Plantinga’s free will defense

Free-willThe previous post consisted of a brief outline on Alvin Plantinga and theistic personalism. In this post, I will examine Plantinga’s use of a “free will defense” against an opponents presentation of the logical problem of evil.

The logical problem of evil is nothing new – it dates back to Epicurus and probably beyond. However, I will credit the particular philosopher Plantinga was responding to, JL Mackie. The argument is set out in his 1955 paper, Evil and Omnipotence.

  1. God is omniscient (all-knowing)
  2. God is omnipotent (all-powerful)
  3. God is omnibenevolent (morally perfect)
  4. There is evil in the world

The thrust of the argument is that if 1-4 are all true, then there is a logical contradiction. Because if God knows of evil, has the power to stop it, and must stop it by His very nature, then whence evil?

Plantinga’s response is interesting in that it is not a traditional theodicy (where one attempts to justify the existence of evil) but rather a direct attack on the soundness of his opponents argument.

Plantinga asserts that there is no contradiction in 1-4 as presented. He gives the example that God, not being able to bring about a contradiction, cannot create beings with real free will that will not on occasion commit evil acts. Plantinga goes on to say that it is rather the implicit assumptions that one may bring to the logical problem of evil (as presented above) that will make it convincing.

So where does this leave us? Plantinga famously holds that his free will suppositions need not be true, but they are sufficient for defeating Mackie’s argument.

Alvin Plantinga and theistic personalism

indexAlvin Plantinga (b. 1932) is an American philosopher whose work sits within the school of analytic philosophy. He is best known for his work in Christian apologetics. Plantinga’s father was a philosophy teacher, and encouraged him to leave high school a year early and enroll in college. Plantinga would go on to study at Calvin College, Harvard and eventually Yale, receiving his PhD there in 1958.

There will be two posts on Plantinga’s free will defense and his ontological argument following this one, but first it is important to understand how Plantinga’s view of God differs radically from classical and medieval philosophers such as Aristotle and Aquinas.

If one reads Aquinas’s Five Ways or Anselm’s ontological argument, it becomes apparent that classically understood God is always a type of reality that is absolute and fundamental, and necessarily the source of all things non-absolute and non-fundamental. That is to say God does not depend on anything for His existence, and could not in principle do so. He is not composed of parts that require an explanation for their composition and He does not participate in forms that are over Him.

In modern times, there has arisen a new way of conceiving of God – this movement has been labelled “theistic personalism”. Personalist because these thinkers generally start their inquiry in anthropomorphic terms: that God is a person just as human beings are persons, with a will and powers and so forth. However, unlike human beings God has these powers maximally. God is not absolute and fundamental, but rather He is the best that anyone can be given the limitations on Him, whether they be physical laws or forms or etc.

Of course, where one stands in regards to this issue has far-reaching implications when one thinks through controversies such as divine simplicity, the relationship of God’s intellect and will, the aseity of God and so on.

Noam Chomsky: the innateness of language

Noam Chomsky (1928 -) is an American philosopher who would go on to be a major thinker in the school of analytic philosophy. Many have gone so far as to call Chomsky the father of modern linguistic theory. He was also instrumental in founding the scientific discipline of cognitive science, where the processes of the mind are viewed as subjects of modern scientific inquiry.

Chomsky begins with a criticism of the proponents of the behaviorist school of linguistics, such as B.F. Skinner and Quine. According to this school, the human mind begins as a blank slate and language is a completely learned behavior of each individual. One may notice the correlation to the modern empiricism.

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates interrogates a slave boy regarding some simple geometry. The slave boy is able to answer Socrates’ questions despite having never been taught about geometry. Socrates take this to demonstrate the innateness of geometric ideas. Similarly, Chomsky argues for a type of universal grammar, citing as evidence the enormous gap between the linguistics that children are exposed to and that which they can perform.

To explain this, Chomsky invokes an innate linguistic capacity. However, while your typical rationalist will insist on the necessity of non-physical innate ideas, Chomsky rather turns to the modern theory of evolution and inheritable genetics. That is to say, Chomsky’s innate linguistics (to whatever capacity they are argued) are physical and passed from parents to children through procreation.

Quine and the attack on analyticity

quineWillard Van Orman Quine (1908 – 2000) was an American philosopher best known for his work on the logic of language and his criticism of the analytic/synthetic distinction. He is commonly considered one of the most important thinkers in the school of analytic philosophy.

Hume’s fork first brought the problem of analytic and synthetic statements to the attention of modern philosophers. What would follow from Hume was the edifice of Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealistic method and his redefining of the analytical and synthetic to also include the a priori and a posteriori.

