October 30, 2018

Why Isn't God a Perfect Frankfurt-Intervener?

In a number of publications on the problem of divine foreknowledge and human freedom, Linda Zagzebski has argued that principles derived from consideration of Frankfurt cases dissolve the problem. Essentially, Zagzebski suggests, the presence of a counterfactual intervener cannot make an action unfree. If there is no interference in one's action in the actual world nothing that goes on in some other possible world can render one unfree. If, however, we accept this principle, then the fact that God foreknows one's action shouldn't render one unfree either, since God's foreknowledge does not intervene in the course of one's action. Zagzebski holds that freedom requires a kind of sourcehood that rules out determination by prior physical causes but doesn't actually require alternate possibilities in any metaphysically robust sense.

It occurred to me today that this view undermines certain versions of the Free Will Defence against the problem of evil. In his classic article, Mackie writes, "It may be objected that God's gift of freedom to men does not mean that he cannot control their wills, but that he always refrains from controlling their wills [and so God remains omnipotent]. But why, we may ask, should God refrain from controlling evil wills? Why should he not leave men free to will rightly, but intervene when he sees them beginning to will wrong?" (210). According to one version of the free will defence, the answer is that such a policy would remove alternate possibilities, and so would be inconsistent with free will, and so would be inconsistent with moral responsibility, and would therefore eliminate moral goodness within the creaturely realm. But Zagzebski cannot say this. On her view, if God were a perfect Frankfurt-intervener, overriding free will in all and only those cases where it goes wrong, we would still have freedom, responsibility, and ultimately merit in those cases where God left us to ourselves and we freely went right.

What could be said in response to this? Here are a few ideas:

  1. The world is better off with some moral evil than with constant divine intervention.

  2. Regardless of what would make the world better, God is bound by a deontological norm not to interfere with creaturely free will.

  3. Formation in virtue requires that we sometimes freely go wrong.

Option (1) might look plausible because of the massive level of intervention that would apparently be necessary to prevent all wrongdoing. However, I think this appearance is misleading. Judicious intervention at the right points could prevent the formation of evil habits and maximize the amount of the time humans freely go right without divine intervention.

I'm rather sympathetic to option (2) myself: I'm an ethical Kantian and I think the Kantian ethical framework applies to God as well as humans. In this framework respect for autonomy is the core of ethics. So it seems plausible to me that, if God is morally perfect, God never overrides free will, no matter how bad the results. (However, that doesn't prevent God from sometimes preventing a free choice from having its effect, and so it doesn't explain why God doesn't prevent more bad effects.) Interestingly, though, it seems that a compatibilist could say this too. The compatibilist can say: God created us, our finite and imperfect natures being what they are, and it would be wrong for God to override our free will, hence the world is as it is.

Option (3) is really a version of the 'soul-making' theodicy, and it seems, again, to be available to the compatibilist.

I'm agnostic about libertarianism and skeptical about Plantinga's free will defence anyway, so I don't take this to refute Zagzebski's view. However, it seems to me that, with respect to the viability of the free will defence, Zagzebski's 'Frankfurt libertarianism' has no advantage over compatibilism.

Posted by Kenny at October 30, 2018 5:03 PM
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"According to one version of the free will defence, the answer is that such a policy would remove alternate possibilities, and so would be inconsistent with free will, and so would be inconsistent with moral responsibility, and would therefore eliminate moral goodness within the creaturely realm. But Zagzebski cannot say this.... Zagzebski's 'Frankfurt libertarianism' has no advantage over compatibilism."

To build on your point: It seems like Lewis' version of compatibilism would fare even better with respect to the freewill defense than Zagzebski's libertarianism. And Lewis' view, it seems to me, fares just as well as regular libertarianism.

If I remember Lewis' view right, we can have the ability to do otherwise even if determinism is true. But that doesn't mean that any way at all in which we are determined is compatible with the ability to do otherwise.

And if there is a counterfactual intervener with a policy of intervening throughout all of history to prevent all evil, that would rule out our ability to do evil and so rob us of the freedom to do evil.

So even on Lewis style comaptibilism, God has to allow evil with enough frequency. Otherwise we never freely choose good over evil.

Posted by: Scott Hill at November 3, 2018 5:36 PM

I'm not sure whether that's right. If the intervener's policy is contingent, then maybe we can use Lewis's backtracking strategy: if you were going to do otherwise, then the intervener would have to have had a different policy. On the other hand, if the intervener's strategy counts as a law, then I guess they won't count as free on Lewis's view. The counterfactuals involve miracles, but they don't involve actually changing the laws. So the details are going to matter here.

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at November 3, 2018 5:42 PM

Yeah. I think you're right that it would be trickier to make a Lewis compatibilist freewill defense work than I make it sound in the original post.

One thought about this, however: "If the intervener's policy is contingent, then maybe we can use Lewis's backtracking strategy: if you were going to do otherwise, then the intervener would have to have had a different policy."

It seems like there should be a parity about what Lewis says regarding the intervener in Frankfurt's example and the case in which God intervenes.

I would have thought that Lewis would say in a standard Frankfurt case we aren't free (I may be wrong as i don't know the literature well enough). So we wouldn't use the backtracking counterfactual in the standard case even though the standard Frankfurt intervener's action is contingent. And so maybe we shouldn't use it in the God case.

However, I grant your point that this won't be as easy to work out as I suggested.

Posted by: Scott Hill at November 3, 2018 6:08 PM

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