Future Contingents and the Grounding Objection to Molinism
May 18, 2015 — 11:56

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Divine Providence Free Will Molinism  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 13

In chapter 5 of Divine Providence: The Molinist Account (1998), Thomas Flint defends a response to the grounding objection which he attributes to Alfred Freddoso. According to the Flint-Freddoso line, there are difficulties about future contingents which are exactly parallel to the difficulties about counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, and solutions to the problems about future contingents can be adapted to provide equally plausible solutions to the problems about counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. This claim is false.

The exact formulation of the grounding objection is a little tricky. Some philosophers take it to be based on the (questionable) assumption of some form of truthmaker theory, i.e., the notion that if a sentence/proposition is true then its truth must somehow be grounded in an actually existing concrete entity. This kind of very abstract claim about truth is quite controversial and can easily be rejected by the Molinist. However, the objection can be stated much more compellingly by keeping the focus on free will, which is of course the Molinist’s main concern. The Molinist endorses a negative thesis about freedom, namely, that my action is unfree if that action is determined by anyone or anything other than me. However, if this negative thesis were the Molinist’s whole conception of freedom, then the Molinist would succumb to the randomness objection to libertarianism: she would be unable to distinguish between an indeterministic spasm and a genuinely free action. Accordingly, the Molinist should conjoin to this negative thesis the positive thesis that an action is free only if it follows from my (undetermined) causal activity. But then, according to the Molinist, all of the counterfactuals regarding my free choices are determined and known by God in a manner that is logically independent of my even existing (let alone choosing), so it seems that it is not my undetermined causal activity that makes the counterfactuals true, and the same ought to be true of the subjunctive conditionals with true antecedents (since those would have remained true even if God had decided not to create me). Accordingly, I am not free in any positive sense, since all of my choices are determined by the prior truth of the counterfactuals and not by my spontaneous causal activity.

One response to this objection the Molinist should not make is that the determination in question is okay because it’s not causal determination. If the Molinist made this response, a Thomist or Leibnizian opponent would reply that it is perfectly consistent with their view that our actions might be free from external determination by natural causes (and, indeed, both the Thomist and the Leibnizian will insist that our actions are indeed often free from such external determination). As Leibniz expresses the matter:

Since, moreover, God’s decree consists solely in the resolution he forms, after having compared all possible worlds, to choose that one which is the best, and bring it into existence together with all that this world contains, by means of the all-powerful word Fiat, it is plain to see that this decree changes nothing in the constitution of things: God leaves them just as they were in the state of mere possibility, that is, changing nothing either in their essence or nature, or even in their accidents, which are represented perfectly already in the idea of this possible world. Thus that which is contingent and free remains no less so under the decrees of God than under his prevision. (Theodicy, tr. Huggard, sect. 52)

If the Molinist is to have grounds for rejecting Leibniz’s view, she has to insist that it is not only (natural/secondary) causal determination that interferes with freedom, but any kind of determination whatsoever. Hence determination by the prior truth of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom must, on the Molinist’s view, be inconsistent with freedom.

Now consider the Flint-Freddoso response. According to this response, the issue here is exactly parallel to the issue about future contingents. (Note that Leibniz makes the same claim about his compatibilist response.) It is true now that I will freely eat breakfast tomorrow. But if it is already true now, then doesn’t that mean I won’t be free, since the truth of this proposition determines that I will eat? Note again that the Molinist can’t say that this doesn’t matter because the determination is not causal, or else the Thomist or Leibnizian comes back with a distinction between primary and secondary causation.

Flint argues that a particular solution to the problem of future contingents can be adapted to the counterfactual case. According to this solution, a future claim counts as grounded iff the grounding will happen in the future. Similarly, a counterfactual claim counts as grounded iff the grounding would happen if the antecedent were true. This solution, however, cannot succeed without surrendering the Molinist’s claim to a more robust notion of freedom than the Thomist or Leibnizian, for here we are saying, effectively, the if the antecedent were true I would exercise undetermined causal efficacy to make the consequent true. But this is exactly what Leibniz says: God sees, in that other possible world, that the manner of causation I will exercise will be free causation. By actualizing that world, he doesn’t make the causation any less free. The Molinist now lacks motivation for saying that God couldn’t actualize that other possible world at which I freely take the opposite action in exactly the same circumstances.

Flint’s formulation of the solution to the problem of future contingents is complicated by a desire to remain neutral in the debate between presentists and eternalists in the philosophy of time (or perhaps by an endorsement of presentism – it’s not really clear). Endorsing eternalism makes the solution to the problem of future contingents easier to state, and more plausible. At the same time, it makes it clearer why the parallel solution to the problem about counterfactuals is not plausible. If eternalism is true, then we can say that the future contingent claim is made true by the fact that at that future time I actually do exercise undetermined causal influence and thereby bring it about that I eat breakfast. The future time really exists. (It is true now that it exists, although it is, of course, located in the future.) My free choice really happens at that time. That’s what makes it true. Nice and simple.

