Theodicy and Free Will

Good discussion today, we covered a lot of ground.

The conversation began around the problem of evil, something we have touched on before This is an ancient problem. It was formulated by the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

— The Epicurean paradox, ~300 BCE

To help us out on this, we watched the Crash Course Philosophy video on this topic,

We explored a couple of different responses to this argument. The first is that the argument, in a way, undermines itself. If you say that the allowance of suffering by God is “evil,” but then conclude that God does not exist, you are at pains to explain the basis for your definition of “evil.” It’s a case of begging the question. A way out of this would be to argue that the system is only internally incoherent. It is not necessary for the arguer to agree with Christianity’s definition of good/evil in order to point out that its God’s actions appear to be evil by the rules of its own system. It is not necessary to agree with the premises of an argument in order to demonstrate that it is faulty. The problem is then to show how, by Christianity’s own rules, God is acting in an “evil” manner. Then the question comes down to Biblical evidence. And the Bible consistently reiterates that God is good, and that everything he does is good, even if it is to allow evil, natural or otherwise.

There are other responses. One common defense is the free will defense, which says that God, in his omnipotence, has allowed humans to have free will, and that humans misuse this free will. That explains human evil, but it doesn’t explain natural evil. And isn’t this another way of saying that God isn’t all-powerful, even if it’s his decision to become less powerful? If you have human free will (as it is commonly conceived, i.e., God does not control what people do), then you don’t have an all-powerful God.

But there are even more problems. In the free-will formulation, God’s saving grace is an outstretched hand, which we freely grasp. But there are problems with this on the basis of the doctrines of sin and atonement. In the doctrine of sin, man’s heart is inherently corrupt, and it is impossible for him to save himself; it is impossible for him to turn his heart toward God. God has to act first, and that’s part of what the crucifixion was all about–God’s act of salvation. Instead of an outstretched hand that we freely choose to grasp as we are drowning in sin, it is a hand that reaches down into the water and pulls us out when we don’t even know that we are drowning, don’t even have the good sense to look for a hand to save us. If we are able to freely grasp the hand–to choose salvation–then what was the point of the cross? Merely an invitation? (And wouldn’t this mean that, theoretically, it were possible that all men choose against salvation, and then that Christ had died completely in vain?) If we follow this train of reasoning, it seems we must continue to limit God’s power and efficacy; he is not omnipotent.

If God is omnipotent, does his sovereignty mean that we don’t make decisions, that we are not responsible, etc.? Not necessarily. Only a certain formulation of free will says that it is incompatible with God’s sovereign control (hence the parenthetical  “as it is commonly conceived”). But another formulation says that the two can coexist, in the same way that light, studied under one circumstance exhibits the qualities of a wave, while under another exhibits the qualities of a particle. We don’t have the categories in which these two can coexist, but does that mean it is not possible? No.

God’s absolute sovereignty and initiative in salvation raises the specter of predestination, and its distasteful offspring, double predestination (God destines certain people for heaven, and others for hell, apparently arbitrarily). As offensive as these doctrines are, their offense does not prove them false. We will wrestle with this issue another time.

If the free-will defense fails and God is in sovereign control, then it appears that he is ultimately responsible for evil, even if we try to dodge the issue semantically by saying he merely “allows” it. How can else can we overcome this issue?

Another potential response attempts to dismantle the argument itself. The problem of evil asserts that the allowance of suffering is an unforgivable crime that God commits. But why is it a crime? Is the allowance of suffering bad? Is suffering the worst thing? We can all see how good often comes from suffering. The suffering in itself is unpleasant, and therefore probably “bad,” but if God is ultimately responsible for it, he has at least included in its design the reality that it can produce some sort of greater good, and in Christianity, he has taken responsibility for it by himself becoming a human and undergoing suffering, and using that suffering ultimately as the means of our own salvation.

