Determinism, God, Evil, and the Meaning of Life: 
A Dialogue

Clifford Williams


An extension of Free Will and Determinism: A Dialogue by Clifford Williams (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., 1980)*

Copyright © 2015 by Clifford Williams
All rights reserved.



Participants:  

FREDERICK: A free-willist 
DANIEL: A determinist
CAROLYN: A compatibilist



Determinism, God, and Evil

FREDERICK: There is an important topic we haven’t discussed yet, namely, the question of how determinism relates to God and evil. Why don’t we talk about this for a while?

CAROLYN: Okay. Can you describe the issue for us?

FREDERICK: Yes. The basic question is whether or not determinism is compatible with the belief that the physical universe was made by a perfectly good, all-knowing, and supremely powerful God. If determinism were true, and this belief were true, God would be the cause of all the pain and suffering in the universe, since the cause of every instance of pain and suffering could be traced ultimately back to God. And that would mean that God is evil, since no perfectly good, all-knowing, and supremely powerful being would cause pain and suffering. Since I believe that the universe was made by such a being, the only alternative, it seems to me, is to reject determinism.

CAROLYN: That is a clear and logical argument. But I am not persuaded by it, because you are assuming, falsely, that God would be morally responsible for something that God causes.

FREDERICK: Yes, I am assuming that. Why do you think it is false?

CAROLYN: I think it is false because it might be that God has to cause pain and suffering in order to produce a greater good. Consider a couple of examples involving people. Suppose a notoriously malicious dictator decides to take over a neighboring country. To preserve its freedom, the neighboring country has to kill people in the dictator’s army. We would not blame the attacked country if what it did to protect itself was truly necessary to preserve its freedom, would we?

FREDERICK: No, we wouldn’t.

CAROLYN: Or consider this case. You are walking along the sidewalk, when suddenly you hear screams and see someone being beaten with a pipe. You would not be morally blamed for injuring the attacker just to keep the victim alive, would you?

FREDERICK: I should think not.

CAROLYN: These cases show that people cannot be said to be evil just because they cause pain. The same is true of God. There are great goods that God wishes for us humans to exemplify, but which cannot be exemplified without pain and suffering. Courage is one such good. It presupposes risk and danger. Compassion is another. Exhibiting it presupposes that there is suffering. So it is not true that God is morally responsible for causing pain and suffering. This means that I can consistently believe both that determinism is true and that a perfectly good God is ultimately the cause of everything that happens in the universe.

FREDERICK: You may be able to believe both of those things without actually contradicting yourself, but you cannot reasonably believe both without also explaining why God has to cause pain and suffering in order to produce a greater good. Can you do that?

CAROLYN: I don’t know why God has to cause pain and suffering in order to produce a greater good. And probably no one else does either. But if we knew enough about the way things are connected to each other, we would know.

FREDERICK: If God is supremely powerful and all-knowing, God should be able to make a good universe without having to cause any pain. So God cannot have a good reason for causing it. 

CAROLYN: It might be that things are connected to each other in such a way that not even God could make good to exist without also causing pain and suffering, just as in my example you had to injure the attacker in order to rescue the victim. Besides, your free will position also has to deal with pain and suffering. You have to explain why God permits it in order to maintain your belief that God is perfectly good. After all, someone might say that God is evil because God could have prevented the world’s pain and suffering, but didn’t.

FREDERICK: You are right. I do have to explain why God has to permit pain in order for God to produce a greater good, just as you have to explain why God has to cause pain in order for there to be a greater good. But whereas you cannot give such an explanation, I can.

CAROLYN: What is your explanation?

FREDERICK: God has made a good universe, but people have freely chosen to do things that produce pain and suffering. God could, of course, prevent people from doing those things. But if God did that, people would not have any free will. And that would mean that people could not freely do what is good and right, which is what God desires. So God has to permit people to do things that bring about pain if they are to be able freely to do what is good and right. 

CAROLYN: What would you say to someone who said that if God is supremely powerful and all-knowing, then God should be able to bring it about that people always freely do what is good and right?

FREDERICK: I would say that doing that is logically impossible, because God would have to cause something that is uncaused, namely, a free action. Not even God could do that.

CAROLYN: Okay, I see that. But why do you think that freely doing what is good and right is so valuable that its existence justifies the pain and suffering in the world?

FREDERICK: Freely doing what is good and right is the greatest good there is.

