The Problem of Fr** W*ll or Verbal Essentialism

At the end of February earlier this year I had the privilege of hearing Peter van Inwagen give the keynote address at the North Carolina Philosophical Society. His paper was entitled “The Problem of Fr** W*ll” which sounds a lot like “The Problem of Free Will”–more on that in a moment. What follows is taken from his handout and it is worth thinking hard about. At issue are three theses:

Thesis One: On at least some occasions when a human agent is trying to decide between two or more incompatible courses of action, that agent is able to perform each of them.

Thesis Two: If the bad consequences of a decision are ever the fault of the person who made the decision, then Thesis One is true.

Determinism: the thesis that the past and the laws of nature determine a unique future. Indeterminism is the thesis that the past and the laws of nature do not determine a unique future.

The problem: There are seemingly unanswerable arguments for the conclusion that Thesis One is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism, and there are seemingly unanswerable arguments for Thesis Two. Since either determinism or indeterminism must be true, the conclusion of these arguments imply that nothing is ever anyone’s fault–and it is evident that it’s simply false that nothing is ever anyone’s fault.

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Two Wills, Yes; A Will to Damn, No: A Response to Piper

I’ve been reading Piper’s Are There Two Wills in God?; here’s a way of thinking about the issues. Consider the following argument:

  1. If the doctrine of Unconditional Election is true, then God prefers that not all be saved.
  2. But the Bible says that God prefers that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4, 2 Pet 3:9, Ezekiel 18:23, 32).
  3. Therefore, the doctrine of Unconditional Election is false.

How might the the defender of Unconditional Election respond? One might deny [2] by some method of interpretation that concludes that the verses in question do not really say God prefers that all be saved. Piper entertains this idea, but rejects it; perhaps he interprets things this way, but his point is that it not necessary to do so. What about [1]? Some deny it by saying things like, “God does not reject anyone; rather he passes over them in sorrow.” But this is a distinction without difference. If a President receives two petitions for pardon and only pardons one rather than both, we would not make sense of the President’s actions by saying that the one unpardoned was not rejected but only “passed over.” So what is the defender of Unconditional Election to do?

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But Is It Valuable? A Response to Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins apologized (sort of) for his tweets concerning his recommendation to abort a fetus with Trisomy 21, or Down Syndrome. In response to someone who would be unsure what to do if she were carrying a fetus with Down Syndrome, Dawkins said, “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” Needless to say a firestorm erupted. Some objected that such an action fundamentally disrespects the humanity of the people with Down Syndrome. Dawkins initially replied with another tweet referencing Jeremy Bentham’s famous contention, “The question is not ‘is it human?’ but ‘can it SUFFER?’” Then others claimed that fetus’ can feel pain (at 20 weeks) to which he replied that if that matters, we should all be vegans. People didn’t understand what he meant, so an apology was written for not expressing himself very clearly.

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A Non-Religious Argument Against the Use of Pornography

A non-religious argument against the use of pornography begins with the observation that it often does not make the user happy. These sorts of users do not believe that they would want to look at it again if they had the time and opportunity. While they may acknowledge that viewing it leads to powerful sensations of physical pleasure (which explains its draw), their experience is that it does not produce a lasting feeling satisfaction or the belief that they are living well. Quite the opposite, actually, it makes them feel sad, lonely, and pathetic. At any rate, that it undermines their happiness renders their act of viewing pornography as one that is not choiceworthy. There is no good reason to do it; it detracts from living a happy life.

By ‘happy life’ or ‘happiness’ in general I mean the ultimate end of human action; like Aristotle, I envisage it as a state of affairs more than a feeling, though it does involve good feelings. I admit, I haven’t give a robust definition of happiness or the constituents of human flourishing, but note that it goes beyond merely experiencing physical pleasure. We might also think that happiness involves virtuous activity and good relationships with others since the act of viewing pornography produces sadness and loneliness. With these preliminary thoughts in mind, the argument against viewing pornography goes like this:

  1. If an action militates against happiness, it is not choiceworthy.
  2. Viewing pornography militates against happiness.
  3. Therefore, viewing pornography is not choiceworthy.
  4. If an action is not choiceworthy, then choosing to perform that action is not wise.
  5. Therefore, viewing pornography is not wise.

As stated, this is not necessarily a moral argument; it can easily be read as merely a prudential argument about what is rational to do. But I think it is a bit more than that, because living wisely is part of living morally and prudentially. In any event, the conclusion that viewing pornography is not choiceworthy is a good enough reason not to do it.  

The obvious objection to this argument is that viewing pornography should not undermine one’s happiness whether ‘happiness’ is construed in terms of one’s subjective feelings or one’s objective states of affairs. I’ll pass over this for now except to say that the burden of proof is on the objector to tell people how they should feel and what a life well-lived truly involves.

Eichmann in Jerusalem

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of EvilEichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Hannah Arendt’s controversial report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann is one that refuses to view the event in black and white terms meaning that Eichmann is to be seen as a diabolical villain and the Israeli court as a righteous executor of justice. Although she judges Eichmann to be evil, it is through a moral vision that only sees shades of gray. It is easy to see why so many were (and still are) upset with her writing. Nonetheless, I found myself resonating with the following quotes:

“Eichmann, asked by the police examiner if the directive to avoid “unnecessary hardships” was not a bit ironic, in view of the fact that the destination of these people was certain death anyhow, did not even understand the question, so firmly was it still anchored in his mind that the unforgivable sin was not to kill people but to cause unnecessary pain.” (p. 109).

