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Process Theism Versus Free-Will Theism: A Response To Griffin

by David Basinger

David Basinger teaches philosophy at Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, New York. The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp.204-220, Vol. 20, Number 4, Winter, 1991. 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.


Here is a common situation: a house catches fire and a six-month old baby is painfully burned to death. Could we possibly describe as "good" any person who had the power to save this child and yet refused to do so? God undoubtedly has this power yet in many cases of this sort he has refused to help. Can we call God "good"? (PCI 135)

For millennia theists have struggled with the question posed above: If God exists, why is there so much evil in the world? Currently, theistic responses fall into three basic categories. Theological determinists ultimately deny that there is any genuine evil -- any evil that is not necessary for bringing about some greater good or avoiding some greater evil -- and acknowledge instead that each instance of evil is a necessary component in God’s perfect creative plan. Free-will theists acknowledge that God could unilaterally have created a world with no genuine evil. But they hold that God has given humans significant freedom -- the freedom to bring about good or evil -- and that God cannot both grant such freedom and also ensure that it is never misused. Thus, they believe that they can maintain justifiably both that genuine evil exists and that God is perfectly good.

Finally, process theists, like free-will theists, affirm the reality of significant freedom and thus maintain that genuine evil exists but does not count against God’s goodness. However, they deny that such freedom has been voluntarily bestowed by God, maintaining instead that every actual entity (including each human) simply does possess some power of self-determination. Accordingly, since it is always possible for such freedom to be used in less than the most appropriate manner, process theists deny that God could unilaterally have produced a world with no evil.

Are any of these theodicies successful? David Griffin has recently reaffirmed his claim that only a process theodicy can offer an adequate response to evil (ER). The purpose of this paper is to assess one aspect of this claim: Griffin’s contention that free-will theists (FWTs) cannot offer an adequate response to the evil we encounter daily.

The general structure of Griffin’s argument can be stated quite simply. The most fundamental task of the philosophical theologian is to demonstrate how a theistic world-view can illuminate the totality of our experience better than a nontheistic perspective. Moreover, since no aspect of reality is more important than the evil we encounter, a theistic perspective can be considered worthy of serious consideration only if it can explain in a plausible manner how evil can be reconciled with the concept of God in question (ER 41-49). But FWTs cannot defend themselves "against the claim that [they] cannot provide a plausible theodicy," while process theists can (ER 95). Thus, in comparison to free-will theism, process theism alone can be viewed as a credible competitor to atheism.

Why exactly does Griffin consider the responses to evil offered by FWTs to be so indefensible? The problem for some FWTs, Griffin argues, is that they do not even realize that a theodicy is necessary. The most notable example of such a FWT, Griffin believes, is Alvin Plantinga, and thus he expends considerable effort explaining exactly why he feels Plantinga’s position is inadequate (ER 42-49).

Plantinga’s famous ‘Free-Will Defense’, Griffin points out, is by Plantinga’s own admission not a theodicy -- an attempt to explain the existence of evil -- but rather simply a defense against the charge that "A good God exists" and "Evil exists" are logically incompatible. Moreover, Griffin rightly notes, it is Plantinga’s contention that to defeat this charge, one need only identify a set of propositions that when conjoined with "A good God exists" entails that "Evil exists," and that to perform this function, these propositions "clearly... need be neither true, nor probable, nor plausible, nor believed by most theists, nor anything of that sort" (PS 11:26-27).

In response, Griffin does not deny that Plantinga has salvaged logical consistency in this manner. But Griffin finds this whole endeavor exceedingly misguided. "Some critics," he acknowledges, "have . . . presented the case against [traditional theism] as if a strictly logical inconsistency were the crux of the matter." But he believes they should not have done so. Not only has it given traditional theists such as Plantinga an "opportunity for an easy victory" but, more importantly, it has allowed such theists to avoid addressing the real question that evil poses: Given the incredible amount and pervasiveness of the pain and suffering that continues to be experienced by actual individuals, is there some plausible reason not to assume "that God is guilty of nonexistence" (ER 46)? Accordingly, Griffin concludes that Plantinga’s Free Will Defense must be viewed as basically irrelevant "to the problem of evil as humans actually grapple with it" and therefore as not "anything worth doing" (ER 45).

Is this a justifiable criticism? It certainly is true that Plantinga has in the past exerted a great deal of effort in attempting to preserve the logical consistency of simultaneous belief in the existence of a good God and evil. But for Griffin to imply that such efforts are (or were) excessive because the real problem of evil is not one of logical consistency is problematic on two counts. First, until quite recently, most of the influential analytic philosophers of religion challenging God’s existence in the face of evil had posed the problem as a strictly logical one, and thus Plantinga and other analytic philosophers of religion can hardly be criticized justly for having expended a great deal of effort in response. Second, many would argue, and I think correctly, that the reason why it now appears that traditional theists can score an easy victory at the level of logical consistency is precisely because of the efforts expended by Plantinga and other FWTs in the past. Accordingly, I believe Griffin is wrong to maintain that what Plantinga has done is not "anything worth doing."

Isn’t Griffin, though, at least justified in contending that FWTs such as Plantinga must do more than simply preserve logical consistency if they want their considerations to have "any relevance to the problem of evil as humans actually grapple with it"?

In one sense, I believe the answer is clearly yes. I agree that many individuals will find Plantinga’s logical defense to have little relevance to the types of evils they are actually experiencing. But even Plantinga doesn’t deny this. As Griffin himself finally acknowledges, Plantinga does maintain that without some plausible explanation "for the evil we find," a person may face a "spiritual crisis" (PS 11:28). In fact this is something that Plantinga has routinely acknowledged. He has stated elsewhere, for example, that the fact that evil presents no serious logical or probabilistic argument against God’s existence or goodness will be cold and abstract comfort to a person who is faced with "the shocking concreteness of a particularly appalling exemplification of evil" (AP 35-36).