CAROLYN: That doesn’t answer my question. You have to show that this great good is worth the price. Someone might say that if God had to permit pain just to allow us to do what is good and right, God should not have made us at all. God should have taken away our free will because the pain that results from it is not offset by the good that results from it. Unless you can answer this challenge satisfactorily, I don’t see how your free will position reconciles God’s goodness with the world’s pain and suffering any better than my determinist position does.

FREDERICK: My answer is that it is better for beings freely to do what is good and right than it is for mere machines automatically to do what is “good” and “right,” even if it means allowing pain and suffering. 

CAROLYN: It would not be better if there were enormous amounts of pain and suffering. How do you know that the amount of pain God permits does not outweigh the good?

FREDERICK: Freely doing what is good and right is so great a good that even enormous amounts of pain and suffering would not outweigh it.

CAROLYN: Isn’t there any amount of pain which, if it were to exist, would outweigh the good of freely doing what is good and right?

FREDERICK: No, because a good God would not let too much pain and suffering exist.

CAROLYN: But that is the very thing I said in reconciling determinism with pain and suffering. I said that we know that God would not permit the pain in the world to outweigh the good because we know that God is perfectly good. So it turns out that your final solution to the problem is exactly the same as mine. This means that the existence of pain and suffering cannot be used to disprove determinism.
And there is something else about your free will solution to the problem of pain that makes it no better than my determinist solution. To avoid the difficulty you say the determinist is in, you have to say that all the pain and suffering in the world is uncaused, or is the result of something else that is uncaused. If any pain is caused, then you, too, would have to answer the very argument you used against me. But I don’t see how you can possibly prove that every single instance of pain is uncaused. Even if your arguments for free will show that some of what people do is uncaused, they do not show that everything people do that produces pain is uncaused. 

FREDERICK: I think my arguments for free will do show that everything people do that produces pain is uncaused.

CAROLYN: That seems to me to be a shaky foundation upon which to base a solution to the problem of pain. Suppose just one human action that produced pain were caused. You would then be in the same situation you say I am in of having to explain why God causes pain instead of just permitting it. But it seems to me highly probable that at least some human actions that produce pain are caused, even if you are right in saying that some are uncaused. You could, of course, say that all human actions that produce pain are uncaused because otherwise there would be no way to reconcile God’s goodness with the existence of pain. But that would be cheating. You have to have independent evidence that all pain and suffering actually is uncaused. And that seems impossible to get.

FREDERICK: Why don’t we ask Daniel what his reactions are to what we have been talking about?

DANIEL: Your discussion has been interesting, but it doesn’t affect me because I am not a believer in God, as you two are.

FREDERICK: Aren’t you convinced by the traditional arguments for God’s existence?

DANIEL: I think that if determinism and the existence of pain conflict with the existence of a perfectly good and supremely powerful God, we should deny God’s existence, because the evidence for determinism is much stronger than is the evidence for God’s existence.

FREDERICK: That certainly is a quick way to dispose of our discussion. Unfortunately, you have an analogous problem even if you do not believe that God exists.

DANIEL: What problem is that?

Determinism and Evil

FREDERICK: It’s the problem of reconciling determinism with the belief that evil is not a necessary part of the universe.

DANIEL: Why is that a problem?

FREDERICK: If determinism were true, everything that happens would have to happen. Nothing could be different from what it actually is. So if determinism were true, evil would have to exist. It would be a necessary part of human life. Do you agree that this is a consequence of determinism?

DANIEL: Yes, that’s right.

FREDERICK: The question that arises for you, then, is how to reconcile these beliefs with the intuitive conviction that evil is not a necessary part of human life. This intuitive conviction is so fundamental that I think determinism ought to be rejected because of it. 

DANIEL: Perhaps you could explain to me exactly what that intuitive conviction is.

FREDERICK: It’s the belief that human life does not inescapably contain evil—the belief that human life can be good and that evil can be avoided.

DANIEL: What would you say to someone who said they did not have that belief?

FREDERICK: I would say that they should think about the repulsiveness of life if the world were determined from all eternity to contain evil. Here is an illustration. Suppose you suddenly found yourself in a room with two other people who are mean, sarcastic, irritable, and angry. After ten minutes you have had all you can take, so you go to the door, only to discover that it is locked. Your dismay turns into terror as you realize you must remain in the room forever. If determinism were true, life would be like that. We would be doomed forever to live in a world in which evil is unavoidable. 

DANIEL: Your intuitive conviction looks to me as if it is nothing more than a dislike. But dislikes do not prove anything. You might not like being in a room with two mean people, but if you’re there, you’re there, and not liking it will not change that fact one bit. You might not like being in a universe in which evil has to exist, but not liking it will not prove that it isn’t so.

