Alvin Plantinga’s Free Will Defense

Many philosophers throughout the course of religious history have drawn upon proofs and evidences to suggest that the existence evil and suffering undermines theistic belief. For instance, William L. Rowe in his argument in An Exchange on the Problem of Evil [1] first asks, “Do the evils that occur in our world significantly lower the likelihood of God’s existence?” [2] Philosophers of course have taken their respective position on this question. Rowe for instance, believes that given the existence of evil this would constitute a very unlikely chance that God exists:

[T]he evils that occur in our world make belief in atheism more reasonable than belief in theism. If we put aside grounds for belief in the existence of God, the likelihood that God exists cannot be reasonably be assigned any probability beyond .5 – where 1 represents God’s existence as certain, and 0 represents certainty that God does not exist. [3]

However, stronger theses can be seen from  J.H. McCloskey where he argues that “[e]vil is a problem for the theist in that a contradiction is involved in the fact of evil, on the one hand, and the belief in the omnipotence and perfection of God on the other” [4]. J.L. Mackie moreover has argued elsewhere the logical problem of evil in its full force [5], suggesting that “God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so if any two of them were true the third would be false. But at the same time all three are essential parts of most theological positions: the theologian, it seems, at once must adhere and cannot consistently adhere to all three” [6].

Mackie further goes on to argue that

[i]f God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good? If there is no logical impossibility in a man’s freely choosing the good on one, or on several occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion. God was not, then, faced with a choice between making innocent automata and making beings who, in acting freely, would sometimes go wrong; there was open to him the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good. [7]

Thus, the structure of Mackie’s argument can be as follows [8]:

  • (1) God is omnipotent and omniscient and wholly good.
  • (2) If God is omnipotent, He can create or bring about any logical possible state of affairs.
  • (3) God can create any logically possible state of affairs – (1), (2)
  • (4) That all free men do what is right on every occasion is a logically possible state of affairs.
  • (5) God can create free men such that they always do what is right – (4), (3)
  • (6) If God can create free men such that they always do what is right, and if God is all good, then any free men created by God always do what is right.
  • (7) Any free men created by God always do what is right – (1), (5), (6)
  • (8) No free men created by God ever preform morally evil actions – (7)

However, Alvin Plantinga (1971) has argued in response [9] that the propositions Mackie suggests are not “formally consistent; the resources of logic alone do no enable us to deduce an explicit contradiction from their conjunction” [10]. The conclusion of Plantinga’s argument can be stated with the following proposition:

  • (a) God is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good, and God creates free men who sometimes preform morally evil actions.

The Free Will Defense merely states that (a) is not contradictory or necessarily false. A further explanation of (a) would be to say that “[a] world containing creatures who are sometimes significantly free [ … ] is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all” [11].

So, consider the following: To show that some given proposition p is consistent with a proposition q is to produce a third proposition r whose conjunction with p is consistent and entails q. Interestingly, proposition r doesn’t need to be true or even known to be true (nor plausible), it just needs to be consistent with p and in conjunction with the latter entail q. The Free Will Defense then seeks to find such a proposition.


Leibniz and the Best of All Possible Worlds

Gottfried Leibniz in his Theodicy (1709) [12] argued that before he created the universe, God, “not content with embracing all the possibles, penetrates them, compares them, weighs them one against the other, to estimate their degrees of perfection or imperfection, the strong and the weak, the good and the evil [ … ] [t]he result of all these combinations and deliberations is the choice of the best from among all these possible systems, which wisdom makes in order to satisfy goodness completely” [13].

Leibniz argues that God was confronted with a wide array of options in terms of possible worlds that he could have created. However, by virtue of his wisdom, goodness and omnipotence, God created this world, the actual world. Therefore, according to Leibniz, this world must be the best possible world. Now, Mackie sympathetically agrees with Leibniz’s premise that if God did create a possible world, it would be the best possible. However, Mackie simply rejects an omnipotent and wholly good God, since, it is evident that this is not the best possible world.

