Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Problem of Unfreedom

I've never understood how anyone could be at all convinced by the "free will" defence against the problem of evil. It seems obvious that any cosmic designer did a shockingly poor job of designing us to be free agents. There are all sorts of barriers to human choice and free action that no perfect being could tolerate. Let's call this "the problem of unfreedom".

Here's the problem: humans are not ideally free agents. Due to our imperfect biological design, we suffer a variety of internal maladies -- from cravings and addiction to mental illness and simple irrationality -- that impede the rational exercise of our will. Our brains are far from optimally designed for rational decision-making. If God existed, he would free us from the bondage of addiction, bias and other mental defects.

Note that we had no choice over our own design -- our initial desires and predispositions. When we are moved by built-in desires that we wish we didn't have, this is a violation of our autonomy as free agents. Yet we are limited in our ability to shape our own desires. We can't change our innate dispositions through sheer force of will. A perfect God would have given us this ability -- to simply purge ourselves of violent, selfish, or lazy inclinations. Our bad design is not our fault, after all. The bad decisions and behaviour caused by this bad design are, likewise, not wholly our own responsibility. If humans had been created with the values of autonomy, self-creation and responsibility in mind, we would be very different creatures.

Again, every flaw we have was built into us (at least as a disposition ready to manifest itself upon exposure to the wrong environmental influences). Why would a perfect being do that to you? Even assuming that we have free choice within certain bounds, those "bounds" are not the ones that any remotely benevolent designer would have set. Clearly, we are not "designer babies".

One day, I hope, biotechnology will advance to the point where we can improve these flaws ourselves. But the very fact that we need to "play God" indicates that the job is vacant.


  1. are our addictions separate to us or are they part of us?

    there is a very useful psychological tool of you find yourself doing something that you think is unproductive (lets say you don’t want to like chocolate anymore) what you do is declare it to be "a devil" or some 'sickness' and then you can alienate it from the rest of you. I'm not sure if we should take something so arbitrary as fundamental.

    I'm not reall an addictive personality but I have felt 'addicted' at times and bottom line is I WANTED it. It might have been a bad thing for achieving some sort of long term goal and that in an interpersonal discourse the word 'addicted' could easily arise - but bottom line is at the instant I choose the addiction and that is me as much as anything else is.

    Anyway many religious people would see human existance as a sort of a test, the test conditions not always being identical.

  2. Richard,

    Could it be that the various addictions and cognitive biases may be evolutionary advantages at earlier times? For instance, the irrationalities may be result of mental shortcuts in reasoning, which will have saved us a lot of time in coming up with solutions and allow us to make quick decisions in times of danger. A benevolent designer may have implemented these shortcuts so that they won't die off until they develop civilization and rationality, where these rationalities can be addressed.

  3. Who claims we have free will? Certainly not Dennett! Certainly not Calvin! The Problem of Evil solved.

  4. I guess there is the issue of automated behaviour. for example I don't need to tell myself to keep breathing or keep my hear beating or to re-figureout how language works every time I use those things.

    then agian, how boring would life be if you did have to do that?

  5. The Gay Species try many theists and theistic philosophers such as Platinga, it is widely thought to be one of the more compelling defences/theodicies.

    An interesting point Richard. I'll have to ponder it for awhile. Another similar problem might be the incompleteness of our self control as evidenced by for example not being able to exactly hit the ball exactly right when playing pool.

  6. Richard,
    I can see how this is an interesting point against a design argument, but it isn't clear to me how it has any impact on a free-will defense against the problem of evil. The fwd doesn't seem to require that we be "ideally free agents", but that one simply be sufficiently free. It isn't really my area, but I don't think even defenders of libertarian freedom require that we be cognitively perfected. The fwd isn't a positive argument for God's existence, but simply aims to show that the existence of God and evil are not logically incompatible. Perhaps your objection would target the evidential argument, but I don't think most deploy the fwd against the evidential argument. Maybe I'm missing the point, in which case you can enlighten me.

  7. Due to our imperfect biological design, we suffer a variety of internal maladies -- from cravings and addiction to mental illness and simple irrationality -- that impede the rational exercise of our will.

    This might be right, but it's harder to show than you seem to be suggesting. A local impediment may be a global occasion. If I am very, very hungry, this may locally impede the rational exercise of my will, but this doesn't, in fact, imply that it is inconsistent with the rational exercise of my will, because one of the things the rational exercise of my will involves is taking this sort of thing into account. A more amusing example. Thomas Aquinas at one point in the Summa faces a rather tricky problem for Aristotelian ethics. He is certain, for Christian reasons, that human beings in a rationally ideal state (Adam and Eve in the garden) will procreate sexually (and, moreover, he thinks that they will enjoy sex far more than most of us usually do, precisely because they are in their rationally ideal state). The initial problem is that, of course, intense sexual pleasure is a local impediment to the rational exercise of will, because reason, while not completely shut off, takes a sort of holiday. And Aquinas in reply points out (more or less) that what makes intense sexual enjoyment rational is not that you are exercising throughout the sexual activity the same level of deliberate rationality you would otherwise exercise, but that you have arranged for the sexual activity, and its pleasure, to occupy a rationally acceptable place in one's life, and, if you find that it's not, you begin to make arrangements to compensate for that failure. So the local impediment to rational exercise of will becomes a global occasion for it.

