Molinism and Circularity
May 19, 2015 — 10:40

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Divine Providence Molinism  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 9

Yesterday, I discussed Thomas Flint’s response to the grounding objection in chapter 5 of Divine Providence: The Molinist Account. Today, I want to discuss his response to Robert Adams in chapter 7.

Adams’ objection turns on a notion of explanatory priority which, Flint complains, is not adequately defined. Flint argues that there is an equivocation in the argument, and that Adams relies on a transitivity assumption which is not plausible when applied across the different sorts of priority involved. I think, however, that Flint is mistaken on both counts: first, the notion in question is not equivocal. Rather, it is a genus containing several species. Second, transitivity is not actually required. What’s required is just an anti-circularity principle. The anti-circularity principle is abundantly well-justified across the entire genus.

The notion of priority here corresponds to the notion of objective explanation. That is, A is prior to B iff B because A. That’s simple enough. Of course, there are many different uses of ‘because’ and I’m inclined to agree that the anti-circularity principle won’t apply to all of them. That’s why we require that the because or priority here track objective explanation, i.e., that A really be a reason why B is true, and not merely a fact that helps make B intelligible to some particular mind. It is extremely plausible to suppose that there can be no cycles in chains of objective explanation.

The types of priority/explanation at issue include these:

  1. The priority of reasons (and, more generally, considerations) to actions (whether divine or creaturely).
  2. The priority of God’s creative act to all creaturely activity.
  3. The priority of causes to effects.
  4. The priority of free choices to free actions.

Now, it is, as I said, extremely plausible that an anti-circularity constraint applies here. For instance, it is incoherent to suppose that I should choose to act in a certain way because I am going to act in that way. Similarly, if my action causes it to be the case that P, then P can’t be among the reasons for my action, since (barring overdetermination, etc.) P won’t be true unless I take the action. (Of course, I might take the action because taking the action will cause it to be the case that P. That’s different.)

Now, let C be a proposition describing a total circumstance and let A be a proposition stating that a creature takes some free action in that circumstance. The Molinist is clearly committed to:

(1) C []-> A is prior to God’s decision to weakly actualize C.
(2) God’s decision to weakly actualize C is prior to the agent’s having the reasons, considerations, etc., which lead her to choose A.
(3) The agent’s reasons, considerations, etc., are prior to her choice that A.
(4) The agent’s choice that A is prior to A.

By the anti-circularity constraint, this implies that neither the agent’s choice that A, nor A itself, is prior to C []-> A.

But then why is C []-> A true? If the Molinist says, for no reason at all, she runs into the randomness objection. The anti-circularity constraint prevents the Molinist from saying it’s because of the agent’s choice or the agent’s action. The Molinist obviously can’t say it’s due to God. If it’s due to the agent’s essence, nature, character, etc., then we’re presupposing a compatibilist theory of freedom and don’t need to bother with all the complexities of Molinism. There’s a serious problem here, and Flint hasn’t defused it.

(Cross-posted at

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

Explaining Molinist conditionals
April 12, 2013 — 20:55

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Molinism  Tags: ,   Comments: 16

I remember David Manley (who I think was a first year grad student at the time) querying Al Plantinga over a meal whether counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs) could be explained. I think Al didn’t have an answer but thought it was a really good question.

I may finally have an answer to David’s question. I think that the Molinist should answer in the affirmative if and only if non-derivatively free actions have explanations.

Suppose w0 is the actual world. Consider the conditional C→A, where C says that Curley has such-and-such character and is offered a $5000 bribe at t0, and A says that he freely accepts the bribe at t0. Suppose w1 is a sufficiently close-by world where C and A are true. Now let’s put ourselves in w1. So, Curley freely accepts the $5000 bribe. Does this have an explanation? If not, then a fortiori I think we should not have said in w0 that C→A had an explanation. After all, if it has an explanation in w0, it surely doesn’t lose one in w1, just because C holds there. But it would be just too weird that in w1, C→A has an explanation but A does not, especially if, as will at least typically be the case, C has an explanation.

Conversely, suppose that in w1, A has an explanation. What kind of an explanation is that? The most plausible candidate for an explanation of a free action is in terms of non-necessitating reasons and character. Maybe, in w1, what explains A is that Curley is very greedy. But that Curley is very greedy is a part of C. So it seems very reasonable to say at w0 that what explains C→A is that were C to hold, Curley would be very greedy (a necessary truth, since C includes a description of Curley’s character). Now you might say: Yeah, but that he would be greedy in C doesn’t entail or maybe even make likely that he would take the bribe. But the very same point holds in w1: that he is greedy doesn’t entail or maybe even make likely that he takes the bribe–yet, we supposed, it explains it. If we accepted the explanation of the categorical claim in w1, we should accept the corresponding explanation of the conditional claim in w0, if w1 is close enough to w0.

