Tuesday, July 03, 2012

John Leslie, miracles, and free will

For readers in the UK, the name of John Leslie may conjure up images of the erstwhile Blue Peter presenter with a penchant for home video production. Elsewhere, however, John Leslie is known as the Canadian-domiciled philosopher who argues that the universe is ethically required to exist.

Leslie is interviewed in Jim Holt's fantastic new book Why Does the World Exist, (which I'll review separately), and one of his arguments particularly caught my attention. When asked why the ethical requirement for good doesn't create a bowl of rice for a starving child, Leslie responds:

"If you're going to have an orderly world that runs according to laws of nature...you can't have bowls of rice suddenly appearing miraculously. Moreover, the fact that the child doesn't have a bowl of rice may very well be the result of a misuse of human freedom, and you can't have the goodness of a world where agents are free to make decisions unless you also have the possibility that those agents will make bad decisions."

So Leslie makes two claims:

(i) Miracles can't happen because it would break the laws of nature.

(ii) A good world requires that agents have free will, i.e., that the decisions of such agents are not determined by the laws of nature.

So the laws of nature cannot be broken to alleviate suffering, but the laws of nature can, and are, over-ridden billions of times every second to permit a particular biological species to exercise free will. It's ethically required.

I can only conclude by recalling that theologian Richard Swinburne once tried to justify the holocaust on the basis that it gave the Jews a chance to be courageous and noble; a suggestion which prompted the following response from Peter Atkins:

"May you rot in hell."

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