Omnipotence and Human Freedom

Prayson Daniel writes about Christian author C. S. Lewis’s attempt to deal with the problem of evil here and here.  Lewis, who suffered tragic loss at an early age, became an atheist when young, but later converted to Christianity.  Lewis directly addressed the challenge of the atheists’ argument — why would an omnipotent and benevolent God allow evil to exist? — in his books The Problem of Pain and Mere Christianity.

Central to Lewis’s argument is the notion that the freedom to do good or evil is essential to being human.  If human beings were always compelled to do good, they would not be free, and thus would be unable to attain genuine happiness.

One way to illustrate the necessity of freedom is to imagine a world in which human beings were unable to commit evil — no violence, no stealing, no lying, no cheating, no betrayal.  At first, such a world might appear to be a paradise.  But the price would be this: essentially we would all be nothing but robots.  Without the ability to commit evil, doing good would have no meaning.  We would do good simply because we were programmed or compelled to do nothing but good.  There would be no choices because there would be no alternatives.  Love and altruism would have no meaning because it wouldn’t be freely chosen.

Let us imagine a slightly different world, a world in which freedom is allowed, but God always intervenes to reward the good and punish the guilty.  No good people ever suffer.  Earthquakes, fires, disease, and other natural disasters injure and kill only those who are guilty of evil.  Those who do good are rewarded with good health, riches, and happiness.  This world seems only slightly better than the world in which we are robots.  In this second world, we are mere zoo animals or pets.  We would be trained by our master to expect treats when we behave and punishment when we misbehave.  Again, doing good would have no meaning in this world — we would simply be advancing our self-interest, under constant, inescapable surveillance and threat of punishment.  In some ways, life in this world would be almost as regimented and monotonous as in the world in which we are compelled to do good.

For these reasons, I find the “free will” argument for the existence of evil largely persuasive when it comes to explaining the existence of evil committed by human beings.  I can even see God as having so much respect for our freedom that he would stand aside even in the face of an enormous crime such as genocide.

However, I think that the free will argument is less persuasive when it comes to accounting for evils committed against human beings by natural forces — earthquakes, fires, floods, disease, etc.  Natural forces don’t have free will in the same sense that human beings do, so why doesn’t God intervene when natural forces threaten life?  Granted, it would be asking too much to expect that natural disasters happen only to the guilty.  But the evils resulting from natural forces seem to be too frequent, too immense, and too random to be attributed to the necessity of freedom.  Why does freedom require the occasional suffering and death of even small children?  It’s hard to believe that small children have even had enough time to live in order to exercise their free will in a meaningful way.

Overall, the scale of divine indifference in cases of natural disaster is too great for me to think that it is part of a larger gift of free will.  For this reason, I am inclined to think that there are limits on God’s power to make a perfect world, even if the freedom accorded to human beings is indeed a gift of God.

A Universe Half Full?

It has often been said that the difference between a pessimist and an optimist is that a pessimist sees a half-poured beverage as a glass half empty, whereas an optimist sees the glass as being half full.  I think the decision to adopt or reject atheism may originate from such a perspective — that is, atheists see the universe as half empty, whereas believers see the universe as half full.  We all go through life experiencing events both good and bad, moments of joy, beauty, and wonder, along with moments of despair, ugliness, and boredom.  When we experience the positive, we may be inclined to attribute purpose and benevolence to the universal order; when we experience the negative, we may be more apt to attribute disorder and meaninglessness to the universe.

So, is it all a matter of perspective?  If we are serious thinkers, we have to reject the conclusion that it is merely a matter of perspective.  Either there is a God or there isn’t.  If we are going to explain the universe, we have to explain everything, good and bad, and not neglect facts that don’t fit.