But why then does Plantinga say at points that plausibility and even truth are irrelevant when responding to the problem of evil? He does so because, in the context in which such statements are made, he is explicitly nor talking about the effect evil has on people’s lives. When he states that the truth or plausibility of the statements used to defend theistic belief in the face of evil "are utterly beside the point," he is saying that the truth or plausibility of such statements is not necessary to preserve logical consistency, and this even Griffin does not deny is correct. Moreover, when he says that the believer need not despair if he or she cannot think of a plausible explanation for evil, he is again clearly not talking about the personal, emotional despair that evil might generate. He is explicitly talking about evil as "an intellectual or theoretical problem." He is saying that for the believer to preserve justified theistic belief in the face of evil, he or she need not be able to produce a plausible explanation (PS 11: 27-28).

This brings us finally to the substantive point of disagreement between Plantinga and Griffin: a disagreement over what is necessary for justified theistic belief, given the evil we encounter. Griffin believes that unless a theistic perspective can offer a plausible explanation for evil, a theist cannot justifiably maintain that this perspective is adequate, while Plantinga believes that it is possible for the believer to justifiably maintain that a given theistic perspective is adequate even if it does not offer, or even attempt to offer, a plausible explanation for evil.

What is the basis for this disagreement? Specifically, why does Plantinga contend that to retain justified theistic belief in the face of evil, a theist need only defend herself against external attack? It is not, as Griffin contends, because Plantinga views his traditional concept of God "as holding a privileged, virtually invulnerable position in the minds of believers," and thus has no interest in "asking what we might learn from . . . others" (ER 48-49). It is true that Plantinga has not entered the arena of positive apologetics’ to the extent that many besides Griffin believe is necessary (FP 8: 67-80). But I see absolutely no basis in anything that Plantinga has written for assuming that he is not involved in a common quest for truth or is not willing to consider criticisms of his position and learn from them. On the contrary, Plantinga has often stated explicitly that he sees other religious and nonreligious perspectives as being on totally equal epistemic footing with his own perspective -- as having the same epistemic rights and privileges he accords to himself (FP 4, FP 3). Moreover, as we shall see, Plantinga strongly believes that we must consider the criticisms of others seriously and modify our positions in light of such criticism if necessary. It is true, it must be acknowledged, that Plantinga has not significantly modified his basic position to the extent that his critics believe is required. But there is little basis for assuming that he has not made such modification because he believes his position is "privileged" and thus immune from attack. A much more plausible explanation is to assume that Plantinga has not significantly modified his position for the same reason that Griffin has not significantly modified his position: because he doesn’t believe that any of the criticisms leveled against his position thus far merit such modification.

Why then does Plantinga maintain that the theist need only defend herself from external attack? This is a complex question, but the basic thrust of Plantinga’s response can be summarized as follows. We as humans are naturally endowed with a considerable number of belief-forming faculties. As a result, many of us not only find ourselves believing we are ‘seeing’ a tree or believing that we had eggs yesterday or believing we have a headache but also that God exists or God is good. There is, of course, no way to prove conclusively that our faculties generally produce true beliefs. But the onus is not on us to furnish such proof. We all rely on these faculties daily and in general they serve us quite well. In fact the assumed reliability of such faculties serves as the basis for some of our most noncontroversial examples of knowledge. So our basic stance toward beliefs formed by such faculties -- including those beliefs formed by our religious faculties -- should be to assume that they axe innocent until proven guilty’ (EP 4: 405-6).

This does not mean, Plantinga points out, that theistic beliefs formed in this way are immune from criticism. We must seriously consider alleged defeaters of such beliefs. For instance, we must seriously consider the contention that the existence of God is incompatible with the amount of evil in the world. But since the burden of proof with respect to beliefs formed by our belief-forming faculties is on the critic, he quickly adds, the theist need not respond by engaging in positive apologetics -- by producing propositional evidence. Only "negative apologetics . . . is required to defeat . . . defeaters" (FP 3: 313, n. 11). And the problem of evil, he contends, can be defeated by identifying validity or soundness problems or even by appealing to the fact that "experts think it is unsound, or that the experts are evenly divided as to its soundness" (PP 3: 312).

Now, of course, Griffin has every right to maintain that Plantinga and others are simply wrong about all of this. But what is crucial for our present purpose is to see that Griffin has failed to identify the actual basis for Plantinga’s ‘defensive’ position. Plantinga does not play defense because he believes that his brand of theism holds some privileged position or because he is not interested in learning from others or because he is not involved in a common quest for truth with his critics. Plantinga plays ‘defense’ because he is an adherent of a popular epistemic perspective -- affirmed by many theists and nontheists alike -- that maintains that defense is all that is required with respect to beliefs formed the way Plantinga contends that belief in God is formed for most "intellectually sophisticated adult theists" (FP 3: 312). Accordingly, since the purpose of Griffin’s goal is not simply to defend his own approach to the problem of evil but to argue that "the [defensive] strategy proposed by Plantinga is inadequate" (ER 47), the fact that Griffin has misidentified the basis for Plantinga’s position is significant. It allows the proponent of Plantinga’s perspective to maintain that until Griffin (or someone else) successfully challenges the actual basis for Plantinga’s defensive strategy, Plantinga and his followers remain justified in approaching the problem of evil as they do.

As Griffin sees it, though, many FWTs do believe it is important to attempt to produce "a theodicy, not simply a defense" (ER 42). He believes, however, that FWTs of this type cannot produce a plausible theodicy and thus that their basic theistic perspective cannot, any more than Plantinga’s, be viewed as an adequate competitor to atheism or process theism. Specifically, he believes that he has identified ten challenges to God’s goodness to which FWTs cannot offer plausible responses.

I will admit that some of these challenges are significant. However, before turning to them, it is important to comment on those challenges that I see as misguided.