Plantinga on the contrary argues against both Leibniz and Mackie, questioning as to whether there is such a thing as the “best of all possible worlds,” let alone a best. It is rather that God, though omnipotent, could not have created any possible world that he pleased. What do he mean by this?

It should be noted that if something is created, there was a time before which it did not exist (i.e., at some time, a thing came into existence). Plantinga first suggests that God did not create himself, along with numbers, propositions, properties, or states of affairs (these did not begin at some point in time); however, it would be appropriate to say that God actualizes states of affairs (i.e, “his creative activity results in their being or becoming actual” [14]). So, God can actualize some given possible world Q if and only if he can actualize every contingent state of affairs associated with Q.

However, although there are a number of possible worlds where, for example, Abraham never met Melchizedek, God cannot actualize any of them. This is because Abraham in fact did meet Melchizedek, and so not even an omnipotent being can actualize the possibility of Abraham never meeting Melchizedek; it is too late for that. This is demonstrated by Plantinga’s point where he writes:

Take any time t; at t there will be any number of worlds God cannot actualize; for there will be any number of worlds in which things go different before t. So God cannot actualize any world in which Abraham did not meet Melchizedek; but perhaps God could have actualized such worlds. Perhaps we would say that God could have actualized a world W if and only if for every contingent state of affairs S included W, there is a time at which it is (timelessly) within his power to actualize S. [15]

Proceeding to the Suffering of Essences

Plantinga notes something he identifies as Transworld Depravity, which can in some sense be used in the Calvinist sense of Total Depravity. He explains [16]:

(a*) A person P suffers from transworld depravity if and only if for every world W such that P is significantly free in W and P does only what is right in W, there is a state of affairs T and an action A such that

  • (1) God strongly actualizes T in W and W includes every state of affairs God strongly actualizes in W,
  • (2) A is morally significant for P in W, and
  • (3) if God had strongly actualized T, P would have gone wrong with respect to A.

Thus, significant usage of transworld depravity is that if a person suffers from it, then it was “not within God’s power to actualize any world in which that person is significantly free but does no wrong – that is, a world in which he produces moral good but no moral evil” [17]. Now, it is clearly possible that everyone suffers from transworld depravity, however, if this given possibility were in fact actualized, then “God could not have created any of the possible worlds that include the existence and significant freedom of just the persons who do in fact exist, and also contain moral good but no moral evil” [18]. To do this very thing, God would have had to have created people who were “significantly free” but suffered from transworld depravity. The consequence of this possible world would be that such persons would produce moral good as well as moral evil.

It should be noted that this doesn’t complete the argument for the Free Will Defender. From the fact that all people in some possible W suffer from transworld depravity it doesn’t follow that God could not have created a world containing moral good without moral evil. According to Plantinga, God could have created other people. “Instead of creating us, he could have created a world containing people all right, but not containing any of us” [19]. This is where Plantinga invokes instead of Persons, Essences.


Plantinga and Essence Simpliciters

An essence simpliciter can be understood as

  • (ex.) a Property P such that there is a world W in which there exists an object x that has P essentially and is such that in no world W* is there an object that has P and is distinct from x.

Thus, before invoking a new proposition from (a*), it should be understood that E is a person’s essence; also that, if this is so, this person is the instantiation of E – i.e., “he is the thing that has (or exemplifies) every property in E” [20]. To instantiate an essence, God creates a person who has that essence, thus, in creating a person he instantiates (or represents) an essence. Thus, our new proposition (b*) can be lead to say that:

(b*) An essence E suffers from transworld depravity if and only if for every world W such that E entails the properties is significantly free in W and always does what is right in W, there is a state of affairs T and an action A such that

  • (1′) T is the largest state of affairs God strongly actualizes in W,
  • (2) A is morally significant for E’ instantiation in W, and
  • (3) if God had strongly actualized T, E’s instantiation would have gone wrong with respect to A.

This is a far more respectable thesis since that transworld depravity is an accidental property of those essences and persons it afflicts. Thus, when we noted from the beginning that if we have a pair of propositions p and q whose truth are jointly consistent there is a given proposition r whose conjunction with p is consistent and entails q. Thence, we can employ the following:

  • (c*) Every essence suffers from transworld depravity.

