The Nature and Value of Free Will

[Written by John W. Loftus] There is a horrendous amount of suffering caused by humans. This is known as Moral Evil; suffering as the result of the choices of moral agents.

Here are some examples: The holocaust, molesting, torture, beatings, and kidnappings. Drunk drivers across America regularly slam their vehicles into other cars instantly killing whole families. There are witchdoctors in Africa who tell men who have AIDS to have sex with a baby in order to be cured, and as a result many female babies are being taken from their mother’s arms and gang-raped even as I write this. Is this not horrendous? In sub-Saharan Africa nearly four million people die from AIDS each year! Just watching a re-enactment of the holocaust as depicted in Spielberg’s movie, Schindler’s List, is enough to keep Christians up late at night wondering why God doesn’t do much to help us in this life. Nearly 40,000 people, mostly children, die every day around the world, due to hunger. Then there was Joseph Mengele, who tortured concentration camp prisoners; atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Soviet gulags, 9/11 twin tower terrorist attacks, Cambodian children stepping on land mines, Columbine shootings, Jeffery Dahlmer, Ted Bundy, gang rapes, and brutal slavery. The list of atrocities done by people to each other could literally fill up a library full of books. Additionally, many theists believe there will be “many” compared to the “few” who suffer in hell.

According to A.N. Weisberger, “The free will defender must assume that free will is of such superior value that any evils which result from its use are justified.” Since this is so, “the free will defender is compelled to say why free will is of such supreme value. Instead, the free will defender merely assumes that such an assessment of free will as especially valuable is unanimous and offers little, if anything, in way of reasons for this assessment.” [Suffering Belief: Evil and the Anglo-American Defense of Theism (Peter Lang, 1999, p. 164)].

When we take into consideration the sheer massive weight of suffering in this life and the next life for the “many”, it seems entirely rational to conclude that the value of having free moral agents does not outweigh the pain and suffering caused by these free moral agents to others and to themselves.

When placed on a scale, God must think that it's “better” that human creatures have free will than if they didn’t. But when we consider the word “better” here, we must ask, “better” for whom? If someone lives a short miserable life and then dies and is sent to hell, it surely isn’t better for that person to have been born at all. Since this is the case with so many people, surely they would wish never to be born at all. Surely; no question about it!

Is being born better for the saints who end up in heaven? Who knows how to properly evaluate this, since if they were never born in the first place they wouldn’t know the difference? Still, given the two choices they would be glad to be in heaven. But this reward, according to Christianity, merely represents the minority of people who were born. So there is more suffering for human beings as the direct result of God’s decision to create this world than if he didn’t. God’s decision to create this world caused much more suffering to the people he decided to create, than if he didn’t create any of us at all. Why did he do so, then? He did so for his own pleasure? Many many millions of people have suffered and will suffer because of what he wanted! Isn’t that what we call selfishness? Is that a recognized virtue? Can God be selfish and yet still call selfishness a virtue because he’s God? Why? I simply don't see how, even if an act is done by God. It's still called selfishness, and better known as self-gratification no matter who does it.

Why is it more valuable to a good God that he create free moral creatures when the results have been horrific for millions upon millions and probably billions of people down through the centuries? The Christian answer is that God wants creatures who freely choose to love and obey him, and that this justifies why he purportedly created us with free will. That is, what God wanted is more important than the fact that people will suffer. But as I just argued this sounds exactly like God is more concerned with his wants than with our wants. He wants people to freely love and obey him no matter what the consequences are for most of the people who are born into this world. And if this is true, then how can God’s love be called agape, or self-giving love? God’s wants are placed above our wants, because we do not like to experience such intense suffering in this world, or in the next one.

There are many problems with this Christian viewpoint. It does absolutely no good at all to have free will and not also have the ability to exercise it. Most women do not have the upper body strength needed to stop a would-be attacker, while some people don’t have the rational capacity needed to spot a con-artist. I could not be a world-class athlete even if I wanted to, for instance. Our free will is limited by our age, race, gender, mental capacity, financial ability, geographical placement, and historical location to do what we want. Both our genes and our social environment restrict what choices are available for us to make. We do not have as much free will as people think. Just think of the slaves in the South. They didn't have choices to do much of anything that they would've liked to do.

I dare say that if God exists and created a different soul inside my mother’s womb at the precise moment I was conceived, and if that organism experienced everything I did and learned the exact same lessons throughout life in the same order that I did at the same intensity, then the resulting person would be me, even given free will. And if you won’t go that far, the limits of our choices are still set by our genetic material and our social environment. All of us have a very limited range of free choices, if we have any at all.

