Monday, November 26, 2007

Is the Free-will Defence Defensible?

Swinburne’s free-will defence (of God’s allowing of evil) assumes that it is a great good that we can make free and responsible choices; and that the possibility of making such choices requires the possibility of evil. Regarding “free,” Swinburne (1996: 101) thinks that “in order to have a choice between good and evil, agents need already a certain depravity,” but what sort of choice is better made in depravity? Surely not one with important consequences! Regarding “responsible,” our ability to choose is supposed to be a great good only because we are thereby able to cause great suffering to others, but surely whatever value is added to a choice by its being freely made is independent of whether or not its consequences actually occur. Although making free and responsible choices when we have to can be a good thing, is that a reason to allow evil? Surely evil is the opposite of good, not an intrinsic part of it, as this defence seems to require it to be.
......Consider a saint (whose possible existence is supposed to justify the possibility of evil) who devotes her life to loving God, saving the depraved souls around her from sin (for which they later martyr her) and assuaging the suffering of the innocents. She is made this offer: All those sinners and sufferers (and also herself) could have died painlessly as babies and gone straight to Heaven instead, where they would all have chosen (in a well-informed way) to enjoy loving God forever. Wouldn’t a saint put their collective well-being ahead of her own glorious sainthood, and so choose (with all her saintly wisdom) to take up that offer? Or consider the heroic rescue of some people from some horrible situation—that is surely a good thing; but would we judge as good someone who arranged (or even just allowed) for the careless making of consequential choices just so that (in such a situation) she could display her own (or some friends’) heroism?


Jeff said...

O.K. I actually think the free-will defence is densible. Here goes:
#1) I think Swinburne's meaning about depravity is just this:
if we didn't have some level of depravity, we would do good inherently... Just as I could theoretically beat myself on the head with a hammer, I'm not likely to want to; in the real world, it's not a live choice for me, whether or not to beat myself with a hammer, there is no reason I would do it. Similarly, a non-depraved entity would not choose evil.
#2) Does Swinburne use the word "because" in the sentence "our ability to choose is supposed to be a great good only because we are thereby able to cause great suffering to others"
I would agree that our ability to choose entails the ability to harm others necessarily... But it does seem silly to claim that there's a casaul relationship.

#3)As a Christian (like Swinburne) I would not define evil as the opposite of good. I'd follow Augustine in defining evil as the lack of good... It's like cold, or dark; defined by the lack of it's opposite (e.g. heat and light) further, I'd claim that evil is parasitic upon good where as good is quite possible without evil. This is a pretty well established (if not orthodox) position within Christianity.
#4) Is your final point that God is like the person who set up a whole show merely to display his heroism? Clearly, if this were God's motivation, it would be questionable. But there's a few points to make:
Unlike the rest of creation, God actually is the ground of all being, the center of the universe, etc... When God reminds us of this fact, he's actually engaged in an act of mercy and truth... With God it's not bragging to say 'it's all about me' and when he does so, it's not out of poor self esteem. It's because as created beings we need him, and it would be selfish of God to hide or deny his centrality.
Secondly, I think a free will defence actually works best with a soul-making theodicy. It's natural to ask "What's so great about free will that it's worth all the evil the world suffers?"
The answer is that it's the only way to grow us humans up. The theoretical saint who could summon everyone to heaven would summon a crowd of spoiled brats who haven't been grown, matured, etc...

Enigman said...

Re #1, I think that is what Swinburne has in mind, but I still fail to see how it could be better to be depraved. God, for example, would not choose evil, and it is not that He is incapable of choosing it (like a rock is) but that He would not choose it. And surely His is a better choice (to avoid evil) than mine (when I make it), as it is made for better reasons (and consequently more usually).

Re #2, I don't see how our ability to choose morally entails an ability to cause the physical effects of the choice, because those effects could be cut off by God without our knowing about it, and hence without it affecting the intrinsic goodness (or badness) of our having made the right (or wrong) choice. But the free-will defence seems to need such consequences, for the choice to be somehow (objectively?) a greater one (when right).

Re #3, similarly, good being possible without evil (as I agree it is) only makes the free-will defence harder to defend though, surely? It is for such reasons that Swinburne has to consider the depraved choice to yield, in some way, a greater good.

Re #4, It's not that there's anything wrong with God saying "I am infinitely great," it's the deliberate choosing to set things up so that (i) there is evil to overcome, and (ii) that evil is so unfairly distributed. Your second point is therefore (it seems to me) in conflict with #1, in that once a saint's character has been built, she is unlikely to choose evil. Is she then not as good as she used to be? In any case, it seems that some people are born with better chances of having their characters built (rather than undermined) by adversity; that such things are unfairly distributed.

The soul-making that you mention (can you give me any references to a literature on this?) says that only spoilt brats would be going to Heaven in my scenario, but even if our characters do need building, education here on Earth is so rough-and-ready, whereas surely in Heaven a perfect education could be provided. Even here, we work towards giving our children an expensively organised education, rather than random brutality. Would not the best education be provided by angels?

Jeff said...

