Sunday, July 11, 2010

"contra Plantinga's Free Will Defense"?

J.L. Mackie
Arguments for and against the Existence of God

Kevin Kim has posted a blog entry, "contra Plantinga's Free Will Defense," promising a future post on the subject but also providing some links to critiques offered by others.

One such link is to a paper by Niclas Berggren titled "Does the Free-Will Defense Constitute a Sound Theodicy?" I haven't read Berggren's article, but the title suggests a misunderstanding of Alvin Plantinga's free will defense of God's omnibenevolence, granted that God is omniscient and omnipotent and that evil is a problematic reality.

Plantinga would agree that his free will defense doesn't constitute a sound theodicy because a defense is not intended as a theodicy.

Plantinga formulated his free will defense simply as a formal argument intended to demonstrate that a logical contradiction cannot be proven in the following conjunction of statements:
1. God is omniscient.
2. God is omnipotent.
3. God is omnibenevolent.
4. Evil exists.
Plantinga argues that God might have a good reason for creating a world in which evil could arise, and he suggests that the gift of morally significant free will might be one such reason. If such free will is a great good, then God might be justified in creating creatures with free will despite the possibility that they would misuse their freedom to choose moral evil.

In his argument, Plantinga notes the special case of natural evil, i.e., evil outside of human agency, e.g., such as the event of a large asteroid striking the earth and causing great suffering (my example). Plantinga suggests that natural evil could have resulted from the free actions of fallen angels, thereby making such evil a consequence of moral evil.

The philosopher J. L. Mackie, unpersuaded by this argument, acknowledges the formal possibility but considers the supposition of fallen angels an arbitrary one. He begins by recalling the problem of natural evil, the moves to his criticism of Plantinga's argument:
But the vast majority of natural evils cannot be ascribed to human choices at all, and it seems, therefore, that the free will defense cannot cover them even indirectly. But Alvin Plantinga argues that it can cover them, since they can be ascribed to the malevolent actions of fallen angels. Formally, no doubt, this is possible; but it is another of what Cleanthes called arbitrary suppositions. While we have a direct acquaintance with some wrong human choices -- our own -- and our everyday understanding extends to the recognition of the like choices of other human beings, we have no such knowledge of the activities of angels, fallen or otherwise: these are at best part of the religious hypothesis which is still in dispute, and cannot be relied upon to give it any positive support.

J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), pages 162-163.
Mackie's acknowledgment that "[f]ormally . . . this is possible" -- i.e., that Plantinga's argument that natural evil might result from moral evil is formally possible -- is all that Plantinga needs since the free will defense is no theodicy. All that Plantinga need demonstrate is that there is no proven formal inconsistency in affirming God's omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence despite the fact of evil.

Mackie considers Plantinga's supposition of the "malevolent actions of fallen angels" to be "arbitrary" and incapable of offering any "positive support," but that is irrelevant to Plantinga's limited free will defense, which is basically a negative argument to the effect that no contradiction has been proven in affirming God's omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence despite the fact of evil.

I'd also dispute Mackie's choice of the term "arbitrary." Plantinga hasn't introduced an arbitrary supposition. He has simply noted that the theological view of natural evil as a consequence of moral evil is a long-standing Christian position. Mackie might consider that Christian position a long-standing arbitrary supposition, but that objection would still be irrelevant to Plantinga's limited, formal argument.

Plantinga does not set out to convert the skeptic by finding means to "justifie the wayes of God to men" (John Milton, Paradise Lost 1.26), for unlike Milton, he pursues no theodicy. Rather, he seeks to show that no logical contradiction has been demonstrated in the conjunction of the fact of evil with God's omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence.

In that limited sense, he seems to have succeeded.

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At 11:21 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

Mackie probably could have phrased his argument better. I agree that his acknowledgment that Plantinga's "demonic amendment" is formally possible is just the crack in the door that Plantinga would want, but I also think that Mackie was trying to do something other than acknowledge that formal possibility: as the latter part of that excerpt implied, he seemed to be claiming that the "demonic amendment" was as substance-free ("arbitrary suppositions") as suddenly bringing winged elephants into the discussion-- i.e., it was at best a non-assertion, and thus not an effective addendum to Plantinga's main argument.

