August 11, 2010

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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.

Some Odd Brute Contingincies in Plantinga's Free Will Defense

Once upon a time, many philosophers believed that there was a logical problem of evil. That is, it was held that the (obviously true) proposition that there is some evil in the world logically entails that there is no God. (Where God is conceived as omnipotent and perfectly good.) I imagine that a lot of philosophers still believe this, but today few are arguing for it in print. Instead, atheist philosophers now typically put forth an evidentiary problem of evil. That is, they propound an argument something like this:

  1. The more evil there is, the less likely it is that there is a God.

  2. There is lots of evil.

  3. Therefore,
  4. There is probably no God.

(Of course there are many more sophisticated versions, but this captures the basic intuition.) The primary reason for this shift is the Free Will Defense (FWD), especially as propounded by Alvin Plantinga. Now, the reason I imagine a lot of philosophers still think there is a logical problem of evil, is that FWD contains some premises that a lot of philosophers think are necessarily false; the most notable are the claim that there could be beings with libertarian free will, and the claim that a world with (libertarianly) free beings is much better than one without. However, FWD puts the theist in a strong dialectical position: it makes it difficult to actually show a contradiction in the theist's position.

All this by way of introduction. What I want to do in this post is to draw attention to a really odd feature of the highly technical version of FWD which appears in chapter 9 of Plantinga's 1974 The Nature of Necessity (henceforth NN). I'll try to make my exposition non-technical, but I won't succeed.

Plantinga characterizes the relevant notion of a 'defense' as follows:

one way to show that a proposition p is consistent with a proposition q, is to produce a third proposition r whose conjunction with p is consistent and entails q (NN 165).

Here is a less technical explanation. Suppose I want to show that p and q are consistent - that is, that there is at least one way the world could have been, such that p and q would both be true. One way of showing that this is the case is to describe a way the world could have been. So, for instance, suppose that (for some reason) I wanted to show that the Vice President's being a woman is consistent with the Vice President's being from Alaska. All I would have to do is to point out that McCain could have been elected in '08, and, if he had, then the Vice President would have been a woman and the Vice President would have been from Alaska. So the two are consistent. To translate this back into Plantinga's p, q, and r, p would be the Vice President's being a woman, q would be the Vice President's being from Alaska, and r would be the conjunction of the (false) proposition that McCain won the election with the (true) proposition that if McCain won, a woman from Alaska would be Vice President. r by itself entails q, so p and r together entail q.

Note that the proposition r I used is merely possible; it's a way things could have been, but aren't. What we want to do is come up with a way that things could be, such that if things were that way, God would exist and evil would exist. Plantinga suggests the following two propositions:

(31) Every essence suffers from transworld depravity
(32) God actualizes a world containing moral good (NN 189).

(The numbering is Plantinga's.) (31) needs some explanation. An essence of an object x is a property P such that in every world where x exists x has P, and there is no world in which anything other than x has P. Plantinga uses the term 'property' very broadly so, for instance, there is such a property as being identical with Socrates. This guarantees that everything has at least one essence. In fact, because Plantinga also believes in world-indexed properties (the property of having such-and-such property in such-and-such world), everything has infinitely many essences. However, every essence of a thing entails all of its other essences. (See NN ch. 5 for the arguments.) Transworld depravity of essences is defined as follows:
An essence E suffers from transworld depravity if and only if for every world W such that E entails the properties is significantly free in W and always does what is right in W, there is a state of affairs T and an action A such that
  1. T is the largest state of affairs God strongly actualizes in W,

  2. A is morally significant for E's instantiation in W,

  3. and
  4. if God had strongly actualized T, E's instantiation would have gone wrong with respect to A (NN 188).

Now this is all very technical, but this is the upshot: beings with libertarian freedom are beings such that nothing apart from their choices - not even God - determines their actions (at least those actions they freely choose). So all God can do is to put such a being in a particular situation (that's what's meant by his strongly actualizing T) and let that being act. Even though it's logically possible that the being freely choose rightly, it's logically impossible that God make the being freely choose rightly; it is a contradiction to say that someone is made to (libertarianly) freely choose a particular way. Now, Plantinga says, it is possible that if God created any libertarianly free beings, no matter how many or how few, some of them would act immorally some of the time.

But here's the weird thing: transworld depravity is a contingent feature. It's obvious that it is so, because the beings in question could always choose rightly, and if they did, then they clearly wouldn't be transworld depraved. Plantinga explicitly points this out (NN 188). This gives rise to what is known as the grounding objection - the question of what makes claims about transworld depravity or, more generally, claims about what free beings would do in non-actual circumstances, true - in an especially acute form.

Plantinga says that on his view, "the power of an omnipotent God [is] limited by the freedom he confers upon his creatures" (190). This isn't so bad (though some find it objectionable), but consider the following case: It seems that on Plantinga's view there is a possible world in which God decides to make free beings only if he can create a world in which the choose rightly all the time. In fact, because of contingent facts about what the creatures would do in the situations God could bring about, it is not possible for God to do this. So he doesn't create any free beings.

Now, in this scenario, God's power is obviously limited somehow: there was a possible world he wanted to create and couldn't. But what's doing the limiting? And why was it limited in the way it was? What explains the difference between the world described and the one in which God can and does create free beings who choose rightly all the time?

Plantinga is at pains to say that it is only because God freely chose to create free beings that God's power is limited, but this isn't actually true on the view he describes. No matter what world God created, there would have been facts independent of God's will about which worlds involving free beings God could or couldn't have created. How do these facts spring into being?

The standard grounding objection has to do with counterfactuals about the free choices of actual free beings. That's bad enough. But at least there are bearers for the properties. Maybe, in the actual world, I (somehow) have the property being such that I wouldn't agree to commit murder for any price. But here we have counterfactuals of freedom about beings that don't even exist, and the contingent truth values of those counterfactuals limiting God's power. This is, to put it mildly, pretty bizarre.

Posted by Kenny at August 11, 2010 9:32 PM
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