FREDERICK: A conviction about the avoidability of evil is more than just a dislike. It is a fundamental moral belief: the universe would be morally repugnant if evil were a necessary part of it. That is intolerable pessimism.

DANIEL: I do not find myself having that belief. But even I did, that would not mean it is true. The evidence for determinism is stronger than the plausibility of the belief. 

FREDERICK: It seems to me that if determinism leads to such a pessimistic view of human life, you should reconsider your claim that the evidence for determinism is strong. The same holds for Carolyn, too.

CAROLYN: No, it doesn’t, because I do not think that determinism leads to a pessimistic view of human life. Just because determinism is true does not mean that evil is an unavoidable part of our lives. 

FREDERICK: How can that be true?

CAROLYN: Even though determinism is true, we can avoid doing certain things. For instance, we can avoid getting into accidents by not leaving roller skates on stairs, by not driving fast on snowy roads, and so on. Avoiding accidents does not mean that what we do is uncaused. In a similar way, evil can be avoided even though everything we do is caused.

FREDERICK: That concept of being able to avoid what we do seems to me to be mistaken. What we really mean when we say that people can avoid doing something is that they can do something different even if the entire state of the universe just prior to what they do were to remain the same. In this sense, nothing we do could be avoided if determinism were true. Evil would be a necessary part of our lives.

CAROLYN: I think you are wrong about that conception of avoidability, as I argued earlier [on pages 49-54 of Free Will and Determinism: A Dialogue]. But even if you were right, it would not mean that determinism leads to a pessimistic view of human life. Just because evil has already been a part of human life does not mean that it always will. Good may triumph in the end even though everything that happens is caused. 

FREDERICK: That may be true. But it is irrelevant. The question is not about what will happen, but about what has happened and is happening. There already is evil in human life, and if determinism were true, that evil could not have been avoided. This is what makes determinism so distasteful. The world would be inherently bad, not just contingently bad, if determinism were true.

CAROLYN: How does your free will position avoid pessimism about life?

FREDERICK: I do not have to say that human life is inescapably evil, as you and Daniel do, because I do not believe that everything that happens has a cause. Even though there is a great deal of evil in the world, it could have been avoided. Evil is not a necessary part of human life.

CAROLYN: In order for you to say that, you have to claim that every single instance of evil is uncaused. But as I said before when we were talking about pain and suffering, if there is just one evil action that is caused, you would be in the very same situation you say Daniel and I are in. But surely some evil actions are caused. It is an unwarranted generalization to say that all evil is uncaused. So your free will thesis is no better at avoiding pessimism than is determinism.

Determinism and the Meaning of Life

DANIEL: Perhaps we should talk about how determinism relates to the meaning of life. 

FREDERICK: Yes, let’s do that. I think that if determinism were true, it would be difficult to see how life could have any meaning.

DANIEL: Why do you think that’s so?

FREDERICK: If determinism were true, we would have no control over what we do. We would be like machines that are entirely at the mercy of external circumstances. We would be powerless to affect our destinies and subject to irresistible forces that irrevocably shape our lives. How could human life have meaning if we were all mere puppets?

DANIEL:  What would you say to someone who said that the evidence for determinism is so strong that we have to believe those things?

FREDERICK: I would say that it is really the other way around. The evidence that human life has meaning is so strong that we should question the evidence for determinism. If our lives had no meaning, there would be no reason to do anything. All of morality would be pointless. Sympathy, courage, honesty, and justice would cease being moral virtues. No one could have hope for a better future, and all the religions of the world would be delusions.

DANIEL: As you might guess, I am unwilling to give up my belief in determinism. I think that the evidence for it is so strong, and the evidence against it so weak, that it would be intellectual suicide for me to disbelieve it. So if determinism entailed that life is meaningless, then that is what I would have to believe. But I do not think that determinism does entail that life is meaningless.

FREDERICK: How can that be?

DANIEL: I believe that our lives are meaningful when we have acquired a balance of happiness over pain. But acquiring this balance does not conflict with determinism.

FREDERICK: That’s true. But life’s meaning cannot consist just of being happy. We have to have control over the means we use to acquire happiness. If determinism were true, we would not have that control—we would be happy puppets. What kind of meaning would that be?

DANIEL: Don’t people strive for happiness more than anything else? Isn’t that the goal which every person wants to obtain, not only for themselves but for everyone?  And doesn’t even religion promise true happiness?