Now consider the parallel move for the counterfactuals. Here we’d have to say that it’s because I exercise undetermined causal influence at some other possible world that the counterfactual is true. But note that if it’s enough for me to exercise undetermined causal influence according to some abstract possible world then we’re back at Leibniz: why can’t God just make that world actual without altering the manner of causation I exercise? What we need, if this is going to be parallel to the case of eternalist future contingents, is for me not merely to be represented as exercising undetermined causal power, but actually doing it. This means that, in order for the Molinist to make the parallel move, we need (a) realism about the feasible worlds (but not the other merely possible worlds); and (b) transworld identity across feasible worlds. In other words, we need it to be the case that I myself actually face every choice which it is metaphysically possible that I face. Needless to say, eternalism is much easier to swallow than this. Accordingly, the grounding problem for Molinist counterfactuals is really not parallel to the problem of future contingents.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

  • Adam Omelianchuk

    Good post. Would the parallel situation hold in the case of presentism? I am inclined to think it would if the Counterfactual Law of Excluded Middle is true, which I think Fredosso at least is friends towards.

    May 18, 2015 — 15:31
  • Well, I think the presentist can make a stronger parallel between the future case and the merely possible case, since the presentist denies the existence of those future choices. But this is just to say that, for the presentist, the situation with future contingents is just as bad as the situation with counterfactuals of freedom.

    How does counterfactual excluded middle figure in here? I’m not sure I understand that part.

    May 18, 2015 — 16:48
  • Adam Omelianchuk

    Well I may be off base here so correct my confusion. As I understand it, if CEM is true, then there are some CCFs which are true, and God knows them as such—that is, God would know what every possible creature would do in every possible situation. Moreover, the kind of CCFs relevant for the doctrine of middle knowledge are such that the circumstances in which the creature is placed are fully specified, so if God were to place S in C with respect to some action A, then it is necessary for S to either perform or refrain from performing A—that is, the principle of bivalence is true for CCFs. William Lane Craig explains:

    “Molinists need not and should not endorse [CEM] unqualifiedly. There is no reason to think, for example, that if Suarez were to have scratched his head on June 8, 1582, then either Freddoso would have scratched his head on June 8, 1982 or would not have scratched his head on June 8, 1982. But it is plausible that counterfactuals of the very specialized sort we are considering must be either true or false. For since the circumstances C in which the free agent is placed are fully specified in the counterfactual’s antecedent, it seems that if the agent were placed in C and left free with respect to action A, then he must either do A or not do A. For what alternative is there?”
    From “Middle Knowledge, Truth-Makers, and The ‘Grounding Objection” – 358.

    Thus, if the CEM holds for CCFs that are fully specified, we have an easy modus ponens argument for God’s middle knowledge.

    May 18, 2015 — 18:03
  • I’m confused about this sentence: “if God were to place S in C with respect to some action A, then it is necessary for S to either perform or refrain from performing A”. Do you just mean, if God places S in C then necessarily (S does A or S refrains from A)? Or do you mean, if God places S in C then (necessarily S does A or necessarily S refrains from A)? The first thing seems true to me, the second thing seems false.

    The Craig quote is confusing too. It seems like he’s inferring from: C []-> (A or ~A) to (C []-> A or C []-> ~A). But the second sentence is just an instance of CEM. If CEM is not universally valid, then I don’t see why the second sentence should follow from the first one. Certainly Lewis’s semantics allows for failures of just this sort: among the collection of closest C worlds, there are some A worlds and some ~A worlds.

    What is the “easy modus ponens” argument you have in mind? Are we just inferring from the general principle that God knows all true propositions?

    May 18, 2015 — 18:33
    • Adam Omelianchuk

      Oh sorry! I meant the first sense. And, yes: if God knows all truths and believes no falsehoods, and if the CEM holds for CCFs that are fully specified, then God has middle knowledge (I tend to favor Stalnaker’s view). And if all that is right, then Molinist would have smotivation for saying that God couldn’t actualize that other possible world at which I freely take the opposite action in exactly the same circumstances. That was the train of my thought, anyway. I could be mixed up here.

      May 18, 2015 — 19:08
  • Okay, so CEM clearly guarantees that there are true CCFs. A standard account of omniscience (God knows all truths) will get the further conclusion that God knows the CCFs. We’ve still got two options here: Molinism, or the Thomistic/Leibnizian view that CCFs are part of God’s free knowledge, i.e., that God chooses which will be true, and chooses which free actions creatures take in the actual world. How does CEM and/or foreknowledge have any bearing on the question between the Molinist and the Thomist or Leibnizian?

