May 11, 2010

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Leibniz + Adams = Calvinist Theodicy

As I have said before, it is my belief that revealed theology cannot resolve the Calvinist-Arminian debate. Both views (at least in their moderate forms) are both plausible and orthodox; any reason to prefer one to the other will be a philosophical reason, a conclusion of fallible human reason. With this understanding of revealed theology in mind, I reject Calvinism on philosophical grounds, one of which is that I think Calvinism has an extremely difficult time with the problem of evil.

In a recent post, The Problem of Evil 101, at Reason From Scripture, Nathanael Taylor presents a 'Reformed' response to the problem of evil which exhibits some of the problems I am worried about. On Nathanael's view, it seems to me, God "does evil that good may come" (Rom. 3:8). God creates a world full of sin so he can show his grace by redeeming it; he creates unredeemed people so he can demonstrate his justice by punishing them. Furthermore (this point might seem a little nitpicky, but I think it's important), in trying to make it sound plausible that the demonstration of these attributes is a justifying reason for God to allow evil, Nathanael comes close to implying that God has to act this way in order to have these attributes, as if he wouldn't have them if he didn't create a world: "All of these great things about God get maximized when evil is in the picture and so it brings God's Glory and hence this could be another morally sufficient reason for why evil exists." In fact, though, even if we accept everything else Nathanael says, along with his Calvinist presuppositions, a world without evil would mean that these divine attributes were less clearly demonstrated, not that they were diminished or lacking. Is the clear demonstration of these attributes really a justifying reason?

That said, when I was reading Nathanael's post, a strategy for improving this line of thought came to mind which I hadn't though of before. Let me explain:

The word 'theodicy' was coined by G. W. Leibniz as a title for his book (which, by the way, is 300 years old this year). There are a number of strains in Leibniz's thought on the subject. For instance, one important aspect is the use of a proto-Kantian theory of practical rationality - according to which what it means to be practically rational is to consistently act according to rules - to argue that consistency considerations will trump considerations of, e.g., suffering. (An orderly world with lots of suffering is better than a disorderly world with less suffering.) However, in addition to this line about 'global' theodicy, Leibniz wants to defend the claim that no individual has a just complaint against God. Leibniz defends this claim by endorsing a radical essentialism: if anything in the total history of your life or the world were different, you wouldn't exist. Leibniz (who, in addition to inventing the word 'theodicy' invented the possible worlds semantics for counterfactuals) analyzes plain language counterfactuals by means of a counterpart theory, but denies that what happens to your counterpart is relevant to these theodician issues. So suppose an individual complains about some event e (say, being sent to hell) happening to her; according to Leibniz, she has no just complaint against God, because if e didn't occur, she wouldn't exist, and it doesn't make any sense for someone to say that God has wronged them by making them exist.

Now, in addition to this whole picture being wildly implausible, it would seem to be contradicted by Scripture which says that it would be better for Judas if he had never been born (Mark 14:21). So Leibniz's strong thesis must be wrong. Furthermore, Leibniz argues that God must create the best possible world and, therefore, this must be it. But surely that's wrong too.

Enter philosopher and Leibniz scholar Robert Adams. In a famous (and generally awesome) paper from 1972 entitled, "Must God Create the Best?", Adams argues, against Leibniz, that the Judeo-Christian God would not create the best possible world. This is because, Adams says, the Judeo-Christian God is characterized by the virtue of grace. (This is primarily a Christian emphasis, but throughout the paper Adams says 'Judeo-Christian' because his main text is Psalm 8.) Adams suggests that God might show grace by creating creatures who don't deserve to exist. Why might God's creatures not deserve to exist? Because they are not part of the best possible world.

Now, suppose we adopt a weakened Leibnizian thesis, the thesis that all actual human beings (though perhaps not all possible human beings) exhibit the modal property known as trans-world depravity, the property of being a sinner in every world in which they exist. This isn't the strong essentialist claim that if anything about my history was different I wouldn't be me; it's the weaker claim that anyone who was morally perfect would be so radically different from me that he would have to be a different person. Honestly, that sounds pretty plausible to me. So God acts graciously by creating a world in which only people who don't deserve to exist exist. Why only such people? Because if someone who would also exist in the best possible world existed in the actual world, that person would have a just complaint against God; that person's suffering would be unjustified. We could even make the stronger claim that the world that exists is the best world in which any of us exist, but we need not do so for this strategy to work.

