Incompatible propositions

It’s not possible for all three of the following to be true.

  1. We are free.
  2. What we do matters.
  3. Everything will be all right in the end.

Proposition 2 implies that our actions can have permanent effects which can be either good or bad. If whatever we do can be undone, making the world the same as if we had never done it, then it doesn’t really matter what we do. Nor does it matter what we do if the final result of our actions is inevitably good (or inevitably bad). P2 means that it is possible for us to inflict serious, permanent irreversible damage.

And if we are free, it follows that at least some people some of the time will choose to inflict such damage. Therefore, everything will not be all right.


Actually, neither P2 nor P3 is a binary yes/no proposition; both admit of degrees. They are inversely related; as the truth-value of P2 approaches 1, that of P3 approaches 0. (This relation does not work the other way, though. A high P2 entails a low P3, but a low P3 does not entail a high P2. If everyone is inevitably doomed, for example, both propositions would be wholly false.)

If only minor damage is possible — if the worst we can do is to make things turn out “vey well” rather than “very very very well” in the end — then P3 is very nearly true and P2 is very nearly false.

If truly catastrophic damage is possible — if, for example, our actions could result in someone being consigned to eternal torture in hell rather than eternal bliss in heaven, then P2 is very true but P3 is emphatically false.


Perhaps P3 is necessarily false, human nature being what it is. We need to be free, and we need to be capable of doing things that matter — so if either of those conditions does not hold, things are therefore not all right.


Filed under Philosophy

7 responses to “Incompatible propositions

  1. It is an important point. Indeed, I think that it is this point which Christ/ Christianity is intended to solve, by introducing a distinction between what we deserve and the need for things to be well in the end; between the necessary existence and operation of free will, and the offer of salvation. The choices are real, and have real consequences; and yet the outcome must be good.

    This contradiction means that a third factor must be introduced – and that is Christ.

    I would rephrase that ‘need’ to be free with the fact that we *are* free, and the recognition that nobody – not even God – can do anything about that fact except work-around it. This just is a world in which humans (and other entities) have free will, and in which the consequences of free will are real and irrevocable.

    (In the sense that drowning someone to murder them is irrevocable – *even if* they were brought back to life by a divine miracle, they have still been drowned. God makes things right by *healing* – not by making it as if it had never happened.)

    The narrative of Christianity can be regarded (at one level) as an explanation of how a loving God was able to solve your logical puzzle.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Bruce.

    I’m not at all sure that Christianity does solve the problem. To use the example you mentioned, if someone is drowned and then miraculously brought back to life, is the final result just as good as if he had never been drowned at all? If so, then the murderer’s choice didn’t really matter, didn’t really make any difference; if not, then God has not really made everything right.

    • OK. Maybe the problem here is that you are regarding the good state as if it were unique and final – therefore anything which happened on the way to this state which was detremental would destroy this perfection.

      But if life is an unending process of healing and striving for good (for the better, for a closer approach to the good), then perhaps this is not a problem.

      So, bad things happen (people choose to do evil) and have lasting consequences, the guilt is cleaned and the harm is healed – but the record of sin remains; but the process never comes to an end and the forces of sin and healing continue to battle.

      The process may come to an end in one place or mode of existence, but continue in another place or mode.

      I suppose we are forced to choose some kind of absolute metaphysical framework for this kind of discussion – about the nature of reality *static or dynamic or some combination) and the nature of time and whether is can start or stop, be entered and left – and so on.

      For free will to be real and to make a real difference therefore probably (I believe) entails something like the Mormon idea of eternal progression and multiple worlds as the ‘background’ metaphysical assumption. It is one of the most impressive/ remarkable things about Joseph Smith that he fairly swiftly either came to work-out and recognize this fact for himself (which would make him a theological genius in my opinion); or else was given this knowledge by revelation – because I think it is a very subtle phiosophical point which not many people in history (prior to JS) have grasped.

      (I am agreeing that points one and two must both be correct, therefore everything hinges on how we understand point three ‘3.Everything will be all right in the end.’ – I’m saying that this third statement contains the assumption that there is an end, and it will be perfect in an unique fashion – but these are not necessary assumptions.)

  3. Regarding free will as an intractable fact which even God is powerless to change, that may be the correct view in metaphysical terms; however, in practice, a great deal of control is possible even over metaphysically “free” agents. God could exercise his power to prevent anyone from ever doing anything bad, or to prevent all bad actions from having their natural bad effects. For example, he could instantly paralyze anyone the moment he contemplated murder, or he could miraculously stop the bullet, knife, water, etc. from having its normal effect on the victim’s body. If he generally does not thus prevent evil, it is because he chooses not to, not because it is metaphysically impossible. Humans are quite capable of limiting each other’s freedom, metaphysics notwithstanding, and the same should be true of God.

    Regarding your comments on eternal progression etc., I will need some time to think about them more thoroughly before replying.

    • It’s even worse that that! The standard omnipotent God of classical theology actually *wills* the contemplation of murder, the stabbing of the knife, the agony of the victim and so on. Simply because God causes (hence wills) everything that ever happens everywhere.

      But once God is envisioned as of immense, inconceivable power, but not absolute power – and working within Time and the constraints of matter, then such questions become answerable in principle – albeit not in specific detail.

  4. Pingback: Luther (not that Luther) on the problems of agency | Bugs to fearen babes withall

  5. An apologetic I developed in response to the usual Jewish attack on the Atonement works here. The usual Jewish attack is that the Atonement is superfluous because a loving God can forgive without the need for a sacrifice, or can redress wrongs without someone else needing to pay for them.

    My tentative way around this dilemma is here:

    In brief, I’m suggesting that you can reconcile God’s ability to fix everything in your life, all the harm you caused yourself and that others caused you, as good as new; and your need to make meaningful choices that affect yourself and others; by having Christ suffer when you sin or when somebody else suffers. Seen sub species aeternitas, Christ intervenes in each life so that all choices are a choice to make Christ suffer or not.
    When you combine the Mormon notion, taught principally in Alma 7:11-12, that the Atonement involved suffering illness, infirmities, and other pains; and some of the implications of Matthew 25:40, then you have a scriptural basis for something like what I’m suggesting.

    To be clear, I’m not sure that I have discovered The Truth of the Atonement, or even a truth about it; for a number of reasons, I incline to the view that not everything will be all right in the end; but I am sure that I have offered a logically sound solution to your puzzle.

    There is some related discussion here:

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