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)

Jacob Ross on the PSR
December 20, 2013 — 10:47

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 3

Leibniz famously claimed that, once we have endorsed the Principle of Sufficient Reason, “the first questions we will be entitled to put will be – Why does something exist rather than nothing?” The answer to this question, he further claimed, “must needs be outside the sequence of contingent things and must be in a substance which is the cause of this sequence, or which is a necessary being, bearing in itself the reason for its own existence, otherwise we should not yet have a sufficient reason with which to stop” (“Principles of Nature and Grace,” sects. 7-8, tr. Latta). In his contribution to The Puzzle of Existence, Jacob Ross argues, on the contrary, that the PSR entails that one never reaches “a reason with which to stop.”

Consider the following modal collapse argument, which is somewhat simpler than the version Ross discusses:

  1. For every true contingent proposition, there is an explanation of why that proposition is true. (Assumption for reductio)
  2. Any conjunction of true contingent propositions is itself a true contingent proposition.
  3. The truth of a conjunctive proposition cannot be explained by one of its conjuncts.
  4. There is a conjunction of all true contingent propositions.
  5. A true contingent proposition can only ever be explained by another true contingent proposition.
  6. Therefore,

  7. The conjunction of all true contingent propositions is an unexplained true contingent proposition, contrary to (1).

Now Ross’s strategy is to deny (4). This is a well-known move in the dialectic around the argument from contingency for the existence of a necessary being, which has its roots in Kant. But Ross has interesting things to say about two points: first, what reason can be given for denying (4)? Second, what are the metaphysical consequences of accepting some version of the PSR (such as (1) of the argument) while denying (4)?

On the first point, I’m afraid Ross is a little unclear. He starts by arguing that, since explanation is a hyperintensional notion, a fine-grained (hyperintensional) conception of propositions is needed here. So far so good. But here’s the part I’m puzzled by:

suppose we adopt [a fine-grained] account [of propositions] and regard propositions as consisting in, or at least representable by, an ordered series of constituents corresponding to the constituents of the sentences by which they would be expressed in a canonical language. On such an account, for every proposition, there will be a corresponding set of the constituents of this proposition. And a conjunction will have its conjuncts as constituents. And so it follows that for every proposition, there will be a set that includes all of its conjuncts (p. 84).

Following this, Ross adverts to an argument of Pruss’s for the claim that the collection of all propositions is a proper class, and shows how to excise a certain controversial assumption (that for any cardinality k, possibly there are exactly k many concrete objects) from that argument. From this argument, he concludes that there is no ‘Grand Conjunction,’ i.e. that there is no such proposition as the conjunction of all contingent truths.

Here’s why I’m puzzled. Ross’s conclusion follows directly from his conception of propositions. Indeed, it follows directly from Ross’s conception of propositions that propositions have at most countably many constituents, for an ordered series (at least in the standard mathematical sense) can have at most countably many elements. So the first puzzle is why Ross presents this argument for the existence of a proper class of contingent propositions without noting that all he actually needs is uncountably many of them. The second puzzle is that Ross gives no argument in favor of his particular notion of a proposition, and in his exposition he says things like “suppose we adopt” and so forth. Then at the end of the section, he concludes that there is no Grand Conjunction. In other words, it appears that Ross begs the question: he asks us to grant a certain supposition from which his conclusion trivially follows, namely, that the existence of a conjunctive proposition requires the existence of the ordered series of its conjuncts.

I think the best response to be made on Ross’s behalf is this. He does provide arguments (compelling ones, even) in favor of adopting some hyperintensional conception of propositions. Now, there simply aren’t a lot of well-developed hyperintensional theories of propositions on the market. So the opponent of Ross’s argument needs to articulate some alternative hyperintensional conception of propositions if she wants to hold onto the existence of the Grand Conjunction. This seems fair enough to me, but then I was already somewhat skeptical of infinite propositions.

After arguing against the Grand Conjunction, Ross considers some other principles that might be thought to create problems, such as the modal collapse problem, for the PSR. These principles are all designed to say the some basic fact about contingent beings – e.g., that there are some of them – can only be explained if there is a necessary being. Ross rejects the Hume-Edwards principle and endorses the following claim:

(K4) For any set S of beings, the proposition that there exists at least one member of S can be explained only by a proposition that appeals to the existence of beings that are not in S (p. 89).

Ross notes that, since there is no set of all beings (sets are beings, and there is no set of all sets), (K4) cannot be made to yield the contradiction, there is a being that is not a being. On the other hand, though, it is extremely plausible to suppose that there is a set of all concrete contingent beings and, by (K4) this set must be explained by some non-member of it. This might sound at first like it would be nice for the theist; unfortunately, if there is a set of all concrete contingent beings and God exists, then surely there is a union of the set of all contingent concrete beings with the singleton {God}. Bad news.

If (K4) is restricted to sets of contingent beings then, together with the PSR and the claim that there is a set of all contingent concrete beings, it entails the existence of a necessary being; if it’s not restricted to sets of contingent beings, then it requires a proper class of beings standing in explanatory relations to one another (no regress-stopper can be introduced). Ross holds that, because of skepticism about the possibility of necessary things explaining contingent things, the defender of the PSR has cause to be skeptical of the claim that there is a set of all contingent concrete beings (p. 93). Thus, Ross thinks, the defender of the PSR should grasp the second horn and believe in a proper class of contingent concrete beings and an infinite regress of explanatory relations.

Much in Ross’s essay is clearly turning on the assumption that the existence of contingent beings cannot be explained in terms of a necessary being. This is an assumption most defenders of the PSR have rejected. However, Ross provides a quite interesting exploration of the kind of view one might be driven to if one endorsed this assumption while also endorsing the PSR, and he shows that such a view need not be self-contradictory, at least in any obvious way.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)