by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D.
Every free-will theodicy of hell (and, for that matter, every free-will defense of it as well) rests upon an incompatibilist (or so-called libertarian) understanding of human freedom. C. S. Lewis, one of the earliest proponents of such a theodicy, thus wrote: “In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of … defeat…. I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”1 The basic idea, then, is that God created us as free moral agents and that not even omnipotence can causally determine, either directly or indirectly through secondary causes, our free choices.
The Logical Limits of Free Choice
But why, according to Lewis, should the creation of “beings with free will” imply even the possibility of someone both freely locking “the doors of hell” from the inside, on the one hand, and freely keeping them locked forever, on the other? The first question to ask here is whether there are limits of any kind to the range of possible free choice. If there are no such limits, then the idea of free choice is indistinguishable from that of sheer chance or utter randomness; and if there are such limits, then we must consider whether Lewis’ imagined choice of someone both experiencing hell and continuing to lock “the doors of hell” from the inside lies inside or outside of these limits. Any consideration of the latter issue, moreover, requires a much more complete analysis of moral freedom than the mere assertion of incompatibilism. For it is hardly enough merely to specify a single necessary condition of moral freedom—namely that a choice is free in the relevant sense only if it is not causally determined by factors outside the choosing agent’s control—and then simply to leave it at that, as if there were no other necessary conditions of free choice. Not just any uncaused event, after all, or just any agent caused choice, or just any randomly generated selection between alternatives will qualify as a free choice for which the choosing agent is morally responsible. At the very least, moral freedom also requires a minimal degree of rationality—including, for example, an ability to discern normal reasons for acting, to draw reasonable inferences from experience, and to learn important lessons from the consequences of one’s own actions. With good reason, therefore, do we exclude small children, the severely brain damaged, paranoid schizophrenics, and even dogs from the class of free moral agents. For however causally undetermined some of their behavior might be, they all lack some part of the rationality required to qualify as free moral agents.
Suppose, by way of illustration, that a schizophrenic young man should kill his loving mother, believing her to be a sinister space alien who has devoured his real mother; and suppose further that he does so in a context in which he categorically could have chosen otherwise (in part, perhaps, because he worries about possible retaliation from other sinister space aliens). Why should such an irrational choice, even if not causally determined, be any more compatible with genuine moral freedom than a rigorous determinism would be? Either our deluded beliefs—including our self-deceptions, if you will—are correctable when we repeatedly encounter overwhelming evidence against them, or we are simply not rational enough to qualify as free moral agents.
Perhaps the issue of self-deception deserves special mention here, because my delightful colleague Jerry Walls appeals to it in support of his own understanding of hell. In one place he seems to imply—and I agree with this most emphatically—that barely “a hair’s breadth” of difference exists between my universalism, on the one hand, and his own free will theodicy of hell, on the other.2 And as I have reflected on this hair’s breadth of difference, it all seems to boil down to the issue of self-deception—a concept that I do not pretend to understand with any degree of clarity. But whatever its correct analysis, the very existence of self-deception surely implies some degree of preexistent ignorance and irrationality, even if not to a degree that would eliminate all freedom and moral responsibility. Under what conditions, then, does such preexistent ignorance and irrationality remain compatible with a genuine moral freedom? Like any other form of delusion, self-deception is compatible with moral freedom, I would suggest, only when it is not utterly and completely pathological—that is, only when the agent retains the minimal degree of rationality that genuine moral freedom requires and only when the self-deception thus remains in principle correctable. If, for example, I should deceive myself into believing that I have the skill to ski down a treacherous slope and should remain rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent, then a fall and a broken leg (or perhaps a series of falls on repeated occasions) would sooner or later shatter that illusion to pieces.
And similarly for those who deceive themselves into thinking that separation from every implicit experience of God would be more desirable than union with him: until such persons actually experience a true separation from God, they may have no idea what they are really choosing. For as Lewis himself once put it, “union with” the divine “Nature is bliss and separation from it [an objective] horror” and this is also, he rightly declared, precisely where “Heaven and Hell come in.”3 Now Walls argues persuasively, I believe, for the possibility that someone who consistently chooses the wrong path—someone so mired in sin as to become totally self-absorbed—may simply be in no position to appreciate fully, or even at all, the bliss of union with God. So if we agree on that, just where does our “hair’s breadth of difference” finally come to rest? Right here, perhaps. Whereas I hold it to be logically impossible that someone who is rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent should both experience the horror of separation from God—in the outer darkness, say, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth— and continue to regard such a state as more desirable than finally submitting to God, Walls disagrees; he thinks it at least possible that some would continue forever to prefer such a state, however horrific it may be, as more desirable than finally submitting to God.