First, Griffin doubts that FWTs who believe God possesses foreknowledge can also claim consistently that this world actually contains genuine evil. After all, Griffin argues,

If God is perfectly good, and if God chose to actualize our particular world not only in its general structure but in its every detail (which God foresaw), including not only (say) the Nazi holocaust in general but every barbarous inhumanity that occurred during it, can we consistently believe that some of the details are genuinely evil? If God could have chosen a better possible world, but did not do so, God would seem to be less than perfectly good. If we (within this framework) insist on the perfect goodness of God, must we not, with Leibniz, hold that this world, in all its details, is the best of all possible worlds -- at least one of the best? . . . And this would be to say that it contains no genuine evil. (ER 82)

Such reasoning, however, is based on a misunderstanding of the standard free-will position. Many FWTs do believe that God had knowledge of all possible worlds before creation. In fact, many might even grant for the sake of argument that God had such worlds ranked from ‘best’ to ‘worst’ in some sense. But such FWTs deny emphatically the key assumption on which Griffin’s critique is based: that they must therefore also acknowledge that all of these possible worlds were creative options for God and thus that this world must in fact be considered the ‘best’. Rather, such FWTs uniformly contend that since God cannot control the free actions of humans in any given context, only some of the possible worlds containing human freedom (only some of the possible ways in which God saw humans might use their freedom) were actualizable and that God had absolutely no control over which possible worlds were in this category. Accordingly, such FWTs uniformly conclude that Leibniz was wrong to declare that this is necessarily the best of all possible worlds. They uniformly maintain instead that God may have had to settle for far less than the best and thus that this world may well contain a great deal of genuine evil (GFE 29-44).

Griffin, of course, is free to disagree with this line of reasoning. He could try to argue that a God with traditional omniscience would have the power to actualize any of the possible worlds of which he was aware and thus that those FWTs who affirm the existence of such a being really should deny that genuine evil exists. I personally don’t think he would be successful. This component of free-will thought has been challenged repeatedly and has proved to be one of the most invulnerable. But the key point for our present purposes is that Griffin has not to date offered any such argument, and, without such an argument, the challenge in question cannot be considered successful.

Second, a number of Griffin’s challenges are based on a questionable characterization of free-will theism. As Griffin rightly claims, FWTs believe that significant freedom -- the ability to determine how one will respond in a given situation -- is so inherently valuable that to bestow it on humans is justified, even if such freedom is at times misused or abused. But when attempting to outline exactly what this means, he then goes on to say that FWTs also believe that "pain and suffering are essential conditions to the realizations of many of the most important moral and spiritual qualities . . . [and often] are thus not counterproductive at all" (ER 15).

There is a sense in which this may be true for most FWTs. Most would probably agree that some moral and spiritual qualities -- for example, patience -- could not be realized in the life of someone who had never experienced any adversity. But I know of no FWT who has claimed that God causes or permits all (or even most) specific evils -- for example, the Holocaust -- because such evils have the capacity for producing spiritual and moral growth. In fact, although John Hick does appear to believe that some types of evil are allowed to develop moral and spiritual character, most FWTs have not even explicitly stated they agree with this more minimal claim.

Accordingly, when Griffin contends that it is implausible for FWTs to believe "that every basic structural aspect of the world can be justified as necessary to the promotion of creatures with moral and spiritual qualities" (ER 16), he is attacking a straw man. Even Hick has made it quite clear that to affirm his soul-making theodicy is not to say that every basic structural aspect of the world was designed by God because it was necessary to produce some desired human quality (PhR 40-46).

For the same reason, Griffin is misguided when he believes he has offered a serious challenge to free-will theism by pointing out that "much of the suffering in the world produces not virtue but its opposite" (ER 16). Again, not even Hick denies this fact.

Finally, once we realize that most FWTs do not claim that "God in fact deliberately creates conditions producing suffering in order to stimulate moral and spiritual qualities," we see that there is no basis for maintaining that the affirmation of a free-will theodicy "could promote callousness" in the sense that it could cause FWTs "to belittle the importance of liberating persons from conditions producing suffering" (ER 19). Since FWTs clearly believe that much of the evil we encounter is genuine, they have every reason to attempt to remove as much as possible.

Griffin, of course, might wish to argue that FWTs must, or at least should, believe not only that all structural aspects of the world are somehow sanctioned by God as a means to produce moral and spiritual growth but that this is also true for each specific occurrence. However, although I don’t see how this could be argued successfully, the key point again is that such an argument is necessary if the challenges in question are to have any force.

Moreover, there is one other type of challenge that I believe is based on a misunderstanding of the free-will position. Griffin rightly states that FWTs believe that "God could have created beings who would be like us in all ways, enjoying all the values we enjoy -- intellectual, aesthetic, interpersonal, creative -- except that they would not really be free to act contrary to God’s will, and thereby would not wreak havoc" (ER 83). However, as Griffin sees it, if God could have done so, then God should have created such beings "instead of ones who slaughter each other and now threaten most other forms of life as well" (ER 84).

He realizes, of course, that for God to act in this fashion would involve divine deception and thus that he must consider the question that my brother, Randall, and I have posed: "Could a wholly good God totally and continually deceive individuals with respect to the true nature of their supposed self-determination, even if it were for their own good" (PS 11: 18)? But, as Griffin sees it, the answer to this question is clearly yes. After declaring that the only one who really benefits from the presence of creaturely freedom vis-a-vis God is God, he asks us to consider which of the two following pictures of God is less morally reprehensible: "a God who created an earthly paradise but deceived its self-conscious inhabitants about their true status, or a God who freely and unilaterally made all of the forms of evil in our world possible solely for the value that would thereby accrue to God?" He concludes that when the question is posed in this fashion, "many . . . would find neither being worthy of worship and thereby worthy of the name ‘God’" (ER 18).