FREDERICK: Yes, those things are true, and no doubt happiness is part of what makes life meaningful. But it cannot be the only thing. If a person had a device put into their brain that caused them to do everything they did and to have a balance of happiness over pain, their life would not be meaningful in any genuine sense. Who would want a happiness that is caused entirely by circumstances that are beyond their control? You could call that meaning if you wanted to, but it would be an irrational meaning, a pseudo-meaning, not worthy of the name at all.

DANIEL: Maybe Carolyn can weigh in on the subject.

CAROLYN: Okay. I have several things to say. In the first place, I think we have control over our actions, even though they are caused. For example, we can read books in our leisure time or we can play games; we can eat apples for dessert instead of bananas; we can get married or stay single, and so on. Which of these we do is up to us, even though what we actually do is caused. So it is not true that determinism means that we are mere puppets at the mercy of circumstances over which we have no control. Morality has significance and life can have meaning even though everything we do is caused.

FREDERICK: Are you using the same idea of control that you used when maintaining that being in control of what we do is compatible with determinism [on pages 38-40 of Free Will and Determinism: A Dialogue]?

CAROLYN: Yes, that’s right.

FREDERICK: As I said then, I think your compatibilist conception of being in control of what we do is mistaken. Being in control of our actions involves being able to act differently from the way we actually act even if all of the initial conditions were to remain the same, which entails that our actions are uncaused. This means that if determinism were true, we would have no control over anything we do. 

CAROLYN: I think you are wrong about that. But since we have already discussed the issue, I will mention my second point.

FREDERICK: Okay.

CAROLYN: Determinism is compatible with human life having meaning, because what gives life meaning is the ability to achieve goals. We all have this ability even though everything we do is caused. For example, we can strive to become rich and famous, we can devote our lives to helping the poor and hungry, or we can keep to ourselves and have a quiet uneventful life. Which of these we actually do is caused, but that does not detract from the fact that a goal has been achieved.

FREDERICK: My response to that is the same as my response to Daniel’s claim that acquiring happiness gives meaning to life. If a person had a device put into their brain that caused them to do everything they did, the goals they achieve would be products entirely of happenings over which they had no control. Who would want to achieve goals, important or not, if doing so were caused completely by the device in their brain?

CAROLYN: People everywhere want to achieve goals, and they want to do so regardless of what goes on in their brains. The only thing that counts is the achieving. In everyday life, we praise self-sacrificing people and censure lazy people, without regard to brain events, and also . I might add, without regard to the endless chain of causes that has led up to their actions.

FREDERICK: To have meaning in life, one must be able to choose freely the goals they strive to achieve. Otherwise, one is a mere pawn whose destiny has been determined entirely by events that have occurred millions of years ago.

CAROLYN: Perhaps I should mention my third point. I think that a person who believes determinism can also believe that God exists, that people have non-material souls, and that there is life after death. One does not have to be an atheist, or a materialist, or believe that death is the end of one’s existence. These positions have often been thought to make life meaningless. But since a determinist doesn’t have to believe them, they are not for that reason committed to the meaninglessness of life. 

FREDERICK: Haven’t determinists often been atheists and materialists?

CAROLYN: Yes, determinism has often been associated with atheism and materialism. But there is no necessary connection between determinism and these beliefs. Determinists can believe that God exists just as consistently as they can believe that God does not exist. The same is true of believing that people have non-material souls and live after dying. There are, in fact, a number of determinists who believe these things. And because of believing these things, they believe that human life has meaning. For them, and for me, there is no inconsistency between determinism and the meaningfulness of human life.

DANIEL: You are raising a whole new set of issues which we could discuss for a long time. Maybe we should stop before we get going on them.

CAROLYN: Okay. It has been a good discussion.

FREDERICK: Yes. Thanks for your thoughts.


Abstract

Determinism, God, and Evil

The discussion takes up the question of how determinism relates to pain and suffering. Frederick maintains that determinism cannot be reconciled with the existence of pain and suffering and a perfectly good God, because God would be the cause of all the pain in the universe if determinism were true, and would, therefore, be evil. Since Frederick believes that a perfectly good God exists, he concludes that determinism is false. Carolyn replies that determinism is compatible with the existence of evil and a perfectly good God, because it is not true that someone who is the cause of pain and suffering is themselves evil. A person may cause pain because it is necessary to do so in order to produce a greater good. Frederick then challenges Carolyn to show why God has to cause pain in order for God to produce a greater good. Carolyn says that she does not know why, but that she is sure that God has a reason for causing pain because she is sure that God is perfectly good.

