On Free Will, Evil and God

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able, and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him a God.”~Epiricus

The above is something I have heard time and again as a refutation of an all powerful god. Now I don’t know about you, but I happen to believe that God exists, specifically the new testament christian god, but that is really irrelevant to the argument. When the above quote, or even just its concept, is used as an argument or explanation for why someone does not believe in God (or higher power or whatever) it show ignorance and a lack of critical thinking ability.

Apologies if that sounds overly harsh and offensive, I really do not mean harm, and I definitely believe you are entitled to your own opinion, religious or otherwise, but I try to stamp out logical fallacies wherever I see them, and whatever the subject. The above especially so since I have had friends use it in religious debates, expecting that it was the winning blow and end of the argument. It is not.

That being said, I will lay out why that is a logical fallacy and also seek to explain a possible answer to the implied question (that is: if there is a god, and he is good and all powerful, why is there evil?)

First off, the fallacy is of the form “false dichotomy” or the fallacy of false choice. Simply put, it is a fallacy where a limited set of choices are given, and where those choices are represented as the only options when in reality there are more options available. A great many old parables and “ancient wisdoms,” such as the one above, commit this particular fallacy.

The rebuff, unfortunately, is actually rather complicated to explain, even if it is a simple concept. I will be pulling mostly from Christian doctrine (or a subset of Christian doctrine, depending on how you group religions) as that is where my knowledge is strongest, but similar concepts can be found in other religions.

First thing to understand is the concept of free will. According to Christian doctrine God made man with free will, that is the ability to choose a course of action from a set of all possible actions, e.g. I choose to turn left instead of right (or the ability to choose eat pizza or bristle sprouts or whatever, or the ability to choose to harm another or not. All of these things were built into the framework of creation.).

Into that you toss in consequences to our actions. These consequences, out of necessity (that is, adhering to the laws of this universe) cause effects that impact others. If I eat nothing but pizza I will grow fat, have high cholesterol and die of a heart attack. That was my choice, and it will affect my friends and family, causing them grief and impacting their finances as they pay for my burial. If I choose to go to school and study hard, and then get a good job, and then have a family and provide for them well, I may have a happy life, and cause others to be happy as well. If I choose to abduct a child and then ruthlessly stab that child to death, the consequences of those actions is that that child dies. It was my choice.

If the consequences of my choices have no bearing on the outcome, then my choices really have no meaning. We see this all the time in games. I have a choice between two things, it has not effect on the outcome, I choose whatever I want because it does not matter. I kill off the nobles in Dwarf Fortress, and do not feel guilty because it really does not matter; there are no real life consequences to those actions since it is just a game. They have no meaning to me or anyone else, morally speaking.

If you take away the reaction of an action, the action has no meaning. If I make a choice to kill, but I live in a universe where god does not allow anyone to be killed, then I have not really made the choice to kill. I can try, but no one can say for sure if I really meant it if no one dies. I may not even know myself. (Well, an omnipotent god would know, but that is another issue entirely).

What all this means is that God still has the ability to prevent all evil, but that he does not because he respects our free will (that also includes my free will to remove someone else’s ability to exercise free will. It is in my power to do so, so it is a choice I can make). To simplify: just because I won’t suppress evil doesn’t mean I can’t, and it also doesn’t mean I myself am evil.

Now, I am often asked, why would a god even want to grant free will to a creation? What is the point?

I will use an example from programming to illustrate:

For the sake of argument, let us assume that I am a programmer. And not just any programmer, a very good programmer. One could, in fact, call me the best programmer. Ever. Supernatural even.

And I am going to write a program to prove it.

Now I could just write a simple program:

Print: “you are the best programmer ever”

But that would not really prove anything.

Since I am the best programmer ever, I decide to get a little more sophisticated. I write a program that can evaluate every possible piece of code ever written (supernatural good, remember?), evaluate it (and who wrote it), and then choose unbiasedly who it thinks the best programmer is. If that program then returned “you are the best programmer ever” I would indeed have something to brag about.

I could even go one step further, and give the program a mind, and perhaps a soul, and (this is critical) the ability to choose if it wanted to evaluate all the code at all. I could give the program the choice to rebel. I cold even give it other things to do, and then I could say “I will not force you, but I would like you to do what you were built to do.”

If the program then returned in the affirmative (and since I am the best programmer ever, I would know if it is lying, and in this case I know it is not), I will be even that much more proud, not only of myself, but of my program, which chose to do the “right” thing (according to its design).

“But Lucus!” I hear you cry “isn’t creating an entire universe (and an imperfect one at that) just to satisfy your ego malicious”

It is not, as the definition of malice is the wising of evil or ill onto another. I did not build my program because I wished it ill (even if ill was one of the options I built in). I explicitly asked that it not do those ill things, but I did give it a choice (which I respected). The fact that I gave the choice in the first place is not malicious. If I give you the keys to my house and say “please don’t steal all my stuff” I am not being malicious to myself, regardless of whether or not it is a good idea. I simply gave you a choice to go in and take all my stuff or not, and then asked you not to. If you then steal all my stuff it is indeed you who make the choice to be malicious, not me. You could say that I enabled the malicious behavior, but that, in and of itself, is not malicious.

Now this whole line of reasoning to not prove that there is a god of course. It is not meant to. It is simply here to show that the belief in a supreme and just god ruling over a flawed and imperfect creation is not a contradiction. It is actually a logical outcome of a specific type of structure, one in which an all powerful being respects the independence he gave to his creation. Weather you believe that structure exists or not is an entirely different debate.

Please join in the discussion.


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