May 11, 2008
Freedom and the Ability to Choose Evil
An acquaintance of mine recently asked me why it is necessary that we be able to choose evil for us to have free will, while it is not necessary that God be able to choose evil for Him to have free will. He thinks there is no answer to this question, and thus he has identified a logical inconsistency within Christian theism that counts against its veracity.
I responded by challenging his understanding of freedom, as well as his assumption that genuine freedom of the will necessitates the capacity to choose evil. Regarding the latter I wrote:
Your objection assumes that a necessary requisite for freedom of the will is the ability to choose evil as well as good. I see no reason to accept this as true, not only of God, but also of humans. While it is factually true that freedom of our will includes our ability to choose evil, it is not necessarily true. For the will to be free only requires that our choices are not determined by causal factors outside our own volitional powers. One can be free even if they can only choose good, and not evil.
William Lane Craig offers an insightful thought experiment to demonstrate that one need not be able to choose B in order to make their choice of A free and meaningful:
‘Imagine a man with electrodes secretly implanted in his brain who is presented with a choice of doing either A or B [for our purposes, we’ll let A stand for good and B stand for evil]. The electrodes are inactive so long as the man chooses A; but if he were going to choose B, then the electrodes would switch on and force him to choose A. If the electrodes fire, causing him to choose A, his choice of A is clearly not a free choice. But supposed that the man really wants to do A and chooses it of his own volition. In that case his choosing A is entirely free, even though the man is literally unable to choose B, since the electrodes do not function at all and have no effect on his choice of A. What makes his choice free is the absence of any causally determining factors of his choosing A. This conception of libertarian freedom has the advantage of explaining how it is that God’s choosing to do good is free, even though it is impossible for God to choose sin, namely, His choosing is undetermined by causal constraints. Thus, libertarian freedom of the will does not require the ability to choose other than as one chooses.’
A limitation in the range of choices is not the same as having no choice at all. If A, B, and C are good choices, and D, E, and F are evil choices, one’s inability to choose D, E, or F does not negate the fact that he can choose A, B, or C. When I go to the grocery store to buy ice-cream, they may only have 15 out of 100 flavors ice-cream comes in. The fact that I cannot choose 85 of those flavors does not negate the fact that I can choose any one of the 15 options before me. Likewise, God’s lack of ability to choose evil does not mean God lacks freedom of will. At best it means His range of free choices is more restrictive than ours.
While it seems right to me that human freedom does not require the capacity to choose evil, this conflicts with the free-will theodicy (that I have always found persuasive). The free-will theodicy argues that it is logically impossible for God to create a world in which humans enjoy free will, and yet are unable to use that will to choose evil. On this account, the ability to choose evil is not only factually true, but necessarily true. But as I argued above, it seems to me that God could have made us free without the capacity to choose evil.
I face a dilemma. In the process of answering my friend’s objection I have “unsolved” the problem of evil. Furthermore, I cannot explain why, if God could create us free without the capacity to choose evil, He did not do so (especially given the fact that we are created in His image, and He is unable to choose evil). Is it because we are finite? If so, since we are necessarily finite, it would follow that our capacity to choose evil is necessary as well. While that saves the free-will theodicy, it conflicts with my argument that the capacity to choose evil is not necessary for genuine freedom of the will.
Where does the problem lie? Is it in my argument that human freedom does not necessitate the capacity to choose evil? Is it in my understanding of the free-will theodicy? Both? I would appreciate your input.
I think I can resolve your dilemma, Jason! But first let me say what a nice job you did in responding to your friend’s question. I’ll want to make just a minor adjustment.
Let me say, too, that the illustration I gave isn’t original with me but is the brainchild by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, whose work has spawned a great deal of discussion of illustrations of this sort. Notice, too, how helpful Frankfurt’s analysis of libertarian freedom is for understanding Christ’s freely resisting temptation. As the second person of the Trinity, Christ was impeccable (i.e., incapable of sin). Nevertheless, he freely resisted temptation. How is this possible? Because in his state of humiliation (his pre-resurrection incarnate state) he experienced cognitive limits consistent with a genuine human consciousness and so felt the allure of temptation. This he freely resisted in that he of his own power withstood it without external causal influence.
Now how is this compatible with the claim of the Free Will Defense that “it is logically impossible for God to create a world in which humans enjoy free will, and yet are unable to use that will to choose evil?” Notice that the Free Will Defense doesn’t entail such a claim. It’s consistent with the Free Will Defense that although there are possible worlds such as you describe, they have other overriding deficiencies that make them less preferable to worlds in which humans can choose both evil and good. The atheist has to prove that, necessarily, God would prefer a world without evil (for whatever reason) over any world with evil if he’s to prove that God and evil are logically incompatible.
Nevertheless, I think it’s dubious that God could create a creature which has the ability freely to choose only the Good. Such an ability seems to belong properly only to a nature which has the property of moral perfection, a property that belongs to God alone. A free being which possesses a nature which is characterized by less than complete moral perfection (N.B. that moral perfection differs from mere innocence!) lacks the power to choose infallibly the Good. For God to create a being which has the ability to choose infallibly the Good would be, in effect, to create another God, which is logically impossible, since God is essentially uncaused; and, of course, omnipotence does not entail the ability to bring about the logically impossible.
This is not to say that it’s logically impossible that as matter of fact human beings always happen to choose the Good and never sin. That is a logically possible world. Rather it is to say that humans have the inherent ability to choose evil or, better, lack the inherent ability to choose infallibly the Good. Even if they don’t sin, they can.
In response to this position, you voice the worry: “Since we are necessarily finite, it would follow that our capacity to choose evil is necessary as well. While that saves the free-will theodicy, it conflicts with my argument that the capacity to choose evil is not necessary for genuine freedom of the will.” No, it doesn’t! You responded to your friend “by challenging his understanding of freedom, as well as his assumption that genuine freedom of the will necessitates the capacity to choose evil.” Both those challenges stand. So you need only adjust the sentences in your opening paragraph in which you assert that humans could have the ability to choose only the Good. You’ve answered your friend’s objection by showing that freedom of the will per se doesn’t necessitate freedom to do evil and explaining why it is that in the case of finite persons like human beings freedom to make significant moral choices necessarily implies the ability to choose evil as well as good.