Free Will, God and Suffering
Introduction and Definitions
Free will is a subject that often comes up in discussions with believers and usually it takes two forms. The first form is defending God in allowing suffering and creating a world in which sin and evil exist. The other form is a general defense of the idea of Free Will against Determinism.
While these two are very different usages of Free Will I am going to discuss both of them in thus hub and express some of my own thoughts on Free Will.
Free Will is one of those concepts that is hard to pin down. In some instances in discussions with theists they seem to be arguing that free will is merely the ability to do something that is contrary to God's Will. This is particularly true when they argue that God did not want “robots” but rather wanted to create a creature with the capacity to disobey him. Thus in this case Free Will might also be defined as “the capacity to choose to do evil” as Free Will would almost inevitably lead to disobedience (evil) and sin.
The other and more typical definition of Free Will is that human beings have conscious control over our choices. In other words Free Will is the ability of an intelligent agent to freely make choices, typically with the added stipulation or assumption that those choices are made consciously.
Free Will and Suffering
There are few arguments against the existence of God as strong as the Problem of Suffering. The argument is essentially airtight against any benevolent God that mankind has ever dreamed of, though it does leave open the existence of beings with lesser power and more questionable morals. Simply stated the problem of evil is as follows:
The argument typically leveled against the Problem of Evil is that God gave human beings Free Will to make our own choices and that this Free Will is what first allowed evil and suffering into the world. The idea is that our choices, our decisions, our Fall in Eden, is the spark that lit the fire of all the suffering experienced in the world today. But without this precious Free Will we would not be able to worship God freely, we would be compelled to do so beyond our control and we would never make mistakes or grow as people. So according to this view suffering, even suffering that seems excessive and unnecessary, must exist if God wants to give us sufficient freedom to choose a relationship with him.
This view implies that things like childhood cancer began as part of God's love. As in God loved us so much he gave us free will, which let us sin in Eden, which is what created a fallen world filled with childhood cancer. Not only is the Free Will defense used here devoid of Biblical backing, despite its appeal to the Fall of Man, but it makes God out to be a monster. After all it was God's choice to create human beings with the imperfection of Free Will, whatever his motivation God's foresight would have no doubt warned him of the horrors to come, of Holocausts and hurricanes. Rather than do anything to prevent the horrors of the future God actually makes things worse by cursing his creation in Genesis.
The Free Will defense is even more absurd when we consider the fact that angels have Free Will and yet their world seems devoid of suffering and more or less devoid of death. Angels, like human beings, worship God by choice and according to the Bible angels also dwell in Heaven with God. Heaven is a place in which the angels, and the faithful who make it there, would have free will, and yet Heaven is a place without sin... except for when the angels rebel.
Yes according to Christian doctrine Lucifer led a third of the angels astray and sought to supplant God as ruler of Heaven. This means that the angels had free will in the sense that most Christians mean, Lucifer, despite being second in command only to God himself, had the free will to disobey. While non-canonical the book of Enoch is mentioned in Genesis and speaks of another time angels rebelled, coming down to Earth and taking human wives, their children becoming the fabled Nephilim. Yet the angel's were never all punished for the sins of other angels, sin never became a plague for the angels the way it did for man because God never cursed the angels. Angels do not have cancer, they do not grow old, they do not starve to death. Yet angels have free will.
Bart Ehrman destroys the Free Will Defense
So God can create a race of thinking feeling beings that have wills independent of his and are capable of sin but that exist in his presence and do not suffer unnecessarily. Of course God can do that, he's God, he's all powerful, if he cannot create such a world than he is a failure and thus not omnipotent.
Therefore God, if he is all powerful, has the ability to make such a world for us despite Original Sin. The Free Will defense is an absolute mess that simply cannot be defended with any degree of intellectual honesty. There simply is no reason for an all powerful all loving God to allow unnecessary suffering.
Does Free Will Exist?
We're moving on now to the second and much more common definition of Free Will, the idea that humans make choices freely rather than their choices being determined by previous causes. Because of what we understand about physics the only logical choice remaining to proponents of Free Will is a form of Compatibilism, either in the idea that our choices are somehow immune to the physical laws of nature or that there is no conflict between a choice being the product of previous causes as long as our conscious thought processes are the causes we refer to.
The problem is that scientific studies suggest that our decision making is not made solely on the conscious level and that, in fact, many of our decisions are made subconsciously and only then do our brains become consciously aware. This has led to the view that Free Will is an illusion, that we believe we are making our choices consciously but are, in actuality, making them subconsciously only to be made aware of them consciously a few seconds later. Still others suggest a weak form of Compatibilism that involves it being a two way street where the conscious mind can influence the subconscious despite the fact that the subconscious gets to make the first move.