If free will explains some of the suffering in this world when we already have limited choices anyway, then there should be no objection to God further limiting our choices when we seek to cause intense suffering in this world. Theists should have no objection to God intervening when someone chooses to do horrible deeds, especially since theists also believe God can restrict our choices just like he purportedly hardened Pharaoh’s heart against Moses. I’ve suggested some reasonable ways God had at his disposal, if we concede for the moment the existence of this present world: One childhood fatal disease or a heart attack could have killed Hitler and prevented WWII. Timothy McVeigh could have had a flat tire or engine failure while driving to Oklahoma City with that truck bomb. Several of the militants who were going to fly planes into the Twin Towers on 9/11 could’ve been robbed and beaten by New York thugs (there’s utilitarianism at its best). A poisonous snakebite could’ve sent Saddam Hussein to an early grave averting the Iraq war before it happened. The poison that Saddam Hussein threw on the Kurds, and the Zyklon-B pellets dropped down into the Auschwitz gas chambers could have simply “malfunctioned” by being miraculously neutralized (just like Jesus supposedly turned water into wine). Sure, it would puzzle them, but there are a great many things that take place in our world that are not explainable. Even if they concluded God performed a miracle here, what’s the harm? Doesn’t God want us to believe in him?

Theistic scholar William P. Alston argues that “for all we know, God does sometimes intervene to prevent human agents from doing wicked things they would otherwise have done.” [Evidential Argument From Evil, p. 113]. My response: 1) This is unfalsifiable. 2) It’s implausible God has done this at all, since there are obvious cases of senseless suffering in this world he could alleviate. 3) This is known as the fallacy of the beard. To ask us to draw a line here is like asking us to pluck out whiskers until we can say which whisker when plucked, no longer makes it a beard. Hence, we might not be able to specify how much God should intervene but we know that with all of the intense suffering caused by free will choices that God doesn't intervene enough, even if he does sometimes. Likewise, according to Bruce Russell, “We can know that some penalty (say, a fine of $1) is not an effective deterrent to armed robbery even if there is no sharp cut-off point between penalties that are effective deterrents and those that are not.” [The Evidential Argument From Evil, p. 205].4) Such an objection doesn’t say anything about this particular world and the suffering in it. This is the world we are looking at, and there simply isn't any evidence that God has intervened. The question that needs to be asked is whether or not we would expect a good God to avert the Holocaust, and the answer is that morality requires it. 5) If there was no intense suffering or there was an adequate explanation for suffering, my whole argument would fail.

William P. Alston again: But if God were to act to intervene in every case of incipient wrongdoing…“Human agents would no longer have a real choice between good and evil.” [The Evidential Argument From Evil, p. 113]. Eliminating intense cases of suffering would still allow humans with significant real choices. I’m not asking for an all or nothing proposition here. I’m arguing God should disallow those choices that cause intense suffering in our world as the result of free choices. Besides, there’s a difference between having a real choice, and being able to actualize our choices. For all we know God could turn bullets into butter and baseball bats into a rolls of tissue paper whenever they are to cause harm, for God can surely judge us by our intentions to do wrong alone.

If God gave us more freedom than we can be responsible for, then he’s mainly responsible for the horrible deeds we do. J.L. Mackie asks, “Why would a wholly good and omnipotent god give to human beings—and also, perhaps, to angels—the freedom which they have misused?” [The Miracle of Theism (Oxford, 1982), p. 155)] Pierre Bayle exposes this difficulty [in “Paulicians” in his Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697)]. “It is in the essence of a benefactor to refrain from giving any gift which he knows would be the ruin of the recipient.” “Free agency is not a good gift after all, for it has caused the ruin of the human race in Adam’s sin, the eternal damnation for the greater part of his descendants, and created a world of a dreadful deluge of moral and physical evils.” Paul Draper wrote, “we would expect God would behave like a good parent, giving humans great responsibility only when we are worthy of it.” [Evidential Argument From Evil, p. 24]. Andrea Weisberger wrote, “We do not normally hold freedom to be intrinsically valuable, as evidenced in the willingness we show to limit our freedom to achieve goods, and especially when such freedom gives rise to suffering.” “The prevention of heinous crimes, even if such prevention limits another’s exercise of free will, improves the world.” [Suffering Belief, p, 167, 171].

Giving us free will is like giving a razor blade to a two-year old child. Razor blades can be used for good purposes by people who know how to use them, like scraping off a sticker from a window, or in shaving. That’s because adults know how to use them properly. We could give an adult a razor blade. We cannot give a 2 year old one, for if we did we would be blamed if that child hurts himself. Just like a younger child should not be given a license to drive, or just like a younger child should not be left unattended at the mall, so also if God gives us responsibilities before we can handle them then he is to be blamed for giving them to us, as in the case of free will.