    What it seems your argument needs is an impediment for which we can make no allowance -- that is, an impediment to rational exercise of will for which it is impossible to compensate by making arrangements through the rational exercise of will. Otherwise, your argument is missing what it needs, which is basically an impediment that is so severe the free will defense can't account for it. I'm not sure what plausible cases there could be here.

  8. Hi Matthew, I understand the problem of evil as effectively an argument from bad design. (God, if he existed, would ensure a better world than this. Therefore he doesn't exist.) This may be non-standard; I'm not familiar with the literature. My point is simply that the value of human free will doesn't let God off the hook for creating this universe. It's still sub-par, hence inconsistent with the existence of such a perfect being.

    Brandon, I like that local/global distinction, but it doesn't seem too much of an issue here. Constant mental illness or retardation seem to be examples of the sort you demand. More obviously, there simply isn't any "global occasion" in which we can rationally plan our lives from a state of cognitive perfection. We are impeded, one way or another, always. That's not to deny that we do have some degree of freedom. But we're not as free as we could be. And surely God would have made us as free as possible.

  9. You could call that "the problem of free will argument against god".
    Theologians might have to invent evil as a defense against it.


  10. Richard,

    By 'global occasion' I didn't mean an ideally free vantage point; I meant something the existence of which can occasion a more global exercise of will.

    I think it's plainly false to think of mental retardation as an impediment to rational exercise of will at all; people who suffer disabilities of that type aren't suffering a disability of rationality, nor do they lack will. One might as well say that childhood is an impediment to the rational exercise of will; such a stringently rationalist notion of what is required for rational exercise of will seems to miss the point that 'quantity' or 'degree' of rational exercise of will, to the extent we can speak of it at all, is a useless metric. What's relevant to evaluating our ability to exercise our will rationally is the kind of rational exercise involved. The sort of rational exercise of will that's relevant to the throes of sexual passion, for instance, is simply not commensurable with the sort that's relevant to deciding which charity to support. Otherwise your argument would require us to say that, if God were good, he would deny us intense sexual pleasure simply because intense sexual pleasure is a distraction from the rational exercise of will, and reduces our free choices, which would be a silly argument. (It would also imply, absurdly, that even in a naturalist perspective we should reduce our sexual pleasure as much as we seriously can in order to be as rational as we can.) So what's needed is sensitivity to the kinds of rational exercise of will that particular issues occasion.

    A much more plausible case than mental retardation, I think, is severe insanity. Indeed, I suspect that this is the only sort of case that can be made plausible for this argument: people who are so mentally disrupted that they are simply unable, no matter how they exercise their reason, to recognize that they need help.

    (I have no notion, by the way, why you think "surely God would have made us as free as possible"; I can see no particular benefit to it, and such a claim doesn't seem consistent with animals who have to learn how to exercise their will rationally. But if we were to modify the claim to take into account things like learning and childhood, it looks like it would lose all its bite. Perhaps you mean that if God existed He wouldn't have designed creatures like us at all, but some other kind of creature; to which the natural response is, "Speak for yourself.")

  11. Brandon, I agree that it would be absurd to require that we maximize our local rational capacities at every moment. But I think it would be good for us to be more (and perhaps even perfectly) globally rational, to have a greater capacity for self-creation, and to have full cognitive capabilities at those times in our lives when we need them (to make life-changing decisions, etc.).

    But let me try another tack: Do you think that the human condition could, in principle, be improved through biotechnology / genetic manipulation? If so, doesn't that suggest that a benevolent God would have designed us like that in the first place?

  12. I think some specifics would be needed about how the biotechnology and genetic manipulation would improve us, since the human condition is a big thing.

    But, in general, I would say no; for the very same reason that problematizes so many design arguments, that it requires more information than we have in hand about everything in store for us, about God's purposes in creating, about the purpose of the human design in particular, about the purpose of human society in general, and so forth. To identify the human design as bad or inadequate, you have to have first determined the purposes of the human design, which set the standard for good or adequate design. (Design is always good for something, adequate for something.)

  13. Solving the logical problem of evil (which free will does) doesn't solve what some call the empirical problem of evil. i.e. evils due to our natural state. That remains a big problem for most theodicities (IMO)

    The typical solution is that there is a purpose for the evils we experience. Although clearly not everyone will buy that.

  14. I would object to this premise:

    If God existed, he would free us from the bondage of addiction, bias and other mental defects.

