Here, I shall attempt to disprove the following idea: God allows evil to exist because otherwise humans cannot have free will. And without free will, humans cannot love, because love that is not freely expressed cannot be real love.
This is simply a restatement of Alvin Plantinga‘s famous free will defense (http://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-log/#H4).
First, a little background.
Theodicy: defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil
Traditionally, the problem of evil has been seen as a major argument against Christianity. Hence, Christian philosophers / theologians throughout the ages have attempted to invent all kinds of ideas to address the problem, although thus far, none seem particularly satisfactory.
Similarly, Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense is also widely recognised by philosophers to be ineffective in addressing the truly important issue of “the evidential problem of evil” (http://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-evi/).
As an all-around response to the problem of evil, the Free Will Defense does not offer us much in the way of explanation. It leaves several of the most important questions about God and evil unanswered.
They reasoned that there must be more to the problem of evil than what is captured in the logical formulation of the problem. It is now widely agreed that this intuition is correct. Current discussions of the problem focus on what is called “the probabilistic problem of evil” or “the evidential problem of evil.” According to this formulation of the problem, the evil and suffering (or, in some cases, the amounts, kinds and distributions of evil and suffering) that we find in the world count as evidence against the existence of God (or make it improbable that God exists). Responding to this formulation of the problem requires much more than simply describing a logically possible scenario in which God and evil co-exist.
My explanation will come in two parts: an informal argument, followed by a formal, logically rigorous treatment.
Say we accept the truth of the idea described at the very top of this article. This means that love’s existence necessitates free will’s existence, which in turn necessitates evil’s existence.
But what about Christianity’s favourite idea of the Trinity? That God the Father, Son, and Spirit eternally exist in an ultimate loving relationship. Then surely they have free will. But they are also said to be eternally perfectly holy and sinless, entirely devoid of evil. (Hence this simple example disproves the “free will defense”.)
Also, what about Heaven? Because in Heaven, people will live out the rest of their everlasting lives without committing a single act of evil. Then based on the “free will defense”, it sure looks like people in heaven do not have free will, and hence do not truly exercise love.
So, the “free will defense” doesn’t actually solve anything. Even if we accept his argument, we are still left with the question of why God couldn’t just create Heaven right from the start, without going through all the nasty stuff before that.
In the end, it is just a bunch of silly word games that don’t actually explain anything meaningful.
Furthermore, surely a good person freely chooses to do good out of the goodness of his heart. His heart (which represents his “will”), freely chooses to do good instead of evil. Even though he may technically have both the means and resources to commit an evil act, his good heart will always freely refuse the evil option, while choosing the good instead. Surely this is how God in his great love freely chooses to do good, and never chooses to do the evil that he technically has the means and resources to commit.
For a formal (dis)proof, the idea is better expressed this way:
A: Love exists, and must be freely expressed (i.e. a person must have the free will to choose between love and hatred), otherwise it is not truly love.
(The truth of A logically entails the existence of free will, since that is an essential part of point A.)
B: Free will’s existence means people will do evil.
A+B: Hence evil exists.
Notice how at the very beginning Plantinga starts with an unjustified assumption (point A). This would only make sense if we all agree on what love is, and insist that it exists. Insisting that something exists could just be wishful thinking, and does not really prove anything. But for the sake of argument, I shall accept point A.
Point B is the crucial flaw in the argument.
To explain why, we must first attain a basic level of clarity regarding these often conflated concepts: good intentions vs good results; economic freedom vs moral freedom.
Economic freedom means having the resources and means to perform a range of actions. The larger the set of actions that one has the resources and means to perform, the greater one’s economic freedom is said to be. Hence, economic freedom does not exist by a binary true / false. It is something that can be quantified.
Moral freedom, on the other hand, means having the knowledge and wisdom to appreciate and understand what is good. This makes sense because the more you understand what good is, the more you are morally free to have good intentions (e.g. a person who doesn’t know how delicious chocolate is, cannot possibly want to eat it). This too does not exist by a binary true / false, and is clearly quantifiable.
Also, to simplify matters, I shall assert that a person will consistently exercise his economic freedom in accordance with his moral freedom, i.e. that a person always does what he thinks is most good. (Neuroscience has demonstrated that different parts of the human brain produce different motivations that tend to be in conflict / tension. This suggests that the concept of a single “will” may not be entirely accurate, and that a fuller theory should include the existence of multiple “wills” in the same person, so that a person can in some sense want to do something but actually end up doing something else because another part of him wants something different. But I think this does not compromise my main argument, and I shall continue my exposition with the above simplification.)