You ask: Why does it have to be suffering? Why couldn’t he have chosen a less painful way to shape the world and work out his good purpose? Well, to ask these questions is to assert that you have a pretty good idea about the way the universe works–in fact, such a good idea that you can then assert that it would have been better if it had been designed differently from how it was. The proper retort, and the one that comes at the end of the Book of Job, is: are you in the businesses of creating universes? If you are, feel free to go ahead and create a better one than this. If not, then you are not in a position to judge the creator of the universe in his business of creating it. By many accounts, the assumptions behind the problem-of-evil argument are ones of unsupportable arrogance, grossly overestimating mankind’s understanding of and position in the universe.

This is a frustrating answer, because it doesn’t offer a counterclaim; it doesn’t give a reason why God allows suffering. But it rebuts to the problem of evil in two ways that seem sufficient to me: it says that no one has any business raising the objection in the first place, and additionally observes that even if we don’t know the reasons for God’s allowance of suffering, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any.

Although this type of discussion tends to exclude those who are not of the Christian faith, some found it helpful to be reminded that the religious system they object to as an atheist or agnostic is not a holistic system with all points of doctrine agreed upon by all adherents. There are many internal issues in all of these systems–Christianity, atheism, etc.–some of which are of crucial importance not only for those who subscribe to them but also to those who reject them.


Four of us total today. This week we took a more informal approach to conversation, first beginning by sharing stories about arguments that had gone sour on Facebook–often ending with one of the parties admitting that he or she had not read the article or viewed the video in the original post. We lamented, as e have done before, that people tend to take honest argument as aggressive or condescending (or both). Granted, sometimes in the presentation of an argument, an arguer is aggressive or condescending (or both), but still sometimes honest argument is wanted, but not received in its intended spirit. These arguments can ruin friendships, or sour family relationships.

It is difficult to remain open to arguments when we hold strong opinions and when whoever is presenting a counterargument lacks authority. Sometimes, even if we lose an argument, we are tempted to hold our ground even so. There is much more at work in argument than argument.

I’m not sure how we transitioned to the next subject, but we began talking about drugs, and how prevalent they are among teenagers, and how easy it would be to do them. We have all had experiences or seen movies or been raised to avoid drugs (usually a combination of these). One’s ability to resist drugs might come down to society and expectations. If we are around someone whom we respect, in a broad sense, who is doing drugs and offers them to us, we might be more tempted than we would if our friends and family were drug-free and the person offering it to us were a stranger. I mentioned Requiem For a Dream and Trainspotting–two films about the ill effects of drug use and addiction, presenting as good arguments as anything else against the use of drugs.

Someone brought up a particular method for understanding political preferences by way of critique–a spectrum from liberalism to conservatism with communism on one end and nazism on the other. The Nazis were National Socialists, so wouldn’t they be closer to the communism/socialism end of the spectrum? We agreed that the X-Y axis method of mapping political preferences was superior to the two-dimensional spectrum.

Similarly to the simplification of politics, history texts and presentations are often watered down. Specifically, we mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr. assemblies, which change the core message (“I have a dream” becomes “follow your dreams,” or “I love myself!”).

Somehow or other, we got to talking about religions, mentioning that there are several that compete for the title of “Christian”–i.e., Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.–but that, arguably, are not properly called Christian. The Mormons, for example, have an entire additional sacred text (the Book of Mormon), the most obvious point of difference, in addition to doctrines about the afterlife (do they really believe that you become a God of your own planet, and create “spirit babies”?).

We touched on many topics today but didn’t really get deep into anything. Potential future topics: the underlying biases in public school education, and comparative religion!

