[This is the fifth part of my reply to Dr. Andrea Weisberger's critique of my arguments in the first Loftus-Wood debate.]
The strength of the Argument from Evil comes from the prevalence of suffering in our world. Some arguments in the Philosophy of Religion are so subtle and complicated that they lose their force somewhere in the lengthy lists of highly abstract premises. The Argument from Evil, on the other hand, is constructed upon the sturdy foundation of human and animal suffering, for which innumerable examples may be given.
Yet many theodicies (i.e. attempts to account for evil in terms of certain good states of affairs that cannot be had without suffering) are also based on features of experience that are obvious. For instance, many theists point to the value of free will and argue that human freedom is so significant that God may allow a degree of moral evil simply because our freedom is valuable—even if we misuse it. Similarly, theists often point to the value of hardship in developing virtues and in helping us recognize our dependence on something greater than ourselves.
Difficulties arise when some atheists reject the importance of the goods appealed to by the theist. “Who cares about free will?” an atheist may ask. “What’s so important about virtue?” asks another. Here the theist finds herself in a difficult spot, for she cannot prove that a value judgment is true. All she can say is something like “Well, free will is quite important to me.”
Of course, a theist could turn the atheist’s objection around and say, “Okay, what’s so important about suffering?” This would be a shocking reply, since suffering is so obviously important. But that’s exactly the point. Although suffering is extremely significant, to say that it is significant is nevertheless a value judgment. What does this mean? It means that some things cannot be proven with arguments, even though they are quite obviously true.
When the atheist complains that free will isn’t important, he is taking advantage of this fact. He is saying, in effect, “Everyone knows that free will is important, but you can’t prove it, so I’m not going to accept your response.” At this point, it may be helpful for the theist to offer a few thought-experiments. For example, the theist might ask the following: “Suppose you had a button, and if you push the button, all suffering will end. But here’s the catch. From that point on, all of our decisions will be made for us. We will forever lose our ability to decide what we want to do, and we will be automatons for all eternity. Would you push the button?” Some atheists, such as John Loftus and Andrea Weisberger, would answer in the affirmative. But most people would rather retain their freedom, even if means that we will continue to suffer.
Consider another example. After my first debate with John Loftus, I brought up the movie The Stepford Wives (read my post here), where the husbands of Stepford replaced their human wives with beautiful robots who obey their every command. I asked the audience how many of them would prefer a “perfect” robot wife (with no free will) to an “imperfect” human wife. Interestingly, the only person in the room to raise his hand was Loftus! Thus, there were several atheists in the room who understood that there’s something important about freedom. Love from a wife who is free to leave is better than the “love” of a robot who is programmed to obey.
This is quite significant, for when atheists like Loftus and Weisberger question the value of free will, this may reflect an abnormally low opinion of human freedom on their part. With this in mind, let us consider the brief statement of the free will theodicy that I offered in my opening statement.
Free will theodicies are attempts to explain why God might permit moral evil. They’re based on two central ideas:
(1) A world containing free beings is better than a world without free beings, since only free beings can genuinely love, or choose the good, or be moral in any meaningful sense.
(2) True freedom entails that we also be free not to love, or to choose the bad.
On this view, moral evil is a misuse of moral freedom. So genocide, and child abuse, and rape—these would be evils that result from a misuse of freedom. But otherwise, freedom is a wonderful gift.
I offered a more complete treatment of freedom in my rebuttal, but Weisberger only comments on my opening statement. Referring to the two central ideas listed above, she remarks:
Of course, both of these claims are highly questionable. Why is it the case that a world with free will is better than a world without? How is the value of free will quantified so as to make such a claim? What measurements would be used to determine that free will is so intrinsically valuable that without it our lives would somehow be diminished? Considering that god itself does not have free will, namely the ability to even choose to do evil since god is perfectly good, it does not seem that it is really such a boon to existence.
And, does true freedom really entail the choice to choose evil? If we had the choice between very good, good, and uneventful actions, would that not be a real choice? Is it not a real choice if I am only choosing between oatmeal and Frosted Flakes for breakfast? Could not free will also refer to the ability to choose to act, and not necessarily to commit the act? (As in choosing to create a plan to do evil, but not have the ability to carry out the plan?) If so, then is not having the ability to fly, no matter how hard we flap our arms, a limitation on free choice? In other words, is ‘true freedom’ the same as absolute freedom? If so, then we do not have that now.
