Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Imagine a World...

Patrick of Orthonormal Basis weighs in on the discussions of the Problem of Evil which have gone on in scattered fashion over the last several weeks. Seeing this last night, I formed a virtuous intention to sit down the next morning and compose some words in reply, only to find this morning that Scott Carson has already done so at some length. This initially raised the question of whether I should bother to add anything more to the conversation, since it has been established that Scott's writing is Genius-level. However, after reading Scott's entry, I'm going to go ahead and stick my oar in as well, since I think what I was going to say took something of a different tack.

Patrick is addressing specifically the question of sin, rather than of suffering in general, and he says:
I do want to expand, though, on something which Dr. Liccione remarks and which I think others have missed: that the free will of created beings is not a defense against the problem of evil, because we could have been created to freely choose the good. Liccione writes that our free will might have been circumscribed to choose between good alternatives, rather than between good and evil; I assert something stronger- that we could have been equipped with the full range of free will (whatever that is supposed to mean) and yet created such as to always freely choose the good.

If it is logically possible for a being with free will to always choose the good (as Christians generally affirm), and if an omniscient, omnipotent God knows in the act of creation whether a free-willed being will in fact do so, then it is perfectly possible for such a God to create a being who always freely chooses the good (and in fact Catholics believe that their God has done so- ever heard of Mary?). It is thus possible for such a God to create a cosmos full of freely innocent beings, rather than freely fallen beings.

So arguing that God allows moral evil out of respect for free will is a red herring, since respect for free will does not preclude a universe without sin....
It seems to me that Patrick is perhaps touching on several different ideas here, though perhaps I am reading too much in to a small number of words.

On first pass, it seems that Patrick is suggesting that, given that it is a logical possibility that a being with free will choose the good in any given situation, and thus given that a being with free will may choose the good every single time, that therefore God, being omniscient, could foresee whether any given creature he was about to create would ever sin, and only create the ones that wouldn't.

This strikes me as running afoul of the classic "how does God's omniscience square with our free will" question, as well as casting God in the role of Oedipus' father: Uh, oh. Prophesies look bad on this kid. Please put him out for the wolves before he does anything wrong. (A reader of mythology will know that whether you are Priam or Laius or some other mythological character, exposing the child who is prophesied to bring problems is not the best solution.)

Basically the question is, if we posit this view of God pausing before each person is created to foresee whether that person will sin, how exactly does he know without that person making those choices? If God's knowledge is predictory (is that a word?) then that suggests a deterministic view of the human person -- that given enough knowledge one can predict every choice the human person will make. And that would seem to violate the idea of free will.

If, on the other hand, we take my preferred view that God, being eternal, exists in a sort of Eternal Now and thus knows all things past and future because he experiences all things as present (and thus, experiences all the actions I choose in my life from conception to birth through life to death and judgement in a single instant) then the idea of God foreseeing whether a person would sin and then not creating him if he would ceases to make any sort of sense. That would suggest a situation in which God sees a person sin, and thus retroactively uncreates him. (Every crime a capital crime in that world.)

But perhaps there is some other conception of God's omniscience that I'm not taking into account?

Writing this, I'm struck again by how unappealing the idea of a world in which we don't suffer is. This is rather counter-intuitive, so perhaps it merits another post to try to look into that a little more.


AnotherCoward said...

This is why I have a strong affinity for open theism - that God does have contingent knowledge and that the future is largely (though not necessarily completely) unsettled.

It's make God's omniscience that of possibilities and not of determined certainties (well, beyond it is certain that this individual can do all these things at any given moment).

Aside from knowledge of the tree of infinite possibilities and how God shapes that tree as He wills, it places most of the free choices available to us as decisions we make and that God knows we make at a synonymous 'now'.

I've heard a lot of people poo-poo it though. I've never heard it satisfactorily debunked though. Most of the railing seems to be predicated on "we absolutely know how God works" blah blah blah that was really popular during Molina's day.

Sapientiae Amator said...

The problem with these views (of God "experiencing" the future, etc.) is that they all make God passive in some way, i.e. require that his knowledge of our actions be somehow posterior to those actions--not posterior in time, of course, but in the order of being. This seems unacceptable; as the first cause of being, God cannot be passive or posterior to anything in any way at all. He knows our actions because he is the cause of our actions. It seems to me that the problem of evil cannot be adequately answered until this fact is acknowledged.

The question that needs to be asked, then, is why God's causality with respect to our actions does not remove our freedom. That it does not, we know because both of these things are required by the faith, namely, that (1) God is the cause of all things, including the being of our acts, such as even the words I am now typing; and that (2) we do have free will and are responsible for our actions.

This is what makes the problem of evil so acute--since God is the cause of all things, he seems to be responsible for evil. But I think that all attempts to solve the problem by denying the antecedent are misguided from the beginning.

Patrick said...