So what goes on with this view, and how does it differ from Nathanael's? (I should note that Nathanael only gives a sketch of his view, so he might intend something like this all along.) The most important difference is that it is not the case that God makes the people who exist sinners in order to demonstrate his grace toward them. Rather, God acts graciously in creating people who are necessarily sinners, and for that reason don't deserve to exist. He acts all the more graciously by redeeming some of them. (We need the assumption that although I couldn't exist and be morally perfect throughout my whole existence, it is still possible, at least by miracle, for me to become morally perfect without losing my identity.) So while Nathanael says that "God ordains humans to choose to sin," the view under consideration says that God chooses from among all the possible creatures he could create to create you and I, despite our depravity. The latter sounds like a good candidate for a gracious act; the former doesn't.

At least so it seems to me. But I still think we're better off with the good old free will theodicy, as long as we can make metaphysical libertarianism work.

Posted by Kenny at May 11, 2010 2:26 PM
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Hello Kenny,

I am really glad that you took the time to write this really interesting and engaging post. Your writing is really clear and you make some interesting points. For some points of clarification: I would say that a possible world in which creatures are morally perfect and were there is no sin is equally great with a possible world in which there is sin that God redeems us from. Both worlds are equally great and God is morally justified in actualizing both worlds. It just so happens that God actualized a world were sin exists were he can show his grace and mercy through Jesus Christ. A possible world in which God does not show this to his grace to creatures because there is no sin is equally good to a possible world in which he shows his grace were there is sin.

This needs to be clarified because I do believe I never came close to suggesting that God has to act this way.

The Romans 3:8 reference applies to creatures and not to the creator.

The divine properties of God do not need to be demonstrated to creatures, but it is a good thing if they are (in fact a morally justifying good). God does not lack in the quality of the property if he does not demonstrate them to his creatures.

The atheist on my blog thought the attributes of God seemed like a morally justifying reason whereas he could not see how libertarian freedom could be. I think both provide a morally sufficient reason. It is not hard to see that God showing himself to his creatures in different ways is not a morally justifying reason because after all God is the greatest possible being which entails that he is the greatest possible good. Displaying the greatest possible good to another seems pretty clearly to be a morally justifying reason for allowing it seems to me.

My problems with libertarian are actually both biblical and philosophical. I think that libertarian free will in creatures compromise God as the greatest possible being because it is logically impossible with a robust view of divine aseity. I obviously think that God has libertarian free will. Thank you for your time.

God Bless,


Posted by: Nathanael Taylor at May 11, 2010 8:30 PM

Hey Kenny,

I made a few typos in my last post. I apologize..finals are really wearing out my mind.

Below is the typo:

***A possible world in which God does not show this to his grace to creatures because there is no sin is equally good to a possible world in which he shows his grace were there is sin.****

I meant to say: A possible world x in which God does not show this grace to his creatures is because of the contingent fact that there is no sin. A possible world y is equally good to x in which there is the contingent fact of sin and God shows his grace.

Oh and I meant my problems with *libertarianism*

I do not have the modal intuition that transworld depravity is true. Why would God creature human nature essentially sinful in every possible world? Why think that it would be essential to human nature? Does not the existence of Jesus Christ show that a person can be essential human and yet not have a sinful nature? Lastly, if it is logically necessary (in the broad sense) that human's are sinful by nature then even on the most harshest compatiblist account they would not be blameworthy.

Sorry for the typos,


Posted by: Nathanael Taylor at May 11, 2010 10:54 PM

Hi Nathanael,

Thanks for stopping by. I understand about finals - I'm doing my last round of editing on my last term paper tomorrow!

I hope that I have not mischaracterized your view too badly. I know that you certainly didn't intend to endorse the view that I said you "come close to implying"; no one wants to endorse that view, which is why I wanted to point out that some of the things you said sounded that way.

The possibility that there is not a unique best possible world is an important one. I didn't bring that into this short post, but I can see now that perhaps I should have; it does help to make your view look more plausible.

I didn't intend to use Rom. 3:8 to support my view, per se; I just meant to say that your view (and, indeed, standard Calvinist views) seem to have God rejecting a plausible moral principle, and I thought St. Paul gave a good formulation of that principle - namely, that we shouldn't "do evil that good may come." Now, there are enormous morally significant differences between God's position and ours, so perhaps this general principle isn't applicable to God. It seems to me that Christianity makes the most sense under the assumption of a full-blooded non-consequentialism, but many smart people disagree with that claim.