Molinism, presentism, explanation and grounding
March 18, 2013 — 12:51

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Molinism  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 2

Fundamental Molinist conditionals of free will about non-existent agents are brutish: they are not grounded in other propositions, nor made true by a truthmaker, lack of a falsemaker and/or the obtaining of properties/relations between entities.

Now, suppose as seems plausible to me that there are precisely two kinds of explanation: constitutive-style and causal-style explanations. Constitutive-style explanations explain a truth by explaining how the truth is grounded: the knife is hot because its molecules have high kinetic energy. Causal-style explanations explain a truth by giving non-grounding conditions that nonetheless in a mysterious but familiar causal or at least causal-like give rise to the holding of the truth.

Now, brutish truths have no constitutive-style explanations. For the constitutive-style explanation involves the describing of a grounding. But brutish truths also have no causal-style explanations. For causal-style explanations involves the describing of causal-style relations between the aspects of the world (in the concrete sense) that ground the explanandum and explanans. (In fact, for this reason, brutish truths not only lack causal-style explanations but are not causal-style explanations for anything else.) So, brutish truths have no explanations.

But if there are true fundamental Molinist conditionals of free will about non-existent agents, there will also be ones that have explanations. For, some, maybe all, free actions can be explained in terms of the reasons the agent had. Thus, Curley accepts the bribe because he wants to be richer. Granted, this is a non-necessitating explanation–that Curley wants to be richer does not entail that he accepts the bribe. But that’s still an explanation, and one of causal-type. And exactly parallel explanations can be given for Molinist conditionals. Thus, Curley would have accepted the bribe in circumstances C because circumstances C includes his wanting to be richer. And presumably this kind of explanation would have held even had Curley never existed, and presumably if Molinism is true, there are such explanations for true conditionals about actually non-existent agents. Thus some fundamental Molinist conditionals of free will about non-existent agents can be explained. But this contradicts their brutishness.

Moreover, presumably some fundamental true Molinist conditionals of free will about non-existent agents explain God’s creative inactions. Thus, perhaps, God did not create Badolf Bitler, because Bitler would have been so much worse than Hitler. But these conditionals do not provide a constitutive-style explanation for such actions. So they provide a causal-style explanation. But they can’t do that, because they’re brutish.

The same argument goes against Merricks-style presentism on which fundamental truths about the past are brutish. But many, perhaps all, fundamental truths about the past are explained by other fundamental truths about the past.


Molinism and probabilistic explanation
January 15, 2013 — 14:06

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Molinism  Tags: , ,   Comments: 5

Suppose Molinism is true. We know the truth values of some Molinist counterfactuals because we know that their antecedent and consequent are true. But we also have reason to believe many other Molinist counterfactuals. Absent further evidence, if P(A|C) is high, and C is an appropriate antecedent for a Molinist counterfactual C→A, that gives me reason to believe C→A. It certainly gives me reason to believe C→A if I know C is actually true; for if I know C is true, then if P(A|C) is high, P(A) will be fairly high as well, and so A is probably true, and hence C→A is probably true. But I also have reason to think C→A is true in cases where C is false. For instance, if Jones is the sort of person likely to accede to my minor requests, then I have reason to believe that were I to make such-and-such a minor request, he’d accede to it, and I have reason to believe the conditional whether or not I make the request (at least assuming Molinism is true so that the conditional has non-trivial truth-value).

This suggests that if the objective probability of A on C is high, then the objective probability of C→A is also high. So the Molinist conditional C→A, assuming it’s true, doesn’t seem to be a mere brute fact. It is a fact subject to meaningful probabilistic assignments. But if it’s not a mere brute fact, it seems reasonable to look for an explanation of it. What is that explanation?

Well, maybe we have a probabilistic explanation. Maybe the fact that C makes A probable explains why C→A. But this is weird. It seems that probabilistic explanation is a species of causal explanation (with probabilistic causation). But there is surely no causal explanation of why C→A, at least in worlds where C is not true. (What would the cause be? The truthmaker of C? But C is not true and has no truthmaker.)

I’ll leave it as a puzzle: How is a Molinist to explain the connection between P(A|C) and the probability of the conditional C→A?

