Saturday, February 27, 2010

Free Will at Gunpoint

An often-repeated explanation for why we don’t see conclusive evidence for God’s existence is that such evidence would take away our free will. Let’s ignore for the moment the question of whether or not we actually have free will, and examine whether the claim has merit.

I wrote in my last post that if God commanded us to do something, we would be best advised to comply because we don’t have the ability to successfully defy an omnipotent omniscient being. I think this is what is meant by the claim the evidence of God’s existence would take away our free will.

Defying God is not like defying a human power. People break the law all the time, but that’s because they think there’s a good chance they won’t get caught. An omniscient Being knows everything that you do. People can rebel against governments. How do you fight an omnipotent Being? Even someone with a gun to his head might defy his assailant. After all, the worst the gunman can do is killing him, sending him to oblivion or, even better, a hero’s welcome in heaven. How could we defy a Being who has the ability torture us for all eternity?

Were God to reveal Himself to us, there really would be no rational choice but to do as He says. However strong our desire to, say, rob someone might be, our certain knowledge that God was watching us and would punish us would keep us from doing so. It would seem, then, that this is a good argument. There is no evidence for God because such evidence would effectively leave us without free will.

The problem with this argument is that, while it explains why the world is as we see it (with no obvious evidence for God), it violates Ockham’s razor. We could more simply say that there is no evidence for God because there is no God. Adding a God who refrains from proving His existence because such proof would ruin free will is an unnecessary complication. Further, the argument asks us to accept the lack of evidence of God’s existence as evidence that He exists. After all, if there was a God, and He wanted us to have free will, the world would look exactly as it does now!

This reminds me of a story posted on DovBear about a month ago. A woman was told her baby was breech, and went to a kabbalist for a segulah to make the baby turn. He told her of a segulah to make the baby turn, with the caveat that if the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck the segulah wouldn’t work. The woman went to the place the kabbalist had told her and did what was needed for the segulah… and the baby didn’t turn. When the baby was born, it was found that the umbilical cord was wrapped around its neck. Had it turned, it would have strangled. This was hailed as a miracle! The segulah, guaranteed to work unless the umbilical cord was around the baby’s neck, had worked exactly as expected! The baby hadn’t turned!

As I commented there, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that NOTHING happened, and nothing happening was considered a miracle.

Similarly, while the evidence-ruining-free-will argument adequately explains why God might not prove His existence, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there is no evidence, and no evidence is being presented as an argument in God’s favor.

As best, the evidence-ruining-free-will argument shows that the lack of evidence cannot be taken as proof that God doesn’t exist, because there is at least one plausible explanation for the lack of evidence that includes God’s existence. It is a way for the rationalist believer to explain the lack of evidence. It does not, however, in any way demonstrate that God does, in fact, exist.


  1. The other problem (at least from a Jewish perspective) with the "free will" argument is that the Torah says that, notwithstanding the very obvious participation of God in the Exodus (plagues, splitting the sea, columns of fire or smoke, etc.), the people frequently broke bad and disobeyed. So, clearly, the immediate and obvious presence of the Deity doesn't really negate one's ability to break the Deity's rules.

  2. I think that this whole free will argument is a classic example of a theory which is not really a theory, because being so general so as to be able to explain everything, actually explains nothing. A theory has to be testable, which clearly, this is not.

    Have you seen this?

  3. You're right it's not testable, but it is falsifiable - as David said, according to the Chumash the people who witnessed the makos and krias yam suf still made the eigel. Clearly the Chumash doesn't hold sure knowledge of God prevents sin.

    Even better, we could do a study to see if people who sincerely believe in God's existence ever sin. If they feel they have sure knowledge that He exists, and yet commit acts that they believe He would disapprove of, that would show certain knowledge of God doesn’t prevent sin.

    I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that particular site before, but I have seen the question “Why doesn’t God heal amputees” discussed. The glanced at the site, and it looks interesting. But keep in mind that there are always theistic answers. God doesn’t heal amputees because he works through nature, and today he doesn’t perform overt miracles. There are miforshim who even explain things like the makkos in terms of manipulation of nature. Secondly, there is always a simple rebuttal to studies that show prayer doesn’t work: Do you really think Hashem is going to answer the prayers of Christians?

  4. What I meant that isn't falsifiable is-
    That god doesn't intervene in the world, for the reason to allow free will.
    In other words--god exists but just doesn't act. It neuters the god theory of metaphysics to being untestable and not falsifiable. Basically, anything can happen, and can still be explained away.

  5. I see. You meant “God exists but doesn’t prove it because of free will” is unfalsifiable, not, “certain knowledge of God takes away free will.”

  6. "Even better, we could do a study to see if people who sincerely believe in God's existence ever sin. If they feel they have sure knowledge that He exists, and yet commit acts that they believe He would disapprove of, that would show certain knowledge of God doesn’t prevent sin."

    The Alter Rebbe talks about this in Tanya. How a burglar prays to Hashem that he successfully rob a house.