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Last month, in “An Impoverished Infinity“, I wrote about the strange limitations that many Christian believers impose on God. These theists believe that God was not wise or powerful enough to create a world with intelligent beings that did not also include earthquakes, diseases and other disasters – as if the infinite space of possible worlds was somehow foreclosed.

The discussion in the comments thread centered largely around the issue of free will, which is the most common example of these theological limitations. Several theists showed up to argue that God could have created human beings such that we never chose to sin, but believe that he could only have done so by making us into automata who lack meaningful freedom.

I believe this argument is wrong, and I’ll explain why. As I wrote some time ago, what it means to have free will is that you can choose from the options available to you in accordance with your desires. The “automata” claim overlooks the fact that there are three things which free will does not require.

First, free will does not require infinite choice, where every imaginable course of action is a realistic possibility. Even if the laws of nature and logic restrict our options to a limited set, we can still choose freely from among the members of that set. Free will is not a total absence of constraint, but rather the ability to select among the options that are available.

Free will also does not require a mental blank slate, where every possible course of action seems equally attractive and compelling. On the contrary, a free person can have dispositions, desires and character traits that incline them to choose a certain way in a given situation. This must be so, for a person who had no desires or inclinations would never act at all. Having a certain set of unchosen desires is a precondition for having a will in the first place. Just as with the previous point, we are still free because we can still choose among the options open to us. What makes a person unfree is not acting in accordance with their desires, but being compelled to act against their desires.

Finally, free will does not require randomness. Granted, a free person can choose to inject a kind of “radical choice” into their decision-making, permitting their decisions to be controlled by some external source of random input – whether it be a coin-flip or quantum noise in the synapses of the brain. But a random component is not required for an act to be free. Even a decision that involves no quality of randomness, one that is entirely determined by the facts and reasons available to the decision-maker, can be a free choice.

After all, wouldn’t the freest possible agent be one who is perfectly responsive to reason, who is perfectly aware of all the facts relevant to any decision, and who decides on that basis? Such a person would always make the decisions that were best for them without ever needing to choose randomly, and surely that is the purest and most desirable form of free will. Anything less would be inferior, because being unaware of facts relevant to our choices diminishes, not increases, our freedom; it causes us to overlook possibilities we would otherwise have considered.

All three of these points should be uncontroversial, even among theists. To deny either of the first two is to deny that humans have free will, because obviously we do have built-in inclinations and do not have infinite choice. To deny the third, meanwhile, is to deny that God has free will; or at the very least, it is to suggest that our free will is more perfect than his, because we are blessed with ignorance and he, presumably, is not. Since I doubt that most theists would want to make either of those claims, I figure they would agree with me.

Now see where these conclusions lead. Free will does not require unlimited choice, absence of desire, or randomness. A person whose choices are constrained by physical law and their own desires, and who chooses in accordance with those desires and with the relevant facts, still can be and is free in a way that is genuine, significant, and worth wanting. (In fact, each of us is such a person.)

Given all this, why couldn’t an omnipotent deity have done things differently? Such a being could have created a world where evil was a literal impossibility, where physical law is constituted by God’s will and it is not possible to act in contravention to that will. Or God could have created a world in which evil acts were physically possible, but in which human psychology would be different than it actually is, such that we only desire to choose the good. To truly rule out evil in this world, our decisions would also have to be non-random, so that chance would not occasionally intervene and cause us to do evil despite our desires. In either of these worlds, human beings would truly be morally perfect.

None of these options, as we’ve seen, would turn humans into puppets or automata. We would still be truly and legitimately free. But in these worlds, there would be no sin or wrongdoing at all, and thus no evil, no suffering, no need to create an afterlife of torture or send earthly catastrophes as punishment. Why wouldn’t God, if he exists, have created a world like this? It would have been superior to our own in every way.

The force of this argument should be undeniable. In fact, in worldviews like the Christian one, God conferred on human beings a positive attraction to sin – a set of psychological inclinations that frequently bias our decisions toward disobedience. If that isn’t seen as taking away our free will, why couldn’t he have done the opposite and instead given human beings an equally strong set of inclinations toward obedience? In short, instead of original sin, why not original virtue? If God hates sin so much, why would he create a world that would all but ensure the maximum amount of it?

A rational deity would not demand moral perfection unless he created beings capable of supplying it. To say otherwise contradicts a basic point of morality: that you cannot blame someone for not doing what they are not capable of doing. This is why, for example, we don’t hold mentally ill people criminally responsible. We understand that their capacity to tell right from wrong is impaired, and that it wouldn’t be just to treat them as we treat people who possess that capacity. But God, if we believe the Christian logic, rejects this reasoning – he created human beings imperfect and then punishes them harshly for their imperfection. If, as the Bible says, God is “not willing that any should perish”, then I am unable to see why he would not have created a world where that will could be realized.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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