The 'Free Will' Conundrum: A Flawed Explanation for Evil and Suffering

Published on 31 July 2023 at 16:38

One of the most frequently cited justifications for why a divine being might permit the existence of "evil" or certain unfavorable circumstances is the notion of free will. When people raise the free will argument, it often leads to a nonchalant acceptance by many philosophers and atheists, who simply shrug and move on. However, upon closer examination, the concept of free will reveals itself to be nothing more than an escape hatch, failing to truly resolve the underlying issues. In this discussion, we will delve into the complexities surrounding the idea of free will and its limitations as an explanation for the existence of evil and suffering. Please be aware that the upcoming exploration will tackle profoundly heavy themes that could potentially trigger emotional responses in some readers.


Some people argue that God does not actively permit evil things to happen, but instead grants humanity free will, allowing individuals to make their own choices, including the possibility of doing evil. According to this perspective, it is human beings who commit evil actions rather than God actively causing them. Furthermore, proponents of this viewpoint suggest that God had to bestow free will upon humans to enable the genuine realization of love between humanity and the divine. They believe that true love cannot exist unless it is freely chosen. Although this notion has its own set of challenges and complexities, for the purposes of this discussion, we will set aside those concerns. In essence, the belief is that God's gift of free will grants us the freedom to decide and act, even if it results in evil actions, while also creating the potential for a genuine and meaningful connection of love between humans and the divine.


Assuming the existence of God, it is evident that humans are often responsible for committing acts of evil, not the divine itself. The debate lies in how free will interacts with the notions of evil, divinity, and humanity. For the purposes of this discussion, let's assume that humans have free will, following the Cartesian perspective. Considering this assumption, we can explore how human autonomy influences the perpetration of evil deeds and how it contrasts with the potential role of the divine. If God exists and is benevolent, it suggests that the divine is not directly responsible for evil acts but instead leaves room for individuals to make their own choices. The key focus here is understanding the connection between human volition, moral responsibility, and the role of the divine in allowing free will to operate even when evil actions occur. By exploring these dynamics, we can gain insights into human behavior, morality, and the implications of divine presence in a world where free will is assumed to exist.


The crucial aspect to consider is the frequent conflict between individuals' free will. Although the majority of humanity consists of well-intentioned people merely attempting to survive and flourish in our tumultuous world, it is nearly self-evident that malevolent individuals exist. Furthermore, both benevolent and malevolent individuals may undertake detrimental actions due to a plethora of reasons.


Trigger warning: Sensitive content.


We're going to examine a few hypothetical examples of conflicting wills, demonstrating why free will does not justify divine permission of evil. Rape, a heinous crime that damages the victim profoundly both mentally and physically, leaves scars and trauma that often endure for a lifetime. Given this, it's essential to deliberate the following scenario: a rapist and their victim both possess free will, and these wills collide during the act itself. The rapist exercises their will to perpetrate this despicable act, while it's fundamentally true that the victim does not wish to be violated. When rape occurs, it appears that the perpetrator's will invariably overrides the victim's will.


In such a scenario, it becomes apparent that the argument of free will to justify such a terrible act is hollow—it simply doesn't hold water! This leads to more profound implications, such as the suggestion that the victim's free will is less significant than that of the perpetrator. This stands in stark contrast to what we'd expect from a universe presided over by a benevolent deity that desires the best for us. However, this regrettable reality aligns exactly with what we'd anticipate in a purely naturalistic universe, where one person can impose their will on another, regardless of the moral implications. Disclaimer: Rape is unequivocally wrong, and we should absolutely curtail a rapist's free will whenever and wherever possible. The question persists: why would a deity permit such actions? Free will fails to provide a satisfactory explanation, as we recognize yet again that the victim's free will — their desire not to be violated — was superseded by the perpetrator's will.


It's analytically true that the perpetrator had the free will to execute the act and then acted upon that will. It's also a matter of fact that the victim possessed the free will not to be victimized, yet their will was rendered insignificant. No logical rationale can justify the overriding of one individual's free will by another in the presence of a benevolent deity. However, the logic is consistent if there's no benevolent governing force underpinning reality. This scenario would just reflect the regrettable human capacity for malice in a purely naturalistic universe.


