The Freewill Defence

The importance of what has come to be known as the 'free-will' defence should not be underestimated. In the first instance, it correlates closely with our experience and moral intuitions. It is undoubtedly true that we bring much of the suffering of sickness and disease upon ourselves. At a fairly trivial level, the pain, gloom and hangover of what has been known in Scotland as a 'Calvinistic Sunday morning' could well be predicted as the inexorable consequence of a 'Rabelaisian Saturday night'. More significantly, as medical science daily demonstrates, much of the suffering of illness is a consequence of life-styles which contribute in the long run to the malfunctioning of heart, liver and lungs. Equally, the hellish creations of Auschwitz and the Gulag were human in origin.

The theological accompaniment to that perception is to stress that God gave to human beings freedom to act according to their own judgements and priorities. In more fashionable idiom, God empowered human beings to be agents, to bring things to pass. In that case we must accept the good with the bad. Human beings reach great heights in the creation of music, art and literature, in penetrating the secrets of the universe, in devising ways to minimize the pain and suffering of others, and in expressing much more directly and personally love and care. The bad news is that human beings can also deploy the same cleverness and ingenuity in pursuit of rather darker ends. Then again, if we add the unintended consequences of human fallibility, inefficiency and misjudgement, undoubtedly we can attribute to sources other than divine action or intention much of the evil and suffering which are part of the daily human lot.

The theological force of this particular theodicy allows special weight and content to be given to the relationship between creator and creature. In principle, creatures have the freedom to respond or not to respond to the love of God. As the character of love between children and parents changes as children achieve the freedoms and maturity of adulthood, so by analogy, it is suggested, can the love of creatures for creator grow beyond the response of total dependency. Such freedom given by God to human beings creates the possibility but not the inevitability of such a relationship of love between creatures and creator. It also defines human beings as moral agents who have given to them the greatest responsibility of all—the responsibility for what they will become. Such is, according to the related theology, the deliberate choice of a creator God who circumscribes the power of the creator to expand and enhance the possibilities open to the creature. It is interesting to note how far this has moved the framework within which theological reflection takes place from the abstract mysteries of neo-Platonism to the picture of a personal, and one is tempted at times to add 'parochial', God with whom relationships appropriate to such a being are at the centre of the theological web.

In fact, this promise of a quasi-personal relationship with God brought its own difficulty, for, of course, if one presses the analogy between human parents and children too closely, then an urgent question arises. Any loving parent would take steps to prevent a young child being exposed, for example, to the risks of the availability of crack or cocaine. Should not a personal loving God show comparable 'parental' responsibility in comparable situations? Should not God, in giving human beings such freedom, have built in limits to the excesses which that permitted?

One particularly closely examined possibility here centred on the discussion of whether or not creator and creatures could not have had the best of all possible options. Could not an omnipotent and loving God, who wished to express love for creatures through the gift of freedom, have so ordered things that as a matter of fact human beings always choose what is right and good and never what is evil and wrong? In advancing this position, it is pointed out that an omnipotent God can surely create any possible state of affairs. That human beings do always as a matter of fact freely choose the good is a possible state of affairs, therefore a God who is omnipotent could surely have chosen to create that state of affairs rather than the one which is actually the case, viz. that human beings do not always choose the good. John Mackie, the author of this objection, puts the matter thus. If it is logically possible that a human being freely choose the good on some occasions, then it is possible that he or she choose the good on all occasions.

God was not, then, faced with a choice between making innocent automata and making beings who, in acting freely, would sometimes go wrong: there was open to him the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being omnipotent and wholly good.

(Mackie 1990:33)

This enticing counter-theodicy has bewitched a number of philosophers in the second half of this century, but cannot be allowed to have the final word. There is a very important distinction to be drawn between the following two propositions:

1 God so creates human beings (and guarantees) that they always choose the good.

2 God so creates human beings (and guarantees) that they always freely choose the good.

The former is a possible state of affairs, but one in which freedom is left out of the picture. Thus it does not achieve the aim of this particular countertheodicy. For that, we need the latter. This second proposition, however, contains a contradiction, for it implies that human beings might be both free and yet constrained in their choices, by, so to speak, design. Clearly they cannot be both in the sense required, and what is being required of God is self-contradictory and as such not a legitimate expectation even in the case of a being who is omnipotent.