In my post I said that the view didn't need the claim that all possible human beings exhibit transworld depravity. In fact, for the reasons you give (and others), we shouldn't say that. The claim isn't that anyone who is morally perfect wouldn't be human (that's false), but that anyone who was morally perfect throughout the entirety of his existence wouldn't be me (or you, or any of the other mere human beings that have lived). That claim seems plausible to me, and it seems that on compatibilist assumptions we can still get freedom/responsibility. For instance, we can still have counterfactual dependence: if I willed to do good (in any particular case), I would do good (in that particular case). Now, on this view, the statement 'if I always willed to do good, I would always do good' will be a counterpossible rather than merely a counterfactual, but I happen to think that counterpossibles can be non-vacuously true, so that's fine.

Posted by: Kenny at May 11, 2010 11:20 PM

Hello Kenny,

After reflecting upon it more I grant your point about counterpossibles and compatiblism.

I have different intuitions about my own identity and being moral perfect which leave it hard for me to buy the compatiblist version of transworld depravity (which is why I did not use it in my defense). In heaven I will stop sinning forever and that really does not seem to alter my identity. Of course you can say that it was sinning earlier that made it essential to my identity. But I have no reason for thinking that. In fact I have a modal intuition of myself existing in another possible world and myself never sinning. This seem logically possible to me. But I guess people just have different intuitions on this score.

Why could not God create a world with all the human natures that are forever sinless (different natures other than ourselves)? I cannot really see why that would be logically impossible. In other words, while on your theory it is true that every world God creates he has to create humans that are sinful then why is this logically necessary that he does this? Why is it logically impossible that God make all humans not sinful? But it really could be that I am missing something here.

God Bless,


Posted by: Nathanael Taylor at May 12, 2010 1:09 AM

That's not the way my story goes. In my story, there IS a best possible world, and it may well be populated by sinless humans. God could have made that world. But instead of creating that world, God exercises grace toward us by creating us despite the fact that we don't deserve to exist. The claim is that this isn't the best possible world, but a world that has me (and people like me) in it couldn't really be much better than this one. Further the claim is that the only way I - not someone a lot like me, but me - can be morally perfect is to start out sinful and be redeemed by God. So, on this picture, God exercises grace by creating people who don't deserve to exist and making things as good as possible for those people (who don't deserve that things should go well for them).

This seems better to me than the claim that God could have made a world in which I was morally perfect, but didn't because he wanted to exercise grace toward me. That view seems like God is not only doing evil that good may come, but actually being nasty to me in order to be nice to me. And not just any kind of nasty. Socrates is right: it is always better to be a sufferer of injustice than a doer of it. But on this picture God has made me a doer of injustice so that he can redeem me. That seems bad. But if the only way I can exist is if I am (at some point in my existence) a doer of injustice, and the only way I can be morally perfect is to start out bad and be transformed to the good by God, then it seems like God is treating me very well - much better than I deserve - and so this seems like a good candidate for a gracious course of action.

Posted by: Kenny at May 12, 2010 9:49 AM

Hello Kenny,

I've always thought that God being the greatest possible being entailed that if there were a greatest possible world he would actualize it. Otherwise, I could think of a greater being namely a being that brings about the greatest possible world (although maybe he cannot because it is not feasible for God is the only way I can see out of this). What do you think about that?

When you are speaking about this are you speaking from a perspective of how I might improve a compatiblist defense for the problem of evil or a Libertarian defense? I know you are a Libertarian, but I've been confused about who's defense you have been speaking of: mine or yours? Does your defense assume molinism? Or do you hold to another resolution to the problem of foreknowledge and free will?

Also how can someone start off sinful? Do you think sin is a stuff or something that is real apart from an action that goes against the prescribed will of God?

Also it seems like if God were to directly create us bad that we would not choose to do bad. God directly causes evil which is something that would make the most extreme calvinist uncomfortable. This seems logically incompatible with perfect being theology. But I am unclear if this is referring to beings after the fall or prior to....or do you even buy that whole story?

I would agree with Socrates principle in general. But I am a divine consequentialist and I think it's perfectly legitimate that God can strongly actualize us to freely choose to sin so that he might show his grace to us. This is all for the purpose of God showing us more of the greater good. This line of ethical reason is perfectly legitimate, but this is only if one shares consequentialist intuitions with respect to God. This is a very interesting discussion. Thank you for your time.