I doubt that anyone has expressed my side of this disagreement more forcefully than George MacDonald did when he wrote:
For let a man think and care ever so little about God, he does not therefore exist without God. God is here with him, upholding, warming, delighting, teaching him—making life a good thing to him. God gives him himself, though he knows it not. But when God withdraws from a man [or the person withdraws from God] as far as that can be without the man’s ceasing to be; when the man feels himself abandoned, hanging in a ceaseless vertigo of existence upon the verge of the gulf of his being, without support, without refuge, without aim, without end . . . with no inbreathing of joy, with nothing [including the faintest experience of love] to make life good, then will he listen in agony for the faintest sound of life from the closed door; then . . . he will be ready to rush into the very heart of the Consuming Fire to know life once more, to change this terror of sick negation, of unspeakable death, for that region of hopeful pain. Imagination cannot mislead us into too much horror of being without God—that one living death.4
Note the expression “that region of hopeful pain.” MacDonald would have agreed with Walls that, on account of their many delusions and self-deceptions, those cast into the outer darkness are in no position to appreciate the bliss of union with God. He would clearly have accepted, in other words, the picture that Lewis painted in The Great Divorce, where the unrepentant who take a bus into the foothills of heaven find it an excruciatingly painful experience; indeed, Lewis probably got this very idea from MacDonald, whom he regarded as his own mentor. But there is also the following hair’s breadth of difference between Lewis and MacDonald, which mirrors the hair’s breadth of difference between Walls and me. Whereas MacDonald and I view a life apart from any implicit experience of God as so horrific that no one could continue freely choosing such a life forever, Lewis and Walls in effect view it as not quite that horrific. For insofar as God continues to shield sinners from the full horror of such separation and does so in order to safeguard their freedom to continue opting for it, the net result could only be a condition not quite as horrific as the tradition implies.
Observe also that, unlike a free will theodicy of hell, universalism requires no watering down of the New Testament imagery associated with Gehenna, the lake of fire, and the outer darkness. If the outer darkness, for example, represents the logical limit, short of annihilation, of possible separation from God; and if such separation is indeed an objective horror, as Lewis insisted, then that already explains why no one could both experience this objective horror and continue freely to embrace it forever. It also explains how God could shatter all of the illusions and self-deceptions that might make a life apart from God seem desirable and how he could do so without in any way interfering with our freedom to separate ourselves from him. For it is precisely when we exercise that very freedom and when God permits us to experience the very life we have confusedly chosen for ourselves that we begin to experience, and finally to discover, its horrific nature. Just as no one who is rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent could both shove an unprotected arm into a hot fire and retain the illusion that a hot fire causes sensations of intense pleasure, neither could such a person both experience the outer darkness and retain the illusion that some other imagined condition, such as submission to God, would be even worse than this.
As an illustration of the problem, consider the context in which John Milton’s Satan defiantly exclaims, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.”5 From whence comes the myth, I would ask parenthetically, that someone other than God might reign in hell? This hardly comes from anything in the Bible itself. In any case, the context in which Satan expresses his defiance of God is clearly one in which he still remains able to comfort himself with the delusion that he “Can make a Heav’n of Hell,” with the delusion that in hell he is at least free (despite his bondage to destructive desires), and with the delusion that in hell he “may reign secure.”6 But what he imagines here is a far cry from the reality of the outer darkness, a soul suspended alone in sheer nothingness, with no one to rule and no physical environment even to experience.7 I mean, how much more ignorant and delusional can you get? It is a tribute to Milton’s art, however, that by Book IV Satan has already lost most of the illusions that made the “heroic” speech of Book I possible; and even though the more pitiful (and even human) character in Book IV never comes to the point of actual repentance, he nonetheless seems well on the road to it.8 And his final refusal to repent occurs in a context in which he is simply too irrational to qualify as a free moral agent. Listen to his words:
So Farewell Hope, and with Hope farewell Fear, Farewell Remorse: all Good to me is lost; Evil be thou my Good …
It is as if a human being with a normal nervous system should shove his or her hand into a flaming hot fire and exclaim, “Excruciating pain and torment be thou my intense pleasure!” You can’t get any more irrational than that. Observe, finally, that traditionalists, who view hell as a form of divine retribution, have no need to reject anything I have said so far. For they do not view hell as a freely embraced condition in the first place; they view it instead as an externally imposed punishment, a supposedly just recompense for sins freely committed in the past. So they have no need for some further explanation of why a damned individual never exits hell, despite the unbearable misery that such an individual might experience there. It is simply not permitted.
A Modified Libertarian Account of Human Freedom
I myself am a convinced libertarian in this sense: like other libertarians, I hold that neither moral freedom nor moral responsibility (nor even independent rationality, I might add) could exist in a creation where, either directly or indirectly through secondary causes, God causally determines everything that happens in it. For if he did so determine everything that happens, then only one agent (capable of independent action) would exist, namely God himself.
So in that sense indeterminism has an essential role to play in any worthwhile creation. As free moral agents, we are not mere extensions of the physical universe, nor are our free actions the product of external sufficient causes, whether these should lie in the distant past before we were born or in eternity itself. That is the correct libertarian insight, and it seems to me utterly unlikely that any of our present actions are so determined, however determined some of them might be by more immediate beliefs, desires, and character traits. For we all emerge and start making choices in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and misperception, where indeterminism could easily play a huge role in the choices (or quasi-choices) we make, in providing the necessary break from the past that moral freedom requires, and in allowing us to emerge as independent agents who interact with our environment, learn from experience, and make discoveries on our own.