    I can see how Christians would respond to this — indeed, they do, and it's a response that's at the very root of the Appeal to Free Will response to the PoE itself — by stating that true free will involves having the ability to choose evil (or just make bad choices, as the case may be). For God to tweak our free will so that the only decisions we ever made were unimpeachably rational or beneficial would mean that we were not, in fact, free agents.

    You make a stronger case when you bring up the fact that our flaws are built in, and are things we can't wish away. But there are more pragmatic rebuttals to the Appeal to Free Will. For one, Christians don't seem to take into account that free will only involves the ability to think in a certain way, or to want something. It's a process that exists only in our minds. Free will does not guarantee our ability to act upon our desires. A paraplegic wants with all this heart to walk, but he cannot: does he therefore lack free will? No, only his ability to act. I may want to swim in the ocean and breathe underwater. But I can't. Do I lack free will, or just the ability to act on a whim or desire? The very nature of what kind of organism I am will forever limit my range of actions — but it does not limit my ability to imagine or fantasize about not having those limitations, and sincerely believing that if I had a chance to change my situation I'd do it. Free will, such as it is, doesn't describe anything tangible, it only describes a thought process.

    Anyway, I think Clark is also dead wrong when the says free will solves the "logical" PoE. He isn't taking into account innocent victims of evil, and their free will, and God's role — as all powerful deity who could presumably stop all evil acts if he really wanted to — in determining exactly whose "free will" he's going to give preference to.

  15. Yes, I like the point that free will need not imply free action -- my follow-up post briefly expands on that by noting that we don't consider police crime-prevention to problematically impede the "free will" of criminals, so presumably a God could do something similar.

    But I think your objection falls wide of the mark. I'm not suggesting that God "tweak our free will so that the only decisions we ever made were unimpeachably rational or beneficial." (That makes it sound like he has preordained a particular substantive outcome to one's deliberation.) Rather, my suggestion is that any truly free agent would at least have the capacity to engage in a truly well-reasoned deliberative process -- based upon their own judgment and discernment, rather than drives that are outside of their control.

    So, sure, we should have "the ability to choose evil", or to make substantive errors (i.e. make the wrong choice). But to truly be our free "choice" at all, our deliberations mustn't be hijacked by compulsion or other irrational influences beyond our wilful control. Else we're closer to animals than free agents.

    In short: free will just is the exercise of reason. Insofar as our reasoning capabilities are impaired, so too is our free will, for they are one and the same thing.

  16. But to truly be our free "choice" at all, our deliberations mustn't be hijacked by compulsion or other irrational influences beyond our wilful control.

    Okay, I can see how I misread your point. But an argument can be made that the problems you list here are faced only by the insane ("stop me before I kill again!" — that kind of thing) or mentally handicapped. I don't think mere addictions would apply, because people overcome addictions all the time, and even the ones who don't had a point in their lives when they weren't addicted to whatever they're currently hooked on, and they both made and acted upon the choice to give the thing a try.

    Of course, theists are now put in the spot of having to explain why a loving God creates mad or mentally handicapped people, if all they have to look forward to is a life of suffering and having to be cared for. I suppose some folks might dribble about the chance for people to show great loving charity and kindness, but that still doesn't change the cruel unfairness of some people being picked by God to be retarded while most of us aren't. By the very definition you've put forth — free will is the exercise of reason — it would mean that a large number of human beings were in fact created without it. That is a good rebuttal to the concept.

  17. Can a poet enter this thread here? I dont’ have the mind you scholars have, but a little right-brain insight sometimes gives us more to chew on.

    Misinterpreting our evidence from God is a common mistake among mortals and is a thing God seems not in a hurry to correct. What is being served by our misconceptions and miscues and why the silent consent on God’s part to let us grope when it appears so terribly obvious that this old earth needs an omnipotent someone to take charge and clear up the confusion? But a silently creeping “ah-hah!” suddenly materializes on the mind’s stage with another question—what if this old world is in exactly the state an all-wise Director desires it to be? Then the mind asks the Soul how God’s mind works, and a cryptic answer is received: “My assent to disorder blows the oxygen of heaven on your tiny flame. The conditions are right. Now burn!”

    R. D. Laing has written, “As one goes through it, one sees that the gate one went through was the self that went through it.” Mortal life is a burning and a gate, not a place to test or determine what God is, but a field to determine what we can make of ourselves reagardless of the inequality of condition we’re born with. The mess we make is all part of the design. How did Nietzsche put it? “There must be chaos within oneself [even around oneself] to give birth to a dancing star.” Yeah, what he said.

    And in the process of determining who and what we are, all our lesser gods must die before a true and living one can be revealed. A god we could understand most likely would not be a god. To begin to comprehend His mind, we would first have to give up ours.

    But that certainly would not be a welcomed idea on this platform.


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