of making decisions. The decisions that I make will of course be determined by the type of person I am and the type of person that I am will in turn have been determined by various factors, including my genetic make-up. I do not need to be able to decide what I am going to decide before I can be said to have free-will. If I did, then I would also have to be able to decide what I was going to decide to decide. And what I was going to decide to decide to decide and so on, in an infinite regress.

I can’t be coerced by my own wishes any more than I can hold myself up by my own boot-straps.

So free-will is no way out for the theist. There would be no incompatibility in God giving us free-will whilst designing us as the type of beings who would always chose to do as God would wish. Why didn’t he do that?

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7 thoughts on “Free Will and the Problem of Evil

  1. The theist who attempts to answer this question, in any way whatsoever, is actually redefining God. He is no longer talking about omni-anything. For example “he must allow us…et seq” How can one write “omnipotent” and “he must” in the same context?
    The theist falls into his own trap by giving a reply which redefines God as very,very, powerful, who knows a lot of stuff and who has his good days, But not omni anything at all. If we look a little more closely, we see that the theist is defining God as a very much improved version of……himself!
    If God is omnipotent, omniscient and infinitely good then he is totally unknowable because you and I are proud owners of brains that can do a lot of things, but they can NOT do ‘omni’ or ‘infinitely’.

  2. Agreed. It is noticeable how often theists will rely on a explaining God as a human “writ large”. He loves us ” like a father”, he looks after us ” like a shepherd”. We can understand God by explaining his actions in terms of what we would do in those situations.

    Until we can’t. As when the father who could relieve his child’s pain just watches her suffer. Or the shepherd stands by while all his sheep run over the edge of a cliff. Then it turns out that God is beyond our comprehension and how silly of us to imagine otherwise.

    • There is another problem I have with free will. It is one of those expressions that reifies a concept, like evil or moral absolutes. It seems to me futile to talk about “free will” without taking into account the fact that freedom always implies freedom FROM something or freedom TO DO something. So if I want to claim that I am free to make certain choices, that claim only makes sense if we understand what lack of freedom would mean in the same context.
      The theist claim that God gives me the freedom to poke myself in the eye, or commit a genocide, and do generally unpleasant things does not speak well for God or the advantages of this supposed gift of “free will”.
      It is interesting to note that the Mad Pride community considers it demeaning to be excused criminal acts on account of “diminished responsibility”. The notions of responsibility and dignity seem very much associated.
      Note to all apologists:- don’t ever talk to me about reified free will as a gift from God, like flat feet, back ache and inguinal hernias. Be specific and tell me ‘free from what?’ precisely and ‘free to choose what?’ precisely.

      • Richard,

        You’ve hit the nail on the head. The supposed limitations from which we are claiming freedom are fundamental to any discussion we have about it.

        “Are you free to go to France tomorrow?” might correctly be answered:
        “Yes” (UK guarantees freedom of movement to its citizens, particularly within the EU) or
        “No” (I have other commitments)

  3. Of course, one of the most absurd theist claims is that we are “free” to accept or reject God. When asked to unpack that idea, they are always hard pressed to tell us what it is, exactly, we would be rejecting. If I were sufficiently aware of God as to be in a postiion to reject him then I would already have a belief in the existence of something in iorder to reject it. Which is crazy, Literally.

  4. Greetings from across the pond! I recently listened to the Unbelievable episode featuring you and Richard. I decided to check out your blog and I’m glad I did. Good stuff!

    Anyway, I have no idea if you’ll ever see this as it’s such an old post, but I wanted to share some thoughts. One thing I’ve noticed in discussions about free will is that it is often granted that God values free will. It may be nit-picking, but it’s a different approach than arguing whether free will is necessary for moral choices. To my mind, if God values free will we should expect that to be reflected in reality. The simple example of this is that God appears to value the free will of a mugger more than the free will of his victim. If he’s going to pick whose free will he respents, why choose the perpetrator rather than the victim? Perhaps an even better example is the following:

    If we’re considering why God would not prevent the 9/11 attacks, the theist would probably present the standard free will argument (freely chosen good entails the possibility of freely chosen evil, etc.). But consider the fact that in the days following the attack, when rescue efforts were in full swing and there was still the possibility of finding survivors trapped in the rubble, rain hampered the efforts of the rescue workers. It is quite likely that if they were not hindered by the weather, they may have been able to get to some people that unfortunately perished before they could be rescued. If the weather obeys God, it could be said that God hindered the free will of the rescuers in their attempt to save people. If he could frustrate the efforts to save lives in this manner, why could he not have sent a storm that grounded the doomed flights? There are many such examples of weather or other natural phenomena, which all supposedly submit to God, frustrate the freely chosen GOOD choices people make. If that is not a violation of our precious free will, how is it a violation to do the same when it comes to evil choices?

    • Thanks Jeremy! I’m so glad you’ve found the blog worthwhile.
      Your observations on the problem of evil point up an interesting interface between natural and moral evil. Not only are moral agents left to inflict suffering on others, as if free will were the supreme good of all goods, but the natural world makes no distinction at all between the good and the wicked, sometimes as you say, adding to the suffering of those who have already been hurt by moral evil.

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