Griffin may well be right that if the question is posed in this manner, many would not find God worthy of worship. But there is certainly nothing inherent in the standard free-will perspective that requires the FWT to hold that God’s primary purpose for creating free creatures was to make it possible for God to "enjoy the value of knowing that those of us who developed moral character and spiritual virtue . . . did so freely" (ER 18). In fact I know of no FWT who has made such a claim. Most FWTs with which I am familiar argue, rather, that the primary reason why God has created us with freedom is because of the intrinsic value of a world containing freedom. Thus, as most FWTs see it, the relevant question is which of the following pictures of God is most appealing: (1) a God who creates individuals who only think they are free but are actually controlled by God and thus produce no evil or (2) a God who bestows actual freedom on individuals even though such freedom may produce (has produced) much evil along with much good. Griffin, of course, may still prefer a deceptive God. But it isn’t at all clear to me that he would still have widespread support or, more importantly, that he could mount a compelling argument to this end.

Griffin does, though, raise questions that can legitimately be asked of FWTs who think it is important to attempt to explain the evil we encounter. For instance, he legitimately asks whether the FWT can offer an adequate explanation for natural evil -- for those cancers, earthquakes, tidal waves, floods and the like that cause so much suffering to innocent people. In response, Griffin initially states that since the free-will defense or theodicy is "effectively limited to human beings," the FWT can provide "no explanation for all the ‘natural evils’ in the world . . . unless, of course, all such evils are said to be caused by a Satanic figure of cosmic proportions" (ER 21). But when discussing this issue in greater detail later, he acknowledges that FWTs have offered an explanation. In fact, he doesn’t even deny the intrinsic adequacy of the standard explanation offered: that nonmoral evils exist as unwanted, though unavoidable, by-products of an otherwise good natural order. What he does deny is that this explanation can legitimately be proposed by a theist who believes that God unilaterally created the universe. Specifically, Griffin denies that my brother, Randall, and I have established, as we claim, that the FWT can justifiably offer this explanation.

The part of our argument on which he focuses his criticism can be summarized as follows:

1. A moral universe -- one in which individuals make meaningful moral decisions -- is a world that must contain natural regularities. For example, if the gravitational forces with which we contend were not constant and predictable, we would not be able to make meaningful choices concerning our movements.

2. If nature is uniform, it follows that we cannot have the benefits of this determinate order without the unbeneficial by-products which logically follow from this order. For example, the same properties of water that enable us to quench our thirst are also the same properties that can drown us.

3. Accordingly, the FWT can justifiably contend that some natural evil is an unavoidable by-product of such regularities. (PS 11: 19-22)

Griffin centers his critique on (2). Specifically, he denies our contention that certain natural evils are "unbeneficial by-products which logically follow from" the determinate natural order (PS 11: 20).

The Basingers . . . speak of the unbeneficial by-products of the basically good order as logically following from that order. But do these by-products follow logically? "A thirst-quenching, non-drowning substance" is not logically self-contradictory, unlike "a round square" and "a married bachelor." Although we probably cannot imagine, given our experience with this world, a substance that would quench our thirst without having the capacity to drown us, the empirical connection between these two qualities is not a logical connection . . . Furthermore, if God’s omnipotence is limited only by logical principles … why do we need water at all? (ER 91)

Unfortunately this critique fails to address the thrust of our argument. We were not arguing that an orderly world such as ours could not have possessed beings and/or substances with properties different from those the beings and substances in our world do in fact possess. We were arguing, rather, that, given the properties actually possessed by the beings and substances in our world, certain consequences do necessarily follow. With respect to our discussion of water and humans, accordingly, we were not arguing that "a thirst-quenching, nondrowning substance" is self-contradictory and thus could not have existed in a world such as ours. We were arguing that, given the relevant properties that water and humans do actually possess in our world, it does follow logically (in the sense of necessarily) that we cannot have the potentially beneficial effects of water without the potentially unbeneficial aspects also. Moreover, we still believe this to be true.

What, though, of the other aspect of Griffin’s critique? What of his implicit contention that since there is no necessary connection between the need for a uniform natural order and the specific type of natural order we experience. God should have created a uniform natural order more amenable to human life? For example, what of his contention that, given the unbeneficial properties of water, God should have created a thirst-quenching liquid with different properties or not created humans in such a way that water is needed at all? This is a perfectly reasonable question. But it is an issue my brother and I explicitly addressed in the essay under consideration. Specifically, we stated that

it is one thing to grant that a moral world must contain natural regularities and that some nonmoral evil is an unavoidable by-product of such regularities, but quite another thing to grant that we must have the exact types and amount of natural evil which we in fact experience in the actual world. It seems possible to conceive of a natural order which, like ours, would not contain features so alien and frustrating to the purposes of the very moral activity it supposedly makes possible. Moreover, if we can conceive of a natural order that would make moral activity possible without generating an excess of evil features, why did not the classical God create such a world? (PS 11:21)

In response, we then went on to give the standard free-will response: that the prima facie plausibility of this contention is deceiving, that while it may seem easy to identify specific aspects of our present system that it appears could be profitably removed with impunity, what the critic must do in this case is identify another entire determinate natural order that would neither imply the present evils, nor imply any similar new evils, but still imply the goods that make human life possible. Until this is done, we concluded, the FWT is justified in affirming the explanation in question.

Unfortunately, Griffin doesn’t explicitly address this aspect of our argument. But when addressing a somewhat similar line of reasoning in another context, Griffin states that the "question is not whether one can prove beyond any doubt that every traditional free-will theodicy is false. The question at issue, as defined by the Basingers, is only whether a traditional free-will theodicy is necessarily less adequate than a process theodicy" (ER 88). Apparently, he would want to make a similar claim here. He would apparently want to argue that while it may not be possible to demonstrate that the free-will explanation for natural evil in question is false, such an explanation is surely less adequate than the process explanation -- less adequate than the process contention that God cannot be blamed for natural evil because God could not unilaterally have created a different sort of natural order.