Quine, in his work on language, would however come to doubt the validity of analytic statements (i.e. such as “All bachelors are unmarried men”). Quine argued that all attempts to ground analytic truths rely on circular logic. Quine further argues that philosophers like Kant do not sufficiently take into account analytic statements dependence on the contingency of language. In essence, Quine collapses the analytic into the synthetic, along with the in/famous distinction between the two.

It should be noted that Quine’s attack on analyticity is broadly an attack on rationalism and metaphysics itself. Given that most metaphysical systems involve the use of deductive arguments from analytical statements, it follows that if Quine is correct the consequences for metaphysical argument would be disastrous.

So what is Quine’s answer to this problem? Quine says that the best we can do is Humean matter of facts and synthetic claims. And the best pursuit of these claims is the modern scientific method, a method that Quine called a “naturalised epistemology”.

Camus and the absurd

Albert-Camus-7Albert Camus (1913 – 1960) was a French-Algerian writer and Nobel Laureate. Camus began his career as a journalist and playwright in his native Algeria. He would go on to write several novels, plays and essays that would gain him international recognition – the most notable being The Stranger and The Myth of Sissyphus.

Camus was neither a philosopher by training or profession, yet his works are full of insight and are heavily influenced by the burgeoning Existentialist philosophy in Europe. Camus’ greatest philosophical contribution is his idea of the absurd.

In the work of Sartre, one finds the particular legacy of Phenomenology; that while human consciousness is intentional (“of something else”), the external world has no such teleology. It is this tension of meaningful man against an indifferent world that gives rise to Camus’ absurdity.

This tension is particularly evident in the final chapter of The Stranger, where Meursault (imprisoned for murder) laments being trapped in what he feels is an inadequate justice system. Meursault writes that “what interests me at this moment is to escape the mechanism.” He conjures the image of a guillotine, a machine of death that gives its victim no chance of survival, and compares it unfavorably to taking a drug that would kill 90 % of it’s victims (i.e. the chance of survival). After this flight of fancy, Meursault writes “But all things considered, nothing allowed this luxury, everything denied it to me, the mechanism took hold again.”

For Camus, affected by the Cartesian and Newtonian modern mechanistic view of the world, the absurd arises because man is a kind of Unmeant Meaner – desperately seeking order and significance that can never exist outside of his own mind.

Sartre’s unique anti-theist argument


Most anti-theist arguments take the form, in one way or another, of the problem of evil. The classic example is Epicurus’ trilemma.

Sartre however, formulates a fascinating and unique atheistic argument. I have written in the previous post regarding Sartre’s existential anthropology – in that a man’s existence precedes his essence and thus he is necessarily a subject, and necessarily free.

With that background, I will attempt to trace out Sartre’s argument syllogistically.

  1. If God exists as traditionally conceived, then essence will precede existence and man must be an artificial object of God.
  2. Man is not an artificial object.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.

Sartre writes in his play No Exit in the voice of Garcin:

This bronze. Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece and I understand that I am in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more, many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all that we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the ‘burning marl.’ Old wives’ tales, there’s no need for the red hot pokers. Hell – is other people!

As Garcin is being scrutinised he feels like the bronze statue, an artifice. Sartre then moves from the gaze of men to the gaze of an omniscient God. As RC Sproul writes, Sartre sees God as a kind of “cosmic voyeur” that reduces all men to mere objects. After all, if other people are hell, how much worse is the company of God!

Of course, this argument is not without controversy. One may point out that man is natural rather than artificial due to his intrinsic teleology, even if essence precedes existence. Or one may simply concede that in fact man is a type of object.

Sartre and authenticity

Fotolia_41409422_XS-300x223In the previous post on Sartre I have provided a very brief overview of his phenomenological and existential philosophy. Like most philosophers, Sartre had plenty to say in regards to how one should live one’s life.

Sartre begins with the existentialist thesis that existence comes before essence. What flows logically from this is Sartre’s idea of human freedom – that because there is no essence or nature to man, he is free to do as he pleases. This similar to Kant’s thesis of man as self-legislator, and in contrast to a natural law thesis under which man’s nature determines what is good for him.

So, what to do with all this freedom? Sartre asserts that a man makes himself through his actions, and key to this are his positive concepts of individuality and authenticity, and their corresponding negative bad faith.

Beginning with bad faith, this is most clearly understood as when the “for-itself” rather chooses to become an “in-itself”. Sartre gives the example of a waiter who comes to identify himself as his role, instead of as an individual choosing to perform a certain set of tasks. In this way, the human as waiter relinquishes his burden of freedom as a “for-itself”. Loosely, bad faith can be approximated as man’s tendency to reject his status as a subject and become an object.

In the opposite, a man that recognises his status as a “for-itself” and fully embraces his freedom will live an individual and authentic life. But at the same time, Sartre more fully fleshes out the psychological problems with Kant’s radical ideas about human freedom; in that while man may be free to act as he chooses towards the world, ultimately he will find only indifference and uselessness.