But why on earth would I claim that indeterminism plays an essential role in making God’s creation worthwhile? Does not indeterminism in the process of creaturely deliberation and choice, for example, introduce an element of chance or randomness, even irrationality, into it?9 And is not sheer chance or randomness no less incompatible with genuine free choice than determinism would be? Indeed, if free will is incompatible with both determinism and indeterminism, as more than a few have argued,10 then no room is left, it seems, for a coherent account of it. But there is, I believe, a way out of this particular quagmire, provided we come to appreciate one all-important point. Some of the very conditions essential to our emergence as independent rational beings and therefore as free moral agents—the ambiguity, the ignorance, and the required indeterminism—are themselves obstacles to full freedom and moral responsibility; they are obstacles that God can gradually overcome only after we have emerged as embryonic moral agents and have begun to interact with our environment and to learn important lessons about the conditions of our own happiness.
As an illustration, consider simple ignorance. If we were created with a full and complete knowledge of God, that knowledge would not be a personal discovery at all. It would not be acquired through a complex learning process in which we formulate hypotheses, test them in our own experience, and then learn for ourselves over time why union with God is bliss and separation from him an objective horror; nor would it require a complex process in which we choose freely, experience the consequences of our choices, and then learn from these consequences why love and forgiveness are likewise better than selfishness and estrangement. Herein lies the truth, I believe, behind the freewill theist’s contention that our freedom in relation to God requires that we start out in a context where God remains hidden from us, at least for a season. But consider also how relative degrees of ignorance can severely restrict our freedom and, in that sense, can become an obstacle to a fully realized freedom. If I am ignorant of the fact that someone has laced the local water supply with LSD, then I have not freely chosen to ingest the LSD, however freely I may have chosen to drink the water. And similarly for the freewill theist’s understanding of divine hiddenness: insofar as the ambiguities, the ignorance, and the misperceptions in a given set of circumstances conceal God from us, or at least make unbelief a reasonable option, they also make committing ourselves to God in these circumstances more like a blind leap in the dark than a free choice for which we are morally responsible. So if anything, God’s hiddenness can render us less rather than more responsible for our failure to love the One whose true nature and very existence remain hidden from us.11
Now even as ignorance is both a condition of and an obstacle to our freedom in relation to God, so also is indeterminism. So the trick, I am suggesting, is to distinguish between the role that indeterminism plays in our emergence as free moral agents and the role it continues to play after we have become sufficiently rational to learn important moral lessons from the consequences of our undetermined choices. Put it this way: it is essential to our moral freedom that we begin making moral choices in a context where those choices are not fully determined by sufficient causes; for if they were so determined, they would most likely be determined by conditions external to the emerging agent. But it is also essential to our moral freedom that we should be rational enough to learn from our mistakes. So once we begin learning some relevant moral lessons—from our bad choices in particular—some of our freest choices may be those voluntary choices where, given our own rational judgment concerning the best course of action, the alternative is no longer even psychologically possible.
When our own powers of rational judgment enable us to assess a body of evidence reasonably and our own reasonable judgment concerning the best course of action determines that we act in one way rather than in another, freedom does not require the psychological possibility of acting otherwise. At the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther thus famously declared: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.”12 Whether one agrees with Luther’s stand or not makes no difference to the following all-important point. In no way do we have here the declaration of a man whose will was in bondage to something other than his own judgment concerning the best course of action, and it would be absurd, furthermore, to suggest that Luther lost his freedom at the very instant that, having become fully resolved to act in a certain way, it was no longer psychologically possible for him to reverse himself and to choose otherwise. We are freest, then, when our own reasonable judgments concerning the best course of action determine what we do; hence, Luther’s refusal to recant was arguably a paradigm of free action.
Freedom, Necessity, and the Right Kind of Compulsion
Consider now how C. S. Lewis, despite his commitment to a free will theodicy of hell, described his own conversion to Christianity:
I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape. The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at them; but, properly understood, they plumb the depth of the Divine mercy. … His compulsion is our liberation.13
As this quotation illustrates, Lewis described his freedom in relation to his own conversion very differently than he described the freedom of the lost in relation to their damnation. Consider how carefully he chose his own words in the context from which the above quotation is lifted. He observed first that “before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice.”14 But lest he should be misunderstood, he immediately added the following clarification: “I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. … You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom ….”15 So here he appears to argue like a compatibilist, recognizing that the crucial choice in his conversion was voluntary but not free in the sense that he could have chosen otherwise. He even spoke as if God had compelled his voluntary submission and as if such compulsion is quite compatible with his having submitted freely.
But why would Lewis claim, quite rightly in my opinion, that his act of submitting to God was both compelled and freely chosen? The answer, I would suggest, requires a distinction between two kinds of compulsion: the right kind, which rests upon the idea of compelling evidence, and the wrong kind, which is not a matter of evidence at all. By “compelling evidence” I mean (roughly) evidence that both justifies a belief (given that one’s cognitive faculties are working properly) and removes one’s power on some occasion to reject the given belief. If a man should torture you in an effort to convert you to his religion, this would clearly exemplify the wrong kind of compulsion, the very kind that Lewis attributed to human wickedness. For however intolerable your suffering might be, this would in no way qualify as a good reason for believing that his religion is true; much less would it qualify as compelling evidence for its being true. Such compulsion might even provide you with a good reason to reject his religion, or at least his interpretation of it, even as it might also provide you with a good reason to pretend that you have been converted.