There are countless examples that could be employed to underscore this argument. If we were to consider every victim of murder or robbery, the list would become seemingly endless. For instance, the individual will of Jewish people, who wished to avoid tragic demises, was grossly overpowered by the heinous intent of the Nazis to exterminate them in concentration camps. This only accounts for instances of human-on-human actions, which represent merely a fraction of the overall problem.


Most theists don't attribute the same level of consciousness to animals as they do to humans, so discussing our domination over them might seem insincere. However, it's worthwhile to mention that few, if any, humans likely choose to perish in animal attacks. It's almost guaranteed that victims of natural disasters did not willingly choose to die in hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, or wildfires. These instances collectively demonstrate that human free will is readily overshadowed by a myriad of other factors. Therefore, the argument that God introduced evil into the world to afford us free will does not stand up to scrutiny and lacks explanatory value.


Another aspect where the 'free will' argument is frequently invoked is the rationale behind its existence—God desires us to love Him freely. However, love, much like beliefs, is not something we consciously choose. We can't decide to love someone or something; it's beyond our control. This can be illustrated by the concept of divorce. Love, if not carefully nurtured and maintained, can gradually fade over time. This results in individuals who once shared a deep affection, perhaps not even liking each other anymore. The heart's desires are not within our command. Thus, we can conclude that not only is the 'free will' argument irrelevant here, but it's also entirely inconsistent. God doesn't require us to possess free will to love Him, as our free will has no bearing on whom we love.


Another concept worth addressing is the nature of choice under the premise of a God. While I'm preparing a detailed follow-up piece on choices, free will, and God, a few relevant points bear mentioning. If God possesses foreknowledge of all events, our so-called free will is merely an illusion. If God already knows what is going to happen and what we are going to do, there's no genuine choice in either of those instances. If God predicts a certain event, we become mere instruments in that action's execution, devoid of any real decision-making capacity. This situation parallels a video game that presents multiple choice options, but they all lead to the same outcome. While it appears as a choice, it isn't truly a choice.


The counterargument often put forth is that God exists outside of time, thus He perceives all events simultaneously. However, if this were true, the very concept of time would collapse. Moreover, this rebuttal lacks substance, primarily due to the issue of prophecy. The delivery of prophetic messages by God conflicts with this objection, as a prophecy pertains to a future event that has yet to occur but is assured to transpire. This implies that God knows of future events that haven't yet happened, which directly contradicts the idea that God observes all events at once.


There are also grim implications linked to that counterargument. One such implication is that even before creating humans, God would have foreseen events such as the Flood of Noah, the Holocaust of the Jewish people, the ascension of Donald Trump, and many other catastrophic incidents throughout history... and yet, He did nothing to prevent them. Considering all these points, it appears that God allows suffering, with the justification often given as 'free will'. However, as we've already demonstrated, the 'free will' argument doesn't hold up under scrutiny.


In conclusion, the 'free will' argument, often employed to justify suffering and evil in the world, appears to be fundamentally flawed. It presupposes that humans can exercise complete autonomy over their actions and decisions, yet this notion is regularly contradicted by myriad real-world examples of external forces and circumstances beyond our control. The argument also fails to account for the uncontrollable nature of emotions, such as love, and the paradoxical implications of God's presumed omniscience. If God truly sees all events at once and yet allows suffering, it raises questions about the true nature of 'free will' and God's role in it. If God had foreknowledge of every atrocity and chose not to prevent them, it challenges the concept of free will and God’s benevolence. Moreover, the claim that God requires us to have 'free will' in order to love Him freely is rendered incoherent, as love, by its very nature, is not subject to our will. We don't choose whom or what we love. Thus, the intertwining of 'free will' with love becomes nonsensical. Hence, the 'free will' argument, rather than offering a plausible explanation for evil and suffering in the world, leaves us grappling with more questions, inconsistencies, and paradoxes. It falls short of providing a satisfactory explanation, and, in many ways, serves to complicate our understanding of these profound issues rather than illuminating them.

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