The reply offered to Mackie clearly shows the theodicist committed to a certain conception of free will, one which sees it as incompatible with causal determination. Mackie is operating with a compatibilist view of free will. The important theological question which this distinction raises is 'how far can a strong doctrine of God as first cause and creator allow for indeterminist freedom?' Theologians who favour a strong doctrine of divine creation and sovereignty will thus find themselves unhappy with the libertarianism at the heart of speculative theodicy and will seek alternative strategies for coping with evil as a result (see Davies 1993:42-3). Here the argument is, for the moment, stalled.

There are, however, other counter-arguments which have more force. One which cannot easily be set aside is the realization that although human beings can be held responsible for much of the pain and suffering in the world, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, for example, is clearly, if anything, an act of God rather than man. The effect of the Lisbon earthquake on the sensibilities of eighteenth-century Europe was massive. The self-confidence of an intellectual climate immersed in the universal order of a Newtonian-style nature, and in a belief in progress that was grounded in the application to architecture, society, the mind and the emotions, of a paradigm of order derived from a partly mythical classical world, was almost shattered. Voltaire's Candide gave pointed expression to the implausibility of the claim that this is the best of all possible worlds.

However, what this establishes is not the irrelevance of the free-will defence, but its limits. That form of theodicy does explain some of the ills which we encounter in the world, but clearly not all of them. There is, as I suggested earlier, a second related point in the armoury of theodicy which must be brought into play. There are those who would probe further the analogy between God and a human parent, by pointing out that human parents usually attempt to set limits to the impact of the environment upon their children. Thus children may be allowed to swim in shallow quiet waters but not where treacherous currents run. Could not God in some analogous way protect us against the worst excesses of nature?

Those who ask for this must accept that they are asking either for the curtailment of our freedom, or for divine intervention to prevent nature from taking its course. Certainly, it might be argued, an omnipotent loving God could intervene to pluck the drowning fisherman from the raging sea, or to shield the lost child from the tree uprooted by the gale. Surely any human parent given the choice would do so; why not an all-loving omnipotent God? Nonetheless the theologian would be on even more treacherous ground here if his theology allowed the possibility of miracles understood as divine intervention. For if God can and does intervene to cure this illness or to prevent that premature death, why would he not do so in the myriad of other comparable or even more morally pressing cases?

The solution to the problem of non-intervention has therefore two elements. The first is to stress the critical importance of the consistency of the operation of the natural order. The laws we perceive to operate in nature may be very complex, but our belief in their consistency is not negotiable. Our practice as human beings is very clear here. If we come across an anomaly or an exception to an accepted rule of nature, we check our perceptions, or our instruments, we reformulate the law so that what appeared to be an exception now falls within a slightly more complex law. In short, we do everything we can to avoid accepting that there are random events which do not fall under the known laws of nature. Now there are very good reasons for doing this which are too complex to pursue further here, but they have to do with the elusive fact that order in thought and order in nature are not optional extras, which we can take or leave. Order in thought and order in nature are conditions of all that we understand by human life. We cannot conceive of an alternative to this, because the very act of conceiving is an act within established order, not one which is independent of or prior to order.

There is a strong theological corollary to this which has been well appreciated by some theodicists. For them, God is seen not only as the creator of the natural order, but as its guarantor. Thus the constitutive role of order in the natural world and in our perception of it is presented as one of the most unvarying, and for that reason greatest, gifts of God. A God who loves may well at one level share our perception of the suffering caused by the apparently 'blind' operation of the natural order, but may be even more impressed by the even greater calamity of the absence of such order. This has considerable force as an argument, but consistency demands that that force is also sufficient to eliminate miraculous divine interventions from a theology which employs the importance of the inviolability of the laws of nature as part of its theodicy.