This hardly qualifies as a refutation of free will theodicies. Let’s take each of her criticisms in turn.
(1) “Why is it the case that a world with free will is better than a world without?”
As I said, only free beings can genuinely love, or choose the good, or be moral in any meaningful sense. But Weisberger ignores this simple point without commenting. If she finds it difficult to understand why free will is important, she only needs to ponder the plight of the women of Stepford.
(2) “How is the value of free will quantified so as to make such a claim? What measurements would be used to determine that free will is so intrinsically valuable that without it our lives would somehow be diminished?”
Notice that Weisberger is merely pointing to the fact that value judgments cannot be quantified in the manner in which, say, weight or height can be quantified. Yet the same is true of the value of human suffering. Hence, if value judgments are going to be inadmissible in arguments, atheists must drop the Argument from Evil.
(3) “Considering that god itself does not have free will, namely the ability to even choose to do evil since god is perfectly good, it does not seem that it is really such a boon to existence.”
Here Weisberger demonstrates some confusion as to what free will is. She defines free will as “the ability to choose evil,” which is a complete misunderstanding. We can correct this error by distinguishing between two different levels of free will. On one level, freedom of will means the ability to choose what we want to do. I have the option of going to see two different movies tonight, and I choose one over the other, because that’s the one I prefer. No one forces me to make a choice against my will. Notice that the Stepford wives would have at least some freedom on this level. That is, the Stepford wife chooses to get her husband some nachos, not because he forces her, but because she wants to please him.
But this brings us to a second level of freedom. A Stepford wife does exactly what she wants to do, but the reason she wants to do it is that she was programmed to have a specific will. Now that she has this specific will, she is free to do as she chooses. But would we say that this freedom is genuine? Of course not. I would argue that first-level freedom is only meaningful if we are not programmed (i.e. we must also have second-level freedom).
With this in mind, does God have free will? Since God can certainly do what he wants to do, he has first-level freedom. Moreover, since he was not programmed by anyone to have a certain will, God also has second-level freedom.
So God clearly has free will. Why, then, does Weisberger define freedom as “the ability to choose evil”? Her misunderstanding here is based on the difference between humans and God. If God programs a human being to choose certain things over others, then that person does not have true freedom. Hence, if a person is going to have true freedom, he must be able to do things that do not accord with the will of God. To choose something which is against God’s will would be evil. This means that if humans are to be free, they must have the ability to choose evil. But to apply this rule to God would be a mistake. Weisberger is saying, in effect, “God cannot choose to do that which is against God’s will,” which is true but meaningless, and has nothing to do with free will.
(4) “And, does true freedom really entail the choice to choose evil?”
As we have seen, true freedom consists of two criteria: (i) the ability to choose according to your will, and (ii) a will that is not programmed by someone else. Thus, for human beings to be free, we must not be programmed by God. If we are not programmed by God, then we are free to act against his will. If we are free to act against his will, then, for humans, true freedom entails the ability to choose evil. (Note: This doesn’t mean that we must choose evil, only that we have the ability.)
(5) “If we had the choice between very good, good, and uneventful actions, would that not be a real choice? Is it not a real choice if I am only choosing between oatmeal and Frosted Flakes for breakfast?”
One might reasonably argue that choosing an “uneventful” action over a “very good” action would be evil, since we would be choosing something worse over something better. (Yes, Dr. Weisberger, it’s quite easy to play with definitions. But it doesn’t really move the argument forward.) I would agree that choosing one breakfast over another is a choice, but this is hardly meaningful freedom. To illustrate, let’s return to The Stepford Wives. Suppose a husband says, along with Dr. Weisberger, “Well, one freedom is as good as the next. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to program my wife to obey me in all matters related to cleaning, sex, and other types of service. But I will give her the freedom to choose her own breakfast. Is this not true freedom?” No, it’s not. And a programmed wife isn’t very far from a blow-up doll.
(6) “Could not free will also refer to the ability to choose to act, and not necessarily to commit the act? (As in choosing to create a plan to do evil, but not have the ability to carry out the plan?) If so, then is not having the ability to fly, no matter how hard we flap our arms, a limitation on free choice? In other words, is ‘true freedom’ the same as absolute freedom? If so, then we do not have that now.”