While I am not a neuro-scientist and thus do not know what our final definitive answer should be I do think that Free Will as a concept breaks down when we begin to think about and discuss the ways in which our thoughts actually function. So to do the barriers between subconscious and conscious. In my opinion the two are inexorably linked and impossible to pull apart and I will illustrate this with an example.
In the Disney movie Peter Man it is revealed that in order to fly all human beings need is a sprinkling of Pixie Dust and a happy thought. Thinking happy thoughts is what allows the Pixie Dust to take action and children to take flight off to Never Land. Think of a happy thought. Any happy little thought. Seriously do it. Think about what makes you happy. Chances are the first few answers pop right in there don't they? Maybe they have some memory attached to them, an image, or even begin forming into a chain of conscious thoughts. Did you CONSCIOUSLY think of your happy thought, did you carefully choose it from a list, or did it pop right in there?
While trying to think of what examples to give in this hub the idea of Peter Pan and the happy thoughts popped into my brain. I became consciously aware of it and a moment later became aware of the fact that it would make a great illustration of my point about how the subconscious and conscious actually relate to each other.
One analogy I also thought of was that of a computer. A computer performs a ton of functions even when nothing but a background and a few icons are currently visible on the monitor. Similarly the subconscious is always thinking but these thoughts seem only to emerge when they are important or when they are summoned. But if we are not consciously summoning these thoughts than who is summoning them? The simple answer is, we are. Our brain is not two completely distinct things, a subconscious and conscious, it is one brain, one mind working in unison, like the computer.
In my opinion the consciousness works as a display arising us of a situation and giving us a level of awareness other animal species lack. This display might take the form of reasoning for a given decision or just an awareness of our own desire to make a decision that we actually haven't made yet. Whether or not this display (conscious thought) has any control of the subconscious, if it is indeed a two-way street, is a question that must be answered by science but whether or not it does doesn't change the fact that your brain is indivisibly linked.
People generally seem adverse to the idea that Free Will is an illusion or a defunct concept. They want to cling to the idea that there is something spooky or supernatural about the brain and regard the idea that we might subconsciously make decisions as frightening. In the next section I hope to show that the main fears people have about discarding Free Will are baseless.
A Great Talk on the subject of Free Will
Discarding Free Will
What is at stake when we talk about discarding the idea of Free Will? Well the consequence that most people fear is that we will no longer be able to hold people accountable for their choices, because those choices will no longer be seen as consciously made. If a murderer's decision to commit a murder was outside of his conscious control can we really hold him accountable for what he did? After all weren't his actions determined by subconscious thoughts outside of his conscious control?
As I attempted to explain above this fear stems primarily from the idea that the subconscious mind and conscious mind are somehow two completely different entities as if our subconscious mind could make a decision that our conscious mind would veto. This idea strikes me as unfounded and absurd. If consciousness is as I described, a read out of our thought processes apprising us of what's going on it would be useless if our subconscious minds were writing checks our conscious minds disagreed with. It simply wouldn't make sense.
In short our decisions MUST BE our own for they simply cannot be anyone else's. If a criminal commits a crime he cannot sit in court and tell everyone that his brain made him do it. You are your brain and whether you are consciously responsible for your actions or not there is no doubt that your brain is responsible for your actions - and thus so are you.
One question we can ask, and already are asking, that affects the ways in which we hold people accountable is about how your brain is functioning. If someone is mentally challenged or mentally ill in some way we generally hold them accountable for their actions in different ways than we would hold someone accountable who possesses a normally functioning brain. While we still have a long way to go in understanding the psychology and neuroscience related to how we hold people accountable we are getting better at recognizing when people have normal control of their actions and when some impedance of brain function is causing changes in their behavior.
The control we have over our own brains may not be as related to conscious thought as we once believed but that doesn't mean someone else is making our decisions. We are still in control of our own choices whether that control is solely conscious or not. Thus I believe that Free Will as it is generally understood is woefully outdated and unnecessary as a concept and we do not need to talk about our choices in such terms anymore.
Free Will does nothing to help God avoid responsibility for evil. If a police officer comes across a purse snatcher attacking an old woman he does not honor the purse snatcher's free will as more important than that of the woman's well being. A being that did honor the free will of the wicked as more important than the well being of the innocent could not be considered omnibenevolent. In regards to suffering that is not caused by human wrongdoing (natural disasters, etc) a being that failed to create a world in which free will exists without said suffering cannot be considered all powerful.
The issue of Free Will is quite dense and I am aware that I somewhat retread territory covered in at least one previous hub but I feel that the issue is an important one. The Problem of Suffering still stands the test of time despite having been first proposed thousands of years ago and Free Will is the typical excuse given by believers for why God allows the world to be so screwed up.
As we begin to discover more about the brain and the way decision making works I have a feeling we will discard the concept of Free Will as an anachronism of a naïve time in our understanding of ourselves. Thanks for reading!