With the world thus given some measure of independence from the will of God, the way is open for theodicies like Hick's to go on to build on the freewill defence. He and others do so by in effect arguing that a world with natural evils, evils flowing from the structure of the physical cosmos, is an unavoidable precondition for the possibility of significant free choice. That is to say, a world without natural evil would be one where choices of a morally and spiritually important kind could not be made. Only because human beings are faced with dangers, trials, suffering, want and the like can they use freedom to acquire and exercise moral and spiritual virtues. If they lived in an abundant paradise where no harm could befall them, they could have no significant choices to make. Hick is thus able to display the world as a 'vale of soul-making' (a phrase borrowed from John Keats; see Hick 1977:259n.). The goal of the process is the perfection of human beings as moral and spiritual agents capable of enjoying a relationship with their maker. Natural evils are the occasion for the making of choices which can lead to the acquisition of traits of character and dispositions which in turn fit us for this relationship. The soul-making theodicist sees an economy in the evils of this world. It is an economy of evolution and progress: present evil is redeemed because it makes possible future good.

Objections to this expansion of the free-will defence into soul-making theodicy are legion. Many centre on the 'efficiency' of the economy of evil it postulates. The process is efficient only to the extent that God has adjusted means to ends in the right way, with the minimal evil allowed or created to produce the outweighing good. Efficiency is an issue when we reflect that many evils do not in fact appear to provide occasions for the significant exercise of free choice—as when the abandoned child of war dies hungry, ill and alone. There is much suffering that is, like this, 'dysteleological'. Moreover, the process seems to break as many souls as it makes. Evil makes possible the higher-order good of the choice for moral and spiritual virtue, but it does not guarantee it, and, paradoxically, its often overwhelming power crushes the spirits of God's human creatures. The three key attributes of God which create the problem of evil in the first place also seem to entail that any economy of evil in the world should be maximally efficient. This is no muddled, imperfect human scheme we are looking at. Thus we are in danger of seeing our initial problem emerging in a new form.

There are a number of responses that can be made from the standpoint of the expanded free-will defence. Two (relating to the compensations of a life to come and to mystery) are examined below. Another worthy of mention expands on the independence of the world from detailed divine providence already claimed by speculative theodicy. According to this line of reply, the economy of evil and its redeeming good should not be judged by reference to the details of what happens to this or that creature. God's general plan demands that a world be created which obeys its own laws and has its own autonomy and integrity. This entails that much happens in it that is not 'efficient' judged from the standpoint of soul-making. However, it is good overall (and efficient) that the world have this autonomy and thus not be efficient in its detailed operations. One of the odd consequences of this reasoning is that we should not expect to be able to see in the detail of our lives and human history the working out of the providential economy of good and evil. This should make us pause. For now theodicy's promise of insight into the working out of the purposes of omnipotent goodness is apparently not to be wholly fulfilled. Moreover, confidence that God can and will bring a redeeming good from the immensity of evil cannot be supported by the actual progress of things. The God of theodicy, after all, turns out, disappointingly, to be forced to leave the world very much to its own devices. At this point the Christian speculative theodicist will want to leave natural theology behind and to turn to revelation as a source of belief in the final redemption of evil.

In summary, the free will defence, even in its expanded soul-making version, is at best, as well as in reality, a partial theodicy. It reminds us clearly that some very considerable part of human suffering is brought about by human decision and action. Human freedom is the gift of a good and omnipotent God. But freedom is inevitably freedom to do ill as well as freedom to do what is good and right. However, there are some clear theological consequences that follow from such a defence, apart from its limitations. The first is that as the tendency increases—as it certainly does in some theologies—to view God in anthropomorphic terms, on a close analogy with a human parent, then questions do arise about the goodness of God as compared with the admittedly limited perception we have of the goodness of a human being. The only intellectual cure for such a theological and moral malaise is to eschew anthropomorphism, and that carries very severe penalties for most traditional theologies. The second consequence which illustrates this point is that one would have to be much more theologically circumspect in the account which one gives of miracles and divine providence.

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