Here I can’t help but think that Dr. Weisberger must have traveled a long way from her field of expertise. There is an obvious distinction between freedom of will and freedom of action. To have free will is to have the ability to choose what we want to do. To have freedom of action is to have the ability to carry out what we decide to do.
Weisberger implies that God could have made us so that we have the freedom to choose evil, but not the ability to carry out our evil plans. To some extent, that is what God has done. Suppose, just for fun, that John Loftus gets carried away with one of his “I-don’t-understand-why-God-would-create-anything” arguments. Obsessed with the idea that the world is an awful place that should not exist, John decides to melt the entire universe. Can he do it? Of course not.
But here Dr. Weisberger would respond, “Well, why take away our ability to do anything wrong?” Now let’s try to figure out what this could mean. People kick and stab one another. If God were to take away our ability to do these things, it would mean either (1) that God takes away our legs and our ability to form weapons, or (2) that God performs a miracle whenever we decide to do one of these things. If Dr. Weisberger says that God should do (1), I would reply that this is absurd. We could also head-butt each other, so God would have to remove our heads as well. So she is left with (2), and I would have a couple of objections to raise. First, a world where we are free to will whatever horrible things we choose, but where we can never carry out our evil intentions, is a world without moral development. Think about it. The reason we want people to develop morally is so that they won’t do certain things. But if we take away their ability to do anything immoral, we have thereby taken away the need for moral development. People could be evil to the core, and there would be no reason to encourage any change. Hence, if morality is important (and I would say that it is), Dr. Weisberger’s point fails. (But we’ll have more to say about morality when we discuss soul-building theodicies.)
Second, a world of constant miracles would have a significant effect not only on freedom of action, but on freedom of will as well. We would know, beyond all doubt, that God exists. Most atheists seem to think that if God exists, he should immediately appear to us. But more careful thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant, have noted that undeniable proof of God’s existence would destroy morality. I have explained this elsewhere, but I will repeat the argument here.
Suppose you’re walking down the street, and you find a purse filled with money. Some people would return the purse to its owner, while some would keep it. Those who return it would be doing the right thing for the right reason. Those who keep it would be doing the wrong thing, and they would be acting from a wrong motive. Now let’s change the situation. Suppose you’re walking down the street, and you find a purse full of money, but there’s a police officer standing there watching you. At this point, all of us would do the right thing. We would all return the purse. But we would be returning it because there was a police officer standing there, not because it was the moral thing to do. Moreover, even people who would have returned it anyway would now be returning it, at least in part, because there was a police officer standing there. That is, they would never be faced with the decision of whether to keep it or return it, and so they would never even have the opportunity to perform an action of genuine moral worth.
Now what would happen if God started going around intervening whenever we did something wrong? Well, everyone would be convinced that God exists. That would be good, wouldn’t it? But at what cost? Everyone would know that we’re all being watched at all times. We would all know that there is a cosmic policeman everywhere we go—an all-knowing, all-seeing policeman, ready to zap us whenever we mess up. Yes, our behavior would be much better than it is now. But our actions would have no moral worth at all. We wouldn’t be acting for the right reasons. We’d be acting out of fear—fear of getting zapped. Thus, once again we find that the atheist’s suggestion, if carried out by God, would destroy something that many people find extremely important.
And now we may simply turn Dr. Weisberger’s mode of questioning back upon her. How does one quantify the value of morality, or of freedom of will, or of freedom of action? Who are you to say that the world would be better off if we were stripped of the very things that make life most valuable? How can you expect people to think that a world of programmed wives and programmed husbands would be better than the world we have now?
The point of these questions is simple. As we saw in a previous post, the burden of proof in the Argument from Evil is on the atheist. It is not the theist who must show that freedom is valuable, since we already know that it is. It is rather the atheist who must show that the very things we hold most dear are, when compared to pain and pleasure, not valuable at all. But many people simply won’t be persuaded by such hedonistic thinking.
This isn’t to say, of course, that the importance of freedom justifies all suffering. I’m not arguing that, nor do I even believe it. We must always take the Problem of Evil quite seriously, because human suffering is a terrible thing. But at the same time, atheists should take the value of freedom seriously. That is, when theists point to the value of free will as a good of our world, atheists shouldn’t casually dismiss the claim with a series of flawed questions. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Dr. Weisberger does.