Free Choice and the Problem of Evil: A Compatibilist Approach

Man can indeed do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.

—Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Freedom of the Will

This is a previously unpublished essay I wrote earlier in 2016 in response to a challenge posed by a close circle of friends to articulate my compatibilist view on free choice.

Quid est veritas? What is the truth? I humbly believe this is the mother of all questions and not Hamlet’s beautifully phrased ontological question, “To be, or not to be?” Instead of inquiring the sources of truth, we often find ourselves asking questions, such as “If God exists, why is there so much evil in the world?” Or, even the more daring question, “If God exists, do we really have freedom to choose?”

It justly seems that if there is an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God, evil should have no place in this world. That conclusion is due to the oft undisputed premise that God is inherently good, or, that God is not evil. Too, God alone would run the show without the obvious need of assigning choices to our lives. On the other hand, if God does not exist, nature would run the cruel show blindly and deterministically, without the proviso of free choice.

It seems there is no way out, whichever perspective you adopt. However, attacking the question with these two extremes — the first belonging to the Christian fundamentalist and the second to the atheist fundamentalist — is a myopic way of attempting to understand the story. (I define a religious fundamentalist, without loss of generality, as a person who absolutely holds the view that God exists; whereas the atheist fundamentalist is the person who absolutely holds the view that there is no God. Obviously, the two extremes are salient in our societies. More on these definitions here.) On one side, the Christian fundamentalist will paradoxically countenance the notion of free choice in the presence of God, despite the latter’s ability of foresight, by rejecting the deterministic world where the atheist fundamentalist dwells. On the other hand, the atheist fundamentalist will reject the notion of free choice in the presence of God because it is just impossible to attain, given God’s ability to control our lives with foresight.

Yet, both of these extreme views are pregnant with dialectical tensions once their proponents realize that the set of possible choices is finite (in the case of a deterministic worldview) or countably infinite (in the case when God runs the world) and that the definition of free choice must comply with the existence of such sets. It is my view that free choice is compatible with either worldview — deterministic or Godly. This compatibilist perspective yields a higher degree of free choice when the set of choices is countably infinite, as I shall argue below. Furthermore, I conclude that the problem of evil can be resolved once one assumes a compatibilist worldview with respect to free choice, but only in the context of the worldview that we, humans, are given a set of countably infinite choices from which to exert our free choice power.

Here’s the story. At every moment in time, before I take the next step, I pause to make a decision at my current state of affairs. That pause could be instantaneous, or could last much longer. Once I make a decision, I bring about my next state of affairs, hoping, of course, it is better than the previous. I go on making decisions until the end of my life. So do you. So does everyone else in this world, every other conscious being, that is.

It seems reasonable, therefore, to model life as a decision tree. Each node of the tree is a decision point at a particular state of affairs, a question that demands a decision. Each branch of the tree is a path yielded by the decision made at that point. At each decision point, you may choose to take one, and only one, of the possible paths, and walk onto the next decision point, and so on until you essentially reach the end of your conscious life. (It is redundant to explain here why solely decisions made consciously are relevant to the topic of the freedom to choose. When one is asleep or mentally incapable of making decisions, the concept of free choice does not apply; perhaps a model of random, Brownian motion-like choices would take effect.) At any rate, one’s life seems to be merely a path constructed from one’s decision tree along with the decision points that constitute that path.

That moment when you are about to make a decision is quite powerful. Which of the possible resulting paths is the right one, and what does ‘right’ even mean to you? What do you need to be equipped with in order to make the most reasonable decision? How do you know what your next decision point will be once you choose to walk on this, rather than that, path on your tree of life? Clearly, your decision is affected by a reasonably large number of factors, most of which you may not have even taken into account. In a mechanistic worldview, such as is the one where nature runs this worldly show, there are many deterministic factors that bring about a specific configuration of your tree of life. You couldn’t possibly have a tree other than the one you are in right now because of the inherent mechanistic nature of the universe: The Goldilocks constants, the universal laws of physics, the continuous biological changes on your life, the friend that gave you wrong advice, and a million other events happen to bring about a specific configuration of your decision tree, which seems to be unique to you. I have my own decision tree, which again has been molded by another large set of factors within the same mechanistic universe we both share. Consider, for example, the process of natural selection. Nature decides whether to let a cell live or not. Over millions of years of such decision-making processes, here we are in this great show on earth. Do you, then, have freedom to choose if, no matter what, some deterministic mechanism is constantly shaping your life? On the other hand, if God runs this worldly show and has the foreknowledge of which path of your decision tree is good for you, how can you have free choice with such predestination? Is there another explanation?

Suppose, for the sake of simplicity, the decision trees in our lives are binary. In other words, at each decision point we are presented with two choices – this or that, the left path or the right path, the right path or the wrong path, the wisely chosen path or the unwisely chosen path. We are, in a strict sense, free to choose this or that, despite the very limited number of choices (only two!). Next, suppose we have a finite number of choices to make at each decision point (for example, one hundred choices). We may conclude our degrees of freedom have increased, we seem to be more free to choose than before. Now, suppose we have a countably infinite number of choices to make. We could go on forever exploring the choices, but we would never get to the end because our life is limited by time. In this case, we would think we are truly free. But are we really truly free? Is there a difference between a binary decision tree and one with a countably infinite number of choices, be it in a mechanistic world view or in the presence of God?