In response, I am willing to grant that the free-will explanation in question is basically defensive. That is, it seems to me that while the standard free-will explanation for natural evil does allow the FWT to maintain logical consistency, it is not an explanation that flows in some obvious, natural sense from the basic tenets of free-will theism. On the other hand, it seems to me that the process explanation for the natural evil we encounter is not basically defensive in that this explanation does flow quite obviously and naturally from the basic tenets of the process system. However, for reasons I will soon share, I deny that any of this necessarily supports Griffin’s claim that the FWT cannot successfully counter the contention that her theodicy is implausible, or even less plausible than the process theodicy.

First, however, I want to address briefly what I personally believe to be the strongest challenge to a free-will theodicy: the question of why the God of free-will theism does not unilaterally intervene, or at least does not unilaterally intervene more frequently, in earthly affairs. Griffin’s clearest formulation of this challenge is the following:

God could, on the [free-will] hypothesis, occasionally violate human freedom for the sake of an overriding good, or to prevent a particularly horrible evil. Of course, in those moments, the apparent human beings would not really be humans, if "humans" are by definition free. But this would be a small price to pay if some of the world’s worst evils could be averted. (GPE 271, ER 87)

The FWT can, of course, offer explanations. In fact, my brother and I have suggested three. It can be argued that God is already intervening to the extent consistent with significant human freedom. It can be argued that, although it may appear easy to identify given ‘free choices’ that it seems could have been vetoed without harming the moral integrity of our universe, what must really be demonstrated is something that is much more difficult to establish: that the different world system of which such violations would be a part would in fact contain a significant increase in the net amount of good in comparison to the actual world. Finally, it can be argued that God so respects the "humanity" of each particular individual that God will seldom, if ever, override those decisions that are significant in an individual’s own life history, even if the actualization of such decisions will negatively affect large numbers of people (PS 11:18-19).

Griffin, not surprisingly, does not find such responses adequate. He grants that they may enable the FWT to defend herself against the claim that free-will theism is false. But he denies that many will find such explanations convincing. It is his contention, rather, that "as long as persons believe that God could interrupt the freedom of human beings to violate the freedom of their fellows, a large number of them are going to believe that God should have done this in particular cases where it obviously was not done" (ER 88).

Again, I agree with Griffin in part. It may well be true that many people will continue to believe that if God could have done more, God should have done more. Or, at the very least, it may well be true that many individuals will not find the free-will explanations in question convincing. Moreover, I am again willing to grant that these explanations are basically defensive while the explanation available to process theism -- that God cannot unilaterally do more -- is not. That is, I am willing to grant that FWTs cannot in this context offer explanations that flow obviously and naturally from their basic world-view while process theists can. But I also again deny that this offers strong support for Griffin’s claim that FWTs cannot affirm a plausible theodicy. or at least one that is as plausible as that offered by the process theist.

If I really believe, though, that process theism can offer more natural, obvious responses to some of the key challenges posed by evil, then how can I justifiably maintain that FWTs can offer a plausible theodicy? Or, at the very least, how can I justifiably maintain that a free-will theodicy can be considered as plausible as its process counterpart?

The answer, Griffin implies, can be found in the origin of the idea of God that I and other FWTs affirm. Since traditional FWTs believe that God could "unilaterally determine events in the world," Griffin tells us, they quite often believe not only that God could have brought about an infallible self-revelation but that God "has in fact done so, with the Bible . . . usually being assumed to be the primary locus of this infallible self-revelation" (ER 50). Accordingly, FWTs have a rather relaxed attitude toward the problem of evil. They write profusely about it and try to give explanations. But since the concept of God they affirm is known to be true prior to, and independently of, any solution to the problem of evil, their

attempt to find answers to these questions is not finally serious. Failure is not decisive: if no plausible answer can be found, no change in the theologian’s belief about God is called for. The remaining problems are simply relegated to the category of "mystery". . . [The problem of evil becomes] "merely academic," as we say, because nothing about the theologian’s personal existence hinges upon it. One answers as many questions as one can, but the fact that several questions remain without a plausible answer creates no crisis. Everything remains the same. (ER 50-51)

Furthermore, Griffin continues, there is a "disconcerting feature of discussions with those who believe their own doctrine of God to be externally certified by its revelatory origins." Such theists tend to approach issues from a privileged position in that they require of themselves only that they be able to defend their position from attack while requiring of their opponents that they furnish positive evidence for their perspectives. And this, he laments, makes discussions with traditional theologians (including, by clear textual implication, FWTs) difficult since in a "properly philosophical" discussion "one’s own positions are to be judged with the same rigor, and in terms of the same criteria, as the other positions are judged" (ER 53,54).

In response to this overall assessment of the FWT’s methodological motives and behavior, I first want to address Griffin’s contention that FWTs display the tendency to utilize a double standard when discussing evil -- that they don’t allow their "Own positions to be judged with the same rigor, and in terms of the same criteria, as the other positions." There may be some FWTs. just as there may be some process theists, who consider their positions privileged in this sense. But to imply that any of the FWTs Griffin explicitly discusses in this context -- or any other FWT of standing -- engages in such a practice is to my knowledge without any foundation in fact. It is certainly true -- as I will soon point out -- that many FWTs do utilize a set of criteria different from Griffin’s when determining justified theistic belief. But I can think of no context -- and Griffin offers us no examples of contexts -- in which FWTs don’t apply exactly the same criteria for determining justified belief to the positions of their opponents as they apply to their own. Accordingly, I take strong exception to Griffin’s clearly implied contention that "much of the discussion" of God undertaken by FWTs is not "properly philosophical."

Second, Griffin’s contention that most FWTs (to varying degrees) base their ideas of God on what they see as an infallible self-revelation in the Bible also seems to me to be unfounded. Griffin correctly notes that most traditional FWTs do believe that God could have produced an infallible self-revelation. But it doesn’t follow from the fact that FWTs believe that God could have acted in this manner that they must therefore also believe God actually did.

