Responding to Craig and Hunt (Part 4 – the semantic argument)

By | January 19, 2015


This is the fourth installment in a series of posts in which I respond to a recent 2013 paper entitled “Perils of the Open Road” authored by William Lane Craig and David Hunt (hereafter, C&H). In their paper C&H critique two papers defending open theism: a 2006 paper (hereafter, RBB) that I co-wrote with Greg Boyd and Tom Belt entitled “Open Theism, Omniscience, and the Nature of the Future” and a 2007 paper (hereafter, DT) by Dale Tuggy entitled “Three Roads to Open Theism.”

In part 1 of this series I laid some groundwork by defining key terms like “open theism” and “future contingent” and distinguishing between different types of future contingent proposition (FCP). In part 2 I examined C&H’s dismissive discussion of arguments for the incompatibility of future contingency with an epistemically settled future. In part 3 I replied to C&H’s criticisms of RBB’s and DT’s use of branching diagrams to depict an indeterministic future.

In this part I reply to C&H’s criticisms of RBB’s “semantic” argument for the incompatibility thesis (IT), the claim that a causally open future entails an alethically open future. As we will see, their criticisms largely miss the mark.

Overview of the semantic argument

The semantic argument is developed on pp. 438-446 of RBB. (In a subsequent paper, “The Philosophical Case for Open Theism” I refine the argument a bit.) The main contention is that when used assertively in a genuinely predictive manner, the future tense marker “will” carries a significant degree of causal force, such that the predictor must regard occurrence of the predicted event as more likely than not. The basic argument for this contention turns on the principle of charity, a fundamental interpretive principle which says that if someone says something that, when taken at face value, it seems to us they are not in a good epistemic position to assert, then we should not automatically assume that they are saying something stupid, irrational, or otherwise unassertible for them. Rather, we should be charitable and give them the benefit of the doubt by trying to construe what they say in such a way that either (1) they are not making an assertion or (2) they are asserting a claim other than the face-value one, a claim that would be assertible for them, or (3) reassess our opinion of their epistemic position—perhaps they have, or think they have, inside knowledge or evidence that makes the face-value claim assertible.

For example, if a person says, “The Cubs will win the next World Series” we might rightly wonder how they could be in a good position to assert this given the Cubs’ well-known and rather disappointing post-season track record. The principle of charity says that before we conclude that they are irrationally clinging to an unfounded belief in the Cubs’ prospects, we should first consider the possibilities that (1) they aren’t speaking assertorically—maybe they are just joking or making a performative utterance like placing a bet, or (2) they are really asserting something else—maybe they are using the word “win” in a loose or metaphorical sense (e.g., the Cubs will play hard enough all season to earn a kind of “moral” victory such that they’ll deserve to win the World Series even if they don’t in fact), or (3) they have inside evidence (e.g., scouting reports) that if known would make a Cubs’ victory seem probable, or at least highly likely.

If this is right, then ordinary predictive claims do not satisfy the Ockhamist semantics favored by C&H. According to the Ockhamist to assert that an event will happen is just to say that it subsequently happens without connoting that the event is in any degree likely to happen (other than that it’s probability is non-zero).

In polar opposition to the Ockhamist semantics is the Peircean semantics according to which to assert that something will happen is to say that it is inevitable or now-unpreventable. In RBB we do not argue that ordinary predictive claims satisfy a Peircean semantics. Rather, we argue that ordinary usage is closer to a Peircean semantics than to an Ockhamist semantics, and since we need a systematic way of construing the causal force of predictions if we’re going to place metaphysical weight on the truth values of predictive propositions about the future, a Peircean semantics is more fitting. Moreover, such a semantics yields the result that will and will not propositions about future contingents are uniformly false.

Against this line of argument C&H raise several objections.

1. RBB are inconsistent regarding colloquial usage and causal force

In the first place, C&H seem to think (pp. 62-64) that we inconsistently affirm both (1) that colloquial predictive uses of “will” can express a wide range of degrees of causal force, and (2) that such uses express maximal causal force in accordance with the Peircean semantics. But there is no inconsistency here, for we don’t affirm (2). What we say, rather, is that colloquial usage is closer to the Peircean semantics than it is to the Ockhamist semantics and thus that for philosophical purposes we should regiment future-tense propositions in a Peircean manner, using weakening qualifiers like “probably” when non-maximal causal force is intended.