Carolyn then asks whether Frederick’s free will position can reconcile God’s goodness with the existence of pain and suffering any better than her determinist position can. Frederick responds by saying that his free will position avoids the difficulty the determinist is in because God does not cause pain, but permits it. According to Frederick, God has to permit pain and suffering, because God wants people freely to do what is good and right, which is the greatest good there is. Carolyn says that this answer does not reconcile God’s goodness with the existence of pain unless Frederick can prove that the amount of pain and suffering that God permits does not outweigh the good that exists. Frederick says that although he cannot prove that the pain in the universe does not outweigh the good, he is sure that it does because he knows that God is perfectly good and would not allow that much pain. Carolyn retorts that this is exactly what she herself said in reconciling her belief in a good God with the existence of pain and suffering.

Carolyn also challenges Frederick to prove that all human actions that cause pain are uncaused, which is what he would have to do if he is to use his free will position to reconcile his belief in a good God with the existence of pain. Frederick says that his arguments for free will show that all actions that produce pain are uncaused. Carolyn replies that it is probable that at least some actions that produce pain are caused, which means that Frederick must reply to the same argument he used against determinism. Daniel’s solution to the problem of pain is to deny that God exists.

Determinism and Evil

Frederick argues that Daniel has the problem of reconciling determinism with the existence of evil even though he does not believe that God exists. If determinism were true, Frederick says, nothing could be different from what it actually is. This would mean that evil could not have been avoided, which conflicts with our intuitive conviction that it is not a necessary part of human life. For this reason, Frederick rejects determinism. Daniel responds by saying that what Frederick is calling an intuitive conviction seems to be only a dislike of a world in which evil is necessary. Daniel also says that even if people did have the intuitive conviction Frederick says they have, he would not reject determinism, because the evidence for determinism is so much stronger than the evidence for the truth of the conviction.

Carolyn responds to Frederick’s arguments by saying that evil can be avoided even though everything we do is caused. It doesn’t matter, she continues, whether the evil that has already occurred could not have been avoided, because good may triumph in the end. She also says that in order for Frederick to avoid the difficulty he says determinists have, he has to prove that all the evil in the world is uncaused, which, she says, he cannot do.

Determinism and the Meaning of Life

The three then turn to a discussion of the relation of determinism to the meaning of life. Frederick maintains that determinism should be rejected because it conflicts with the meaningfulness of life. He claims that human life has meaning but that if determinism were true, it would have no meaning, since people would have no control over anything they do. Daniel says that if determinism entailed that human life is meaningless, then that is what he would believe, because he is unwilling to give up his belief in determinism. He suggests, though, that life’s meaning can be found in acquiring a balance of happiness over pain, which does not conflict with determinism. Frederick says that this is a pseudo-meaning, because people need to have control over what they do to acquire happiness in order for what they do to be meaningful.

Carolyn responds to Frederick’s argument against determinism by saying that human life can have meaning even if determinism is true, because determinism does not entail that we have no control over anything we do. Frederick replies that determinism does entail that we have no control over anything we do. Carolyn also says that the meaning of life can be found in the achievement of goals. Frederick replies that achieving goals would not confer meaning on human life if determinism were true, because achieving goals would be a product entirely of happenings over which we have no control. Carolyn says, lastly, that a determinist does not have to be an atheist, or a materialist, or believe that there is no life after death, and, therefore, does not have to believe that life is meaningless for these reasons.


Questions

Determinism, God, and Evil

1. Can determinism be reconciled with the existence of a perfectly good God who has caused all pain and suffering?
2. Can the free will position deal with the existence of pain and suffering better than determinism can?
3. Must a determinist be an atheist, a materialist, or a believer in no life after death?

Determinism and Evil

1. Is evil an unavoidable part of life?
2. Would evil be an unavoidable part of life if determinism were true?

Determinism and the Meaning of Life

1. Do you think Daniel can satisfactorily answer the following question: How can human life have meaning and purpose if people do not have control over anything they do?
2. Do you think Carolyn has responded satisfactorily to Frederick’s claim that human life can have no meaning if determinism were true?
3. Can human life have meaning even if determinism is true?


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* These three sections were originally submitted to the publisher, but at the suggestion of an outside reader were not included in the book. They appear for the first time in March 2015 after I, the author, happened to run across the typescript for them in a file I had tucked away in 1980.