Here I shall define that good results is our ultimate goal, and that:
good intentions (moral freedom) * resources and means (economic freedom) = good results (a world that is good).
It should then be fairly obvious that, because moral freedom and economic freedom are both quantifiable, so their product, what I shall call “a world that is good”, is also quantifiable. I.e. the correct question is how good the world is, not whether the world is good or evil.
Since everyone has a finite amount of economic and moral freedom, everyone can be said to have some degree of “free will”. So it’s not a matter of whether or not free will exists; it is simply a question of how much of it each individual has. The greater one’s economic and moral freedoms, the greater one’s “will” is said to be “free”. Though, I have deliberately avoided using the term “free will”, because all sorts of people have used it to mean many different things; calling it “free will” tends to produce a gross oversimplification that gets in the way of serious philosophical understanding. Hence my restatement of the concept, using my own definitions of economic and moral freedom, to give us an intellectually satisfying alternative to common misunderstandings of “free will”.
Then, Plantinga’s point B ceases to be relevant, because it speaks of evil’s existence by a binary true / false. On the other hand, I’ve demonstrated that it is far more meaningful to see good and evil as a question of quantity, rather than one of existence vs non-existence. Also, he fails to distinguish between intentional evil and resultant evil:
Recall my earlier-proposed distinction between good intentions and good results. This corresponds to a distinction between intentional evil (a person wanting to do evil; i.e. an evil state of mind) and resultant evil (an evil state of the world, e.g. poverty and sickness). Furthermore, good and evil can be thought of as opposite ends of a straight line, so that it is essentially arbitrary whether we describe something as good or evil, because it just depends on where we arbitrarily split that line into two parts.
Evil (specifically, “resultant evil”, as described above) exists in the world right now (more accurately, the world is not as good as it can become) because people have not attained their maximum potential for economic and moral freedom (i.e. we are somewhere in-between the two extreme ends of the good-evil line): but this just means that we can increase our economic freedom through scientific advancement, while also increasing our moral freedom through philosophy / moral reflection / religion, etc. (depending on one’s preferred approach to morality).
Then, it becomes fairly straightforward to define Heaven as a situation in which humanity has reached the peak of their scientific and moral potential (i.e. humanity has moved itself as far as possible towards the good side of the good-evil line), so that humanity is able to perfectly protect itself against natural disasters (death and decay), and also perfectly avoid doing silly things to hurt each other (sin and unrighteousness).
Based on all I’ve said thus far, it should now be clear that Plantinga’s point B is in fact the complete opposite of reality. Because in reality, greater economic and moral freedom leads to less evil. And with perfect economic and moral freedom, evil is completely eliminated, because there will no longer be any physical or emotional suffering: no more death, and no more tears. (Cf. Plantinga’s point B, that evil exists because of “free will”.)
Hopefully by now the reader has progressed from a naive binary (true / false) understanding of the existence of evil, to our present concept of good / evil as a quantifiable quality. Then the basic question of “why does the good god create an evil world?” ceases to be particularly meaningful. Instead, the question should be:
“Since god is perfectly good (maximum moral freedom) and perfectly powerful (maximum economic freedom), why isn’t the world perfect (maximally good)?”
Here, we must distinguish between “infinite” and “maximum”. Theologians have traditionally asserted that God’s goodness, power, and knowledge are infinite. But just as mathematicians know full well that infinity is not a real number, and is simply a concept for a process going on indefinitely, many philosophers understand that asserting the existence of “infinity” leads to all kinds of logical problems.
Likewise, insisting that God is infinitely whatever, means that no matter how good the world appears to be, we can always ask, “why didn’t God make the world better than it already is?”. Hence, by injecting the idea of “infinity” into the question, we will condemn ourselves to forever (indefinitely) asking this same question over and over again. FOREVER. Logically, such a question will never have an answer, because there is no such thing as a number that is greater than all other numbers. To assert otherwise would immediately create logical contradictions.
Instead, we should realise that actually the world is already continually getting better, granting that humans are making good progress both scientifically and morally. Also, creation must be understood as a process that takes time, rather than assuming that Heaven can instantly be created (which is in fact logically impossible, because change takes time, and a grand total of zero can happen in the span of zero time). And the question of why won’t God just hurry up, will never have an answer, because no matter how fast the creation process is happening, one can always insist that it go even faster.
Perhaps then, “infinity” should be replaced by “maximality”. Because infinity produces logical problems, the only logical alternative we have left is to assume that there exists a finite limit (i.e. a maximum) to what God can make.