“Let us assume for the sake of argument, that it was nothing more than misfortune that made you a willing instrument in the organization of mass murder; there still remains the fact that you have carried out, and therefore actively supported, a policy of mass murder. For politics is not like the nursery; in politic obedience and support are the same. And just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations–as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world–we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.” (p. 279)

“Eichmann was not Iago or Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove the villain.” Except for extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was not criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he has doing. […] It was sheer thoughtlessness–something by no means identical with stupidity–that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling commonplace.” (p, 287, 289)

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Rejoinder to Welty


Greg Welty did me the favor of taking time to respond to my post in which I criticized his objection to Plantinga’s free will defense (FWD). He did a fine job too, and I learned a lot from him (maybe not enough), but some worries remain. First, a summary of his view, and then my response to it.

Assuming that wills go with natures (that is, dyotheletism is true), and that the Son of God took on a human nature in his incarnation, it follows that the human nature Christ took on in the actual world had a created will that was not corrupted by sin. As far creaturely essences go Christ’s nature satisfies Plantinga’s analysis: Jesus’s human essence is identical with the set of properties essential to anyone who takes on that particular created human nature. He writes, “There are world-indexed propositions about the human-willed choices made by any person who has that created human nature, and the set of these just is the essence.” Thus, it follows that there is a creaturely essence that is instantiated by the uncreated person of Christ that is not subject to transworld depravity; therefore, Plantinga’s FWD fails. The defense given by Omelianchuk [sans the c – yes my name is crazy, and yes I hate referring to myself in third person] works only if wills go with persons, which would be to affirm monotheletism. The upshot is that I, along with Plantinga, face a dilemma: either give up the FWD or conflict with orthodoxy.

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On Welty’s Objection to the Free Will Defense

With respect to the logical problem of evil, Greg Welty argues that Alvin Plantinga’s ‘Free Will defense’ fails. This is because, according to Welty, Plantinga fails to take into account a distinctly Christian belief: Jesus had free will and did not suffer from transworld depravity: it was not possible for Jesus to go wrong with respect to some morally significant action at some time. Since Plantinga’s defense depends on the truth of transworld depravity, and Jesus is a counterexample to it, Plantinga’s defense fails.

Is there a way out for Plantinga? I think there is if it is wrong to assume that Jesus is a member of the set of people that exemplify the property “being created by God.” My thesis is that Jesus does not have a creaturely essence, because if he did, he would not be identical with the Son of God. Surprisingly, then, this core Christian belief exonerates Plantinga from Welty’s charge. To see why, I shall begin by outlining the broad contours of Plantinga’s free will defense; then I shall rehearse Welty’s argument against it; finally, I shall give my rebuttal to Welty’s argument.

Plantinga’s thesis is that the deductive argument for evil fails. The goal of the free will defense (FWD) is to give an account of how the following conjunction (G&E) can be consistent: God is both omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good, and yet evil exists. Wouldn’t a good agent eliminate evil as far as it can? And wouldn’t an omnipotent agent be able to do so, completely? If the answer is ‘yes’ to both of these questions, then the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of God. But according to Plantinga, there is nothing explicitly or formally contradictory stated in G&E; what is needed is a premise that shows that G&E is implicitly contradictory. One that might do the trick is that God could have made us to act freely and always go right with respect to some morally significant action. Plantinga demurs. God can create free creatures only if God cannot causally determine what they do; and if God cannot causally determine what they do, then he cannot guarantee they will always go right. If he cannot guarantee they will always go right, it is possible that for every morally free person P God could create, if P were created, then P would go wrong with respect to some morally significant action at some time (that is, transworld depravity is possible). The upshot is that it is not within God’s power to create any world that is, in principle, logically possible–only those worlds that are feasible.

Welty directs his attack upon the possibility of transworld depravity. To be sure, he thinks Plantinga’s argument goes through if both [1] and [2] are true.

[1] God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good.

[2] Every creaturely essence suffers from transworld depravity

But, he says, there is nothing to keep one from revising [1] to say:

[1*] God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good, and Jesus was a sinless human being.

Since no Christian would want to disagree with [1*], Plantinga’s free will defense is not viable for Christians, because as Welty claims, [1*] is incompatible with [2]. Presumably, Jesus is a member of the class of creaturely essences, and is such that he does not suffer from transworld depravity.

But is he? Is the essence of Jesus a creaturely essence?  By “creaturely essence” Plantinga refers to essences that include the property of being created by God (God, Freedom, and Evil, p. 53). The Christian has a good reason for questioning this assumption, because according to Christian belief Jesus is identical with the Son of God, and he is identical with the Son only if every property the Son has is one that Jesus has, and vice versa. One of the properties the Son essentially has is being uncreated. Therefore, Jesus is uncreated, and if he is uncreated, he is not a creaturely essence.

No doubt this is a surprising conclusion, and one we might be skeptical of, but following the work of Tom Morris, it is defensible. In his work The Logic of God Incarnate, Morris distinguishes between the properties that are essential and accidental to human nature, the former being such that a human must have them in order to be human, and the latter are such that they are not essential. Likewise, he distinguishes between properties that are essential and common to human beings. Morris argues that properties like “being created” are common, but not essential to human beings; therefore, human beings need not be created in order to be human. If that were not the case, then Jesus could not be the Son of God. And since it is a core Christian doctrine that Jesus is the Son of God, which is taken to be true by both Welty and Plantinga, it follows that the property of being created by God is not essential to being human. If that is right, then Plantinga’s solution to the logical problem of evil survives survives Welty’s objection.

Update: Greg Welty responds. It’s good too.