Free will is a non-response

When atheists bring up the age-old problem of evil (i.e., that the abundance of suffering in the world is proof that there is no god that is both omnipotent and benevolent), many theists — Christians, in my experience — reply that suffering is a necessary consequence of God giving humans free will. Free will, they say, is just mysteriously so important and central to goodness in the world that it’s worth the tradeoff.

This argument misses the point to such a degree that I almost can’t believe anyone’s convinced by it. Let’s break it down. Maybe one of you can add something in the comments to explain what I’m missing…?

First, there are a ton of bad things that happen in the world that have nothing whatsoever to do with any human choices. There were volcanoes and earthquakes before humans ever existed on the planet, so the fact that volcanoes and earthquakes and other natural disasters happen today and cause immense suffering could not possibly have been brought about by our alleged sins. There’s also plenty of suffering in the natural world outside of that which directly relates to humans. Think of the animals that survive by viciously tearing other animals to shreds — their prey, or their competition — or the parasites that explode out of their hosts’ bodies. (Yeah, that last link is extremely gross. Only one picture though.) Suffering is happening in these cases, too, and it didn’t have to be that way if an omnipotent and benevolent god designed everything.

Next, though, are the problems with free will as the answer to human-caused suffering. For one thing, free will is the ability to choose to do whatever you want to do. The existence of free will is consistent with the world we see today, but it’s also consistent with a world in which there are no murders, ever — it might just be that in that world, nobody ever wanted to murder anyone else. An omnipotent and benevolent god could have created that world instead of this one. Why did this god apparently cause some people to desire to commit murder, and then command them not to? If he really wanted them to choose not to murder, and it was important to him for some reason that they have that choice, it would have been much more effective (and more benevolent toward their eventual victims) to give them different desires to start with.

The other big problem I have with the free will response to human actions is that it assumes that convincing someone to change their mind is a violation of their free will. (This comes up most often in the version of this conversation in which a Christian is speaking more broadly, referring to the original sin of Adam and Eve, or to the rampant sin and nonbelief in the modern world. It could apply to specific immoral acts too, though.) Their god could appear in front of everyone, all over the world, and state simultaneously in everyone’s native language that he is real, that his intentions for humanity are exactly as dictated by Christian doctrine, explain the reasoning behind his creations, etc., and this incredible event would presumably convert the nonbelievers and prompt the sinners to turn from their ways. But he wouldn’t do that — so they tell me — because that would “violate our free will.” But the fact is, convincing someone with compelling arguments or evidence is not the same as forcing them, and I have no idea why anyone would think that it is. If anything, withholding arguments and evidence when they could be made available causes people to remain misinformed, ignorant, against their probable desire to figure out what’s true.

I don’t know… I just don’t see how free will in any way responds to the problem of evil. So why do people keep bringing it up?

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  1. Jojo, here is a post I wrote that deals with why I use happiness as a metric for goodness (and implicitly suffering and sadness as a metric for badness).

    I’m sorry for sloppiness in my terminology. I’ve been told that “omnibenevolent” is a term that religious people don’t actually use, so I had been trying to avoid it. Omnipotent surely is, and if you’re omnipotent and even reasonably benevolent (as much as a regular, mortal “nice person” could be expected to be) I should think you’d take some action to reduce the amount of suffering in the world. Remember, omnipotent = capable of literally anything.

    I don’t know how much free will is “worth,” and I’ve never heard a religious person articulate how they might know such a thing. The idea seems to be: God must think that free will is super important, because why else would there be all this suffering? But this is still defeated by my point about desires. God could have given people free will and also given them different desires to act upon. You could have free will exercised only by people who have no inclination to steal, rape, or kill. So even if free will is somehow, magically, of infinite value, there’s no reason for an omnipotent being to stand by and let the suffering happen.

  2. Luke,

    I don’t mean to preach.. My use of Scripture is, I hope, limited to helping anchor my point in the context of the “ultimate” Christian material [smile].

    I have no objection to you alluding to scripture in making a point. It’s when the point isn’t relevant to the discussion, and so the allusion is superfluous, that I object and call it ‘preaching’.

    I find it interesting that you choose the words “compensate” and “reparation.” And if that is what God is up to, you are absolutely correct. I continue to use “redeem/redemption” to talk about how I believe God handles these kinds of things: He’s not paying people back or making amends, He is making things new, changing them around, taking it evil and turning it into ultimate good. “Straw into gold” came to mind, but I don’t see God as Rumpelstiltskin [smile].

    Okay, so suppose redemption is like turning straw into gold: in transmuting evil to good, the evil is thereby depleted and the good is what remains. How could this transmutation work? How could, say, the evil of genocide actually become good, and cease to be evil? I suspect this question has no answer, because evil cannot be redeemed, though people who commit evil can.
    But put that way, I think it’s clear that the notion of redemption isn’t much use here, for it applies to the perpetrators of evil, and not to the innocent victims, who are the people whom I suppose God would’ve had a moral duty to protect.

    I’ve slowed down in my response time as well (life is busy, and I’m finding I have less and less to offer; thanks for bearing with me though this though!).

    No problem – I’m signed up to receive notification of comments on the thread, so it’s not like I have to keep checking back. Actually, this is part of the reason my own reply is so indecently late: my spam filter was catching the notifications I was relying on! My apologies!

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