The Logical Problem of Evil, Plantinga’s Free Will Defense, and How It Relates to the Debate on Free Will

My recent posts have spoken a bit on the problem of evil, but I haven’t really fleshed out the logical problem of evil and Plantinga’s response to it because I did not think most readers would want to read that.  However, recently, a discussion with a pastor friend of mine showed me that people can still get very confused on Plantinga’s response: Not only did he mischaracterize the argument’s intent as a “best of all possible worlds” argument, he erroneously believed that Plantinga utilized compatibilistic free will in his argument when virtually no philosopher would say he was doing that, whether they are compatibilists or not (indeed, there is even an objection to his Free Will Defense called “the compatibilist objection…” clearly, compatibilists do not think Plantinga was using their version of free will).  In fairness to my friend, he is busy with doing great things in his ministry and he is not studying in the field of philosophy, but I think it would be good to offer clarification to people who read this.  I think, if I’m going to talk more about the problem of evil (I may not, but if I feel like it 🙂 ), then I should give a rundown on the logical problem of evil, Plantinga’s response to it, and how it might relate to the issue of free will. 

Refuting the Logical Problem of Evil

So what is the logical problem of evil?  As hinted at in previous posts, it is the argument that there is a flat logical contradiction between the Judeo-Christian conception of God and the existence of evil.  These two, by matter of logic, CANNOT exist at the same time, and since evil clearly exists (just watch the news), it follows that God doesn’t.  This has to do with certain assumptions regarding the classical attributes of God and how they should, allegedly, make him respond to evil.  This argument is ages old but was more recently formulated and championed by an atheistic philosopher named J.L. Mackie a few decades back, and I’ll put it into more argument form.  Here are the premises:

1)  God is omnibenevolent (all good).
2)  God is omnipotent (all powerful).
3)  God is omniscient (all knowing/wise).
4)  Evil exists.

From the get-go, we cannot see where there would be a contradiction; certainly the ordinary rules of logic would not currently get us to “evil does not exist” from any of the premises, which is required for a contradiction.  So Mackie came up with some “quasi” logical rules regarding God’s attributes to help him get there.  They are:

5)  If God is omnibenevolent, he wants to remove all evil.
6)  If God is omnipotent, he can do whatever he wants, including remove all evil.
7)  If God is omniscient, he knows how to remove all evil.

Since Christian theism holds that God is all three of these, it follows that there shouldn’t be evil… but alas, there is.  So God does not exist.

Plantinga’s response can be summarized like this:  Although God is omnipotent, that does not mean he can do everything, for virtually all theologians and most philosophers, Christian or not, concede that omnipotence need not mean that God can actualize a logical contradiction; in other words, omnipotence means that God has no non-logical limits to his power.  Plantinga then continues to argue that it is possible that God cannot eliminate an evil without thereby eliminating a greater good or preventing a greater evil, and he gives numerous examples of how this might be so; for example, it might hurt quite a bit and be “evil” to pop someone’s dislocated arm back into place, but it’s better than leaving the arm dislocated.  If so, then God cannot “properly” eliminate such evils (remember, since omnipotence means he cannot actualize a logical contradiction, he can’t have it both ways).  If this is in fact logically possible, and virtually everyone agrees that it is, then the conclusion we get is not that “There is no evil,” but rather this:

8)  There is no evil that God can properly eliminate.

Which is perfectly compatible with the proposition that evil exists alongside of God.

What this successfully refutes is that there is a known logical contradiction between the existence of evil and the existence of God, and everyone remotely familiar with this issue, whether they are a theist or not, will concede Plantinga’s success here.  Basically, it neutralizes the charge of inconsistency, but it does not demonstrate that these two concepts are in fact consistent.  Thus, the second part of Plantinga’s argument is to positively demonstrate this in his Free Will Defense.

The Free Will Defense

While the above refutation only needs to say that it is logically possible that God has a good reason for allowing evil without speculating what that reason may be, Plantinga’s Free Will Defense aims to show that one possible good reason God would have is the preservation of free will.  If it is better to have a world of free creatures rather than a world where there is not, and most people will concede this premise, then it was not feasible for God to create a world full of free creatures yet guarantee that they always did what was right.

