Sunday, July 18, 2010


Kenneth Anderson over at Volokh references what he calls the classic trilemma of the existence of evil: all good, all knowing, all powerful – pick two. I like the elegance of trilemmas as well: Greg Mankiw’s trilemma of international finance; the engineer’s “better, faster, cheaper – pick two” or the related “done right, done on time, done on budget – pick two” or the CS Lewis trilemma bout Jesus “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic – all opinions ultimately resolve to one of these.”

I could ramble on about the logical weaknesses of Anderson’s “classic” trilemma concerning God (short answer: only for limited definitions of good, knowing, and power), but what intrigues me at the moment is the irony of a libertarian writer negating the value of free will. The existence of free will is another discussion, one we aren’t having today. Presumably, a libertarian believes in free will and thinks it has some value. But if we are to define good as the absence of evil – which logically has to be at least part of the definition if we insist on the forcing nature of “pick two” in the trilemma – we can only get there by setting the value of free will at zero. If it has any value, no matter how small, it must then be multiplied over the 10 billion people who have lived on the planet.

One could still argue that whatever this value is, multiplied by 10B, still does not make up for great evil in the world. Many pious Jews leaving Europe after the Holocaust lost their faith over this accounting, that nothing could make up for such evil. Most people of faith have this thought several times in their lives as well. But I am arguing a much blander point here, a point of logic. If free will has any value, then it might theoretically outweigh whatever value it costs to enable its occurrence. And, as I said, it would be at least ironic that a libertarian should set this value at zero.

Because none of us lives 10 billion lives, but only the one we are given, and that one may suck, it may be fair to reject the multiplying effect for the value of free will. If one billion have infinite good reward, that may balance the overall equation, but it hardly adds up as anything fair for the 9 billion who didn’t get that (though in truth, we don’t know who gets what in the end). Does my argument work for smaller numbers?

Let us set the population of the world at one and see if great suffering is likely to be redeemed by later events.

Let us call this one Cain, then, and ponder whether there is anything God might do: along the way, at the end of time, or even beyond time, to make even the one say it was worth it.

1 comment:

james said...

Jesus seems to suggest that it is possible: John16:21. How it could be I cannot imagine. But I suspect that's a defect of my finite imagination.