The astute reader will conclude that whether we are presented with two, three, or many decisions, we would still be able, in theory, to enumerate them all before transitioning to the next state of affairs in our decision tree. In other words, we are given only that many options to choose from, so there really isn’t any free choice because we could potentially predict all such choices and they could potentially occur with some probability. We are constrained or confined to choose from an enumerated set of predetermined paths on our decision tree. Determinism seems to make free choice irrelevant. This situation could perhaps be explained by the following thought experiment. A prisoner confined to a tiny cell has a very limited number of decisions to make. He can walk around the cell until his feet hurt, he can read, he can sing, he can whistle, he can go on a strike, or he can do nothing but remain seated. Whichever decision he makes he can only find himself in one of a few states of affairs. Even more scandalous is the state of affairs of the prisoner in Plato’s cave – he has but one choice: to look at the shadows of the objects the pernicious philosophers are bringing about. In Plato’s cave determinism is obvious, but in the tiny cell the prisoner’s degree of freedom increases chaotically, but still within a deterministic framework. In neither case may we conclude the prisoners are free. They have no freedom to choose as they are limited by the enumerable decisions they may make. The prisoner’s experiment can be extended to apply to any of us living in a larger cell – planet Earth. In that case, the decision-making ability increases drastically, but is still confined to a deterministic universe. We are no freer than the prisoners in Plato’s cave.

The astute reader would also realize that even if God presented us with infinitely many decision points, we would still be able to enumerate them if we lived eternally. Determinism in this case would constitute the case when God, with His presupposed infinite knowledge, would determine which path out of the infinite possibilities we would choose. Therefore, it is logical to infer that some degree of determinism must necessarily be present in order for the freedom of choice to exist. This compatibilist worldview, where free choice and determinism coexist peacefully, is by no means logically inconsistent, as the discussion hitherto has highlighted. Whether it is the laws of physics or God, determinism is necessary for free choice.

As paradoxical as it may present itself, I conclude that we have the most freedom to choose when we are presented with a set of choices of practically large cardinality, and nature appears to be sufficient in providing such a large set as contrasted with the more daring assumption that God runs the show. Furthermore, the view I’ve presented happens to assist us in regards to the following question: How are we, then, to tackle the problem of evil within a compatibilist worldview? With all the misery in our world, where some lives appear to matter more than others, where unfaithfulness permeates even the sincerest of relationships, one cannot help recalling the question posed by theodicy: How are we to reconcile the our existence with the ubiquitous evil in the world, especially without the assumption of God (for, otherwise, we could claim that with God everything, including evil, is possible)? According to the compatibilist worldview, there must have been a decision point in the forest of decision trees, in which a decision was made to pursue a path on the side of the unjust, but which was provided to us as a possible path in the set of choices mentioned above. We have, therefore, the option to choose a relatively evil path given the current state of affairs in our decision trees. Because evil is not a separate antagonistic divine agency, but simply a possible path in our lives that causes grief to other fellows, then it is us who choose to pursue that path, rather than nature imposing it onto us. If nature eliminated that path from the set of decision points, we would be no freer than the prisoners in Plato’s cave. The strength of the freedom to choose good over evil empowers us with the ability to mature in wisdom so as to make a wise decision by suppressing the inclination to choose the evil path. When we choose an evil path, we tend to create a divine agency on which to blame it instead of attributing it to our ability to make a proper decision collectively.

The question of theodicy becomes, therefore, redundant. It is our choice that brings about a state of affairs where evil is present. The flow is based on the following arguments:

  1. We wield a set of decisions to choose from at a specific point in time.
  2. In that set, we have choices that may hurt us. Call them evil.
  3. We could potentially make an evil decision no less probably than we would make any other decision.
  4. Because we are free to choose from a predefined set of choices, whether it is two choices or infinitely many, then free will requires determinism. This is the compatibilist worldview.
  5. In a compatibilist worldview, we can conclude that evil, brought about by choices made from the predefined set, is compatible with the naturalistic worldview as we have gotten to observe it, and thus does not require any divine agency to explain it any further without complicating the matter.
  6. The elimination of evil from that set of choice would reduce the degrees of freedom to choose in an unfair way. Every choice should have the same chance to be considered in order for a fair treatment of the decision tree. As a result, evil remains a choice in the predetermined set of possible choices.
  7. Because we are free to choose anything, we are free to choose evil for whatever motivation. Consequently, the problem of evil is resolved.

From the conclusion, it is important to note that evil in the world can be diminished if we collectively avoid choosing that particular leading path at every decision point of our individual decision trees. A beautiful forest can be built only if the constituent trees are beautifully maintained. Hence the relativistic characteristic of morality.

If we are merely rational decision-making agents in a mechanical universe with or without God, in that we have to necessarily make a decision at every moment in time, then we have no other choice but to make a choice given the set of possible choices. The only time when we would not be required to make a choice is when we are unconscious, sleeping, catatonic or mentally challenged. In such cases, the next state of affairs would be brought about by random events rather than by conscious choices. Whether conscious or not, the determinism involved in providing the first choice is intrinsic. Only after you have determinism can you start to have free choice. Perhaps the latter proposition could serve as a good conclusion on its own right.


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