The Value Component of Plantinga’s Free Will Defense
September 28, 2012 — 19:37

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God Divine Providence Free Will Molinism Problem of Evil  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 8

A defense (in Plantinga’s sense) against the logical problem of evil requires two components: a metaphysical component, which claims that a certain scenario is logically possible, and a value component, which claims that if the scenario in question were actual then it would be consistent with God’s goodness to weakly actualize a world containing evil. In Plantinga’s Free Will Defense (FWD), the scenario in question is one in which every creaturely essence suffers from transworld depravity (TWD). Now, in both The Nature of Necessity and God, Freedom, and Evil Plantinga’s focus is squarely on the metaphysical component, defending the coherence of Molinism and the possibility of every creaturely essence suffering from TWD. The value component is almost completely ignored. Plantinga supposes that, if every creaturely essence suffered from TWD, then God would create a world with evil, and this would not in any way impugn his goodness. But why does Plantinga think this? I suppose he probably endorses:

(1) God’s perfect goodness consists in his actualizing the best world he can


(2) If every creaturely essence suffered TWD, then the best world God could actualize would contain some evil.


The New Collection
December 8, 2010 — 18:23

Author: Jon Kvanvig  Category: Christian Theology Concept of God Divine Foreknowledge Divine Providence Free Will Hell Molinism Open Theism Problem of Evil Theological Fatalism  Comments: 6

Seems that describing it as “shameless self-promotion” absolves one, though I doubt it. But that’s the line so I hereby use it, whatever purgatory consequences… My new collection, in draft form, LaTeX’ed to beautiful purposes by Oxford’s document class, is here.
Any thoughts welcome, of course–would love to minimize the errors!

November 10, 2010 — 8:41

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Concept of God Divine Providence Molinism  Tags: ,   Comments: 9

Suppose that I know that if I cause A, then either B or C will eventuate. Suppose that each of B and C furthers my plan, and neither of them furthers it better than the other. Then it does not seem that sovereignty would require me to know or decide prior to my decision to cause A which of B and C would eventuate. Sovereignty perhaps requires that nothing happens that is contrary to God’s plan, but it does not require that God’s plan should determine every detail.

Here is try at a notion of sovereignty built on this idea:

  1. x sovereignly executes plan P iff x successfully executes P and if we let Q be what x strongly and knowingly actualizes in executing P, and we let K be all that x knows explanatorily prior to x‘s decision to strongly actualize Q, and we let W be the set of all worlds at which both Q and K hold, then no world in W better fits the goals of P than any other.

In other words, x is sovereign in the execution of a plan provided that, given what x does and knows, he can’t be disappointed in respect of the quality of the plan’s execution.

One way to ensure sovereignty in the execution of a plan is to strongly and knowingly actualize every little detail. This is a Calvinist or maybe Thomistic way. Another way is to know exactly how the details would turn out. That’s a Molinist way. Another way is the “chessmaster way” (not my terminology or original idea; I think the view has been developed by W. Matthews Grant and Sarah Coakley): to choose a plan in such a way that no matter how things turn out, the goal wouldn’t be any the less well achieved by the lights of the plan. One can do this in two ways: setting one’s goal appropriately (so that whatever turns out, fits–that’s not how chessmasters do it) or choosing the plan very carefully or some combination of the first two disjuncts.


An argument against the possibility of transworld depravity
January 31, 2010 — 21:36

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Molinism  Comments: 24

Transworld Depravity (TWD) is the thesis that possibly every feasible world with significantly free agents contains moral evil. I will offer an argument, assuming Molinism, that TWD is necessarily false. I don’t think the argument is all that strong, but I hope it will push Molinists to think about a certain interesting (to me) issue.

In order to get Adams to accept some counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs, denoted with →), Plantinga offered this example. Actually Curley takes a bribe of a certain amount. Surely, then, it is true that were Curley to have been offered a larger bribe, he would have taken that, too. Adams agrees.

One might not unreasonably take Plantinga’s example to support the following thesis:
(*) Necessarily: If x actually freely chooses A in circumstances C, then had x instead been in circumstances C* instead of C such that D(C*,C,x,A), then x would still have freely chosen A.
Here, D(C*,C,A) says that circumstances C* are a variation on C (this minimally implies that they occur in the same spatiotemporal location, but more may need to be added), and they dominate circumstances C for x in respect of A in the following sense: (a) the agent is non-perverse and hence without the least inclination to act unreasonably for the sake of acting unreasonably, (b) any consideration operative for x in C in favor of A is also operative for x in C* in favor of A in at least as strong a form, and (c) any consideration operative for x in C* against A is operative in C against A in at least as strong a form.