(c*) is consistent with God’s omnipotence, and is clearly consistent with (1): God is omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good. Thus, the conjunction of (1) and (c*) show that

  • (d*) God actualizes a world containing moral good.

This conjunction of (1) and (c*) is consistent, and thus entails (2): There is evil. Therefore, Plantinga’s argument is successful.



  • [1] From God and the Problem of Evil, ed. William L. Rowe (Blackwell Publishing: 2001) p. 124
  • [2] Ibid., p. 125
  • [3] Ibid., p. 124
  • [4] J H.J. McCloskey, God and Evil in Philosophical Quarterly, 10 (1960) p. 97
  • [5] J.L. Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence, Mind 64 (1955) pp. 200-212
  • [6] Quoted from Rowe, p. 78
  • [7] Mackie (1955), p. 209
  • [8] Alvin Plantinga, God and Other Minds, 2nd edn. (Cornell University Press: 1992) pp. 136-137
  • [9] Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford University Press: 1971) see pp. 164-93
  • [10] Quoted from Rowe, p. 92 – Plantinga’s emphasis.
  • [11] Quoted from Rowe, p. 93
  • [12] Gottfried Leibniz, Theodicy, Essays on the Goodness of God, The Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil (Routledge: 1951) see pp. 264-273, 377-388
  • [13] Quoted from Rowe, pp. 7-8
  • [14] Ibid., p. 95
  • [15] Ibid., p. 96
  • [16] Ibid., p. 112
  • [17] Ibid.
  • [18] Ibid.
  • [19] Ibid.
  • [20] Ibid., p. 113


DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Steven Dunn

Steven Dunn is the author of "Hellenistic Christendom," a blog with a primary focus on the philosophy of religion and other philosophical/theological subjects relevant to his interests (existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of mind, etc.).

  • Steven Carr

    So all beings created by Plantinga’s hypothetical god are Trans World Depraved?

    Even the angels in Heaven?

    ‘This is a far more respectable thesis since that transworld depravity is an accidental property of those essences and persons it afflicts.’

    In other words, Plantinga’s hypothetical god cannot create near identical twins – who behave almost identically except that one performs good actions in those circumstances where his almost identical twin brother performs evil ?

    Why can’t an omnipotent god create one of a pair of almost identical twins – the one who chooses good?

    What a puny god Plantinga worships? He can’t create twins!

    Of course, all I have to do to prove that I am a morally perfect being is to show that the following statements are consistent in some world, (but not this one)

    1) Steven Carr is all-good
    2) Steven Carr sometimes does wrong things.

    To prove these are consistent, I just Alvinise it and claim there is a possible world where demons force me to do evil.

    In fact, I can even Alvinise the following :-

    1) All people except me have one leg
    2) My senses and memory tell me that people have two legs.

    These are consistent statements, because there is a possible world where I am mistaken about how many legs people have, just like there is a possible world where I am mistaken about how many legs a millipede has.

    So Plantinga has produced the Doomsday device of Christian apologetics, using ‘logic’ which shows that we can defend the doctrine of Unipedalism against the sceptics who claim people have two legs.

    Even if Plantinga’s defense is logical (which it isn’t – see angels and twins), Plantinga has no more produced a rational defense than have people who claim we only have one leg.

  • Robert H. Woodman

    I like the discussion presented here from the standpoint of an intellectual exercise, but I am not persuaded of its correctness or of its practical use.

    The arguments presented here rely on hypothetical worlds and hypothetical people. Unfortunately for me, the only world I have is the one in which I live, and the only people I know are the ones who live in this world with me, and I, and those other people living with me, sometimes do evil things. It’s an interesting mental exercise to make arguments about hypothetical worlds and hypothetical good and evil people and from those arguments to deduce that God has given us free will, but that really doesn’t help me make sense of this world, nor does it help me discuss the concept of Free Will with, for example, Buddhists.

    Can you improve on this line of argument?

