Bitten to Death by Ducks: A Reply to Griffin

by William Hasker

William Hasker is Professor of Philosophy at Huntington College, 2303 College Avenue, Huntington, IN 46750. He is also editor of the journal, Faith and Philosophy. E-mail whaske,@huntington. edu.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 227-232, Vol. 29, Number 2, Fall – Winter, 2000. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


It seems Process thinking remains outside the main current of thought. This is one in a series of five articles written in exchange between William Hasker and David Griffin. (See the Problem of Evil in Process Theism and Classical Free-Will Theism by William Hasker; Traditional Free Will Theodicy and Process Theodicy: Haskeer’s Claim For Parity; "Bitten to Death By Ducks": A Reply to Griffin; On Hasker’s Defense of His Parity Claim by David Ray Griffin (in

My overall response to David Griffin’s critique is that I am in danger of being bitten to death by ducks! Ducks are not equipped by nature to be fearsome biters, but if one is being gnawed on by a huge swarm of them all at once they can be quite troublesome. Similarly, none of Griffin’s arguments strike me as being particularly forceful. But there are a great many of them, and there is too little space in this reply to deal with them all, so the reader may well receive the impression that my position is in serious jeopardy. The theme of my reply, then, is "So many ducks — so little time!"

I need, then, to begin by swatting a few ducks, just to give the reader an idea of my problems with the critique. I am amazed that Griffin spends several paragraphs indignantly denying that he is responsible for my "first version" of the process argument against free will theism. Of course he is not; that is why I carefully avoided attributing it to him. This version was introduced merely in order to set up the second version which I correctly attribute to Griffin. On the other hand, it is incorrect to say, as Griffin does, that my "modified" argument is his. The modified argument supposes a situation in which humans are aware of possessing only compatibilist free will, whereas Griffin’s argument has God deceiving humans into thinking that they possess libertarian free will. The two versions are not at all the same!

Griffin doubts that Descartes would agree with me that such deception by God is impossible. There may be room for discussion about just how Descartes understood free ‘will, but it is out of the question to suppose, as Griffin does, that Descartes might have allowed that we are deceived by God about our free will. According to Descartes, "It is so evident that we are possessed of a free will that . . . this may be counted as one of the first and most ordinary notions that are found innately in us. . . . [W]e are so conscious of the liberty and indifference which exists in us, that there is nothing that we comprehend more clearly and perfectly" (Principles of Philosophy 39, 41). So much for Descartes as Griffin’s ally!

I must confess that I had overlooked Griffin’s eventual admission (in Evil Revisited) published 15 years after Process Theology) that God’s so deceiving us would be "morally questionable." The right conclusion, according to Evil Revisited, is that it is a "difficult question" whether it would be preferable for God to deceive us or to grant us genuine freedom.1 If this is a difficult question, then the ethical premise In Griffin’s argument against free will theism is not clearly true, and there is no reason a free will theist should accept it. And the argument is not much of a refutation, if a key premise is admittedly up for grabs!

I also had failed to grasp the point that the "values enjoyed by the creatures" in Griffin’s argument — the values that make our lives worthwhile — consist merely of subjective states of consciousness, regardless of their connection or lack of connection with any objective situation in the world. It follows that knowledge of the truth, genuine relationships with our fellow-creatures and with God, appreciation of beauty, and the achievement of moral goodness are not of any worth in themselves. Their value consists entirely in the subjective enjoyment they produce, and that value would be unaffected even if the subjective enjoyment were totally at variance with the actual, objective state of affairs. Falsely believing that one knows the truth, then, is intrinsically just as valuable for the person concerned as actually knowing it; falsely believing that one is in a love relationship is just as valuable as actually loving and being loved. Human beings, to be sure, lack the power, in a great many cases, to prevent the objective situation from obtruding itself and disrupting the illusionary happiness. But God suffers from no such debility; why not, then, place each of us in an illusionary paradise, where we would never have to deal with the real, obstinate, wills of other persons? If Griffin’s process view really is committed to this extreme value subjectivism, many of us would consider that in itself to be a sufficient refutation of his position.

