Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Problem of Evil:
Free Will and the Quantity of Evil

Luke at Common Sense Atheism is continuing his series Arguing about Evil with the post "Plantinga’s Free Will Defense". Go read that.

This was started as a comment there, and then got to long-winded to keep as a comment.

Hi Luke,

First, a person with an antisupernatural bias should be careful about dismissing supernatural reasoning in an argument about the existence of God - indeed supernatural beings could be causing some of the natural distress. As you implied, this wouldn't be the first place I went - I think all of nature was "broken" in the Fall.

Second, a bit of a nit-pick with your slipping in the comment about Hitler and his genes. I do not think genes are deterministic of someone's evil. Frankly, I have a problem with slipping Hitler in at all - the problem of evil is not about the extremes; it is about the day-to-day decisions of regular human beings and not about the most cruel monsters. However, more importantly, if we are going to make evil a deterministic result of bad genetics (as that implies) then are you saying that - along with Dawkins - you see a possible ultimate solution to evil in society being based in some form of eugenics?

You are glossing over the implications of free will way to quickly. First, let's talk about what free will is in my view:
. . . a better definition is that it is the ability to decide be­tween alternatives. Desire is a passion, an emotion; but will is a choice between two or more desires . . . Freedom is not in unlimited options, but in unfettered choice between whatever options there are. As long as the choosing comes from the individual rather than an outside force, the decision is made freely. Free will means the ability to make an unforced decision between two or more alternatives. [I am following Norm Geisler's presentation of the "problem of evil" in When Skeptics Ask -- all the quotes are from there unless otherwise stated]
This obviously allows more determinism in our free will decisions than the extremes of the discussion sometimes allow. Geisler also states the potential vs actualization issue in a much more accessible manner:
That doesn't make Him [God] responsible for evil. He created the fact of freedom; we perform the acts of freedom. He made evil possible; men made evil actual. Imperfection came through our abuse of our moral perfection as free creatures.
If we were created free, as a basic decision and committment of God in creating humanity, then unless God intervenes in that freedom almost continually in an overt way, then we will have evil.

Evil is not a thing-in-itself, it is the absence of good; or a corruption in the good. If your shiny car rusts are you going to complain that oxygen and water are evil and God shouldn't have allowed them to exist? This is the exact nature of our human corruption. Another way it has been put: it is a bad relationship between good things:
In some cases, though, evil is more easily explained as a case of bad relationships. If I pick up a good gun, put in a good bullet, point it at my good head, put my good finger on the good trigger and give it a good pull. . . a bad relationship results. The things involved are not evil in themselves, but the relationship between the good things is definitely lacking something. In this case, the lack comes about because the things are not being used as they ought to be. Guns should not be used for indiscriminate killing, but are fine for recreation. My head was not meant to be used for target practice.
Frankly, the world is getting more corrupt, and the relationships between good things are getting more out of whack, because of the arrogance of humanity about its own ability to accomplish what it wishes by its own lights without thinking about the price - and because we are becoming more self-involved and self-indulgent. It is a long-term unintended consequences of utilitarian ethics, and our viewing people not for their intrinsic value, but for their utility and benefit to us and society. They are not worthy because (and simply because) they are human but because of what they can accomplish that benefits us.

The famous Christian triumverate that aggravates these bad free will choices is "the world, the flesh, and the devil". Plantinga mentions the last one - and your desire utilitarianism embodies the second and first. As James said:
Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from? Is it not from this, from your passions that battle inside you? You desire and you do not have; you murder and envy and you cannot obtain; you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask; you ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, so you can spend it on your passions.
You wish to promote an ethical system around human desire - and mention the stronger ones (the passions) as being an particularly important gauge. Individual human desire and passion, especially in the west, is largely controlled by greed and envy promoted by the base economic system and culture - especially if you try to account for the whole culture's aggregate desires. The "world" also, because it wants us isolated and more pliable, promotes individualism and a destruction of vocation:
In modern society as well, it is only when people are drawn outside themselves to a greater call or vocation that true community can be built - otherwise we have the "competition of desires" that is the source of the violence and greed of modern life. -- A.J. Conyers, "The Era of Bloodshed, The Listening Heart
That is the same "competition of desires" you wish to make central to the ethical system. So, your complaint about God, to me, boils down to you complaining because God allows someone like you to exist - or really have the possibility of existing. Do not get me wrong - I do not think you personally are evil. However, you are promoting an ethical system based on the aggregate desires of the majority that can only lead - in power - to even worse relationships than the world has seen up to now.
Sooner or later violence overtakes a society that functions chiefly on the basis of the rivalry of competitive desires, on the basis of choice, or on the basis of "freedom" defined as the unhindered will [desire]. Modern secular society is the longest experiment in history attempting to elevate "choice" or this kind of freedom to the level of a basic social principle. It should not be surprising, though I think to many the awareness of this has not surfaced, that modern life is also the most violent period in the history of mankind. -- Conyers
And God, in allowing you free will, has not stopped you - and indeed allowed you to exist in the first place. God allows you to hold a philosophy inimical to His desires and purposes. He has allowed a corruption in His created order to exist by your personal decision to believe, and advocate for what you believe.

That is the "problem" of evil. Free will means you and I essentially agree: the evil in the world comes because people choose to be evil. Period. It has really nothing to do with God - other than His original free will choice to create us that way; and God's unwillingness to "second guess" His original intent by interfering in our bad choices. If that is the case, then the issue is the best way to deal with the evil in the world; and not wasting our energy talking about whether the existence of human corruption means that God does or does not exist. Obviously, I think desire untilitarianism to be the exact opposite of a solution to the corruption and bad relationships in the world (evil) whether God exists or not.

Again, this is not personal to you - it is aimed at the view of the world you hold. Your view can change - it is not determined by your chemistry, upbringing, etc. You, IMO, have free will.

Free will is the essential core of the "problem of evil". Do you have free will or not? Should God have given you free will or not?

What is the benefit of free will - if it indeed leads to evil necessarily? First of all, as C.S. Lewis explored in his sci-fi trilogy, the fact of our freedom did not have to be actualized into acts of evil. Second, even if that evil had to be actualized, freedom still leads to a greater good:
. . . evil cannot be destroyed without destroying freedom. As we said before, free beings are the cause of evil, and freedom was given to us so that we could love. Love is the greatest good for all free creatures [Matt. 22:36], but love is impossible without freedom. So if freedom were destroyed, which is the only way to end evil, that would be evil in itself -- because it would deprive free creatures of their greatest good. Hence, to destroy evil would actually be evil. If evil is to be overcome, we need to talk about it being defeated, not destroyed.
Which, of course, finally actually brings us into Christian theology and its understanding of how God attempts to moderate (and eventually end) the corruption of the good -- and the bad relationships between people (and people and things) -- that characterize human life.

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How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly