Monday, July 19, 2010

Follow-Up On Free Will and the "Logical" Problem of Evil (The Hitler Sperm Post)

In my last post, I argued that Plantinga's version of the free will defense (whereby the bare logical possibility of e.g. demons causing earthquakes is supposed to solve the "logical problem of evil") is a non-starter. If one is concerned about (a) the logical compatibility of the appearance of extreme suffering by innocents with the existence of all all-PKG deity, that's easily enough demonstrated, without any need to bring out to the sort of conceptual technology about actualizing possible worlds that Plantinga deploys. If, on the other hand, one is concerned with the considerably more interesting question of (b) the logical compatibility of the existence of an all-PKG deity with the real extreme suffering of really existing innocents caused in the way that we know it to be really caused, then the demonic free will maneuver clearly fails. What the maneuver demonstrates, at best (i.e. if there's a viable free will defense against the problem of evil in general, which I deny) is (c) the logical compatibility of the existence of an all-PKG God with the real extreme suffering of really existing innocents. And, I argued, (c) only sounds interesting because, if one isn't paying close attention, it looks like (b). We know that earthquakes are caused by the autonomous operation of natural processes in pretty much the same way that we know that the Haitian children who died in last year's earthquake weren't Chalmersian zombies or holograms.

That seems clear enough, but an interesting further question remains--whether some sort of free-will-based solution can at least solve a severely restricted form of the "logical problem of evil" where we confine our attention to human evil. (If that much turned out to be true, some entirely separate defense would still be needed in order to demonstrate the logical compatibility of the existence of all-PKG deity with the existence of natural evil.) I suggested that:

(i) If one is a compatibilist about free will (as I think one should be), there's quite obviously no case to made that God couldn't actualize a possible world with free will and no evil. As far as I know, Plantinga's published arguments against compatibilism tend to be a matter of foot-stomping and table-banging.


(ii) Even if compatibilism is wrong, this hardly establishes the logical possibility that libertarianism is right. There are tricky issues here, but it's at least prima facie unclear that the notion that our decisions could be neither random nor causally inevitable is an internally conceptually coherent one. (Think about, for example, the rollback argument.)


(iii) Even if some form of libertarianism is both internally incoherent and the account that best captures our intuitive concept of free will, it hardly follows that the libertarian's proposed conditions for free will are ever met in the actual case. This might seem irrelevant, since we're supposed to be talking purely about bare logical possibility, but if libertarianism is incompatible with what we know about the concrete world as a result of the deliverances of the empirical sciences, then--a la the point above about demons and earthquakes--an obvious argument can be made that no form of the free will defense gets around any interesting form of the logical problem of (even human) evil.

So far, so good, but I ended with a promissory note for something better. I said that I'd go on to give an argument that even if (i)-(iii) were all wrong, no form of the free will defense succeeds in demonstrating the possible co-existence of an all-PKG deity and, for example, the Holocaust. I also promised I'd use the phrase "Hitler sperm" in my explanation.

To get the second part out of the way:

Hitler sperm.

To go into greater detail:

There are many strange things about free will defenses in general. One is that they tend to rely on the assumption that not only would a just God want human beings to be the sort of creatures that are generally capable of making free decisions, but that He would unrestrictedly allow them to exercise that capacity and to carry out their freely-decided plans...except when some other, non-divine agent stops them from doing so, the normal operation of some divinely-established natural process stops them, etc. This is a significant point: Consider that proponents of the free will defense take the importance of free will to explain (or possibly explain, or whatever) why a just God wouldn't stop Hitler. Consider too that no one takes the generic statement "humans have the capacity to freely decide between various courses of action and act on those decisions" to be falsified by the fact that human police agencies sometimes catch murderers and rapists before they carry out their freely-decided courses of action and lock them up in confined places where they will be unable to do so (or, even more efficiently, execute them so they are too dead to do so). Why, then, should we suppose that the same generic statement would have been falsified by, for example, God supernaturally intervening (in a way that, obviously, no one would have ever known about) to move the briefcase bomb that almost killed Hitler in 1944 a few feet closer to the F├╝hrer, or arranging for there to be one hole in one fence somewhere so positioned as to have saved even one single one of Hitler's millions victims? How can one coherently believe that (1) "a just God would allow his creatures free will" explains God's failure to stop even one person on one occasion from carrying out their freely-decided plans, but also that (2) free will continues to exist in a world where people are constantly stopped from implementing their plans by everything from the intervention of other agents to heart attacks, freak accidents and so on?

Recall that Plantinga-style invocations of free will rely on the radical claim that it would be impossible for even all omnipotent being--presumably "omnipotent" in the sense of "being constrained only by the boundaries of logical possibility"--to actualize a version of the world in which human beings had free will and even one fewer Jew died in the Holocaust. Now, a theist could grant that the generic statement "humans have free will" would still have been true even if God had saved an additional one or two of the six million, but argue that a just God would have to allow not just the existence of free will in general but "at least exactly as much free will as humans actually have in the actual world." That is to say, a just God could allow people's plans to be foiled by the actions of other people, by the normal operation of divinely-established natural processes and so on, but he wouldn't act directly to stop any person from making or carrying out any decision about anything. We can think of this as a bit like a strange cosmic counterpart to the constitutional prohibition on Congress making a bill of attainder.

This is, to say the least, a lot less intuitive than the simpler version of the free will defense. The burden would certainly be on the theist to explain why we should take this modified version seriously. Beyond that, though, there's one last important point to be made about this:

Even if we accept for the sake of argument that the actual world is not deterministic, that compatibilism is not a viable theory of free will but that libertarianism is, and that the actual world conforms to the libertarian picture of free will....

....and we accept for the sake of argument that, for some reason, a just God would always allow every person in existence to carry out their plans unless stopped in some other way than by direct divine intervention.... still doesn't follow that an all-PKG God couldn't have prevented Adolf Hitler from ordering the extermination of European Jews. Standard glosses on omniscience (the "K" part of "all-PKG") have it that God knows everything that will ever happen as well as everything that has ever happened. (Whether to cash this out in terms of "foreknowledge" or atemporal knowledge of all of time is irrelevant for our present purposes.) This is, happily, quite compatible with libertarianism. (If one goes with "foreknowledge" rather than "atemporal knowledge," there are some complications, but if one is willing to grant the possibility of backward causation, it all works out well enough.) Even if some entity knows which radically self-caused free decisions I will make at some point in the future, I can still be the cause of that decision, fulfilling whatever one's favorite libertarian requirements for free will might be.

Given that, an all-PKG deity would know everything Hitler would do in his life, every radically self-caused free decision that Hitler would (if allowed to come into existence) would make before He allowed the particular sperm and the particular egg that became Hitler to come into contact with each other. As such, even given the extreme, strange, ad hoc claim that we assented to above (that, for whatever reason, an all-good God would never intervene to stop anyone from exercising their free will in any way that they were not constrained from doing by the normal rules of His governance of the natural world or by the decisions of other agents), unless one ascribes free will to sperm, there is absolutely no reason why a just God couldn't or wouldn't actualize a possible world in which libertarian free will existed but the Holocaust did not.

(BTW, thanks to my good friend Ryan Lake for an extremely informative discussion about this a while back. Like most of what I say about free will, the clever bits are mostly due to his influence.)

1 comment:

chaospet said...

Nicely done, correct on all points again.

The best part is now if I decide to throw a chapter on this topic into my dissertation, I can just copy and paste your blog posts. And since you just gave me credit for influencing your thoughts, it would only kind of be plagiarism!