Thanks for your thoughts. Your post deserves another reply- but I'm not sure I'll get to it in time. I do want to note that I was just giving a demonstration that an omnipotent (omniscient) God could in fact have created beings with free will and without sin, by some prima facie licit means. If you think that the suggested manner of doing so (or, more precisely, the analogy it seems to suggest of bringing someone into a kind of being, then discarding them) is distasteful, I suggest that such a God should be able to create them in more than one possible manner- and if you assert that all ways of doing so must be unfitting, I should like to know the reason why you believe this.
More to the point, though, why do you see the creation of a being with free will yet without sin as being so unappealing on a large scale, while you praise it in the case of Mary?

Darwin said...


I remember reading up on the term at one point, but I confess that I'm unclear on the issues surrounding open theism.

Sapientiae Amator,

I suppose one would need to tease this out more clearly, but it seems clear to me that one _must_ be able to see God as passive in regards to his creation's actions to the extent that one defines passive as "allowing something to occur without willing it". Certainly, it is a tenet of the fait that God's active will holds all creates in existence, and thus God continues to will us to exist even when we sin. However, to suggest that God is active in our actions _beyond_ willing our existence at all times suggests to me a) a lack of free will and b) that God could sin against himself.

But maybe it's the terms that are tripping me up here?

Darwin said...


Certainly, I may be missing something, I guess I'm unclear how one can reconcile free will and God's knowledge of people's actions without having God's knowledge be the product of those actions. And in that sense, I'm not sure what the distinction could be between allowing only those people who would never sin to exist, and exterminating all those people who did sin.

Now of course, perhaps I'm biased in this, since as someone who has in his life sinned, I'd be on the wack list. Though as I said earlier, it seems to me that there are real attractions to the world that exists, and none of the ways of cleansing it of all sin and suffering (other than people actually not sinning of their free will) really strike me as at all attractive.

Which I guess circles back around to my response to Patrick's point, which I guess is that it seems to me that using foreknowledge to avoid creating anyone who would sin doesn't actually achieve an all-virtuous world except to the extent that it reduces the set of view-able wills to those which don't sin.

Now as to Patrick's question:
why do you see the creation of a being with free will yet without sin as being so unappealing on a large scale, while you praise it in the case of Mary?

I guess the answer is, I see this as highly appealing, but only in the sense that it is the result of the creatures choosing not to sin (as was the case with Mary) rather than some sort of constraint of will or reduction of the creature population down to those who happen to be sinless.

So it's not the world being inhabbited entirely by people who don't sin that I find unappealing, it's the idea of God either removing the free will of his creatures (for how can a puppen have morals, good or bad?) or uncreating those he knows will eventually sin.

Darwin said...

I'll allow myself the arrogance of posting three times in a row, since it's my own blog. :-)

Looking at your comments here at and Scott's place, Patrick, it occurs to me that it almost sounds like you see the creation of Mary as somehow different in kind than the creation of the rest of us, and that this difference in how she was created resulted in her sinlessness.

It seems to me that difference between Mary and the rest of us that we refer to when we say she was "conceived without sin" is simply the same difference between us and between Adam and Eve. In that Adam and Eve were fully capable of sinning, and did, Mary too was fully capable of sinning, but didn't.

Thus, if one asks, "Why didn't God create everyone like Mary?" the answer would be, "Originally he did, but we sinned anyway."

Sapientiae Amator said...

Two points: first, regarding the statement that God holds all creatures in existence. This is true, but more than this, he is the cause of every existing thing. This does not include merely substantial creatures, but also every other kind of being. In other words, it is not enough to say that God causes me to exist and then I go out and do stuff that God does not cause. This is because my actions are also beings, and therefore must reduce to him as first cause just as much as I myself, as a being, must reduce to him as first cause. When I snap my fingers, God is the cause of that act just as he is the cause of me. The same applies to every act, even acts of sin. What we can say about those is that insofar as they are evil, they are not beings, since evil is a privation of being; but no act is purely an evil. It always has some actuality, some being, to it, and must therefore be produced by God. So God is the cause of acts even of sin, although not insofar as they are sins but insofar as they are beings.

The second point is really more of a question, and is the more important. It appears that your reason for rejecting the above idea is that it would seemingly remove free will. I don't see why this is the case. That is, it would only followed if freedom included in its very definition the fact of not being caused by another. It's not clear to me that this is necessary in order for an act to be free. To give an example, are the acts of fictional characters free? It seems that they are, despite the fact that they are products of the author. God stands to us as an author to his characters--even though he "writes" the story of the universe, we the characters are nevertheless free and responsible for our actions.

AnotherCoward said...

sapientiae - so far, I'm sold. But what of choice? It's one thing to say that God upholds us and upholds our actions ... but does God uphold us in such a way that we freely choose absent the compulsion of His determinism between options/possibilities/good+evil?

In other words, we know that God is not compelled to do anything. Yet when dealing with this topic, we get very dangerously close to ignoring that fact. And as an extension, I think we forget that whatever we are, we are in His image. And I do believe that extends to the nature of the compulsion of will - that God has created us to be (largely) free in our decisions - which means that before there are decisions/actions, there are very real possibilities to choose between. Now God being unimaginably perfect and perceptive, it's hard to imagine how that works - but I think it's more difficult to imagine that it's beyond Him, particularly given all that the faith teaches.