Yet another, equally serious, problem arises concerning the relationship between Griffin’s critique of free will theism and his own constructive views. I was and am well aware that the metaphysical frameworks presupposed by the two views are different, in spite of Griffin’s repeated (but unsupported) allegations of confusion about this on my part. But I had assumed that the ethical and value judgments implied in his criticisms were intended to be common ground between process theists and free will theists. And in view of this, I had also assumed that the value judgments employed in the critiques needed to be consistent with Griffin’s own, positive views. Now, however, we learn that this is not the case — that, for example, when he suggests that a God who would be "Calvinistic in power but Whiteheadian in goodness" would be preferable to a God who permits his creatures genuine freedom, "no conclusions about my [Griffin’s] own position can be drawn from this internal argument within an alien framework." So these "internal" arguments against free will theism are purely ad hominem, drawing upon ethical views that free will theists are thought to accept but which need not be shared by the process theist making the argument. If so, then it needs to be noted that such arguments are fully and completely answered, and removed as objections to free will theism, by my saying (as I did say at various points in Searching for an Adequate God)2 that free will theists need not, and many of us do not, subscribe to the ethical judgments in question. Griffin, however ignores my disclaimers and freely attributes to us a variety of ethical views subscribed to by some traditional theist or other (persons, often unnamed, who may or may not be free will theists in the sense at issue here), that support one or another of his objections. This, I submit, is uncharitable in the extreme, and it also violates the principle, to which Griffin subscribed in Searching for an Adequate God, that a position ought to be criticized on the basis of its "core doctrines" and not on the basis of views that may have been espoused by some adherents but are not essential to the position itself. Clearly, in Griffin’s present essay we have a case of massive backsliding from that admirable principle.

In each of these three respects, then, I must acknowledge that I have come to a better understanding of Griffin’s position as a result of the present exchange. I fail to see, however, that his case against free will theism is any stronger as a result of correcting the misunderstandings. If anything, the reverse is the case.

I find Griffin’s remarks about natural evil somewhat perplexing. I had claimed that, on his process assumptions, "it is quite unlikely that the world of nature is radically different than God intended it to be." Griffin’s reply is that this is irrelevant even if true.3 The reason it is irrelevant is that even if the process deity got things pretty much the way he intended, there is a "big gap" between such a world and the world that would have been created by the God of traditional theism, whose ability to create is limited only by what is logically possible. What Griffin seems to have in mind here, are worlds that would be radically different from the world as it actually exists — worlds in which, for Instance, beings capable of high-level intrinsic values exist without predation,4 or in which we and other animals could have existed without requiring food. It is noteworthy, however, that he makes no effort to imagine such worlds in detail, or to assess what other values might be gained or loss given the changes he proposes.

What Griffin seems not to appreciate is that determining whether a world of a given sort is even logically possible is not a simple matter. What at stake is not merely the logical possibility of a particular, limited situation, such as higher values without predation, or animals who need no food. (Though if Griffin really thinks predation is a bad thing one would expect him to feel disgust, rather than reverence, for our present natural order which depends upon it so heavily.) What is much more difficult to ascertain, however, is the compossibility of all the different elements in a highly complex situation in which a large number of potentially competing values are simultaneously realized. I submit that neither Griffin nor any of the rest of us has anything like an adequate grasp of the various possible goods God may be seeking through creation (and I reject absolutely the notion that nothing in creation is of any value to God except for intelligent creatures). Nor do we have any thorough understanding of the way in which these goods may combine and support one another, or on the other hand come into conflict.5 And to repeat, Griffin makes no attempt to show us in detail what the "worlds" he suggests would be like, let alone to show that such worlds, conceived in detail, are logically possible or that they would be superior to the kind of world that actually exists. In view of all this, I conclude that Griffin’s talk about a "big gap" between the kind of world that exists and the sort of world that would be created by the God of traditional theism amounts to little more than whistling in the dark.

Before leaving the topic of natural evil, I would like to take up just one more of Griffin’s baseless allegations of confusion on my part — to "wring the neck of one more duck," so to speak! I am well aware of the difference between "cosmological determinism" and "theological determinism," in Griffin’s terms. It is precisely for this reason that, after discussing the indeterminism of natural processes, I added the following proviso: "If we add to this (as free will theists should) that God generally refrains from exerting direct control over such indeterministic natural processes . . . etc." I am well aware that some theological determinists combine their view with an acceptance of indeterminism in nature. But what does that have to do with what a free will theist should think about this?