God Bless,


Posted by: Nathanael Taylor at May 12, 2010 10:23 AM

(1) When you get a chance (post-finals), read the Adams paper, arguing that God wouldn't create the best possible world. I'm not sure it's 100% compelling, but it's extremely interesting and it's a view worth taking seriously. It's on JSTOR so you probably have access through your university.

(2) This is supposed to be a suggestion for how to improve compatibilist approaches to theodicy. Not necessarily your approach in particular, but compatibilist approaches in general. Now, I will say that I have recently been considering compatibilism fairly seriously, but I haven't been convinced as yet.

(3) Middle knowledge is unproblematic for compatibilists, so we might as well assume it, right?

(4) By 'sinful' I don't mean having committed particular acts of sin, but rather lacking moral perfection (as a character trait). We should certainly say something about the Fall. I have heard of some Calvinists believing that Adam had libertarian freedom prior to the Fall, but none of the Calvinists I talk to believe this; they are all compatibilists beginning to end. I assume you are too, because otherwise you could use a free will theodicy. So on standard Calvinist views, God creates Adam, and Adam is such that he will sin. If he willed otherwise he would do otherwise, but he can't will otherwise (without the initial conditions being different). (This, by the way, is one of the things I find implausible about the whole picture.) How is this different than what I am proposing?

(5) Hopefully we don't need to get into detailed discussions of ethical theory, but I lean toward a Kantian view. Naive consequentialism has no hope of getting God off the hook for the evil in the world, but maybe a more sophisticated consequentialism can, or maybe its just that you think this world does have the best consequences (I find the latter extremely implausible). I still think the best bet is to combine non-consequentialism with libertarianism: creating libertarian-free beings is the right thing for God to do despite its (contingent) bad consequences.

Posted by: Kenny at May 12, 2010 10:52 AM

Hello Kenny,

Here are my responses to your five points. Sorry it took me so long. I had to pull an all nighter for a paper so I obviously did not have any time to blog.

1) I will do Kenny. Thank you for the reference.

2) I’ve gone back and forth on compatibilism myself. I went from compatibilist to Molinist-Libertarian to semi-compatibilist to compatibilist…so it’s a difficult issue to work through. Perfect Being theology and comparing the strength of my libertarian intuitions brought me back to compatibilism.

3) Compatibilists that reject libertarian free will in creatures cannot logically hold to middle knowledge. This is because middle knowledge is simply the thesis that there is a Divine knowledge of counter factual creaturely libertarianly free actions that is neither of the free nor natural knowledge. All deterministic counter factuals belong to the natural knowledge of God.

4) The way you were using sinful seems to be equivocal to how I was using it. When I say sinful I mean actions that go against the commandments of God. I use to think that Adam had Libertarian free will before the fall, but after years of reflection I change my position (I was a Calvinist at the time). I would say that God makes man morally perfect at creation, but not immutably, necessarily, and permanently perfect. Adam will remain to be morally perfect so long as 1) God causally sustains him to be so and 2) if Adam is not tempted. But God made it so that if he were to remove this causally good sustaining activity and put Adam in tempting situation then Adam would freely sin. God did this in the actual world and it was for a morally sufficient reason which is either beyond our comprehension or it is not (my point in saying this is to soften the blunt of the problem of evil). The way you were describing it sounded as if God makes us defective and lacking moral perfection when Adam was created. My problem with this: clearly contradict Anselmian reasoning and Genesis 1 when God said that everything he made was good. The greatest possible being would be a being that would only make his creation good rather than not good.

5) What are the problems with naïve consequentialism and how are the more sophisticated versions avoid this? I would say that this world in the end has the best consequences but other worlds have also equally best consequences. I wonder at times if one need be a consequentialist to take my approach (although I am one).

Lets us suppose (suppose that Libertarianism is true) that someone had this intuition: A world x in which there are biologically determined creatures that are programmed to be only perfect by God and they get rewarded greatly and eternally out of kindness not obligation by God because they are not morally responsible. There is no suffering and evil in this world.

A world x* is a world were creatures are free, but this at the cost of suffering and evil. This is okay because God values libertarian free will such that God is not blameworthy for the evil that he allows.