The case for atheism is fairly straightforward: the facts of science indicate a universe that is not very hospitable to either the emergence of life or the protection of life, which greatly undercuts the case for an intelligent designer.  Most planets have no life, except perhaps for the most primitive, insignificant forms of life.  Where life does exist, life is precarious and cruel; on a daily basis, life forms are attacked and destroyed by hostile physical forces and other life forms.  There is not the slightest historical and archeological evidence of a “golden age” or a “Garden of Eden” which once existed but was lost because of man’s sinfulness; life has always been precarious and cruel.  Even where life has developed, it has developed in a process of very gradual evolution, consisting of much randomness, over the course of billions of years.  And even despite progress after billions of years, life on earth has been subject to occasional mass extinction events, from an asteroid or comet striking the planet, to volcanic eruptions, to dramatic climate change.  Even if one granted that God created life very gradually, the notion that God would allow a dumb rock from space to wipe out the accomplishments of several billions of years of evolution seems inexplicable.

The case for belief in God rests on a contrary claim, namely that order in the universe is too complex and unusual to be explained merely by reference to purposeless physical laws and random events.  It may appear that physical laws operate without apparent purpose, such as when an asteroid causes mass extinction, and evolution certainly consists of many random events.  But there is too much order to subscribe to the view that the universe is nothing but blind laws and random events.  When one studies the development of the stars and planets and their predictable motions, the vast diversity and complexity of life on earth, and the amount of information contained in a single DNA molecule, randomness is not the first thing one thinks of.  Total randomness implies total disorder and a total lack of pattern, but the randomness we see in the universe takes place within a certain structure.  If you roll a die, there are six possible outcomes; if you flip a coin there are two possible outcomes.  Both actions are random, but a structure of order determines the range of possible outcomes.  Likewise, there is randomness and disorder in the universe, but there is a larger structure of order that provides general stability and restricts outcomes.  Mutations take place in life forms, but these mutations are limited and incremental, restricting the range of possible outcomes and allowing the development of new forms of life on top of old forms of life.

Physicists tend to agree that we appear to live in a universe “fine-tuned” for life, in the sense that many physical constants can only exist with certain values, or life would not be able to evolve.  According to Stephen Hawking, “The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and electron. . . . The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”  Physicist Paul Davies writes:

 [L]ife as we know it depends very sensitively on the form of the laws of physics, and on some seemingly fortuitous accidents in the actual values that nature has chosen for various particle masses, force strengths, and so on. . . . [I]f we could play God, and select values for these quantities at whim by twiddling a set of knobs, we would find that almost all knob settings would render the universe uninhabitable.  In some cases it seems as if the different knobs have to be fine-tuned to enormous precision if the universe is to be such that life will flourish. (The Mind of God, pp. 199-200).

The counterargument to the “fine-tuned” argument is that there could exist many universes that self-destruct in a short period of time or don’t have life — we just happen to live in a fine-tuned universe because only a fine-tuned universe can allow the existence of life forms that think about how fine-tuned the universe is!  However, this argument rests on the hypothetical belief that many alternative universes have existed or do exist, and until there is evidence for other universes, it must remain highly speculative.

So how do we reconcile the two sets of facts presented by the atheists and the believers?  On the one hand, the universe appears to allow life to develop only extremely gradually under often hostile conditions, with many setbacks along the way.  On the other hand, the universe appears to be fine-tuned to support life, suggesting some sort of cosmic purpose or intelligence.

In my view, the only way to reconcile the two sets of facts is to conceive of God as being very powerful, but not omnipotent.  (See a previous posting on this subject.)  According to process theology, God’s power is not coercive but persuasive, and God acts over long periods of time to create.  Existing things are not subject to total central control, but God can influence outcomes.

An analogy could be made with the human mind and its control over the body.  It is easy to raise one’s right arm by using one’s thoughts, but to pitch a fastball, play a piano, or make a high-quality sculpture requires a level of coordination and skill that most of us do not have — as well as an extraordinary amount of training and practice.  In the course of life, we attempt many things, but are never successful at all we attempt; in fact, the ambitions in our minds usually outpace our physical abilities.  Some people do not even have the ability to raise their right arm.  The relation of a cosmic mind to the “body” of the universe may be similar in principle.

Some would object that the God of process theology is ridiculously weak.  A God that has only the slightest influence over matter and cannot even stop an asteroid from hitting a planet does not seem like a God worth worshiping or even respecting.  In fact, why do we even need the concept of a weak God — wouldn’t we be better off without it?  I will address this topic in a future posting.