To show this, he uses an illustration of a politician getting bribed:  Let’s say a politician got bribed with $20,000, but then the person who offered the bribe wonders whether or not he would have taken just $15,000.  It seems that one of two propositions are true:  He would have taken $15k, or he would not have.  Plantinga argues that this is the case for all other moral decisions, either we choose right or choose wrong (seemingly not very enlightening, but bear with me).  Plantinga argues, however, that in all possible worlds of free creatures, it is possible that there is at least one decision for every free creature where he goes wrong (he calls this “transworld depravity”).  If so, then it is not within God’s power to feasibly create a world where he guarantees that the politician does not take the bribe when he will in fact freely choose to take that bribe.  If God did make it such that the politician did not take the bribe, that politician is no longer free.  Thus, if free will is a great good worth having, God could not create a world of free creatures who would always choose what was right.

There are a few things worth noting here.  One, it is not a “best of all possible” worlds argument, like what Leibniz offered (Plantinga wonders if there even is such a thing).  Two, the kind of free will used here is clearly what is called “libertarian free will.”  Libertarianism denies that free will is compatible with any sort of determinism, while compatibilism holds that they are, well, compatible.  The reason it is clear that Plantinga uses libertarian free will is because he denies that God could causally determine someone’s decision yet still preserve that person’s freedom.  Otherwise, it really makes no sense to argue that God could not properly eliminate someone’s free choice without thereby eliminating evil, or, to put it another way, to argue that it is not feasible for God to determine someone to freely choose other than he would.  If Plantinga utilized compatibilistic free will here, then he could not say such a thing.  This is not a controversial thing to say; compatibilist philosophers know this and have criticized Plantinga on this point, claiming that he is begging the question by assuming the truth of libertarianism.

In any case, while not quite as successful as the first part of his argument, Plantinga’s Free Will Defense has enjoyed enough success that many atheists have abandoned the logical problem of evil and have turned elsewhere to evidential arguments.

Can Compatibilists Use This Argument?

It is important to see that Plantinga’s argument rest on a pretty bare-bones description of Christian belief, a description of God that all Christians from a huge spectrum would accept (Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Calvinists, Arminians, Baptists, Open Theists, so on and so forth).  In that regard, pretty much any Christian can use his refutation of the logical problem of evil along with his Free Will Defense in a broadly logical manner, meaning that even if they don’t believe his Free Will Defense is true, they can offer it as a possible explanation for evil and thereby rid themselves of the logical problem of evil.

However, if certain Christians begin adding beliefs and doctrines that, perhaps, other Christians do not hold, it might change things, such as the addition of theological determinism.  For those Christians who hold to theological determinism, Plantinga’s Free Will Defense begins to lose utility because they do not deny that God can causally determine someone’s free action, rendering notions that God is “allowing” evils that he cannot properly eliminate moot (see my post on the inconsistency of the idea of “allow” with theological determinism).  The Free Will Defense, then, has limited use, if any, for those who hold to theological determinism, especially those who believe that libertarian free will is either unbiblical or logically incoherent.  If that is what they truly believe, Plantinga isn’t helping them much and they need to find their solution elsewhere, something that Calvinist theologian John Feinberg cheerfully admitted.  It is true that compatibilists have offered ways to render the Free Will Defense consistent with compatibilism with some modifications, but it is no secret that Plantinga himself did not do that.  In fact, he explicitly rejects compatibilism in God, Freedom, and Evil in a pretty offhand manner.

I say this not to put Calvinists on blast or to even argue against compatibilism or for libertarianism (those are different arguments for another time) but to clear up certain misconceptions there may be about what Plantinga did.  Can theological determinists use the argument?  Yes and no.  Yes, in a broadly logical way if they actually do believe such free will is logically possible.  No, in the sense that it is not a solution that fits their theology and philosophy, so in debates with other Christians, it is an area they typically struggle far more in.


3 thoughts on “The Logical Problem of Evil, Plantinga’s Free Will Defense, and How It Relates to the Debate on Free Will

  1. Pingback: Book Review of “The Language of Science and Faith:” Scientists Tackle Theology and Philosophy | leesomniac

  2. Pingback: The Superficial Systematic Splendor of Calvinism Leads to Senseless Supremacy | leesomniac

  3. Pingback: Theological Determinism’s Problem with the Problem of Evil: The Inadequacy of Compatibilism | leesomniac

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