    May 18, 2015 — 19:26
  • Maybe I can make my point a little clearer. The Molinist is committed to:

    (1) If God chooses what action I will take, then my action is not free.

    But any plausible reasoning to support (1), without running afoul of the randomness objection, will also support:

    (2) If a subjunctive conditional stating what action I would take if faced with this circumstance is true independent of my causal activity, then my action is not free.

    However, the Molinist is committed to the antecedent of (2).

    May 18, 2015 — 19:37
  • Adam Omelianchuk

    Thanks for clarifying. As I understand it, the Molinist denies [1] because God has no control over which CCFs are true, which distinguishes it from its Thomistic and Leibnizian rivals. As far as eternalism goes, Molina doesn’t think it can account for the truth of CCFs found in Scripture concerning 1 Sam 23:9-14. Revisiting Freddoso’s introduction to the Part IV of the Concordia, he says in a footnote, “To the contrary, Molina holds that even though the truth of counterfactuals of freedom is in no way dependent on what God decides, it is dependent (though not causally dependent) on what creatures freely do” (76 n96). So while, by hypothesis, it is true that the agency of the agent would contribute causally to the action in C if the C-world were actual–call this fact of the matter P–God’s pre-volitional knowledge of P is not caused as if were God a passive recipient of it. I admit ignorance to what content or nature of this dependency relation is (I will have to read some more), and have little to add beyond that. Sorry that my feedback is so weak!

    Disclosure: I’ve always thought Freddoso’s response to the grounding objection was a strong one. Thank you for the challenging critique.

    May 19, 2015 — 9:07
  • The Molinist accepts my (1), for the reason you give. God has no control over the CCFs, on the Molinist view, so if God does exercise control over what I do, then I’m not free. The Molinist doesn’t deny that God can control my actions if God so chooses. The Moliinist just says that if God does this I won’t act freely.

    I agree that eternalism doesn’t help the Molinist. That’s exactly what I was arguing. Flint endorses, and attributes to Freddoso, the view that whatever solution we use for future contingents will work for counterfactuals. I say no: the best solution for future contingents is eternalism, and the parallel move for counterfactuals is bizarre in the extreme. (Apparently, I disagree with Flint and Freddoso about the best solution for future contingents.)

    I don’t see how the CCFs can possibly be in any way dependent on what creatures freely do, except on the form of realism about feasible worlds I described. Most libertarians would deny that my actions up to now have so formed my character as to determine infallibly that I will freely eat breakfast tomorrow. How could my actions then determine that I would still have eaten breakfast this morning even if the only thing available was oatmeal? The only way I can see for that counterfactual to depend on me is if it’s determined by my character or natural constitution in just the way the libertarian wants to deny. And of course if it is determined by my character or constitution, then why couldn’t God just give me the character or constitution he wants (or create a different person with the appropriate character/constitution) and thereby determine my actions without harming my freedom?

    May 19, 2015 — 9:27
  • Hey Kenny, I think the heart of you objection to Molinism is captured in this paper:


    It’s basically that the Molinist has a problem with the same problem that afflicts many compatibilists: the consequence argument. I’m not sure if you’re getting at more than this.

    May 19, 2015 — 9:45
  • Interesting, thanks Andrew! I actually had a conversation about this with Ken a while back, so it is possible that my concerns and my formulation here owe something to our discussion (I can’t remember exactly – it’s been almost two years). But I haven’t read that paper before. Perhaps I’ll find time to check it out.

    May 19, 2015 — 10:14
  • Heath White


    I’m sympathetic to this line of criticism but I think the Molinist has a reply to your main argument. It is open to them to say that what is ruled out, as freedom-cancelling, is *causal* determination (of either the primary or secondary variety) but what does not cancel freedom is *logical* or maybe *formal* determination, e.g. by the current truth of future contingents or the eternal truth of CCFs.

    May 21, 2015 — 9:18
  • But Heath, the Thomist and the Leibnizian deny that God causally determines my action. Indeed, many Thomists (perhaps including Aquinas himself) would say that my action is not causally determined at all. (Leibniz, of course, would disagree.) To use the Leibnizian language, God’s choice is the reason why this world rather than another is actual, but it’s not a cause. (See the beginning of “On the Ultimate Origination of Things”.) Causation properly so-called (i.e., natural or secondary causation) takes place entirely within the created order; God’s ‘primary causation’ is not a species of causation at all, but something much closer to the ‘logical’ or ‘formal’ determination you are talking about.

    If you doubt my interpretation of Aquinas and Leibniz, let me just propose this as a view: causation properly so-called is an entirely intra-world phenomenon. God’s chooses a total possible world to be actual. In so doing he in no way alters the causal relations (or lack thereof) internal to that world. This view allows for divine omni-determination and for a view of human freedom just as strong as the Molinist’s.

    May 21, 2015 — 9:31
  • Leave a Reply to Adam Omelianchuk Cancel reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *