The Paradox of Human Freedom, the Problem of Evil and Relating to God

So I have abandoned “Love Poetry Fridays” because writing jaded love poetry is hard to do when all is going well in that department… What to write about? Free will! Yes! Here’s what I’ve learned from philosophy class and am applying to my theological life. You can too!

There are two generally accepted views of human freedom that conflict with one another. There is the “liberty of indifference” (LOI) that takes the view that we are not truly free unless we are able to do otherwise. If there is a choice between eating a slice of apple pie and a slice of chocolate cake one is free to choose either, because one can deliberate between the two options and make up one’s mind. The other view is the “liberty of spontaneity” (LOS) which sees human freedom being fully expressed when we are able to carry out what we desire. If we want the chocolate cake most, we are most free when we choose to consume it. When something hinders us from choosing we are not free.

The sticky point between the two is the status of determinism, which simply means that all events occur because of a particular cause. Necessarily, if x then y. The question is, can there be human freedom if determinism is true? LOI would say that human freedom and determinism are incompatible, since one cannot do genuinely otherwise. LOS would say they are compatible, since the determining causal factors could be precisely what we want to do (such as our desires, values, or motives).

In theology we are taught four truths:

1) God exists
2) God is omnipotent
3) God is good
4) Evil exists

David Hume argued that one of these premises has to be false. If God is exists he will want to eradicate all that is evil (remember to distinguish between moral and natural evil) because he is good, and because he is omnipotent he will be able to eradicate it. Nevertheless, evil be. For Hume, the problem is solved in four ways by denying one of the four premises: 1) God does not exist, 2) God is not omnipotent, 3) God is not good, 4) evil does not exist.

Since each denial is fatal to theism as it is traditionally understood, theists have come up with four basic defenses:

1. ) First is the “best of all possible worlds” defense (BPW) which argues that God has created the best of all possible worlds because 1) he is knows which one best (omniscience), 2) is able to bring it into existence (omnipotent), and 3) promises that it will maximize the good (goodness). The existence of evil is logically necessary for bringing about such virtues as courage in the face of danger or ideals such as redemption in the face of defeat.

2) The “free-will defense” (FWD) is the one that appeals to a logical impossibility, something that does not defeat God’s omnipotence in the same way his inability to create a square circle defeats it, in that God created sentient beings with a liberty to bring about their own moral actions. This means that it is impossible for God to give people human freedom and ensure they will always choose the good. This explains why moral evil occurs. God gives this freedom for the greater good (see PBW defense) of having morally responsible and relational beings.

3) The “soul-making” defense (SMD) is the defense that sees suffering and evil as a sufficient for building strength and goodness. Suffering builds character, working out makes you stronger, “taking your medicine” makes you healthier.

4) The “mystery defense” (MD) which is simply an admission of ignorance. Our belief in God may be experiential—we know that he is good and powerful (and that he exists), but we don’t know why he allows bad things to happen. The point of this is to say that there could be more information out there we do not know that would explain the problem at hand.

Now, in the Christian life one often encounters the paradox of human freedom and the problem of evil, in his or her relationship to God. Christian theology teaches that we are bound to a sinful nature and that we cannot even so much as choose God without his grace. We always choose our highest values and God ranks rather low on that list. This seems to comport with the LOS—we are determined by our nature which always chooses against God and always in line with our desires and motives, our character, in other words.

How do we change our character? We need external help to “regenerate” our natures to change our desires and motives so we can choose for God. God’s grace is the only thing sufficient to do this. But if this is so, why does he seem to withold it? If he is omnipotent and good why is he not willing and able to change me? This is an important question. Perhaps he isn’t good and he wants me to be against him. Maybe he isn’t powerful enough to change me. Or could it be that I am not really against him? Or maybe he doesn’t even exist. None of these possibilities are satisfactory.

Reasoning with our defenses helps somewhat, but adds to confusion. The BPW and SMD seem to help in saying that my struggles will make me stronger and develop virtues in me that will make me a better person if I were to have no struggles at all. Still, that does change the fact that I am subject to my vices and have no hope of ever changing. The MD isn’t helpful against this in explaining why God wants me to experience hopelessness. The FWD presupposes that I have the LOI that says I am responsible for choosing for or against God, but my experience does not reflect that state of affairs. Or does it?

Faced with the problem of a defective character that values the bad and determines my bad behavior I cry out for mercy. I pray to God asking him to change me, to give me virtue, to give courage, to give me hope, and moral wisdom. I ask him to change me. This poses a paradox since it seems I have the choice to either ask or not ask (LOI) for the change of what determines my behavior (LOS). Though I have desires and and motives that bend towards the bad I yet pray. In LOS I would have to have good desires and motives to pray, but I had those why would I be choosing against God in the first place? Does that not imply some sort of LOI?

It would seem that the kind of relationship God wants is one where people call on him for help, but that we can resist doing so. It does not seem that either LOS or LOI (at least as they are defined here) do a very good job in explaining the divine human relationship in prayer, but they certainly show us our need for it. Therein lies the mystery (MD).

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6 thoughts on “The Paradox of Human Freedom, the Problem of Evil and Relating to God

  1. liquid says:

    Great post – I will be sharing it with my 16yo daughter. She is doing a home-designed philosophy course this year (we homeschool) and I think that this will lead to a great discussion!

  2. littleguyben says:

    “Christian theology teaches that we are bound to a sinful nature and that we cannot even so much as choose God without his grace.”

    Isn’t that a premis that has a bias slanted against free will to begin with???

    I agree that neither LOI or LOS completly give an answer and that there must be some room for MD in all of this

  3. That’s a good question, Ben. I don’t think it does. It just says we are of LOS before we come in contact with grace. Grace could only bring us so far until we are of LOI for whatever reason. It does not necessarily have to reorder our LOS to choose God.

    I am very much in agreement that both notions of liberty, while descriptive of things generally, aren’t very well nuanced in explaining the mystery of our choices.

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