In contrast to such torture, which is clearly the wrong kind of compulsion, consider next an example of what I would regard as the right kind of compulsion. Given that you experience excruciating pain every time you come into direct contact with fire, you surely do have compelling evidence that fire burns and causes such pain. If repeated contact with fire did not compel the relevant belief in you, then you would simply be too irrational to qualify either as a rational agent or as a free moral agent. Freedom of belief, therefore, hardly requires the psychological ability to believe whatever you might fancy believing; nor does it require an element of randomness in the process by which you acquire your beliefs; nor does it require the power of a rational agent to reject utterly compelling evidence. It requires instead independent rational judgment and a minimal ability to follow the evidence where it properly leads. Similarly, our freedom in relation to God hardly requires that he never change our beliefs with a stunning revelation of a kind that Christians believe Paul received on the road to Damascus, or that he remain forever hidden from us, or that he never shatter our illusions and remove our ignorance with compelling evidence. Although true freedom in relation to God is definitely incompatible with his simply implanting certain beliefs in us and thereby bypassing our own reasoning powers, it in no way requires the power to reject God in every conceivable set of circumstances. It requires instead the power to follow our own independent judgment concerning where the evidence leads and concerning the best course of action in relation to the evidence. So provided that our own judgments in these matters are sufficiently reasonable and the accumulated evidence for them is sufficiently compelling, our freest actions my indeed occur in a context that removes the psychological possibility of acting otherwise. For such freedom, understood as the power of reason to exercise control over one’s own actions, in no way requires the power to deny oneself or to act against one’s own most reasonable judgments.16
So Lewis was right on target, I believe, when he insisted that his submission to God was the freest of all actions even though he felt utterly compelled to submit in the sense that no real alternative seemed open to him. For if, as we are supposing, an absolute separation from God entails separation from all loving relationships as well as from every other conceivable source of human happiness; and if, alternatively, union with him is bliss, then any rational agent whose life experiences provide compelling evidence for such realities would likewise freely submit to God even as Lewis did.
The principal challenge facing any proponent of a free will theodicy of hell is to set forth a coherent account of moral freedom, one that establishes the possibility of someone freely embracing an objective horror forever. And the principal challenge to a coherent account of moral freedom is the seemingly plausible argument that determinism and indeterminism are each incompatible with moral freedom. The best solution to this apparent paradox, I have suggested, is to acknowledge that indeterminism is both a necessary condition of our emergence as free moral agents distinct from God and an obstacle to full freedom and moral responsibility. Add to that the condition of minimal rationality and it seems impossible that anyone rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent would freely embrace an objective horror forever. So even if some become so mired in sin and rebellion that they cannot even experience the bliss of union with the divine nature, God nonetheless has a trump card to play that will guarantee their free submission to him in the end: he need only honor their own free choices and allow them to experience the very horror of separation from the divine nature that they have confusedly chosen for themselves.
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy
1 C. S. Lewis, Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, p. 127.
2 See “A Philosophical Critique of Talbott’s Universalism” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), p. 105.
3 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York and London: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1955), p. 232.
4 “The Consuming fire” in Unspoken Sermons (Whitethorn, CA: Yohannesen, 2004), p. 31.
5 Paradise Lost, Book I, line 263.
6 See lines 251-261
7 When Paul quoted the poet Epimenides of Crete in order to make the point that “in him [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), this seems to imply, as I interpret it, that God is not only our moral and spiritual environment, but our physical environment as well. Even our experience of the physical order, therefore, is an implicit experience of God; hence, the relevant separation from God in the outer darkness would also exclude, I presume, even the experience of a physical environment.
8 In Book IV an awakened conscience, so essential to moral freedom, leads Satan into despair (see line 83) and also leads him to acknowledge the extent to which “Pride and worse Ambition threw me down” (line 40). He even upbraids himself for being so stupid in “boasting I could subdue / th’ Omnipotent” (lines 86-87) and also acknowledges the extent of his own guilt: “Ah wherefore! He [God] deserv’d no such return / From me, whom he created what I was / in that bright eminence” (lines 42-45). A little later he then laments: “Me miserable! Which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell” (lines 73-75). Because he has not yet lost his rationality altogether in the face of such misery, he even toys with the idea of repenting: “O then at last relent: Is there no place / Left for repentance, none for Pardon left?” (lines 79-80). But unfortunately, he still retains the illusion, which would itself easily be shattered in the outer darkness, that he can continue to rule over the legions of fallen angels in hell, perhaps even forever, and to receive worship and praise from them in return. That illusion together with the fear of being shamed in front of those he had deceived is simply too much for him to endure, and he thus finds himself unwilling to repent.