Christian Theists say free will is important for building character, or ‘soul-making,’ which is a higher good.” This does not explain the sufferings of animals, and it’s difficult to see how this explains senseless evils. Nonetheless, theistic scholars such as Kelly James Clark, Eleonore Stump [“Providence and the Problem of Evil,” in Christian Philosophy, ed. Thomas P. Flint (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1990, 51-91)] and others argue that “a perfectly good God would not wholly sacrifice the welfare of one of his intelligent creatures simply in order to achieve a good for others, or for himself. This would be incompatible with his concern for the welfare of each of his creatures.” [William P. Alston in The Evidential Argument From Evil, p. 111]. Therefore, the theist has the difficult task of showing how the very people who suffered and died in the Nazi concentration camps were better off for having suffered, since the hindsight lessons we’ve learned from the Holocaust cannot be used to justify the sufferings of the people involved. It’s implausible that their sufferings did more to teach them the virtues of character and cooperation than from banding together to win an athletic contest, or in helping someone to build a house. And it's implausible that any moral lessons learned as the result of pain and suffering are relevant in an eternal bliss. If this world is to teach us the virtues of courage, patience, and generosity in the face of suffering, then most all of those virtues are irrelevant in a heavenly bliss where there is no suffering or pain.

These same theists would say that “Evil is necessary as a means to good.” Even if this is so, God could’ve created a world with far fewer evils, which is my point. Such a solution assumes a good God initially created the world with the proper balance of suffering. If so, the question becomes whether or not we should try to alleviate suffering. On the one hand, a theist is the first one to say we should alleviate suffering wherever we can, even though God is not obligated to do the same. But if we do, then aren’t we also reducing the total good created by God, since suffering is good for us? Maybe we should rue the day that someone found a vaccine for Tuberculosis, or Polio? Maybe our real duty would be to increase human suffering, since it molds character? On the other hand, if suffering can be alleviated by modern medicine without making it worse off for us as a whole, then those very evils we eliminated were not necessary for our good in the first place. Can the theist have it both ways? [This is a point that H.L. McCloskey, makes in “God and Evil,” in Readings in the Philosophy of Religion, ed., Baruch A. Brody (Prentice-Hall, 1974), pp. 168-186].

Theists will say everything will be made right in an eternal bliss for the saints. But what about the possibility of free will and rebellion in heaven? Paul Copan offers three possibilities with regard to free will in heaven [in That’s Just Your Interpretation, pp. 106-108]. 1) That through our truly libertarian free actions on earth we gain access to heaven where we no longer have this freedom to sin. But if heaven is a place where we longer have the freedom to sin, then God could’ve bypassed our earthly existence altogether. If there is no free will in heaven then why not just create us all in heaven, as I’ve argued? What does it matter what we did or didn’t do on earth? Furthermore, why reward someone by taking away their free will? If free will can be taken away without a loss of goodness, then why create us with it in the first place? 2) That God foreknows that no one who enters heaven will freely choose to sin. But if God has that kind of foreknowledge then again, what is the purpose of creating this particular world? It appears to be a cruel game of hide and seek, where God hides and we must find him, and only the few who find him will be rewarded while the many who don’t are punished when they die. If God has foreknowledge then why didn’t he just foreknow who would find him even before creating them, and simply place them in heaven in the first place?...then there’d be no one punished for not finding him. 3) That those who enter heaven will be in the "unmediated presence of God" such that "not sinning will be a ‘no brainer’—even though it remains a possibility.” But if this is the case, then as I’ve already argued, why do Christians think the Devil rebelled against God, since he was supposedly in the direct unmediated presence of God?

And there is the additional problem of free will in hell. Theists typically claim that people in hell continue in their rebellion against God and so the "doors of hell are locked from the inside." Those who are saved are rewarded for their tortures here on earth by the removal of their free will to make moral choices, but those who are damned keep their free will. Why this difference? If God just took away the free will of those who are damned, then they too could've been brought up to heaven. If free will is such a good thing, then why isn't it such a good thing in the end? Those who are damned keep it, but those who go to heaven lose it. If this is the case then moral freedom isn't as important as Christian theists claim. And if that's the case then why bother creating anyone...anyone...with moral freedom, especially when doing so has produced such suffering that we experience in this life and the next?