If there were examples of genuinely predictive uses of “will” that conformed to the Ockhamist semantics, then C&H would have a good case for arguing that philosophical regimentation ought to go in the Ockhamist direction. But if our argument is correct, there aren’t any such examples. C&H, at any rate, don’t supply any.

2. RBB conflate probability with causal necessity

In a footnote on p. 64 C&H charge that we conflate probability with causal necessity and contingency. They say,

Probability has to do with the expectations of a perfectly rational agent, and these expectations may be based on something other than causal determinism. A time traveler, for example, may be certain of the future (it has a probability of 1.0 relative to his background beliefs) despite its causal indeterminacy.

There are three problems with this criticism. First, there are several different ways in which the term “probability” is used, the most common being to express frequencies, chances (i.e., propensities or objective tendencies), and credences (i.e., degrees of belief). It is simply false to say that probability tout court has to do with the expectations of a perfectly rational agent. That is one type of probability, namely, probability construed as idealized rational credence, but it is certainly not the only type. Second, the relevant type of probability for our argument is not idealized rational credence but chance, of which it is true that something now has probability 1.0 of coming to pass if and only if it is inevitable or now-unpreventable that it come to pass. Third, the counterexample presupposes the metaphysical possibility of forward and backward time-travel, something that is notoriously controversial, and which presupposes a linear block ontology of time that itself raises fatalistic worries.

3. RBB beg the question

On p. 64 C&H charge that the semantic argument “begs the question against the traditional position on divine foreknowledge” because

If God’s omniscience includes future contingent truths, as the tradition maintains, then such truths are rationally assertible for God; to deny this, on no better grounds than that human beings are not in a position to rationally assert them, simply presupposes the falsity of the traditional doctrine of divine foreknowledge.

This charge misses the point. Of course propositions may be rationally assertible for God that aren’t rationally assertible for humans. That’s true simply because God has access to a much wider evidence-base than humans do. But the semantic argument doesn’t rest on any assumptions about human limitations. It rests solely on the idea that to rationally assert a prediction one must believe the predicted event to be more likely than not, and this is true regardless of who the predictor is.

4. RBB overlook restrictions on the principle of charity

C&H next charge that for the semantic argument to work we must show that “all predictive ‘will’ statements should be assigned a Peircean meaning” (p. 64), a very strong conclusion that considerations of rational assertibility are too weak to establish because the principle of charity does not apply in the case of first-person utterances or “when the person’s meaning is already clear or subject to clarification” (p. 64). In the first-person case we don’t need it, they say, because we can know directly what we mean when we say that something “will” happen. In the “already clear” case we don’t need it because the meaning is readily apparent.

Consider a roulette player who asserts, “The ball will land on 20.” … [S]uppose we question him about his assertion. “I just know,” he replies. At some point we have to take this person at his word. There is no opening here for invoking rational assertibility. (pp. 64-65)

In response I reemphasize, first, that we obviously do not argue that “all predictive ‘will’ statements should be assigned a Peircean meaning” since we point out that predictive uses of “will” can have a range of degrees of causal force. Our recommendation to apply the Peircean semantics is limited to philosophical contexts. The point is that if we want to get metaphysical mileage out of the assumption that certain “will” or “will not” propositions about the future are true, then we have to control for variations in causal force because otherwise we won’t know precisely what such propositions commit us to. Since the Peircean semantics is closer to colloquial usage than is the Ockhamist semantics, it makes more sense to regiment in that direction.

Second, even if in certain circumstances we don’t need to apply the principle of charity to arrive at a reasonable interpretation of what is said, rational assertibility remains an applicable norm. In the first person case we can imagine the person who confidently said “I just know” pausing to reflect on how, exactly, he does know. If such reflection reveals something—a strong subjective sense of the event’s having a high chance of occurring, perhaps—that he believes to be strongly correlated with the event’s having a high chance of occurring, then his assertion is rational and it implicitly carries a high degree of causal force. If, on the other hand, reflection reveals nothing that he believes to be an indicator of the event’s having a high chance of occurring, then he should withdraw the assertion and admit frankly that he doesn’t know that the ball will land on 20. Knowledge, nearly everyone agrees, precludes luck. You can’t properly claim to know something while thinking you just lucked into getting it right.