9 For an excellent argument to this effect, see Peter van Inwagen, ‘Free Will Remains a Mystery’, in Robert Kane, The Oxford Handbook on FreeWill (Oxford: TheClarendonPress,2001), pp.158-177.
10 See, for example, Richard Double, The Non-reality of Free Will (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
11 For an excellent discussion of divine hiddenness and its implications, see the exchange between J.L. Schellenberg and Paul K. Moser in Chapter 2 of Michael L. Peterson and Raymond J. VanArrogon (eds.), Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004), 30-58.
12 Henry Bettenson (ed.), Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. 282-83. Emphasis is mine
13 Lewis, Surprised by Joy, pp. 228-229
14 Ibid., p. 224.
16 Elsewhere I have thus proposed the following as a sufficient condition of a free action: “(SCF) S does A freely in [a set of circumstances] C if the following conditions obtain: (i) S is rational enough to make reasonable judgments concerning which of the available actions in C is, all things considered, the best thing to do in C, (ii) S in fact makes a reasonable judgment that A is, all things considered, the best thing to do in C, and (iii) S does A in C for the very reason that S reasonably believes it to be the best thing to do in C” [see “God, Freedom, and Human Agency,” 393]. For some similar sufficient conditions, see Mele, Free Will and Luck, 200–201. Common to all of Mele’s sufficient conditions, tweaked differently for different purposes, as well as to my own, is the idea that an agent acts freely when the agent acts “on the basis of a rationally formed deliberative judgment that it would be best to do A.”
Dear Mr. Talbott,
I think one of the main problems with the free will theodicy of Hell is this self-disillusionment recently with an autonomous free will. However, the only will that can be free is a will that is united to God. Thus encounters the problem with the free will theodicy. By definition, those who are in sin are literally slaves to their own sin.
Well-stated argument! 🙂
I’m currently rereading Lilith by George MacDonald, and it occurred to me in reading this article that what Dr. Talbott is logically arguing here is the story of Lilith.
(1) Is it really true that CS Lewis is one of the earliest proponents of the free-will theodicy of hell? That surprises me.
(2) Can someone explain this quote (like you’d explain it to a 2nd grader): “The first question to ask here is whether there are limits of any kind to the range of possible free choice. If there are no such limits, then the idea of free choice is indistinguishable from that of sheer chance or utter randomness.” I’ve seen this assertion several times (and not just from Dr. Talbott) but it’s not clicking. Is it just arguing that a person inexorably wills their own good (however accurate or mistaken “the good” may be), and that this willing entails a sort of limit?
Thanks for your comments and questions. You asked: “Is it really true that CS Lewis is one of the earliest proponents of the free-will theodicy of hell?”
Certainly many philosophers, including Augustine and Aquinas, appealed to human freedom long before Lewis was even born, so my statement may seem a bit misleading. But these philosophers did not view hell itself as a freely embraced condition; instead, they viewed it as a just recompense (or a divine retribution) for sins freely committed during an earthly life. They had no need, therefore, to explain why the damned never exit hell, despite the unbearable misery it entails, because on their view such an exit is simply not permitted. The idea of someone freely choosing to stay in hell, so crucial to my understanding of a free will theodicy of hell, thus seems to be a more recent revision of the traditional doctrine.
You also asked for an explanation of the following statement: “The first question to ask here is whether there are limits of any kind to the range of possible free choice. If there are no such limits, then the idea of free choice is indistinguishable from that of sheer chance or utter randomness.”
Suppose you are standing in front of a stove with a glowing red cooking element. You clearly have the ability and knowhow to place a bare hand on that element. You know how to move your arm in the proper way and how to place your hand in the indicated place. Holding it there might take some effort because of the natural reflex to pull away, but understanding the reflex would likely enable you to overcome it by pushing down hard. You might even have a powerful motive for doing this—given some bizarre story, which I’ll not try to articulate, about how this would be the only way to protect a beloved child from protracted torture. But suppose now that you have no such rational reason to place your hand on the element and also have all the normal and overwhelming reasons not to do it. Is it so much as possible that you might freely choose to do it nonetheless, despite the utter irrationality of such a choice? If so, then the idea of a free choice in such a context seems to me indistinguishable from that of sheer chance or utter randomness, sort of like the uncaused change of state of a radium atom.
There are, of course, a lot of difficulties in the neighborhood. But I hope this helps a bit.
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In the Divine Comedy – Canto III, Virgil tell Dante that the screams and voices he’s hearing right after entering the gates of ‘Hell’ are those of the [uncommitted] who lived for themselves, and of the angels who were not rebellious against God nor faithful to Satan. Neither Heaven nor Hell would have them, and so they must remain here with the selfish, forever running behind a banner and eternally stung by hornets and wasps. Worms at their feet eat the blood and tears of these beings.
To quote ‘Mr. Cliff’ – my favorite scholar – Ha!
“In Canto III, Dante sets up the intellectual structure of Hell. Hell is the place for those who deliberately, intellectually, and consciously chose an evil way of life, whereas Paradise is a place of reward for those who consciously chose a righteous way of life. Therefore, if Hell is the place for people who made deliberate and intentional wrong choices, there must be a place for those people who refused to choose either evil or good. The entrance of Hell is the proper place for those people who refused to make a choice. People who reside in Hell’s vestibule are the uncommitted of the world, and having been indecisive in life — that is, never making a choice for themselves — they are constantly stung into movement.”