Addicted to Love (and Apologetics Continued)

We picked up essentially where we left off, launching right into the arguments for the existence of God. Steven had done some outside research, looking into Aquinas’ arguments. The one he found most compelling was the first cause argument: that everything has a cause, but there must have been something at first without a cause. This led into a discussion of Aristotle’s four causes, since many of these arguments rest on Aristotelian metaphysics. Aristotle’s efficient cause is what we normally think of to be “cause” in our contemporary understanding, but there were three others that are also used to frame arguments for God. Our understanding of these arguments is necessarily impoverished because we don’t subscribe to these metaphysics. I will post some resources on these later, since our discussion mostly consisted of me trying (badly) to remember them, and not really understanding them sufficiently.

We then discussed the problem of evil: if God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there suffering and evil? This is a common objection to the existence of God (at least a good God), but my assertion was that this actually doesn’t function as an argument against the existence of God, since it necessarily assumes that God already exists in order to be meaningful. It is essentially an “interior” issue within the belief system, not an objection from outside of it. In any case, it is a problem, and there are a couple of responses. A common response is the free-will argument: God is not ultimately responsible for evil–human beings are. It was good for God to give humans free will, but humans misuse that free will, and therefore evil exists. There are a couple of problems with this argument. First, it fails to explain natural evil and suffering–natural disasters, disease, etc. Second, a potential loophole is the question, well wasn’t it up to God to give people free will? And in doing so, didn’t he know that people would commit evil, and therefore isn’t he ultimately still responsible for evil? There are some responses to this. Greg Boyd argues a position called “open theism” in which case God is said, in a way, not to know. This view is obviously problematic with a lot of what we see in scripture and with much theology about God’s omniscience and foreknowledge, but it is one potential response. A second response to the problem of evil is to identify a couple other problems with the argument itself, and those are that it assumes: 1) the allowance for suffering is not good, and 2) we as humans have a viewpoint comprehensive and objective enough to know that the universe would have been better had it been created without the inclusion of or potentiality for evil. Both of these assumptions are contestable. If there is a God, we are not that God, therefore we have no grounds on which to judge the act of creation, nor do we therefore have grounds on which to say that the inclusion of suffering in its design is ultimately an evil thing. The Bible itself (see the Book of Job) seems to say as much. This response is disconcerting–it does not easily satisfy the cognitive and emotional dissonance we feel over this issue. But I find it compelling, and see that it is sufficient as a rebuttal to the argument.

We left off here, and revisited the topic of artificial intelligence. The question this time was whether or not artificial intelligence could be said to be conscious, and whether or not it could be said to act deliberately. Aristotle separates human beings from the animals using this as one of his criteria: that human beings are deliberate agents. As such, it seemed to us that artificial intelligence does not meet this criteria. Whatever “deliberation” occurs is predetermined by its programming, and so artificial intelligence is simply following its programming to a predetermined end. The goal of artificial intelligence is ultimately the execution of its code. Human beings have a different sort of end or goal (telos in Aristotelian language), and seem to have a different level of awareness of the sensory data taken in and analyzed. Artificial intelligence only responds to stimulus; human beings deliberate.

The final topic of interest was that of romantic love, and whether an addiction to romantic love might qualify as a type of disorder, such as might be categorized in the DSM. First we had to delineate what constitutes romantic love versus other types of love (such as long-term relational love, the love of beauty, or a love of ice cream, for example), and we seemed to settle on “romantic love” as defined by the chemical responses in the brain that create the emotional “high” that someone gets at the onset of a new romantic relationship, for example. Then we determined that such a chemical response is not properly called an addiction yet–the chemicals in themselves don’t necessitate addiction. Addiction is a response to the chemicals, not the chemicals themselves. We all seemed to agree that this is at least a possibility, though not a reality for some, if not most people who experience romantic love.

Then, we raised the larger question: what merits inclusion in the DSM? We wondered if the inclusion of something in the DSM, as a “disorder,” isn’t arbitrary. What is the gold standard, the “average” person against which all of these disorders are weighed? We pointed to the fact that many disorders have the potential to be constructive (such as ADD properly managed), and that some have been removed (homosexuality used to be classified in the DSM). How is it that we know a certain facet of human behavior is a dis-order? We also pointed to the problematic nature of diagnosis itself. Someone might exhibit the symptoms of a disorder, but yet not have that disorder. It seems that in some cases, it’s the assumption that the person has the disorder that leads to the later diagnosis–confirmation bias. Sara told the story of a man in prison exhibiting the signs of a psychopath who could not escape diagnosis.