Mackie's remark also clicked with me because it echoed my own thoughts when I'd read about the "demonic amendment": Plantinga is leading us in circles, merely assuming what he's trying to prove. I need to flesh this thought out more properly, but I hinted at it in my "theodicy redux" post when I wrote:

"Plantinga's 'solution' seems either to push the problem back a step (instead of asking about the existence of evil, we're now focused on the existence of Satan and his minions), or to render the matter circular: his claim is, after all, that the source of evil is evil (by which I mean the noun, not the predicate adjective)."

More later!


At 11:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I don't recall Plantinga's argument being an amendment, but perhaps I read one of his later editions.

I also don't see that Plantinga is trying to prove something in a strong sense with his free will defense. He seems to me merely to be pointing out that no formal contradiction has been shown in the famous argument from evil.

Perhaps you are reading too much into Plantinga's intentions.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:00 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

By "demonic amendment," I'm referring specifically to Plantinga's reply to the accusation that his defense fails to account for natural evil. The reply was tacked on after his original defense was published, I believe.

I'm not sure that I'm reading too much into Plantinga's intentions, here. If anything, Plantinga may be proving too much when he retreats to the "demonic amendment." After all, it's logically possible for those winged elephants to be the source of natural evil, and for that matter, he could cite any other of beings whose existence can't be proven: the ghosts of Bert and Ernie, the evil imugi from "Dragon Wars," etc.


At 12:18 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suppose one could attribute the 'natural' evil to any sufficiently powerful spiritual entities, but Plantinga is working within the Christian tradition and, narrowly considered, offering a defense of Christian Orthodox Theism.

In the Jamesian sense, perhaps, neither winged elephants nor any other such creatures, even if conceived of as sufficiently powerful, would constitute a "live option" for Plantinga.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You might try reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
It speaks of a perfect creation, the fall of Lucifer who became Satan, the creation and fall of man, and an eventual triumph of good over evil.


At 9:24 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, you might need to specify whom you're addressing -- though I'm inferring that you mean Kevin.

Just to clarify that point, Kevin grew up Presbyterian, attending a Korean church, if I've got that right, and does know the Bible pretty well.

But I'll leave you and Kevin to sort this out . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Plantinga argues that God might have a good reason for creating a world in which evil could arise, and he suggests that the gift of morally significant free will might be one such reason."

This argument is very, very weak. First, it uses the weak suppositional "might." Second, it does not even attempt to speculate at what that reason might be. Without knowing the reason and evaluating it, a contradiction between stated and accepted beliefs about God remains. Every statement in the contradiction, as you laid it out, is a clear affirmative statement. Planta's argument is a weak and vague supposition that cannot stretch far enough to close the logical gap.

At 9:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

correction: Plantinga

At 9:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, the argument need not be strong in the sense that you demand. You are asking for a theodicy, but Plantinga is offering merely a defense, so all he needs is the possibility that God has a good reason.

Proving that God could have no good reason would be very difficult, I think, but that's what would be required to show that the fact of evil contradicts the conjunction of God's omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The existence of God himself cannot be proven or disproven, and likewise, aspects of his nature cannot be proven or disproven. Would it be reasonable to say there probably are no logically provable contractions about God, as believers see him, since "God might have a reason" would fit just about any seeming contradiction?

Off-topic: Did you read about the Yemeni-American cleric who has placed a fatwa on Draw Muhammad Day's Molly Norris?

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Some contradictions are clearly contradictions.

One could not coherently state that God is both omniscient and not omniscient, for example. Or omnipotent and not omnipotent. Or omnibenevolent and not omnibenevolent.

These are direct contradictions that could not be reconciled.

As for the fatwa, I hadn't heard about that specific one, but since every imam and sheik seems 'qualified' to offer fatwas, I suppose that this was inevitable.

There are probably fatwas against the sort of discussions that we've been having over 'justifying' God, so we ourselves could be in trouble, I suspect.

Jeffery Hodges

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