Sorry for the delay.
I was introduced to the concept of a soul making theodicy through the writings of John Hick. He buys into it. He credits the early church father Iraenus as being one of the first Christians to hold this view. Searches on either of these two names ought to turn up something.

As for the others issues in your reply:
#1) I think there are three possible moral statuses that an entity might have. The highest level is that a being that is free to choose and chooses to do good conistently. God would be the ultimate example of this. The middle level is someone who chose to do good inconsistently. This entity is not evolved enough to always do the right thing, but is free to choose. The lowest level would be a robot of some sort, unable to choose at all. It is better to be at the middle than the bottom, but the top is really ideal.
It makes sense to call this middle level depraved if you begin with the assumption that mankind started off better than it now is (i.e. Adam in the Garden) but depraved would seem a wierd word choice if you take a more secular-progressive view.

#2) I think if our moral choices didn't have real consequences, they wouldn't really be choices. If there are no stakes involved we wouldn't be tested or grown. It's only because real suffering occurs when we mess up that our choices really have any meaning. (Maybe I'm missing the point here. If somebody explained to me how a universe would work where our choices didn't have physical repurcussion I'd give this another shot.)

#3)That's an interesting point: if Good is possible without evil why do we experience evil at all. I've not encountered that question ever, but I'll give it a try.
God seems to have an incredibly high value on human choice (free will, whatever) he seems to want a real relationship with us rather than a slave-master or robot-creater relationship.
So he offered us this amazing existence connected to him. But Eden would have been a jail if there wasn't an escape clause. It would have been this amazing prison if there wasn't an option to get out.
In making the choice to get out of Eden, we make the choice to increase our distance from God. Our relationship with him suffers. He didn't want us to take this route but he knew if it was to be a real relationship then it would.
One common view is that evil was this pre-existent force that now get's a major victory.
But if evil is defined as that which lack's goodness (just as darkness is ultimately that which lacks light and cold is that which lack heat) then evil is necessarily entailed by walking away from God. It enters into humanity through that action and by definition had to. (There's probably some important stuff about Satan's pre-existence that's worth debating here... But's that might be a tangent.)
#3) I think one implication is that God didn't set up the evil to be overcome... Humanity chose a path that was far from God, and evil resulted. That choice was necessary for the relationship God wanted with his children.
I think it's powerful and relevant, to ask about the distrubution of evil. It seems grossly unfair. There's a few things I can say to this, though.
#1) If God is the source of fairness we should expect fairness to decrease as we get further away from him. I don't mean that people suffering tragedy have chosen to do wrong; I mean that life in the garden was closer to God and correspondingly more fair than it is on Earth.
#2) The unfair distrubution of evil actually presents a profound opportunity for growth for those of us with more than we need. Largely we don't take advantage of this opportunity, but the ability to take on issues like world hunger gives us the possibility for growth.
#3) The world seems to me very carefully crafter like an X-files episode: almost always, you could create a naturalistic or a super natural explanation. This makes faith meaningful-- it's an act of courage as much as an act of the intellect. If it was easy to believe belief itself would be cheapened. Things like the unfairness of life are ones that raise the bar on faith.
I don't believe that God is happy that people starve and suffer. I know he shares our heartbreak at starvation, abuse, etc. But I know that it's within his power to use even these things for his purposes.

#4) Would the best education be provided by angels?
What an interesting, provacotive question.
I guess the answer to that is probably, but the best students wouldn't be provided by a heavenly and perfect existence.
God started with the idea that we were in a near-perfect place. He didn't delegate the role of education to angels but he seems to have taken the job on himself in Eden. Still we didn't go in the direction he wanted. Did he know this would happen? Why did he start in this manner if he knew we needed experiences to ground our education in? I don't know... Maybe that was for us. As a teacher, when my students ask me for something I know won't work I sometimes let them give it a shot so that they can see how it won't work.
As for the roughness and randomness... Again, that's a legitimate concern. I think it's worthwhile to point out that the world would be a more fair place if we'd done a better job with it. In some sense, we told God, "We don't like your school, we'll set up our own." Then when the school that we largely set up on our own falls apart we try and pin the blame on God.
There are tremendous questions... About, for example, why we all pay the price based on someone else's failings. I think some of this is about the idea of real decisions having real consequences.
There's also questions about how literal Genesis is. I'm not committed to the position that what Genesis describes as a garden, tree, or snake actually are a garden, tree, and snake... Nor am I comitted to the position that Adam was one specific person.
I am comitted to the position that God gave us a story with truth that he expected us to unfold as we aged.

Enigman said...

Thanks Jeff, I've yet to look at Hick but I find plausible (and apparently Keats also liked this idea, so it can't be too bad) the basic idea, that a uniquely maximal person, being a person, might well be lonely, and might even find the company of angels (that He had created) unsatisfying, cf. how we would (hopefully!) find the company of teddy-bears unsatisfying.

