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Against the Free Will Defense

By Horia George Plugaru

Posted June 7, 2004

When it refers to the suffering caused by humans, the Argument from Evil (AE) runs briefly as follows:

  1. If the theistic God were to exist, then extreme and undeserved suffering caused by humans wouldn't exist or, at least, its quantity would have been very small.
  2. But extreme and undeserved suffering caused by humans exists in a large quantity: hundreds and thousands of rapes, murders, tortures etc.

  3. Thus, the theistic God does not exist.

The idea behind premise (A) is that God, being all-loving, just, omniscient and omnipotent, would want to, could and know how to stop evil doers from aggressing innocent persons.

A famous theistic response given here is that God, although wants to eradicate or at least greatly reduce the evil caused by humans, cannot interfere with the free will (FW) human beings have. According to this theist response, FW has enormous value (at least from God's point of view), since God protects it at the cost of indefinitely numerous atrocious acts.

I think, however, that I have found a new way of attacking the plausibility of this theist reply. Human beings are so conceived that their proper functioning requires the daily abandon of FW. I am talking about the sleep period. Usually we sleep at least 5 hours per day (some doctors say the ideal sleep period is 7-8 hours per day). This means that a person who lives say, 50 years, sleeps during his life at least 90,000 hours. In order to understand the importance of sleep, we should note that after only five nights without sleep a person will hallucinate and eventually it becomes impossible for the brain to give its directions to the rest of the body. No wonder most doctors view sleep to be as important as breathing and eating! Obviously, while we are asleep we do not and cannot make conscious choices, which means that we don't use our FW.

And so the question arises: if God values our FW so very much, why did he create us in such a way that for an important period of our lives we are forced to abandon our FW? In other words, if FW is so important from God's point of view, then why didn't he create us so that we would use our FW non-stop during our lives? It is obviously absurd to believe, on one hand, that for God our FW has an extraordinary importance, but on the other that he is ready to give up FW during a long period of time--in which one could have otherwise perform hundreds or thousands of free choices--without a serious reason.

To put it more formally, the underlying principle of my attack on FWD is P:

P= It is irrational for an agent A to abandon X (where X may be an object, an action, etc.) even for a limited period of time if:

  1. A values X very much and A values X constantly,

  2. A replaces X with Y (where Y could be an object, an action, etc.) although A values Y less than X and

  3. A is not forced to replace X with Y under any circumstances.

When we use P for the problem at hand we get:

P': It is irrational for God to abandon the FW of humans even for a limited period of time if:

  1. God values FW very much and God values FW constantly,

  2. God replaces FW with sleep (in other words, with an activity which presupposes the abandoning of FW) although God values FW more than sleep and

  3. God is not forced to replace FW with sleep under any circumstances.

One way of attacking P' is to say that 3 fails. Theists might say here that God has a good reason for preferring we sleep instead of exercising our FW at least in some circumstances, but that we cannot understand it due to our limited intellectual capacities. But in this case the theist resorts to another defense against AE: The Unknown Purpose Defense. Therefore she admits that the reply based on FW is not convincing--which is exactly what I am trying to show here.

Another reply would be to say that through sleep God creates for us a necessary and welcome distance from the reality of our immediate existence. But this response also fails because one who wishes to get away for a while from reality can do it consciously, with the help of fantasy, books, movies etc. This would also have the advantage that human beings would chose on their own--thus using their FW--if and for how long they want to get away from reality.

Still another attack on point 3 of P' is to say that sleep is useful because the dreams we have during sleep have premonitory value. But this is dubious since it is not clear that there are any good scientific proofs to show that this is so. Moreover God could have created man so that he would be capable of "reading" the future in ways other than the one which takes away his FW: reading the stars, for example. But even without the first two responses, the person who wants to find out through dreams what is going to happen to her in the future could have used certain methods to fall asleep: for instance, God could have created man so that some plants, natural juices, etc. would produce a sleep state in one who would use them.