Moreover, I know of no FWT in the group mentioned by Griffin who has stated that his idea of God -- his understanding of what God is like -- is ultimately grounded in an infallible self-revelation. We are told that Bruce Reichenbach is an example of such a FWT in that he "says that he rests his belief in the omnipotence of God solely on the fact that this doctrine is implied by various biblical statements" (ER 50). But a careful analysis of the context from which Griffin derives his understanding of Reichenbach’s perspective sheds a different light on the matter. Reichenbach does state that to believe that the being about which the Bible is written is omnipotent "requires treating some writings as both authoritative and revelatory. But he clearly doesn’t mean by this that the concept of omnipotence he attributes to God is derived solely from biblical statements, for he immediately adds that "unfortunately, Scripture contains no explicit statement concerning God’s omnipotence, nor does it discuss the issue in any philosophical way." It is Reichenbach’s belief, rather, that to determine whether the God of the Bible is omnipotent, we must "see whether the conception of God espoused in its pages meets the criteria specified in (D)" -- a complex philosophical definition of omnipotence Reichenbach has earlier defended on extra-biblical grounds (EGG 190-91).

But why then is it that FWTs feel justified in affirming a relatively defensive theodicy? If the reason is not because they believe that their position is privileged in light of its revelatory origins, then what is the reason?

This brings us to what I see as the heart of the disagreement between most FWTs and Griffin: a disagreement over the conditions under which a person is justified in maintaining that her theodicy (or overall world-view) is plausible. Most FWTs will agree with Griffin that a person cannot justifiably consider a theodicy plausible if he or she does not believe it to be self-consistent. Most will also agree that a person cannot justifiably consider a theodicy plausible if it is not comprehensive (adequate) in the sense that it does not take into account all the relevant data of which she or he is aware.

However, do there exist additional neutral criteria that we can utilize to determine the plausibility of self-consistent, comprehensive theodicies in some objective fashion? That is, do there exist neutral criteria that will allow us to determine exactly which theodicies can justifiably be considered plausible? Griffin clearly believes that the concept of illumination will do the trick. Not only are we told repeatedly that the crucial test of the plausibility of a theodicy (or world-view) is its "self-consistency, adequacy and illuminating power" (ER 52), but we are told repeatedly that these are "nonprivileged" (neutral, objective) criteria (ER 53).

But what exactly does it mean to say that a theodicy is illuminating? Griffin defines this concept in various ways, but as applied to his critique of free-will theodicies, the illuminating power of a theodicy is closely tied to the degree to which individuals find it convincing.

Surely "psychological appeal" is what theodicy is all about! . . . [T]heodicy is not primarily a game played by philosophers of religion, in which one wins simply by showing that no rigorous disproof of one’s idea of God has been produced. The question is whether that idea of God lends itself to an explanation of the world, including its evils, that is psychologically convincing to thoughtful men and women. (ER 89)

In short, Griffin believes that to be considered plausible, a theodicy must not only be self-consistent and comprehensive but must also be illuminating in the sense that those thoughtful individuals who consider it will find the explanations offered therein to be persuasive.

But who exactly is to be included in this important category of individuals? How are we to identify those men and women who are thoughtful in the appropriate sense? Griffin seems to believe that they are those men and women who have attempted to consider the issues in question in a careful, objective manner. He states at one point, for example, that "whatever initial plausibility [the freewill theodicy] has, its unsatisfactoriness becomes more and more evident as it is probed" (ER 21).

However, this will hardly do. Even if we could agree on the identity of those individuals who have attempted to consider the plethora of theodicies in a careful, objective manner, and even if we could determine objectively exactly which specific self-consistent, comprehensive theodicies the majority in this group consider convincing, we would not thereby be in a position to declare which theodicies could justifiably be considered plausible in the objective sense Griffin envisions.

Nor would it be enough simply to identify the reasons why the majority respond to various theodicies as they do. To establish plausibility or implausibility in the objective sense in question, what would have to be demonstrated is that the reasons why the majority have found certain self-consistent, comprehensive theodicies to be illuminating or unilluminating are so logically compelling that other thoughtful men and women who considered these reasons objectively would not be justified in disagreeing.

But this is something that most FWTs deny has been (or could be) established. This is not to say, it must be emphasized, that FWTs believe that ‘psychological impact’ is irrelevant to the question of theodicy. Many FWTs will agree that a person is not justified in affirming a theodicy that he or she believes personally to be totally unconvincing. Moreover, most FWTs will agree with Griffin that it is perfectly justifiable to challenge individuals to compare carefully the psychological appeal of the various theodicies. Furthermore, FWTs don’t deny that such a comparison might convince a given individual to change theistic allegiance.

However, most FWTs do deny emphatically that ‘psychological impact’ (or any other factor, for that matter) can be viewed as a neutral criterion that will allow us in some objective sense to determine which self-consistent, comprehensive theodicies can justifiably be considered plausible. They consider ‘psychological impact’, rather, to be a highly subjective, personal factor, and a factor that is incapable of helping us adjudicate disputes between competing belief systems in a nonquestion-begging manner.1

Now, of course, Griffin again has every right to disagree. But, as far as I can tell, he does not even attempt to demonstrate why those of us who do not share his ‘psychological response’ (or the response of the majority) to a given theodicy are not justified in disagreeing. Hence, while I believe that Griffin has every right to maintain that free-will theodicies are implausible and to encourage us to agree, I see no reason why I, or any other FWT, needs to admit (at least on the basis of anything that Griffin has argued) that FWTs cannot defend themselves successfully against the claim that free-will theism "cannot provide a plausible theodicy."