One might then generalize (*) to:
(**) If C and C* are sufficiently determinate circumstances for a free choice, then (C → x freely does A) & D(C*,C,x,A) entails C* → x freely does A.

Suppose (**) is true. Imagine circumstances C where there is only one free agent, Eve, who makes only one free choice: whether to eat a yummy apple or to dance a merry jig (no other options are available, and it is not possible to do both), and this choice is significantly free because God forbade Eve to eat the apple. Eve has no inclination to disobey God or act unreasonably as such. Eve, however, has a desire to eat the apple on account of its yumminess or to dance the jig on account of its merriness. Call these circumstances C. Now, let C* be circumstances just like these, except that God instead forbade Eve to dance the jig.

Now, suppose TWD holds. Then, C→(Eve freely eats apple) and C*→(Eve freely dances jig). But this contradicts (**), since C* dominates C in respect of apple-eating for Eve. Why does domination hold? Well, any operative consideration in favor of apple-eating in C (namely the yumminess of the apple) is present in C*, and any operative consideration against apple-eating (namely the merriness of the jig) in C* is present in C. The only difference is that the fact that God forbids the apple-eating in C but it is the jig-dancing that is forbidden in C*; but given that Eve has no inclination to act unreasonably or disobediently as such, this does nothing to contradict C’s being dominated by C* in respect of apple-eating (that God forbids apple-eating in C either counts for nothing or counts against apple-eating in C, etc.)


Another argument against Molinism
January 25, 2010 — 11:16

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Molinism  Comments: 9

I shall use the phrase “non-derivatively libertarian-free” (NDLF) to describe a libertarian-free choice that does not inherit its freedom from earlier free actions. This corresponds to Kane’s Self-Forming Actions. Now consider this plausible principle:
Thesis 1: If x NDLF-ly chooses A in circumstances C, and p is a proposition explanatorily prior to x’s choosing A, then were x not to have NDLF-ly chosen A in C, p would still have been true.

A consequence of this is the following PAP:
Thesis 2: If x NDLF-ly chooses A in C, then x’s failing to NDLF-ly choose A in C is logically compatible with any proposition that is explanatorily prior to x’s NDLF-ly choosing A in C.

(The argument from Thesis 1 to Thesis 2 is this. Suppose Thesis 2 is false. Then we have a proposition p explanatorily prior to x’s NDLF-ly choosing A in C such that p entails x’s NDLF-ly choosing A in C. But then x’s failing to NDLF-ly choose A in C entails ~p. It is obvious that if x NDLF-ly chooses A in C, then x’s NDLF-ly choosing A in C is not logically necessary. But if u entails v, then at least if u is contingent, were u to hold, v would hold. So, were x to fail to NDLF-ly choose A in C, then ~p would hold. But by Thesis 1, it follows that were x to fail to NDLF-ly choose A in C, then p would. But these two conditionals cannot both be true if the antecedent is possible, as it is. So Thesis 2 cannot be false.)

Now on to the argument. If Molinism holds, then the following scenario is possible:
Scenario 1: God believes that were he to place agent x in circumstances C, the agent would NDLF-ly choose A in C, and for that reason God in fact places agent x in circumstances C.

Now, assume that if p and q are explanatorily prior to r, so is the conjunction p&q. Suppose Scenario 1 holds. Let p be the proposition that x is in C, and let q be the proposition that God believes that were God to place x in C, x would NDLF-ly choose A in C. Then p and q are explanatorily prior to x NDLF-ly choosing A in C. Hence so is their conjunction. Hence, their conjunction does not entail x’s NDLF-ly choosing A in C (by Thesis 2). But, necessarily, God believes only truths. So, q entails that were God to place x in C, x would NDLF-ly choose A in C. By modus ponens, p&q entails that x NDLF-ly chooses A in C. Hence, p&q both does and does not entail that x NDLF-ly chooses A in C, which is a contradiction.

This is, of course, a version of Adams’ circularity-in-the-order-of-explanation argument. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t show that God can’t know conditionals of free will, but only that it is incoherent to suppose him to act on that knowledge in the way indicated in Scenario 1. Thus, the argument is compatible with a weak Molinism on which God knows the conditionals but must bracket that knowledge when choosing to act.

I actually don’t quite buy the argument because my current view of counterfactuals does not support Thesis 1 (but neither does it support Molinism).