I think its pretty fair to say that Lewis was definitely influenced by this in his configuration of “The Great Divorce” – which for me was one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever read. It seems our refusal to come to the “Light” and remain in the ‘Darkness’, often fuels the fire of our own personal ‘Theodicy’ if you will; even posthumously (?)
A very interesting connection between The Great Divorce and this specific part of Dante’s Comedy – if people have pointed it out before, it didn’t sink in into my memory, so, thanks!
I’ve only read the first five paragraphs so far, but will toss out for the purposes of further exploration, that The Problem of Pain is dedicated to the Inklings and that Charles Williams’s ideas on and/or explorations of such matters – as, for instance, presented in the novel, Descent into Hell (1937) – are probably worth comparing, as well as his (possible) debt(s) to Dante (e.g., as to ‘the loss of the good of intellect’), and, again, Dorothy Sayers debts to Williams as Dante-interpreter.
In this context, what are the God-given free-creaturely possibilities of choice-by-choice descent into such loss of the good of intellect as to facilitate how protracted a resistance to God? (The rest of the paper may answer that – in which case, ‘read on!’ seems the just answer!)
“But there is also the following hair’s breadth of difference between Lewis and MacDonald, which mirrors the hair’s breadth of difference between Walls and me.”
That would be your ‘hair’ Tom…. not his.
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For those wondering what the joke is, here’s a photo of Jerry Walls:
I write a blog too and I have always found theodicy an incredibly interesting subject.
(P.s. A fan of the blog lol!)
I think you did an absolutely great job with your post on this! This is the kind of stuff I love stopping by for 🙂
-The Smiling Pilgrim
Either our deluded beliefs—including our self-deceptions, if you will—are correctable when we repeatedly encounter overwhelming evidence against them, or we are simply not rational enough to qualify as free moral agents.
‘Overwhelming’ is not a quality inhering in evidence, though; it is an attribution based on effect. If it doesn’t correct, it obviously didn’t overwhelm, and thus it is incorrect to call it overwhelming unless we are simply speaking in hyperbole. And if one replaces ‘overwhelming evidence’ with what we usually mean when speaking hyperbolically — either ‘a lot of evidence’ or ‘very good evidence’, depending on whether we are focusing on quantity or objective quality — the above claim is very dubious. This ambiguity between properties attributed on the basis of subjective effect and properties attributed on the basis of objective nature seems to show up multiple times in the argument. Another example is the discussion toward the end about compelling evidence. It’s questionable whether evidence literally compels in the first place; if evidence is in fact compelling, this can only be attributed to it because it does in fact compel people; but if we are talking about ‘compelling evidence’ figuratively, then it seems to be hyperbole, and then most of the argument goes off the rails.
Long time no interaction! As I am here using the term “overwhelming evidence,” it implies, among other things, evidence that ought to persuade someone in this sense: it would indeed have this subjective effect on anyone who is both aware of it and rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent. I thus wrote: “If, for example, I should deceive myself into believing that I have the skill to ski down a treacherous slope and should remain rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent, then a fall and a broken leg (or perhaps a series of falls on repeated occasions) would sooner or later shatter that illusion to pieces.”
With respect to compelling evidence, I agree with you that “evidence is in fact compelling” only when “it does in fact compel people.” I thus wrote: “By ‘compelling evidence’ I mean (roughly) evidence that both justifies a belief (given that one’s cognitive faculties are working properly) and removes one’s power on some occasion to reject the given belief.” So if the evidence both justifies my belief that I am now sitting in front of my computer and removes my power to believe otherwise, that would be an example of what I am calling compelling evidence.
But this seems to make your argument circular; your account in the post of what it was to be a free moral agent was explicitly put in terms of rationality in accepting evidence, not vice versa, while your account here makes it impossible to know what rationality in accepting evidence is unless we know what a free moral agent would always do.
Not sure that I follow the circularity, Brandon, or at least why you think it vicious (if you do). I have indeed claimed, first, that a minimal degree of rationality is a necessary condition of moral freedom. I would also concede, second, that we cannot know what constitutes the relevant “rationality in accepting evidence” without also knowing something about what a free moral agent would (or would not) do in at least some (though certainly not in all) circumstances. Do you see something viciously circular in these two claims?
I would also concede, second, that we cannot know what constitutes the relevant “rationality in accepting evidence” without also knowing something about what a free moral agent would (or would not) do in at least some (though certainly not in all) circumstances.
Your argument needs something much stronger than this, I would think; not just something about what a free moral agent would do in at least some circumstances, but exactly what every free moral agent would do when faced with the same evidence regardless of what other circumstances might be involved. Your explanation of ‘overwhelming evidence’, recall, was, “it would indeed have this subjective effect [i.e., actually overwhelming them] on anyone who is both aware of it and rational enough to qualify as a free moral agent”. This is a strong claim: it requires precise, specific knowledge of what would be universal under any counterfactual conditions whatsoever that involve the same evidence.