This still leaves, though, the question of whether I can justifiably contend that a free-will theodicy is, in principle, no less plausible than a process theodicy. After all, I have admitted that a free-will theodicy will be inherently more ‘defensive’ than the process theodicy -- that a free-will theodicy will be at points less able than the process theodicy to offer explanations for evil that flow in a natural, intuitive sense from the theistic tenets on which it is built -- and isn’t it reasonable to assume that the theodicy which is least defensive in this sense should be considered most plausible?

In one sense I agree. As Griffin himself admits, the plausibility of a theodicy is ultimately tied to the plausibility of the overall world-view out of which it comes. Thus, if I thought that the free-will and process world-views were equally plausible in every other relevant respect, then the fact that I admit that a free-will theodicy will be more defensive would, I believe, require that I consider such a theodicy less plausible also. But I, along with other FWTs, do not see the process world-view as equally plausible in all other relevant respects. Or, to state this very important point differently, I am now finally in a position to explain why I feel justified in maintaining that a free-will theodicy is, in principle, no less plausible than the process theodicy, even though I grant that a free-will theodicy will be more ‘defensive’ than its process counterpart. It is because I, in agreement with other FWTs, do not believe that the basic view of reality on which the process theodicy is based is as plausible as the basic view of reality affirmed by FWTs.

There are a number of relevant aspects of the process system that FWTs find problematic (DPPT, EGG 176-87). But the most fundamental point of difference, not surprisingly, centers around the differing conceptualizations of God’s power that underlie the two theodicies in question. The process theodicy is based on a metaphysical contention: that God does not possess the power to unilaterally determine any state of affairs; while free-will theodicies are based on a moral contention: that God does possess the power to intervene unilaterally in earthly affairs but has decided as a general rule not to do so.

But why exactly is it that FWTs disagree with the process contention that God cannot unilaterally bring about any state of affairs? I cannot at this point speak for all FWTs. Some may believe that the most reasonable response to some of what we as humans experience -- for example, changed lives or unusual events -- is to assume that God unilaterally intervenes at times in earthly affairs and thus conclude that any theistic perspective that does not allow for such intervention must be considered inadequate. Others may believe that the biblical stories portraying God as an interventive being are at least in some general sense accurate and for this reason reject the process contention that God is not capable of such activity.

I do not believe, however, that these are the primary reasons why most FWTs do not find the process characterization of God’s power vis-a-vis the rest of reality to be convincing. At least these are not my reasons. The primary reason why I, and I believe most other FWTs, do not accept the process characterization of God’s interventive capacities is because this characterization appears to be based on a very dubious experiential foundation.

As Griffin is very careful to point out, the main reason why process theists believe that God cannot act unilaterally is not "simply to solve the problem of evil" (ER 3). Rather, it is because they believe that all actual entities "necessarily have some power of self-determination" (ER 13) in the sense that all actual things "essentially have some power to determine themselves and to influence others" (ER 23).

Must FWTs, though, accept this metaphysical contention? Must they acknowledge that no actual entity can justifiably be thought to be devoid of all power of self-determination? Griffin appears to think so. To use terms in a meaningful sense, we are told, requires an experiential grounding for those terms. But we as humans, he declares, have never directly experienced a total absence of power, and thus "those who talk of actualities that are totally devoid of power do so without any experiential grounding for the meaning of the concept" (GPE 267, ER 142).

On the other hand, he continues, we do have direct experience of ourselves as possessing some power of self-determination -- that is, the concept of a ‘powerful actuality’ does for us have an experiential grounding. Thus, even though we cannot experience exactly what other entities experience, it is most reasonable to infer analogically that all other entities also possess some power of self-determination since we are then "at least thinking meaningfully about them" (ER 142).

Or, to state this in simpler terms, Griffin’s argument is that while our own experience demonstrates to us that it is possible for an actuality to have power, our own experience does not demonstrate to us that powerless entities are possible.

Most FWTs, however, have found (or at least would find) this line of reasoning unconvincing. Reichenbach argues that since this argument "is identical in form to that which argues by analogy from the existence of my mind to that of other minds, it is fraught with all the same problems which plague the latter" (EGG 194-95). In response, Griffin’s points out that his argument is not concerned with "indubitable knowledge, as is the question of other minds," but rather with "the meaningful use of language" (ER 142). But this is to miss the force of Reichenbach’s objection. The basic thrust of Reichenbach’s objection is not related specifically to the problem of other minds. His basic complaint is that analogical arguments from experience are in general considered suspect by many philosophers. Thus, since Griffin admits that his argument is analogical in this sense, it is perfectly justifiable to ask him to explain how his argument avoids these well-known concerns.

Moreover, in this context, an explanation that simply preserves the consistency or even the plausibility of his position will not suffice. The question at hand is not simply whether Griffin is justified in believing that his form of analogical argument avoids the difficulties that have plagued others. Since Griffin’s goal is to establish in an objective sense that no one can "provide a reason to doubt the truth" of his position -- that no one can justifiably contend that some actuality is devoid of all power -- the onus is on him to demonstrate that no one is justified in denying that his argument avoids the problems that analogical arguments of the type he proposes have traditionally faced. And this he does not do.

Others, as Griffin acknowledges, will reject his contention that a meaningful use of terms requires an experiential grounding "on the basis of the recognition that experience, understood in a sensationalist manner, cannot ground the meaning of many terms that are clearly meaningful." His response is that we should "broaden our understanding of experience" (ER 143). But again this simply won’t do in this context. Unless Griffin demonstrates that we are not justified in not broadening our "understanding of experience," he has not demonstrated what he needs to demonstrate: that others cannot justifiably reject his argument -- cannot justifiably reject his basis for maintaining that no actuality can be totally devoid of power of self-determination.

But I believe that even if we accept his criterion of meaning and grant that analogical reasoning of the type he envisions is valid in this context, Griffin still fails to establish what he needs to establish. To say that entities are self-determining is, by Griffin’s own admission, to say both that they "have some power to determine themselves and to influence other things" and that God’s purposes for these entities always "require the cooperation of [these entities] for their realization" (ER 26). Determinists, of course, deny that this is true for any entity in the sense in question. But I am an indeterminist. Therefore, I not only experience myself as possessing some power of self-determination, but I believe I actually do possess such power.