This was a particularly rich discussion, and I’m missing some of the details. We left off with some suggestions of potential topics for next time: substance dualism, and the everlasting problem of morality and ethics, which is almost as big a problem as that there were still no snacks.

Flash Apologetics in Mary’s Room

People trickled in slowly today. As such, conversation began with fluidity and not much intentionality. We briefly touched upon the ills of modern technology, the legalization of all drugs, the influence of Puritanism on American society and government, and the contradictions of organized anarchy. All these are fruitful topics, and perhaps they may resurface later.

The real discussion began with Steven introducing the Mary’s Room thought experiment: Mary is a girl who has studied the subject of color, and knows all there is to know about color. However, she has lived her whole life in a black and white room, can’t see herself, reads black and white books, and has a black and white computer screen, and therefore has never personally witnessed any color. Suddenly, one day, her computer screen malfunctions and displays a red apple. The question is: has she learned anything new?

The question seems to turn on epistemology. Is the experience of something different from the thing in itself, and is it distinct from other forms of knowledge, and does it count as “knowledge” to begin with?

Some of us said yes, and some of us said no. It seemed to me that to have something described to you, and then to actually experience that thing, are different. It also seems to me that experience could be classified as a form of knowledge, however subjective it may be. Mary now knows what it is like (for her) to see red.

This led back into our discussion about the forms. The form “red” exists separate from the objects that display it, but it is via those objects that we come to know the form through our senses. As in, when we look at a chair, we understand more about the chair than merely what we see–we have a sense of its structure, etc., we understand parts of the chair, we fill in the blanks of what we cannot see, which is ultimately the totality of our perception of it. Our perception is not limited only to the sensory data that we receive. The same is true of the forms. We cannot witness the forms in and of themselves, but we can come to know them through our perception of them as they are expressed by material objects.

As mentioned before, this flies in the face of the post-Hume empiricism which we’ve all more or less been indoctrinated with culturally. To my knowledge, Hume didn’t have solid “reasons” as such for why he denied transcendence (such as the forms, mind-body dualism), cause and effect, etc.– he just didn’t accept them.

In the midst of this discussion, I “came out” as a Christian, and Aramis pressed me on what the Christian perspective on the death penalty might be. I argued that an “eye for an eye” killing of a killer might be null under the covenant of grace. Additionally, ending a person’s life cuts short the potential, however slight, that they might repent and be redeemed.

This led naturally, if uncomfortably, into a discussion of the truth of Christianity in general, focusing mostly on the existence of God. This makes sense because, of course, if God can be disproved, Christianity crumbles. But the problem is, determining what constitutes “proof” or “evidence” for God is already to begin making statements about who or what God is in the first place. (At this point, I went about explaining what I understand to be the “presuppositional” apologetic. As before, I’m going to try to distill the argument, rather than trace its many twists and turns as they occurred in conversation.)

We all believe many sorts of different things, many of which are justified without the use of what we commonly refer to as “proof” or “evidence.” (And here I borrowed a little bit from Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.) A scientific belief, such as that a certain substance changes from liquid to gas at a certain temperature at a certain air pressure, is one based on evidence. This belief depends on its repeatability, the soundness of the principle of induction, and rests on the assumptions of constancy in the universe and the existence of material causes. Another sort of belief, such as what you had for breakfast this morning, is based not on evidence, but on memory and perception. You don’t open your stomach and examine its contents or return home and examine the remnants on your unwashed plate–you just know, and what’s more, the knowledge is valid. It is a “properly basic” belief. Another sort of belief, for instance, is that the ad hominem fallacy is an invalid form of argument. How might that be proved true? Well, that’s difficult to do, because the classification of the ad hominem as a fallacy is part of the system that we use to determine truth in the first place!