Still, such loneliness, in a necessarily unique being, strikes me as less than maximal. (What might be better would be either (i) a maximal being with no desire for the company of equals, but naturally happy with His teddy-bears, or (ii) many relatively perfect people who could commune.) And what strikes me as much less maximal is forcing others to pay the price of evil just to have some better company (than angels) round. Still, God is necessarily mysterious, and such thoughts may well therefore be inaccurate; while the idea of soul-making is at least a hopeful one (much better than naturalistic selection).

And thanks again because it now occurs to me to incorporate this soul-making idea into my own theodicy: God is checking that there are no other similarly perfect beings to commune with (since He knows that He does not know infallibly that there are no others), and that enterprise (which would ideally be persued by creating a world like this one, with people like us in it (for reasons that I shalln't go on and on about here)) naturally produces worthy comrades for Him to commune with anyway, as they go bravely (and a bit more meaningfully than endless tea with the angels in Heaven perhaps) on exploring.

(#2) Re "how a universe would work where our choices didn't have physical repurcussion," I don't know about "would," but I'll have a stab at "could" within a related (and more relevant) question... God making the universe may have been a bit like our having a dream (the Platonic idea, of this world being shadows), and a bit like an alien scientist putting brains into interconnected vats, all controlled by a computer that the scientist programs (as in David Chalmers' take on the Matrix).

The universe is kept in being by God's choice (the scientist not switching the computer off) but it naturally ticks along obeying natural laws (the simulation's simple program) although God could also intervene in any logically possible way (the computer simulation could be any pattern of pixels).

If I'm going to stab a child for kicks, the child's soul might be instantaneously removed when the knife strikes, and replaced by the direct animating power of God (the scientist disconnecting the child's brain, but continuing the simulation realistically for the others involved, so that they believed that the stakes were as they appeared (or better, programming the computer to do that automatically (also, a simulation could be provided for the child's brain)))...

God's power being infinite, He could arrange lots of (for us, complicated) ways of getting this finite world to make our choices seem consequential, without requiring the evil consequences (another e.g.: natural evils might only be felt by those who deserve to feel them). An ideal theodicy would say that something like that is just what He is likely to be doing, but it does sound unrealistic to say so (even though theism is shot through with unrealism).

Regarding the other points, hmm... I'll have to think about them some more; but thanks again for all the feedback, it's clarified much (that I didn't know needed clarifying).

Jeff said...

Perhaps this is quibbling over semantics, but I'm not sure I'd agree with that the premise that God is lonely... I think that we can imagine a very well-balanced and together human being who would simply get that it's better to be in relationship than to be by themselves, or that it's better to create than not to create. The idea of lonliness implies to me that the being is lacking something. The idea that the being would create because there is something inherently about something rather than nothing is probably mediocre metaphysics but conserves qualities that I think I'd want to preserve in the creator.
On a perhaps similar note: I'd be interested to hear about how God knows that he can't infallibly know that there aren't other beings more-or-less equal to him.
I agree that there are limits on omniscience... I think God intentionally created a universe that has unknowable aspects (or that he willingly and intentionally limited his omniscience) but I think this relates to specifics of future outcomes. Perhaps you and I are simply operating from different definitions of God, but I believe that God has a relatively thorough knowledge of the state of the universe at present... I think he's probably at least aware of the moral status of all the occupants in the universe.
Finally, I'm not sure I'm on board with the world you posit... assuming I understood your point.
Let's go to the person about to be stabbed:
On your account, as I understand it, the intended victim is shielded from the pain of the perpretators actions.
It seems like this would only work once. If I the victims of violence always black out, or have an out of body experience, or some similiar thing, right at the point where they're about to get hurt, it doesn't take long to figure out that we can all do whatever we want and God is going to protect us regardless.
On the other hand, if the victims are given some sort-of false memories and think they've been stabbed, what really was the point? I'm not sure that there's any difference on the ground between an illusion of being stabbed inflicted after the fact and the actual experience of being stabbed.
It seems to me that we're still left with a pretend universe that doesn't in fact inbue us with character or the harsh universe that we actually do occupy, where others can hurt us.

A somewhat related point occurs to me: I think maybe God designed the universe as he did as a way to help us understand the very nature of hurt. We can hurt each other emotionally. I'm of the belief that we can even hurt God emotionally. The existence of physical pain is like a basic level primer on the nature of hurt and pain.
(The very notion that the creator of the univserse might feel real pain at my actions and attitudes is bizzare, amazing, and part of the very ground of my love for Christianity.)

Thanks for the interesting post... Jeff

Enigman said...

Hi again; to address your last point first, I was thinking primarly of fatal stabbings, and by extension the Holocaust etc. Such secretive interventions would be deceptive, but might be worth such reductions of such evils (so maybe such is this world); and if so then they might be worthwhile elsewhere... I fail to see how X's character-building could depend upon the actual intensity of Y's pain, rather than upon (say) X's beliefs about it; although I see that it might depend upon the past (and the potential for) suffering of X, but then that would be one reason why a fairer universe might be better at building characters.

Re God's omniscience, I agree that "God has a relatively thorough knowledge of the state of the universe at present," as this universe is his creation; it would be completely transparent to him. Similarly his omnipotence, which is why I don't think that "we should expect fairness to decrease as we get further away from him."