    • Steven Dunn

      Hello Robert, and thank you for your comment.

      Plantinga’s argument only concerns a response motivated by certain philosophers (Flew, Mackie, etc.) regarding the logical problem of evil. It is in that sense that Plantinga only addresses the logical concerns of evil and not rather the existential (as you had brought up). I should owe the readers and yourself an apology for not adequately addressing that side of the problem.

      However, although we can talk about the coherence of God and evil among other possible/hypothetical scenarios, we still have to deal with the existential issues regarding our world, the actual world. In trying to find a particular solution to the problem of evil, it is hard to come by an answer if one at all. However, Gottfried Leibniz had some insight into the problem when he suggested that although there may be tremendous evils within this world, it is possible that they might be apart of some greater divine plan, and I think a Gospel-Theodicy would be in order after that point.

      In other words, that the Gospel and a wholly good God behind the dilemmas of evil only provide the best adequate solution to our existential problem. Namely, that although we suffer the effects of sin, Jesus himself became sin (2 Cor. 5:21) for us.

      • Robert H. Woodman


        Thanks for that reply.

        Have you considered chapter 6 (“The Problem of Evil”) in Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronalk K. Tacelli (copyright 1994 by InterVarsity Press)? They address the existential issues in the problem of evil in a way that’s very useful for me when sharing the Christian faith with non-believers. If you have not read Kreeft and Tacelli, you might want to consider their work. Neither that specific chapter nor the book as a whole are without flaws; nevertheless, they are quite good and approach Christian apologetics with sound reasoning, practical advice, and just a dash of humor.

  • staircaseghost

    A possible world it is not possible to actualize…

    I’m sorry, Plantinga, I have to go to the E.R. to have my palm surgically removed from my face.

    “Possible” here is a term of art in Plantingese. It means, “not possible.”

    Before I get back, could someone produce 1) a coherent, non-circular definition of “cause” in PW semantics and 2) a coherent, non-circular definition of “actualize” in PW semantics which is consistently distinguishable from 1?

    • Steven Carr

      ‘”Possible” here is a term of art in Plantingese. It means, “not possible.”‘

      Of course, after all , Plantinga’s god is all-powerful.

      And omniscient.

      People can make perfectly free choices (in Plantinga’s world).

      That means there are two sets of almost identical circumstances.

      In one set, Plantinga’s god knows person A will choose good.

      In the other set, Plantinga’s god knows person A will choose evil and that is the only difference – everything else is absolutely identical, claims Plantinga, apart from the contents of God’s knowledge.

      But , claims Plantinga, in both sets of circumstances, person A will choose evil.

      Go figure…..

      Hence the huge amounts of jargon Plantinga employs to disguise the fact that he never once let the marks know that his god is supposed to be omniscient, and that if God chose to create the world where he knows you are going to do good, you will do good, and if his god chose to create the world where he knows you are going to do evil, then you will do evil.

      But his god chose what world to create.

      You didn’t create the world. Plantinga’s hypothetical god did.

  • Steven Carr

    Planting’s argument goes like this.

    In every conceivable set of circumstances, free agents like us will choose one particular way (without , of course, those circumstances doing anything as theologically incorrect as determining our choices….)

    These free choices are out of God’s control, which is why, try as he might , Plantinga’s god cannot prevent us choosing evil, or non-belief. In that particular set of circumstances , that agent will choose that way, and that is all there is to it.

    All God can do is choose the circumstances which make the best of a bad job. God can do that, but he cannot affect the free will choices made in those circumstances.

    How does this possibly work? How does this help Plantinga?

    As an example, take two different sets of circumstances that I can conceive of.

    1) I am sitting down to breakfast in an hotel at 8:30 am on Wed. 2/11/2005, and a waiter is asking me ‘Tea or Coffee’, and God has infallible knowledge that I will choose tea.

    2) I am sitting down to breakfast in an hotel at 8:30 am on Wed. 2/11/2005, and a waiter is asking me ‘Tea or Coffee’, and God has infallible knowledge that I will choose coffee.