‘Vicious circularity’ usually means a structural flaw in the argument itself. My point is instead that your explanation of an element of your argument created an epistemic circuit: in order to determine who qualifies as a free moral agent, which is the central concept of your argument, I have to (as laid out quite clearly in the post) know what their response to ‘overwhelming evidence’ is; in order to know what counts as ‘overwhelming evidence’ in the relevant sense, I have to know (as you stated in your comment) what would be done by anyone who qualifies as a free moral agent.
To take just one case of how this could be a problem, suppose I were to look at the suggested scenario that a free moral agent could embrace an objective horror forever. Is this really impossible? So I try to apply the Talbott Post test: we’ll say it’s impossible if embracing an objective horror forever would involve rejecting compelling evidence. Now, ex hypothesi, the person is not actually compelled; and as we have both basically agreed, the argument requires ‘compelling evidence’ to mean much more than just ‘a lot of objectively good evidence’. So how do we determine whether it really does involve rejecting compelling evidence? Well, if we apply the Talbott Comment test: if the evidence would compel anyone who is both aware of it and is genuinely a free moral agent. But how do I determine this if I don’t already know whether the original scenario is possible or impossible? Logically I can’t.
Tom Talbott: the most gracious interlocutor on the planet.
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Thanks for this. Gracious and insightful as always. I agree pretty much all around that we are (a) libertarianly free, where such exercise of the will is identified philosophically (not culturally with the Enlightenment as absolute, unconstrained dispositive liberty) and where ‘free’ describes the provisional capacity of the will to responsibly determine itself relative to moral becoming (not as humanity’s ultimate, truest form of freedom in Christ as rest from moral deliberation–though that IS our truest freedom), that (b) libertarian, moral deliberation is essential to achieving the fully personal sort of existence for which God created us (even if that form of existence ceases to be libertarian with respect to the Good when the will rests, eschatologically, in Christ as its final end), that (c) responsible choice is minimally rational, and that (d) hell is viewed, relative to God as infinite love, as God’s merciful means of bringing us face to face with the truth through suffering the consequences of our choices.
That said, may I ask whether your emphasis up the necessity of ‘ignorance’ in this is a new perspective on things for you? I’ve harped on “epistemic distance” as essential to responsible, moral becoming for some time and usually met with the criticism that somehow God’s love of us would obliterate ignorance, essentially making the choice for God the *only* rational choice (which I always thought reduced to determinism). I’ve actually read you (in the past) as arguing along these lines. But you seem here to have softened on this somewhat. Am I right?
I’m not suggesting God does not dispel the lies and falsehoods that enslave us. I think he does. I just think our wills participate in that movement. We choose our way into an increasingly clearer vision of things that is simultaneously increasingly freeing. which means we can never be so depraved as to have erased God absolutely from our scope of choices, and every inch we move in his direction widens the scope of the Good and empowers the mind in God’s direction. Besides, ignorance as epistemic distance is just definitive of finitude. It doesn’t require belief in what is false (although it permits it). But the will and mind, through proper exercise, may rest irrevocably in God (though never in evil) since reason and will are not neutral in orientation relative to the God since God is transcendental ground of both. You don’t seem to have explored this metaphysical side of things (i.e., God as the transcendental ground of being and reason, along Eastern lines). Do you not think it would strengthen your case?
Just a thought.
I know where I’m going when I die–typo hell.
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I must begin by thanking you for your ever so kind comments concerning my graciousness as an interlocutor. Normal etiquette tells me that I should just leave it as a simple “thank you.” But honestly requires me also to point out that, if you knew how nasty I can sometimes be in my own mind, you would understand why I have to guard myself very carefully in these internet discussions, which I sometimes find incredibly frustrating for a couple reasons. First, discussions tend to develop way too quickly for one, such as I, who would prefer to take days (or even weeks) between receiving a criticism, say, and making a response to it. I am most comfortable, in other words, when a discussion proceeds very slowly, so that the participants can leisurely take one tiny baby step at a time. And second, the felt pressure to respond quickly in these discussions (before the topic in question disappears altogether from everyone’s attention) sometimes betrays me, especially when I have a lot of competing responsibilities, into making really stupid mistakes, as I view them myself.
Anyway, you asked whether my “emphasis on the necessity of ‘ignorance’” in my original post “is a new perspective on things” for me. The immediate answer must be, “No,” because I have suspected for a long time that, as free moral agents, we must indeed start out in a context of ambiguity, ignorance, and misperception where God is at least partially hidden from us. But I know what you are getting at because I recall a conversation of ours over on the Evangelical Universalist website in which I was arguing along the lines of Marilyn Adams and you were resisting it. According to Adams, “What accounts for our refusal [to submit to God freely] . . . is ignorance of a special kind.” It is not “propositional ignorance of what we might read in textbooks,” but instead “experiential ignorance of the immeasurable goodness that God is.” That thought led me to toy, for a brief period of time, with the idea that, once we have emerged as reasonably rational agents, God would have a trump card to play whenever he wanted to win us over freely—namely, a stunning revelation of his immeasurable goodness. And it was during that brief period of time that our conversation took place.