Why, though, do I believe this? I believe this because at times I find myself encountering options and experience myself making decisions that seem to me to determine at least in part which option is actualized. Accordingly, by analogy, when I see others functioning in contexts in which I experience myself acting in this self-determining fashion -- when, for instance I see my students looking at the different chairs available to them and then picking one to sit in -- I assume that they, too, are acting in a partially self-determining fashion. The same is true with respect to many animals. When I see my cat, Daisy, looking at her food and then either eating or walking away, I assume analogically that she is also acting in a partially self-determining fashion.

At other times, however, I find myself in situations in which I do not experience my actions as in any sense the product of self-determination. For example, when I once stepped onto a very thin piece of plywood and experienced myself falling six feet to the ground, I did not experience myself as having any power of self-determination with respect to the fall itself (although I did experience myself as having some power of self-determination over my response). I still believe that the fall itself was the product of natural forces over which I had no immediate control. From situations such as this, I infer that I do not in fact always possess some power of self-determination and thus, analogically, that this is also true of others.

More importantly, though, my extended experience, as formalized in scientific laws, tells me that in all those cases in which I personally experience, or believe lam observing, self-determining activity, such activity is the product of a central nervous system. I have never experienced an entity without a central nervous system "influencing others" or cooperating with others in the sense I experience myself doing so when I am acting in what I believe to be a self-determining manner. Thus, I conclude, and I think justly, that entities without central nervous systems do not possess any power of self-determination of the type Griffin envisions.

Or, to generalize the point, I deny that common human experience does not furnish us with a perfectly acceptable basis for understanding what it means to say that some entities are totally devoid of any power of self-determination and, thus, deny that we cannot justifiably categorize certain objects in this way.

I do not expect, of course, that Griffin will find this sort of ‘experiential analysis’ convincing. But again it is crucial to note exactly where the burden of proof lies in this context. I am not at present arguing that Griffin cannot justifiably contend that there are no powerless actualities. I am arguing only that our human experience does give us a meaningful basis for justifiably contending that there are powerless entities. Thus, since it is Griffin’s contention that this type of experiential grounding is not possible, the burden of proof is on him not simply to defend his position but to demonstrate that my analysis cannot justifiably be affirmed. And this I do not believe he has done or can do.

But if I and other FWTs can -- for whatever reason -- justifiably reject the process contention that no being can be totally void of the power of self-determination, then (in the absence of other arguments) we can justifiably reject the process contention that God cannot unilaterally bring about any state of affairs because all reality must be co-creative. And if we can justifiably reject this fundamental tenet in the process characterization of the God-world relationship, then we can justifiably deny, at the very least, that the theodicy to which this characterization of the God-world relationship gives rise is more plausible than the type of theodicy that free-will theism can offer.

In conclusion, it is important to emphasize explicitly what I have, and have not, argued. I have not argued that process theists cannot justifiably maintain that they affirm a plausible theodicy. Nor have I argued that Griffin, and others, cannot justifiably maintain that free-will theodicies are more ‘defensive’ than the process theodicy or are not justified in wanting to make this fact known. But I have argued that Griffin does not present us with a set of ‘unprivileged’ criteria by which the plausibility of a theodicy can be ascertained in an objective, non-question-begging sense and, thus, does not successfully demonstrate that a freewill theodicy cannot justifiably be considered plausible.

Moreover, I have argued that for FWTs to acknowledge that their theodicy is more ‘defensive’ than its process counterpart does not entail that they must also grant that the process theodicy is more plausible since it has not been demonstrated that FWTs can not justifiably maintain that the basic God-world relationship on which the process theodicy is based is less plausible than the God-world relationship in which their theodicy is grounded.

 

References

AP -- Alvin Plantinga. Alvin Plantinga. Eds. James Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1985.

DPPT -- David Basinger. Divine Power in Process Theism: A Philosophical Critique. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

EGG -- Bruce Reichenbach. Evil and a Good God. New York: Fordham University Press, 1982.

ER -- David Ray Griffin. Evil Revisited: Responses and Reconsiderations. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.

FP 3 -- Alvin Plantinga. "The Foundations of Theism: A Reply." Faith and Philosophy 3(1986): 298-313.

FP 4 -- Alvin Plantinga. "Justification and Theism." Faith and Philosophy 4 (1987): 403-426.

FP 8 -- David Basinger. "Plantinga, Pluralism and Justified Religious Belief." Faith and Philosophy 8 (1991): 67-80.

GFE -- Alvin Plantinga. God, Freedom and Evil. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977.

GPE -- David Ray Griffin. God, Power and Evil: A Process Theodicy. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976.

PCI -- B. C. Johnson. "God and the Problem of Evil." Philosophy and Contemporary Issues. 5th ed. Eds. John Burr and Milton Goldinger. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988, pp. 135-140.

PhR -- John Hick. Philosophy of Religion. Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1963.

PS 11 -- For David and Randall Basinger, "Divine Omnipotence: Plantinga vs. Griffin," Process Studies 11 (Spring 1981), 11-24; and for Alvin Plantinga, "Reply to the Basingers on Divine Omnipotence," 25-29.

 

Notes

11t could be successfully argued, I believe, that even if ‘illuminating power’ were a neutral, objective criterion for the assessment of plausibility, free-will theism, in its entirety, is as plausible as process theism, in its entirety. In fact, much of what follows is a discussion of why FWTs personally believe that their perspective is more illuminating. However, since the purpose of this essay is not simply to counter Griffin’s challenge but also to clarify where FWTs stand on significant epistemological issues, it is important to emphasize that most FWTs do not view ‘illuminating power’ as a criterion that can be used in an objective, neutral fashion in any context.


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