    Clearly, I can conceive of both sets of circumstances, and they are both
    possible, and they are clearly different to each other.

    We can apply Plantinga to each set of circumstances, and see if Plantinga’s claim is true that a person will freely choose one particular way in each set of logically possible circumstances that could occur in a real world.

    Plantinga’s argument works perfectly here.

    In the first, I will freely choose one particular way, just like Plantinga said I would. I will choose tea.

    In the second set of circumstances, Plantinga is right again. I will choose one particular way. I will choose coffee.

    Of course, my choices are different in the two sets of circumstances, but I’m sure Plantinga will agree that free agents will choose differently in different circumstances, and it cannot be denied that the 2 circumstances are different.

    And Plantinga is right once again that not even his god can determine my choice in those 2 sets of circumstances. In set 1), I drink tea, and in set 2), I drink coffee, and there is nothing his god can do to change the outcome of either set of circumstances.

    But according to Plantinga, his hypothetical god cannot choose between creating the world where I drink coffee, or creating the world where I drink tea.

    When Plantinga’s god created the world , some magical thing prevented him having the ability to create either world , whichever he wished to have… even thought he is alleged to be able to create coffee-lovers or tea-lovers at will.

    Remind me how this god is supposed to be able to fine-tune the universe with incredible precision, when he can’t even choose whether to create people who drink coffee or people who drink tea.

  • Lothar Lorraine

    The problem is that it is hard to see what libertarian free will means.

    Acting without a cause? this would be randomness,

    Be oneself the cause of one’s action: what does that sentence mean?

    I believe that my feelings, my subjective experience is not identical to my brain processes, and that it is causally efficient.

    But is it not somewhat determined?

    Maybe Colin McGinn was right as he said we don’t have the mental abilities to grasp the relation of the mind to the external world.

    Greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Shri Datta

    The Lord is controlling all the
    souls as per Veda “Aatmeshwaram”, which means that all the souls are ruled by
    the Lord. Gita also says the same “Bhuthanaam Eeswarah”. But this does not mean
    that there is no independence for the soul. When the king rules the kingdom,
    all the people in that kingdom are independent in their activities, but they
    are within the rules of the king. Thus a short span of independence in the
    human life exists under the control and supervision of the Lord. A cat caught a
    rat by its jaws. It leaves the rat after a bite for a short span of time. In
    that span the rat gets independence and runs in any side as it likes. But the
    cat is watching the rat and catches it again whenever the rat is out of the
    limits of the supervision. Similarly the Lord called “Kaala” (death) catches a
    human being and bites. The bite is the illness of the human being. The repeated
    diseases are the repeated bites of the ‘Kaala” or the Lord. During the bite the
    rat looses completely its independence. Similarly any human being, which is
    attacked by the disease becomes a patient and looses its independence
    completely. The cat plays with the rat for sometime like this and finally
    swallowes the rat. Similarly, the human being is swallowed by the Lord at the
    end. The whole creation itself is like a rat for the cat like Lord, which is
    told in Brahmasutra “Atta Charaachara Grahanaat”. Thus the short span of
    independence of human beings under the supervision of the overall controlling
    Lord, creates the full game and entertainment for the Lord. The entertainment
    is the basic reason of the creation by the Lord as said in Veda (Ekaaki Na
    Ramate) and as said in Brahmasutra (Lokavattu).

    Within the limits of the
    supervision of the cat, the rat will receive the result of the direction in
    which it runs. In one direction there may be fire and the rat may receive the
    heat. In another direction there may be cold water and the rat will receive the
    coolness in that direction. The rat is independent to receive the result of the
    direction and has full independence to go in any direction. The final death of
    the rat shows that the rat is under the control of the cat during its choice of
    direction also, which is not interfered by the cat.

    Similarly the human life is
    with full of independence but the final end proves that the independence is
    under the control of the Lord. Yet, since there was no interference of the Lord
    during the human life, the human being receives the results according to its
    actions. Thus the “whole game is perfectly justified in any angle”.

    Universal Spirituality for World Peace