David Wood now claims that before Satan sinned in heaven there was moral choice-making in heaven. There was some "epistemic distance" between him and God so that Satan was ignorant about God’s absolute love and power, and as a result could make moral choices unhindered by the direct presence of God. At the consummation of the ages, however, God will allow the saints in his direct unmediated presence, and as a result there will be no moral choices in heaven, even if there is free will. By being in God’s direct unmediated presence there will be no reason or motivation to sin against God, since the saints would see his love for what it truly is, and they’d also realize it would be futile to sin or rebel against him. But why didn't God start out this way, by allowing Satan into his direct unmediated presence in the first place, thus avoiding the sufferings of a fallen universe? For David, it's because of the value of moral freedom. This is where incoherence sets in, for if moral choices are such a good thing, then why take them away as a reward in the end?

What Mr. Wood proposes is that God wanted creatures in heaven who truly loved him and obeyed him, and that the existence of this world is the best way for God to have done this. Consider the motivations for God wanting this state of affairs. What is the value of this to God? Why does he want anything? A want is not exactly like a need, but to want something, anything, implies a lack of something. What did God lack? Apparently God lacked people who freely choose to love him. Why is this so important to him that he would knowingly creat a world where most humans must suffer so much? What is there about people who freely love him that is different than people who simply love him, which, in the end, are the people who end up in heaven anyway? After all, just because people made moral choices that showed they loved God on earth doesn't mean they would always love him in heaven, does it?--especially if they had the same epistemic distance in heaven they had on earth. Why does God want anyone to love him in the first place? Why does he care? Does he need stroked, appreciated, needed? Look at all of the carnage of wasted human and animal lives that required this result. Is this truly a loving God?

In light of this consider what Ivan Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s character, said: “Tell me yourself—I challenge you: let’s assume that you were called upon to build the edifice of destiny so that men would finally be happy and would find peace and tranquility. If you knew that, in order to attain this, you would have to torture just one single creature, let’s say a little girl who beat her chest so desperately in the outhouse, and that on her unavenged tears you could build that edifice, would you agree to do it? Tell me and don’t lie!” [in The Brothers Karamazov]. But the Christian God did exactly this!

Theists claim that God needs to keep a correct “epistemic distance” from us so he can know for sure we truly love him and that he isn’t forcing himself on us with the power and love of his direct presence. This is one of the reasons offered for the perceived “hiddenness of God.” He hides himself in the bushes, so to speak, to see if we really want to love and obey him. But think about this. If I did that with my wife what would be the result? If I didn’t let her see the real me...if I hide my real goodness from her and watched to see if she really loved me, then it would be a false test of her love. I would be wondering whether she loved a caricature of me and not me. Let’s say I didn’t show her my tender side, or my true compassionate nature. Would I expect that she should love me the same as if I did show her my true self? No! Why should God think that it’s any different when it comes to loving him? We see plenty of suffering in this world and so we ask whether or not God is good and deserving to be worshipped. If we conclude he isn’t a good God and reject him because of this epistemic distance, then he should know we have not rejected who he really is. We have merely rejected what he revealed himself to be in his creation, and if that’s the case, he shouldn’t be upset at us when we do reject his love. Why? Because he doesn’t show us his true love. There is little by way of our experience that leads us to think he loves us, or that he exists. And if that's the case, then why should he even be surprised at our reactions? Why?

According to Weisberger, "The real problem with epistemic distance is in showing how humans can ever do right or discover the will of God intelligently in the apparent absence of is impossible for anyone to intentionally do what is required when it is not known, for how can we be expected to fulfill God’s commandments if there is true epistemic distance?” So “it seems absurd for a wholly good God to force humanity into a position of ignorance regarding correct moral choice and then hold people accountable for such a choice." [Suffering Belief, p. 135-6].

Christians respond that since God is omniscient he knows the proper distance needed to test our love and that he’s clearly revealed himself enough for us to love and obey him in the appropriate degrees, proportionate to this distance. When Christians respond like this they are reverting to a prior held faith statement that is outside the bounds of the questions I am asking. I’m looking at what I see and I’m questioning the goodness of God and this so-called needed "epistemic distance." I’m wondering why this world was created, if it was. I’m questioning whether this God even exists based upon what I see. Christians respond that God knows what he’s doing without giving reasonable answers to my questions. If God exists, then why did he do what he did? Punting to mystery doesn't answer my questions. I question his motivations. I doubt his plans. I reject the purportedly good results from the creation of this world. These questions must be answered before I can accept that he knows the proper distance and he can judge us fairly. Of course, if an omniscient God exists it is possible he has created the correct epistemic distance between him and us to know whether we love him. But in so doing he also created so much human and animal carnage that I cannot accept his supposed good wisdom in doing so.