So suppose someone had the intuition that x and x* were both equally good possible worlds and God would be morally good if he created either one. Notice how I did not use any sort of consequentialist reasoning here. I say this to show that it could be that my view is compatible with this.

Suppose there are two worlds here: y and y*

y: There is a world in which God strongly actualizes that all persons are perfect and there is no sin nor suffering.

y*: There is a world of sin, suffering, and death, but God strongly actualizes this because he shows his grace and mercy. God values grace and mercy so he brings about sin and suffering and is not blameworthy. This is the right thing for God to do.

I believe both y and y* are both equally good here and I do not see that I have used any consequentialist reason to justify this conclusion.

What do you think?

God Bless,


Posted by: Nathanael Taylor at May 15, 2010 1:03 AM

On (3) - I was using 'middle knowledge' to refer simply to the view that God knows counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, without respect to a particular theory of freedom. I'm not entirely sure what the standard usage is; I'm vaguely aware that there is a subtle difference between the correct historical usage and the current philosophical usage. Anyway, all I meant to say is that the account depends on God knowing counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, but that isn't a problem because on compatibilism God obviously does know them.

On (4) - These are, in general, complicated and important issues, but I'm not clear on how they are related to the current discussion. Do you think they are relevant? If so, how?

On (5) - My point was just that the following three claims form an inconsistent triad:

(a) God is morally perfect
(b) There is some possible world which is better than the actual world.
(c) Pure consequentialism is true

By 'pure consequentialism' I mean the theory that the goodness of an action is entirely determined by the goodness of its total consequences. So on pure consequentialism, God's creation of the world is judged to be good or bad to the degree that the world as a whole is good or bad. This is where the inconsistency comes from. Now, I don't think (c) is plausible to begin with, so I don't have any problem here. I get the impression that you want to deny (b) - you want to say that the actual world is one of a set of best possible worlds, which are all equally good. Is that right? (Another note: Swinburne, in The Christian God, discusses the possibility that, e.g., worlds with greater finite numbers of free beings are better, and so no matter what world was created there would always be a better one; this claim, plus pure consequentialism, would render moral perfection impossible.)

As far as the comparison of worlds, I just don't think I share your intuitions.

Posted by: Kenny at May 15, 2010 3:38 PM

Hello Kenny,

With respect to 3: On a Calvinist view of divine freedom and counter factuals God does know them, but the type of knowledge he has of them is called the natural knowledge of God rather than the middle knowledge of God. There is no real distinction in the historical usage and contemporary philosophical usage. There however some Theologians who are baptist Calvinists who think they hold to middle knowledge because they believe in compatiblist counter factuals, but they are just confused (Bruce Ware). I am not trying to be nit picky here...I am just trying to be helpful for when you are actually discussing this with someone who matters.

With respect to 4: You have said previously: "(This, by the way, is one of the things I find implausible about the whole picture.) How is this different than what I am proposing?"

And also: "Do you think they are relevant? If so, how?"

I was trying to do two things: 1) Show how my story was different, and 2) show how my story is plausible.

With respect 5: You are right in thinking that I hold to a and b. With respect to swinburnes interesting paradox of how a possible world could always be better:

It seems intuitively unclear how many persons the greatest possible being would create or not create (which would mean it is intuitively unclear if a world would be better if it had more or less creatures in it), so I do not find it decisive against my perspective. There are some things the Anselmian can say about God that are clear (God is just) while admitting that there are somethings that are intuitively unclear (like how many persons are in one substance for example).

If one did not find this plausible then perhaps one could say that God good acts which are ethically justified consequentially could only be applied to things that God could do and that since God could never make a world with the greatest amount of persons then this has no effect on his goodness.

"As far as the comparison of worlds, I just don't think I share your intuitions."

My point was not for you to agree or disagree with my intuitions, but to merely show that I can hold to my solution to the problem of evil without being a consequentialist (although I am).

This is clear when I said the following:

"I believe both y and y* are both equally good here and I do not see that I have used any consequentialist reason to justify this conclusion."

As a philosopher you know that one wants to have many coherent theories available and compatible with your story that way when theory particular fails then the general story which you find reasonable as a whole is not defeated.

These I like to think are general escape routes. It's sort of like when you show a libertarian that PAP is false and he just adjusts his view to source incompatiblism.

Thanks again for your time Kenny.

God Bless,


Posted by: Nathanael Taylor at May 16, 2010 2:50 PM

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