I now suspect, however, that your position in that particular conversation may have been closer to the truth than mine was. That’s because I cannot confidently rule out the possibility that, as Jerry Walls argues and as I conceded in my original post, “someone who consistently chooses the wrong path—someone so mired in sin as to become totally self-absorbed—may simply be in no position to appreciate fully, or even at all, the bliss of union with God.” I still believe that God has a trump card, but not one he can play simply by providing a revelation of his immeasurable goodness. He may sometimes have to permit sinners to experience the very condition of separation that they end up freely, but confusedly, choosing for themselves. And the resulting experience of horror is the very thing that will become, I believe, an irresistible means of grace and enable a sinner to begin appreciating God’s immeasurable goodness. But that, of course, require a good deal of additional discussion.
Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with the perspective you set forth in your final paragraph, which seems to dovetail perfectly with the conception of freedom in my original post. If God is the essence of perfect rationality, we are created in his image, and our freedom requires that our choices be minimally rational, then that provides a foundation, I believe, for everything you say there. And incidentally, I am in general much more comfortable with Eastern theology, particularly the Eastern understanding of the Atonement (which is, of course, another topic), than I am with Western theology. Also, two of my sisters, my own daughter, and their respective families are all members of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
In any case, thanks again for your kind remarks.
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Dr Talbott, it’s very hard for me to read your admission that in a particular argument with Tom Belt, he may have had the correct opinion and you did not. This means I may have to go back and revisit all of my arguments with him and consider whether I may have been on the wrong side of them. … Okay, I just did a flash revisit and I find that I have never been wrong in my arguments with Dr Belt, just as I expected. 😉
That’s as close as I’ll ever get. 😀
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Hello again, Brandon,
Thanks for interacting with my original post and for explaining in greater detail the “epistemic circuit” you think some claims of mine have created. You and Mike H have both, I believe, pointed to specific sentences that I need to express more carefully. But however dubious some of my claims may seem to you, I have not, I think it fair to say, fallen prey to the ambiguity that you attribute to me in your first comment: an “ambiguity between properties attributed on the basis of subjective effect and properties attributed on the basis of objective nature.” My use of the term “compelling evidence” certainly involves no such ambiguity, as the second paragraph of my post on June 10 at 9:34 am should already make clear. And neither does my use of the term “overwhelming evidence,” which appears only once in the paper. Let me explain.
I had written, “Either our deluded beliefs—including our self-deceptions, if you will—are correctable when we repeatedly encounter overwhelming evidence against them, or we are simply not rational enough to qualify as free moral agents.” And you commented on that sentence as follows: “‘Overwhelming’ is not a quality inhering in evidence, though; it is an attribution based on effect. If it doesn’t correct, it obviously didn’t overwhelm, and thus it is incorrect to call it overwhelming …” But that was not how I was thinking of the term at all. For whereas compelling evidence, as I explained it, is indeed “an attribution based on effect,” so to speak, overwhelming evidence, as I was thinking of it, is quite different. Evidence is overwhelming in my sense when it is so objectively powerful in a given context that it ought to be persuasive (or even compelling) in that context and would in fact persuade anyone who is both aware of it and sufficiently rational to be persuaded. So my own use of the term on that one occasion may have been closer to what you have called “speaking in hyperbole.”
Another possible source of confusion here is that a person may be morally free with respect to some choices and not morally free with respect to others. So when I rewrite the paper for a conference next fall, I shall probably rewrite the above sentence in the following way: “Either our seriously deluded beliefs, particularly those with destructive consequences in our own lives, are in principle correctable by some degree of powerful evidence against them, or the choices that rest upon them are simply too irrational to qualify as free moral choices.” This sentence, you will recall, appears in the context of the schizophrenic young man who kills his loving mother believing that she is a sinister space alien who has devoured his real mother.
One final point concerning the “epistemic circuit” you spell out in your latest reply. The first half of it reads: “in order to determine who qualifies as a free moral agent, which is the central concept of your argument, I have to . . . know what their response to ‘overwhelming evidence’ is” or would be. I think we can agree, however, that you would also need to know a lot more than that. For one thing, you would need, I think, a more complete account of (libertarian) free will than any free will theist has given to date; and even if we restrict our attention to a simple statement of incompatibilism, you would still need to know that at least some of a person’s choices are such that neither God nor any condition outside the person’s control has causally determined them. So how could you determine whether or not some given person qualifies as a free moral agent in any case?
Anyway, thanks again for interacting with my original post. You are an excellent and most valuable critic.
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Thanks for the kind words. It is very possible that the distinction between compelling evidence and overwhelming evidence would make a significant difference. I considered at one point whether you might be making a distinction — it’s just that they would often be treated as synonyms, and I couldn’t think of what might possibly distinguish them.
Believe me, Brandon, those words were heartfelt. You have helped to improve my presentation greatly–though it may take considerable rewriting. Whether one realizes it or not, a competent critic can often be one’s very best friend.
Tom has revised his essay, partly in response to criticisms and suggestions offered in this thread. Click here.