So, there are some types of beliefs that could be said not to require “proof” or “evidence” in the conventional sense, but that are still nonetheless justified. So, saying that the belief in God requires a certain proof is to classify the belief in God into a certain category of beliefs–more along the lines of scientific knowledge. But is this categorization justified? Well, the only way to say so is to say something about God–if belief requires such-and-such, it can only do so on account of something about the nature of God himself. Therefore, since this belief determines what constitutes evidence and how you interpret that evidence, to say that you can’t believe in God because there is no evidence is really to say that you’ve already chosen not to believe in God at the outset.

If the beliefs in God and Christianity are more along the lines of those “properly basic” (as Plantinga argues at great length), not only would it be difficult to frame any sort of argument for them, but such an argument might not be justified. It would not be the case that belief in God could be validated by logical or scientific means, but rather that belief in logic and science are validated by the existence of God.

(As an aside: there are, of course, arguments for Christianity, most famously Aquinas’ proofs. But even those arguments turn on an Aristotelian understanding of metaphysics, something that is mostly in concord with the teachings of Christianity. Since Descartes, I think, Western philosophy no longer subscribes to that sort of metaphysic, which might be why many people find Aquinas’ proofs insufficient.)

There were also some other objections worth noting, including: why would God create some people only to send them to hell, why does he make people sick/sinful, why would he make creation with a plan for salvation that included the killing of his own son, etc. But I would consider these to be “internal” issues–they have to assume the existence of God at the outset in order to be meaningful. Furthermore, if you can’t think of a good reason for God’s doing something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t one. Another question was, if humans are broken and sinful, doesn’t that mean they are worthless? The answer according to Christianity is no–the price paid by Jesus indicates the worth God finds in humanity. If something is broken, but can be restored, it doesn’t lose its worth. If I have a precious, rare vase that I break into a million pieces, it would be said to have lost its worth, but that’s because it can’t ever be restored to its original state. Christianity says that we can, through Jesus, be restored. The original worth can be recovered (and for the Christian, is in the process of being recovered by the sovereignty of God through sanctification).

The next question was, then, if belief is a choice, why should I choose to believe? My response here was sloppy. I tried to say something along these lines: Christianity would argue that its worldview encompasses and explains more than any other worldview. For example, a naturalistic worldview explains physical phenomenon very well, but it is at a loss to explain our sense of morality and justice. A humanistic worldview explains why morality is important, but it fails to provide an adequate response when humanity fails, or when suffering happens.

I used the example of Chesterton’s madman (from Orthodoxy). If Steven is a madman, and he believes that everyone is in a conspiracy against him, and I say to him, “We are not in a conspiracy against you,” Steven will interpret this as confirmation of his theory. “Of course you would deny it,” he will say. “You would never admit that you are in a conspiracy against me! That proves that you are, in fact, in a conspiracy against me!” But if Steven believed that everyone was not, in fact, in a conspiracy against him, this theory would explain the data as well: I am telling the truth. But unfortunately, there is no way to argue him out of it, and there is no way for him to reason himself out of the belief, since his reasoning is determined by the belief, and not the other way around.

All worldviews explain the world in closed, self-justifying systems, and therefore can’t be argued against per se, but some might be said to explain the world more completely than others. Why believe in Christianity? Well, why should the madman choose to stop believing that everyone is in a conspiracy against him?

There is, of course, more to say about why one might choose Christianity, but that was all we covered. The discussion ended there abruptly because we were over time. However, we pledged to continue it at the next meeting (as uncomfortable as I am playing amateur apologist). Perhaps we will look at some of the classical proofs for Christianity (i.e. Aquinas), or maybe we will pursue this presuppositional argument further and discuss the supposed benefits of Christianity as a worldview.