The Problem of Evil, Part II & Plantinga Pwns, Part III: The Free Will Defense

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Here we have two separate series' converge.  This is the second part of three on the problem of evil, but it is also the third part of the ongoing series on Alvin Plantinga.  While the first two parts of the Plantinga series were almost a book summary (as the book itself is credited by the likes of William Lane Craig for kicking off Christian philosophy's comeback), this post deals with a single argument.  It was his second great contribution to the world of philosophy of religion.

Before continuing, it's worth keeping in mind that the Free Will Defense is only an answer to the logical problem of moral evil (see my previous post for a refresher on the various distinctions).  This is not to say that the argument is weak - it just has a particular focus.  Further, the logical problem of moral evil was for years so often used by philosophers to dismiss the traditional view of God. 

The Free Will Defense made a pretty big splash in the philosophical world.  Today, arguing against the existence of God based on the logical problem of moral evil has fallen quite out of style.  Contemporary discussions about the problem of evil now focus on the evidential problem and the problem of natural evil.  It is really only laymen that continue to peddle the logical problem.

Anyone with some familiarity with argumentation can see why the logical problem was so popular before Plantinga published his work - if a position can be shown to be logically incoherent, it is the death blow to that position.  That was the goal of atheist philosophers in arguing for the logical problem.  Because of Plantinga's work, hope in the logical problem's dismantling traditional theism has waned, and atheists now focus on probabilistic versions of the problem of evil, which are inherently less powerful, and less conclusive.  These will be covered in the next post.

Theodicy vs. Defense

Notice that the argument is a defense, as opposed to a theodicy.  A theodicy attempts to answer the question, "Why does God allow evil to exist?"  In other words, a theodicy seeks to give a reason for God's permitting evil.  Augustine is famous for his theodicy, in which he argued that by allowing evil God could create a more perfect universe.  The term was coined by Leibniz, in his work by the same name.

A defense, on the other hand, does not seek to give a reason for God's permitting evil.  Rather, a defense simply aims to show that there is a possible explanation - "whether [that explanation] is true is quite beside the point."1  The person giving a defense does not presume to know God's reasons, but to put forth a reason that is possibly true.  If a given explanation is even possible, then the logical problem dissolves; in that respect, it succeeds in showing that the set of God's omnipotence, goodness, and the the existence of evil are consistent.

But without further ado...

The Free Will Defense

Remember from the second post on Plantinga that one of the difficulties with the logical problem of evil is that the set of God's omnipotence and goodness, as well as evil's existence, are not formally contradictory.  Another premise must be added to the argument to arrive at a contradiction. How about these two:
An omnipotent and omniscient good being eliminates every evil that it can properly eliminate
If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then he can properly eliminate every evil state of affairs
[By "properly eliminate", we mean getting rid of an evil without either eliminating some outweighing good or bringing about an even greater evil.]

The first statement is uncontroversial, but the second needn't be true.  Consider, for example, the tremendous bravery of a person overcoming some form of adversity.  Our world is replete with the inspiring stories of such people.  It seems that one person overcoming a tremendous challenge and in so doing bettering themselves and inspiring those around them is an example of a situation where God cannot properly eliminate evil.  The good that comes out of that situation depends on the evil existing.

So, there are some states of affairs God cannot bring about without bringing about evil - evil is entailed by such good.  Got the idea?  In contrast to this, the Free Will Defense argues that there are some good states of affairs that contain no evil that God cannot bring about.  "They do not entail the existence of any evil whatever; nonetheless God Himself can't bring them about without permitting evil."2

That's certainly a bold claim, but Plantinga defends it; it is one of the two key cogs in the machine of the argument.  The other is the claim that, "A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all."3

There is a possible objection to this: isn't it possible to create a universe in which perfectly free creatures happen to always do what is right?  Of all the possible worlds, doesn't seem likely that there is one in which the free creatures always do what is right, and wouldn't an omnipotent God create that world?  This was a point made by J.L. Mackie.

If you are familiar with Leibniz' Théodicée, you know that one of the central ideas is that this is the best of all possible worlds.  Mackie and Leibniz both agree that if God exists, that he must have created the best of all possible worlds.  Mackie concludes that this isn't the best of all possible worlds, and therefore God doesn't exist; Leibniz concludes that this is in fact the best of all possible worlds.  The Free Will Defender disagrees with both.  Why think that there is such a thing as the best of all possible worlds?  Couldn't one small adjustment make it that much better?

