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)