In this fifth in the series of six articles on the Problem of Evil or the existence of God, I will provide arguments related to free will. While this is not generally the primary argument in the debates on this subject, it is still a very frequent and important part of the debate.
In response to this “problem of evil”, theists argue that evil is both a necessity for and a consequence of free will. John Hick (1922-2012) is regularly cited as "one of the most – if not simply the most – significant philosopher of religion in the twentieth century". He was born and died in England, but for the larger part of his career, he taught in the United States. Hick claims that it would be impossible for God to have created humans with free will and yet without the ability to choose evil. Evil must exist as an option for people with free will and the choice of that option leads to the existence of moral evil. Hick contends that without this freedom to choose, people would be like robots. In this robotic type of world, it would be possible to avoid acts of moral evil, however, Hick believes it is better to have free will and the resulting evil than to be without freedom.
Atheists provide two responses to the concept of free will. One is that, given an all-knowing God, free will is a complete illusion. This contention suggests that knowing what choice will be made necessarily predestines the choice. God knows what I will do; therefore I have no choice in what I will do.
Edward Madden and Peter Hare who specifically counterpoint Hick’s arguments on free will provide a second response. Within their critique of his work, they summarize his position as follows: “According to Hick, man, created as a personal being in the image of God, is only the raw material for a further and more difficult stage of God's creative work. This is the leading of men as relatively free and autonomous persons through their own dealings with life in the world in which he has placed them, towards that quality of personal existence that is the finite likeness of God. The basic trouble, he says, with antitheistic writers is that ‘they assume that the purpose of a loving God must be to create a hedonistic paradise.’ He concedes that evil is not serving any, even remote, hedonistic end, but insists that it is serving the end of the development of moral personalities in loving relation to God. It is logically impossible to do this either by forcing them to love him or by forcing them always to act rightly. A creature forced to love would not be genuinely loving and a creature forced to do the right would not be a moral personality. Only through freedom, suffering, and initial remoteness from God ("epistemic distance") can the sort of person God is looking for come about.”
Madden and Hare claim there are three problems with Hick’s ideology. The first is an “All or Nothing” approach. They contend there could be an intermediary position between being free and being robots. Further, they take exception to the concept of the use of evil as a means to a greater end as described by Hick in his arguments regarding “soul-making.” They write, “Hick must still show us how all the suffering in this world is the most efficient way of achieving God's goal.” Finally, Madden and Hare present the "slippery slope" argument as follows. “Unless God eliminated all evils whatsoever there would always be relatively outstanding ones of which it would be said that He should have secretly prevented them. If, for example, divine providence had eliminated Hitler in his infancy, we might now point instead to Mussolini. . . . There would be nowhere to stop, short of divinely arranged paradise in which human freedom would be narrowly circumscribed. He [Hick] claims, in other words, that there would be no way of eliminating some evils without removing all of them with the effect of returning us to the ‘all or nothing’ situation.”
In a work on the Problem of Evil by Philip A. Pecorino (Copyright 2000) he writes of Madden and Hare, “They claim that it is possible that there could be a universe created by a deity that could have creatures of free will who do not choose evil. God could have chosen not to permit those humans to be conceived that God knew in advance of their conception would use their free will to choose and to do evil. The deity, God, might permit only those fetuses to develop that creator deity, God, knew in advance would lead to the birth and life of basically good person who would avoid choosing to do evil” J.L. Mackie similarly argued that God could have chosen to create good people who still possessed free will and chose only the good.
But would it not be true in this scenario that evil would still exist as a choice and that it would coexist with God? Does not this claim against the coexistence of God and evil instead suggest they can and do coexist? Furthermore, as regards the claim that it is possible that there could be a universe created by a deity that could have creatures of free will who do not choose evil, the doctrine of many theist religions would put forward Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as just such a creature, but few others regard her at all.
In his book God, Freedom, and Evil Alvin Plantinga holds that the Free Will Defense is an acceptable method for overcoming the claim that the Problem of Evil negates the existence of God. He contends that because humans are free to make choices based on experiences, whether or not humans perform good or evil is ultimately up to the human and not God. In response to the claim that God could have created a world containing moral good but no moral evil, Plantinga argues that in creating a world in which God actively causes people to do good, they are no longer free.
Another argument raised by atheists in the debate about free will is the culpability of the deity for the evil done by humans that the deity created. In other words, if it is the free choice of the human to do evil, was it not also the choice of the creator to make the human that will choose to do the evil? This argument is made to show that if God can be held responsible for the evil done by the humans God created, then God, in as far as God would thereby be responsible for evil, is not all-good. Along the same vein is the question as to whether God is guilty of negligence when God knows of evil about to be committed and does not first intervene to stop it. Would such intervention by God circumvent free will?
The subject of free will is something of a Pandora’s Box. One question seems to lead to another and then another and yet another. Do we have free will or are we robots? If we are robots, how can we be punished even within our own system of justice for doing something evil over which we had no choice? If we have free will, is it completely free or is it limited? Is there some state of being between free will and robot? Who is responsible for evil? Is a choice for evil a necessity for free will? Is evil a creation of God or solely a consequence of free will? Check back next week for a summary of this debate series.