Plantinga's Free Will Defense
Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense has been widely celebrated as a workable solution to the logical problem of evil (as set forward most notably by J.L. Mackie). Plantinga’s Defense is remarkable in that it is accepted by most philosophers, theistic and atheistic alike, as having solved the problem. Plantinga’s solution is, however, not universally accepted. There remain many critics who argue that Plantinga does not offer an adequate solution to the logical problem of evil. In this paper I will briefly outline Plantinga’s strategy for solving the problem. I will consider one objection to the Free Will Defense raised by Heimir Geirsson and Michael Losonsky and I will suggest possible rebuttals to this objection.
Plantinga’s Free Will Defense
Plantinga begins with a short introduction to the problem. “Many philosophers…have argued that there is a contradiction involved in asserting, as the theist does, that God is perfectly good, omnipotent (i.e. all-powerful), and omniscient (i.e. all-knowing) on the one hand, and, on the other, that there is evil” (Plantinga 11, emphasis in the original). J.L. Mackie, for instance, makes this sort of claim: "In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false. But at the same time all three are essential parts of most theological positions: the theologian, it seems, at once must adhere and cannot consistently adhere to all three" (Mackie 216, emphasis in the original). What is striking about this suggestion is that the argument Mackie sets forth concludes that the theist is not merely erroneous in believing both that an all-good, all-powerful God exists and that there is evil—but that he is positively illogical in doing so. Mackie, if successful, wishes to establish that it is logically impossible to believe that both exist, and that, therefore, theistic belief is irrational.
Plantinga rebuts this claim by pointing out that the set of propositions:
(1) God is wholly good
(2) God is all-powerful
(3) Evil exists
(hereafter called set A) is neither explicitly contradictory (i.e. no one proposition is the denial of any other proposition) nor formally contradictory (i.e. no logical rule will produce a contradiction from set A alone) (Plantinga 12-14). Perhaps, then, set A is implicitly contradictory—perhaps there is some necessarily true proposition that, when added to set A, will yield a contradiction. But Plantinga thinks that atheists have failed to advance a necessarily true proposition that will do this work. The conclusion, he thinks, is that while set A is often asserted to be contradictory, it has not successfully been shown to be (Plantinga 23).
Plantinga then sets about constructing a Free Will Defense. He defines his task over against a Free Will Theodicy: whereas the latter wants to show what God’s reason is for permitting evil, the Free Will Defense tries to show what it might be (without arguing whether it is true). The Free Will Defense, then, is less ambitious than a Free Will Theodicy, but also more likely to succeed. The logical problem of evil holds that it is impossible for set A to be true—to defeat the problem the Free Will Defense must only show that set A it is possibly true—not that it is true. “The heart of the Free Will Defense,” Plantinga says, “is the claim that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good…without creating one that also contained moral evil” (Plantinga 31, emphasis in the original). Note again that Plantinga isn’t arguing that it is the case that God could not have created moral good but no moral evil—he is arguing that it is possible that God could not have done so. So—is it possible that God could not have created just any world?
Plantinga thinks it’s the case that there are possible worlds in which free creatures exist but do no wrong—the pertinent question is, however, whether God could have made such a world (Plantinga 40). It might be the case that it is not possible for God to actualize these worlds due to a condition Plantinga names “transworld depravity.”
Consider, as Plantinga does, the case of Curley, a corrupt city official. God knows that if Curley is offered a bribe, he will freely choose to accept it. Now consider some state of affairs S such that in S Curley is offered—but has not accepted or rejected—a bribe. Obviously there are a great many possible worlds that include S—and in at least one of these Curley is significantly free but does no moral wrong (call such a world W). But “the sad truth about Curley” may be that he suffers from transworld depravity—that is, in any possible world W’ in which Curley is significantly morally free but does no wrong, there is some state of affairs S’ that includes the morally significant act A’ such that if S’ were actual, Curley would go wrong with respect to A’. Let us then return to the situation of the bribe. If S is included in W, then in that possible world, Curley does no wrong, and rejects the bribe—but God could not have actualized that world. If he had, S would be actual, and Curley would have gone wrong and taken the bribe (for remember, God knows that if Curley is offered a bribe, he will freely accept it). But then that world would no longer be W (for W is a world in which Curley does no wrong)—so God cannot actualize W. In addition, God can’t “bring it about” that Curley rejects the bribe, for then Curley would not be significantly morally free with respect to the question of taking or not taking the bribe—and again, God would not have actualized W, because in W Curley is significantly free (Plantinga 46-48). What is crucial about all this is that if Curley suffers from transworld depravity, then it is not within God’s power to actualize any world in which Curley does moral good but no moral wrong. Furthermore, Plantinga thinks that it is possible that everyone suffers from transworld depravity—if that were the case, the price that God would have to pay for creating a world in which humans are significantly free is that they will produce some moral evil. And if that’s the case—if that’s even possible—then it is possible that God could not have created a world with moral good but no moral evil (Plantinga 46-49).
But surely God could have avoided this difficulty altogether: he could have created different people, ones that did not suffer from transworld depravity. It seems that if he had done that, he might have been able to create a world with moral good but no moral evil (Plantinga 49). Returning to Curley, recall that because of Curley’s transworld depravity, God could not have created any world in which Curley is significantly free but does no wrong. Plantinga thinks that it may be the case that transworld depravity is part of Curley’s essence, in consequence of which God cannot create a world with a free Curley, but without moral evil (for to instantiate Curley’s essence is to instantiate an essence that includes transworld depravity). Plantinga supposes further that it is possible that every “creaturely essence” (i.e. every essence that is not God) has the property of transworld depravity. If that were the case, then it would not be possible to create a world with moral good but no moral evil, no matter which creatures were a part of it (Plantinga 49-53). Remember, Plantinga is not trying to establish that every creaturely essence does suffer from transworld depravity—only that it is possible that they do. If that is even possible then, following Plantinga’s argument, set A is not impossible, and Plantinga has solved the logical problem of evil.