Here we get to the heart of the matter:  the Free Will Defense claims that, "God, though omnipotent, could not have actualized just any possible world He pleased."4  Whoa.

Consider God's foreknowledge before creating the world.  According to middle knowledge, God knows what each world would be like, and what decisions will be made by creatures with free will.  Now, it makes sense that for a given person in a given situation (or state of affairs), God will know what that person will choose to do in that situation - and this situation could come about in various possible worlds.  For example, for state of affairs S, God knows either:
If S comes about, Maurice will freely choose to eat oatmeal
If S comes about, Maurice will freely choose to refrain from eating oatmeal
Let's say that S is about to come about in the near future in the actual world, and that some person named Maurice will in fact freely choose to eat oatmeal.  Obviously, that means he will not choose to refrain from eating oatmeal.  But clearly, there is a possible world - say, W - which is identical to the actual world but in which Maurice chooses to not eat oatmeal (it is a possible world in that there is no logical contradiction with the idea of Maurice choosing to not eat oatmeal when S obtains).   Here's the kicker: God could not have created W.  While it is a possible world in the broadly logical sense, God knows that Maurice will freely choose to eat oatmeal if S obtains, and since He created a world in which S obtains, He cannot prevent Maurice from eating oatmeal and Maurice remain free.  To put it another way, "If God actualizes [S] and leaves Maurice free with respect to the action in question, then he will take the oatmeal; and then, of course, [W] will not be actual.  If, on the other hand, God causes Maurice to refrain from taking the oatmeal, then he is not free to take it.  That means, once again, that [W] is not actual."5  We could extend this for any number of situations for Maurice, or for other free creatures.  The upshot of all this is that there are many possible worlds for which it is partly up to Maurice whether or not God can actualize them!

Now we know that Mackie and Leibniz were wrong.  This misstep in claiming that God can create any possible world is what Plantinga calls "Leibniz' Lapse."  We still have a little ways to go.  We must still show that it is possible that that God could not have created any of the worlds in which there is moral good but no moral evil.

Here I will have to sacrifice precision for the sake of keeping things short.  It seems possible (and that's all we're worried about) that for a given person, say George, in a given morally significant situation, that George will always freely make the wrong decision.  Plantinga calls this idea transworld depravity - a person suffers from transworld depravity if they would always make the wrong moral decision in a given situation.  "What is important about the idea of transworld depravity is that if a person suffers from it, then it wasn't within God's power to actualize any world in which that person is significantly free but does no wrong - that is, a world in which he produces moral good but no moral evil."6

How is this significant?  It seems possible that everyone suffers from transworld depravity, so there is no world God can create in which any of us exists and never choose to do wrong.  But couldn't God have created other people that do no wrong?  Here it is useful to remember the difference between essential and accidental properties (shades of Austin's series on Aquinas).  Rather than slog through all the necessary commentary on essential and accidental properties, I'll jump to Plantinga's final point and conclusion:
[T]he interesting fact here is this: it is possible that every creaturely essence - every essence including the property of being created by God - suffers from transworld depravity.  But now suppose this is true.  Now God can create a world containing moral good only by creating significantly free persons.  And, since every person is the instantiation of an essence, He can create significantly free persons only by instantiating some essences.  But if every essence suffers from transworld depravity, then no matter which essences God instantiates, the resulting persons, if free with respect to morally significant actions, would always perform at least some wrong actions.  If every essence suffers from transworld depravity, then it was beyond the power of God Himself to create a world containing moral good but no moral evil.  He might have been able to create worlds in which moral evil is very considerably outweighed by moral good; but it was not within His power to create worlds containing moral good but no moral evil - and this despite the fact that He is omnipotent.  Under these conditions God could have created a world containing no moral evil only by creating one without significantly free persons.  But it is possible that every essence suffers from transworld depravity; so it's possible that God could not have created a world containing moral good but no moral evil.7
That's it.  Game over.  KO.  QED.

To summarize: a world containing free creatures is better than one that doesn't, so God would create a world with free creatures, if at all.  Further, it seems reasonable to think that God would eliminate every evil that He can properly eliminate.  However, it is possible that God cannot create a world in which free creatures exist and they never choose evil.  This is because it is possible that every creaturely essence suffers from transworld depravity.

1.  Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, p. 28
2.  Ibid., p. 29
3.  Ibid., p. 30
4.  Ibid., p. 34
5.  Ibid., p. 43
6.  Ibid., p. 48
7.  Ibid., p. 53
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