We turn, finally, to the problem of divine non-intervention. Griffin disputes each of the four propositions deployed to defend freewill theism on this topic, and there is too much material here to cover in detail. We have, once again, Griffin’s value subjectivism: The value for a person of making free choices would be just the same even if the person’s freedom were only an illusion created by God, who in reality controls all such decisions. Another theme that surfaces is Griffin’s tendency to claim that evil is a grave problem for theists simply on the basis of the psychological reactions of various people, regardless of whether or not there is a substantial rational basis for such reactions. This shows up in several ways. He claims, for example, that "Traditional free will theism has a problem insofar as it seems likely to people that God should have intervened to prevent the tragedy in question." (It doesn’t matter whether they have good reason to think this likely,) And there is no need for a criterion by which to determine the cases where God ought to intervene; it’s enough to have a "more or less vague list of such cases." It is not a new discovery for free will theists that some persons will adamantly seize on a particular evil and insist, with indignation and genuine anger, that if God didn’t prevent this, God is not good or else doesn’t exist at all. This is, if you like, a problem of evil, but it is not so far a philosophical problem.6 Griffin, of course, does develop the problem of evil as a philosophical problem, but under pressure he tends to revert and argue as though he could win the day by appealing to people’s psychological reactions — as in his claim, cited in my paper, that "psychological appeal is what theodicy is all about." But when confronted with the fact that the vast majority of Christians find more psychological appeal in traditional theism than in the process variety, he quickly retreats to an imaginary situation in which, he opines, process theism would be found to be more appealing. For my part, I think it is generally unhelpful, in a philosophical discussion, to appeal to popular psychology as the basis for one’s philosophical claims. But if Griffin thinks otherwise, he needs to deal with the actual situation, not with an imaginary one invented by himself.7

Griffin is puzzled by my assertion that "we are (by hypothesis) dealing with a God of infinite wisdom, and we must be prepared to defer to that wisdom concerning the suitable occasions for special intervention." This is not, as he appears to believe, a circular and question-begging assertion — much less a "conversation-stopper." I understand the problem of evil as an internal problem for theism (or a particular variety of theism); the argument from evil represents an attempt to show that it is irrational to hold the variety of theism in question. The quoted statement amounts to pointing out that, given the traditional conception of God, and given also that (as I had just argued) the amount of divine intervention that could occur without conflicting with God’s other purposes is relatively small, we should not suppose that it is up to us to determine which are the situations in which God ought to intervene. This is no more question-begging than it is question-begging for Griffin to appeal to Whiteheadian "metaphysical principles" in explaining the process answer to natural evil.

There remains the topic of God and "gratuitous evil." But this topic, as I noted in my paper, is far too involved to discuss in detail at the end of another paper, much less in a reply such as this. All I can really do is to recommend once again to the reader — and to Griffin himself who evidently has not read them — the articles cited in Note 12 of my paper, where many of the objections made in his paper (and others besides) are considered and answered.

As I bring this reply to a close, I can hear the remaining ducks still munching away! There is much more that could be said, but life is short (and journal pages scarce), and I should not presume further on the patience of both readers and editor. I can only appeal to the reader to consider these thoughts fairly, and not to assume that because I have not answered all of Griffin’s many complaints, no good answers are available. With that appeal, I rest my case.



1. Is this supposed to be a conundrum also for God? Are we, that is, supposed to picture the Lord saying to himself: "Should I give my creatures real freedom, or only the illusion of freedom? I wish I knew Even better, I wish I were like the process deity, and were let off from making such choices because of my metaphysical limitations."

2. For examples, see my "In Response to David Griffin, 39-40.

3. In a footnote Griffin argues that my argument for this is unsound, because I "downplay the extent to which, over time, even very small deviations from the divine aims would lead to enormous gaps between the actual and what would have been ideal in an abstract sense." Now it is true that such an effect might well exist, and I acknowledge as much in my paper. The extent of the effect is, however, highly conjectural. What I claim in my paper is that such deviations are quite unlikely to be responsible for the existence of the major sources of natural evil — animal pain and suffering, predation, natural disasters, and the like. Griffin may disagree with this, but I can’t see he has given us any solid reason in support of his disagreement.

4. This at least is surely possible, given Griffin’s view that beings could enjoy high-level values even while existing in a world of solipsistic illusion!

5. It is for this reason, and not because I implicitly accept the process notion of non-logical metaphysical principles, that I write about the relation between God and nature in the way I do. I have no doubt that God could create worlds vastly different from the present one; what I deny is that any of us has any adequate grasp of what such worlds would be like, or of the values that might be realized by them.

6. Alvin Plantinga has suggested that we should distinguish the philosophical problem of evil from the pastoral problem of evil. Answers to the philosophical problem are not wholly irrelevant to the pastoral problem, but neither are they sufficient to deal with it.

7. It may well be true, as Griffin suggests, that most ordinary believers have never heard process theism presented by an advocate for that position. But isn’t this fact in itself a reflection of the fact that process theism has made relatively little progress in the church as a whole, in spite of having been the leading theological option in most nonconservative seminaries for a number of years?