In case this sounds like blasphemy (by suggesting that God is not omnipotent), the reader should know that the word “omnipotent” comes from Latin, and literally means “all-powerful”; realise that “all” and “infinite” are logically distinct concepts. In fact, nowhere in the bible is God described as having “infinite” power. “All-mighty”, “most high”, is as good as it gets, and is perfectly meaningful even when we logically assume that there is a limit to God’s power (= “economic freedom”). In fact, “most high” only makes sense if there is a theoretical maximum height. Otherwise, “most high” would not be logically meaningful, just as “a number greater than all other numbers” cannot logically exist on an infinite (indefinitely extending) real number line.
Finally, since we are not God, we cannot possibly tell if the world we have is indeed maximally good (i.e. that our world is already the best of all possible worlds). So we might as well just have faith that this is indeed so, while we as human beings, created in God’s image, continue to participate in God’s work of creation, by continuing our efforts of scientific and moral progress.
[Edit (2017/07/05): I got curious, so I googled “best possible world”. And found the following article which expresses much of what I’ve mentioned directly above. Though, my argument about creation itself as an ongoing process (inspired by a guy named Gerald Schroeder), is notably absent.]
Before examining Leibniz’s views on the problem of evil, it is necessary to do some stage-setting in order to locate just what sort of problem Leibniz thought evil presented. Consideration of any present-day introductory textbook of philosophy reveals that the problem of evil in contemporary philosophy is standardly regarded as an argument for atheism. The atheist contends that God and evil are incompatible, and given that evil clearly exists, God cannot exist. Some philosophers, conceding that the claimed incompatibility in the foregoing argument is too strong, contend, nevertheless, that even if the existence of God and the existence of evil should prove to be compatible, the existence (or duration, or amount, or pervasiveness) of evil provides us at the very least with compelling circumstantial evidence that God does not exist.
Framed in this way, the “atheistic problem of evil” invites certain sorts of responses. In particular, it invites the theist to explain how a being that is omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent can allow evil to exist. Present-day responses to the problem of evil therefore focus largely on presenting “theodicies,” that is, reasons why a perfect being does or might permit evil of the sort (or duration, or amount, or distribution) that we find in our world to exist.
Thus, for example, a group of thinkers collectively known as the “Socinians” held, among other things, that the existence of evil was not incompatible with God’s existence, but that it was incompatible with the existence of an omniscient God. The Socinians therefore held that God must not be omniscient, and that he must at the very least lack knowledge of future contingent events. [For Leibniz’s view on the Socinians see Theodicy 364 (H343; G VI 318) et passim. More details on Socinianism can be found in Jolley, c.2, and Maclachlan.]
We might then characterize the problem raised by atheists in our own century and by the Socinians, to cite just one example from the seventeenth century, more broadly as the “underachiever problem.” According to the underachiever problem, if the sort of being that traditional monotheism identifies as God were to exist, the existence of this world would represent a vast underachievement on his part: therefore there is no such being. Atheists take this conclusion to prove that there is no God; the Socinians take it to show that God is not the sort of being that the traditional theist supposes him to be.
The core of Leibniz’s solution to the underachiever problem is straightforward. Leibniz argues that God does not underachieve in creating this world because this world is the best of all possible worlds. Many thinkers have supposed that commitment to the claim that this world is the best of all possible worlds follows straightforwardly from monotheism. Because God is omnipotent and omniscient, nothing can prevent him from creating the best world, and his omnibenevolence obliges him to create the best world. So the created world is the best world.
Leibniz’s reasoning to this conclusion does not, however, follow this straightforward path: among other things, this reasoning is not cogent as it stands. A number of seventeenth-century figures recognized that God would not be obliged to create the best world if there were no such thing as the best world. There would be no best world if the series of possible worlds formed a continuum of increasingly good worlds ad infinitum. And if there is no best world, God cannot be faulted for failing to create the best one since to do so would be as impossible as, say, naming the highest number. There is no such number of course, and likewise no such world. So while God may be obliged to create a world that has at least some measure of goodness, he cannot be obliged, on this view, to create the best. And therefore it might be the case that God simply chose arbitrarily to create one of infinitely many morally acceptable worlds. [This line of argument was common among certain Jesuit scholastics of the period. For discussions of this issue, see, for example, Ruiz de Montoya, Commentaria ac Disputationes in primam partem Sancti Thomae. De voluntate Dei et propiis actibus eius, Lyon 1630, disp. 9 and 10, and Diego Granado, Comentarii in primam partem Summae Theologicae S. Thomae, Pont-a-Mousson, 1624, pp.420–433.]