I will consider here two more objections. According to the first, we could, by an act of will, drastically limit our sleeping time. That would lead to an increased period in which we would be conscious and so could use our FW. This objection is problematic, though, for at least two reasons: one, if we force ourselves to reduce our sleeping time that much, it would greatly influence our lives in a most negative way. Indeed, sleep deprivation, according to most experts, "[...] clearly affects our thinking, or cognitive, processes. A sleep-deprived brain is truly running on four rather than eight cylinders. If we're trying to be creative, the motor doesn't work as well. We can perform calculations, but not as quickly. We're much more likely to make errors. [...] Sleep deprivation also affects us physically. Our coordination suffers. We lose our ability to do things with agility. Sleep improves muscle tone and skin appearance. With adequate sleep athletes run better, swim better and lift more weight. We also see differences in immune responses depending on how much someone sleeps."[1] So if we chose to remain self-aware for long periods of time, the result is a much less satisfying life which, of course, is too expensive a price. Second, this shortens our lives so that, basically, all or almost all time we gain by remaining awake we might very well lose because of an early death.

The final objection is to say that since we are limited, finite beings, God could not make us function properly indefinitely. But this response is dubious as well, since staying awake does not necessitate an infinite quantity of energy. We would still die. Moreover, we would still have many weaknesses like limited knowledge, limited physical force, etc. What's more, God could design us so that only our bodies would need rest, not our minds. We could still use our FW in order to make choices like reading, eating, watching TV, thinking, etc. while our bodies rest, since these actions require little physical stress.

How important is my criticism?

There already are, in philosophy of religion, some attempts to show that God does not place a very high value on our FW. For example, Theodore Drange writes: "According to the Bible, God killed millions of people. Surely that interfered with their free will, considering that they did not want to die. Furthermore, the Bible suggests that God knows the future and predestines people's fates. That, too, may interfere with human free will. In addition, there are many obstacles to free will in our present world (famine, mental retardation, grave diseases, premature death, etc.) and God does little or nothing to prevent them."[2] One might wonder how much importance my present attack on FW has under these circumstances.

The advantages brought by my criticism are at least the following three:

First, it strengthens the case made by philosophers such as Drange. Besides the examples given by Drange against the idea that God sees our FW as a very high priority, my criticism offers another relevant example.[3] This enforces the general case against the view that God greatly respects our FW.

Second, unlike some of Drange's examples, my attack has relevance against theism in general, not only against Christian theism.

Third and most importantly, theists could argue that even if "famine, mental retardation, grave diseases, premature death" decrease the FW of (the few) [4] people who are subjected to them, they are nevertheless necessary for God to achieve other aims. It is a well-known fact that important theists argue that God permits suffering in order to provide the opportunity for other (most) humans to develop positive character traits like courage or generosity. Others, like William Craig, claim that intense suffering leads to the acceptance of God, which God wants very much. Thus, it is not clear that the latter examples given by Drange indeed show that God does not have FW as a very high priority. It may be that FW is not his only high priority.

However, my criticism does not face such a problem because it is extremely hard to see what possible high priority God couldtry to achieve by requiring us to sleep. Hence my criticism is immune to some of the attacks Drange's arguments face. This makes it a stronger argument.


Theists maintain that God cannot intervene to stop the atrocities done by human beings because he values their free will to a very high degree. I presented here a new criticism of this idea: if God were to value our free will that much, he wouldn't create us so that we would be forced to abandon it for that long part of our lives in which we sleep, when he could find ways of making us, without any loses, without having to sleep. Perhaps God has a good reason for not stopping the evil done by humans, but it is hard to believe that this hypothetical reason has anything to do with his supposed respect for our free will. Moreover, I showed that my criticism, although not radically new, is useful and important because: 1- it strengthens the general case against FW and 2- it's stronger than the arguments given so far against the idea that God values our FW to a high degree. I conclude that the reader has, from the present paper, good reason to think that when used against the Argument from Moral Evil, the Free Will Defense is unconvincing.

[1] MSNBC Interactive, http://www.msnbc.com/news/232053.asp

[2] Theodore Drange, "The Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief", http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/theodore_drange/aeanb.html, section 4.

[3] One important difference between my criticism and Drange's is that only some (I would say a minority of) human beings face the obstacles Drange mentions (famine, mental retardation, etc), but absolutely all humans have to abandon their FW in order to sleep.

[4] Of course, a lot of humans live in poverty, but not many of them are so poor that they don't have anything to eat and are thus forced to commit immoral acts like killing or stealing for survival. As for the retarded or the prematurely dead, their number is surely considerably smaller than the number of people who are not.