Objections to Plantinga’s Free Will Defense
In “Plantinga and the Problem of Evil,” Heimir Geirsson and Michael Losonsky deny that Plantinga’s Free Will Defense solves the logical problem of evil. They begin by discussing the difference Plantinga draws between strong and weak actualization. Strongly actualizing a state of affairs means being the cause of that state of affairs—“So if God were to strongly actualize that human beings choose to do something, then God would be causing them to do it, and Plantinga believes this is incompatible with freedom” (Geirsson and Losonsky 109). This means that God cannot strongly actualize a totality that includes free actions. To do so would mean that a person would both be free and not free. God can, however, weakly actualize a world that contains free beings. He does so “by strongly actualizing T, a subset of world W that includes beings that have the potential to act freely,” and what is significant about this is that “the free beings complete the creation of W with their free acts” (Geirsson and Losonsky 110). Having differentiated between strong and weak actualization, Geirsson and Losonsky assert that Plantinga’s task is to show that
(4) “It is possible that God is omnipotent and it was not within God’s power to strongly or weakly actualize a world with moral good but no moral evil” (Geirsson and Losonsky 110, emphasis added).
Returning again to the case of Curley, the corrupt city official, Geirsson and Losonsky argue that the crucial problem for Plantinga’s task is that although it is clearly not possible for God to strongly actualize a world in which Curley does not take the bribe (which would cancel Curley’s freedom), “it does not follow that it is not possible that God has the power to weakly actualize a world in which Curley does not take the bribe” (Geirsson and Losonsky 111). Since God knows all “counterfactuals of freedom,” God knows in which worlds Curley will complete the creation by taking the bribe, and in which he will complete it by rejecting the bribe. Nothing prevents God from strongly actualizing those world subsets in which Curley will go on to freely choose not to take the bribe. And if that is so in the case of the bribe, it is also true for other moral decisions of Curley’s—indeed, if God knows all counterfactuals of freedom, then God can actualize that world segment in which Curley completes God’s creation by taking no morally wrong actions at all.
Obviously, this argument can be extended to include people other than Curley: “God surveys all the possible worlds, including how they are completed by free beings, and has a choice between worlds that are completed by free beings in such a way that there is no moral evil and worlds that are completed by free beings in such a way that there is moral evil” (Geirsson and Losonsky 113). If God has that choice, the logical problem remains, Geirsson and Losonsky argue, because a perfect God would have weakly actualized one of the worlds completed without moral evil. Thus there remains inconsistency between moral evil on the one hand and a perfect God on the other, such that the two are logically incompatible.
Free Will Defense Reply
The trouble seems to be that the problem of transworld depravity will not be affected by whether God weakly or strongly actualizes some possible world. Recall that Plantinga thinks that if a person P suffers from transworld depravity, then for any world W such that P is significantly free in W and such that P does no wrong in W there is some state of affairs S in W that includes a morally significant act A such that if S were actual P would go wrong with respect to A (Plantinga 48).
Let us reconsider the case of Curley, the corrupt city official. Geirsson and Losonsky argue that God could have surveyed all possible worlds and found a possible world in which Curley freely rejected the bribe. They argue that God could have weakly actualized that world—Curley would then have completed God’s creation (in part) by rejecting the bribe. But how will this be possible if Curley suffers from transworld depravity? Clearly there is some possible world in which Curley freely rejects the bribe—there is even at least one in which he does no moral wrong at all (and Plantinga acknowledges this). But if God actualizes that world, even weakly, Curley’s transworld depravity will be “triggered”: his S will be actual and he will go wrong with respect to his A. It may turn out that accepting the bribe isn’t Curley’s act A—it could turn out that quarreling with his wife is Curley’s A or perhaps his A is cheating on his income taxes. It hardly matters. Because even if Curley freely rejects the bribe, Curley will still go wrong with respect to some morally significant act (namely, his A), and it will not be the case that he completes God’s creation by doing no moral wrong. And then that world will not be W because Curley does no moral wrong in W; it will turn out that God did not actualize W after all. Hence it is not within God’s power to actualize W, even weakly, for to do so will trigger Curley’s transworld depravity in such a way that that world will turn out not to be W at all.
Geirsson and Losonsky are absolutely right that God can survey all possible worlds and identify some one in which all people do only moral good, and no moral evil. Furthermore, they are right in asserting that the differentiation between strong and weak actualization implies the refinement of Plantinga’s task as they stated it in (4). But they have argued that while it may be true that God cannot strongly actualize a world without moral evil, he can weakly actualize one. It is not clear, however, how such weak actualization defeats the problem of transworld depravity. To do so, it will be necessary to show how God could actualize a world that would not trigger the problem of transworld depravity. Unfortunately, weak actualization does not seem to accomplish this. It remains possible, then, that God could not have actualized a world—strongly or weakly—with moral good but no moral evil.
Works CitedGeirsson, Heimir and Losonsky, Michael. “Plantinga and the Problem of Evil.” Proceedings of the XXI World Congress of Philosophy (2006). 109-113.
Mackie, J.L. “Evil and Omnipotence.” Mind 64 (1955): 200-212. Rpt. in Beginning Metaphysics. Ed. Geirsson, Heirmir; Losonsky, Michael. Massachets: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1998. 215-226.
Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974.