Finally, taking a person “at his word” does not mean that we shouldn’t ourselves go on to ask how that person could be in a position to claim knowledge on the matter. It would not be improper for us to think to ourselves that if so-and-so knows this, then he must have epistemic access to something that indicates the event is highly likely to occur, for if he didn’t, then his getting it right would be mere luck or coincidence, which is insufficient for knowledge.

5. RBB’s application of the principle of charity has absurd consequences

On p. 65, C&H charge that if our argument for a Peircean semantics based on the principle of charity were sound, then “many will-statements that would ordinarily be regarded as true will instead turn out false.” It is “ironic,” they say, that “rational assertibility—a principle of hermeneutical charity—[should yield] a semantics under which certain statements are more likely to end up false.”

In response, I introduce a distinction between what is strictly true, or true without qualification, and what is practically true, or true enough for practical purposes. Lots of common “truisms” fall into the latter category: “All cows eat grass,” “The sky is blue,” “Haste makes waste” (cf. “He who hesitates is lost”), “Honesty is the best policy,” etc. They aren’t strictly true—it is not hard to come up with clear counterexamples—but they are true enough to be assertible in the contexts in which people are most likely to utter those expressions. “The ground here is flat,” someone says. Is he saying that it’s really flat, that it’s absolutely flat? No. He’s saying it’s flat enough for current practical purposes. We don’t and shouldn’t expect ordinary language to reflect logically rigorous standards of clarity and precision. Striving for such clarity and precision would be far too onerous in most contexts. It would also be exceedingly obnoxious to object to ordinary language assertions because they aren’t strictly true (“The ground’s not flat, you idiot—look, there’s a little anthill over there!”).

In sum, then, the mere fact that a semantic theory (Peirceanism, in this case) entails that many statements that would “ordinarily” be “regarded” as “true” are not strictly true is innocuous. Indeed, it’s a desideratum. In light of the pervasive and practically unavoidable semantic looseness of much ordinary language, it would be a pretty poor semantic theory that didn’t have that entailment.

C&H’s remark about irony rests on a misunderstanding of what the principle of charity is for. Its purpose is not to make as many statements as possible come out as “true”, either strictly or practically speaking. The principle of charity is a principle of interpretation, not a principle of truth. One doesn’t have to suppose that what people say is even remotely true in order to understand what they’re saying. The purpose of the principle of charity is to keep us from dismissing a person’s statements too quickly as irrational, absurd, or obviously false. It tells us that if the most straightforward interpretation of a person’s statement would commit them to saying something that seems rationally unassertible for them in the context, then we should either (a) consider other possible interpretations, figurative ones perhaps, that would be rationally assertible for them, (b) consider whether the speaker might have other beliefs that would make the original statement rationally assertible for them, or (c) consider whether the person’s utterance is best construed, not as a statement, but as some other kind of speech act.

6. RBB are wrong that rational assertions require maximal probability

C&H continue their barrage:

[E]ven if we granted the authors’ astonishing contention that rational assertions should be assigned a probability of 1.0, there would still be circumstances in which what are in fact future contingent propositions will be rationally asserted. Having rigged the roulette wheel, our gambler may rationally believe that the ball’s landing on 20 is not only probable but guaranteed. His prediction passes the rational assertibility test. But if a freak martini spill causes the gizmo rigging the wheel to short out, then if the ball still lands on 20, as it might, what the gambler asserted was a true future contingent. (p. 65)

This charge is part straw man, part question-begging, and thoroughly confused.

In the first place, it’s not clear what C&H mean by “probability” here. In a footnote noted under section 2 above, they express the view that all probability is epistemic, a matter of the “expectations of a perfectly rational agent.” But their example of the roulette wheel and the ball’s being “guaranteed” to land on 20 suggests that they are thinking about probability here in terms of objective chance or propensity. In any case, they are simple wrong in attributing to RBB any such “contention” as that “rational assertions should be assigned a probability of 1.0.” Not only do we not say such a thing, we make repeatedly clear in our paper that rational assertibility only requires that the speaker believe the proposition asserted to be more likely true than not (RBB, pp. 442ff.).

In the second place, C&H take for granted that the class of future contingent propositions is limited to claims about what either categorically will or categorically will not occur. But this is an unjustified assumption, and one we do not share. (Cf. Part 1 of this series, where I introduced a distinction between DFCP’s and IFCP’s.) Furthermore, we don’t deny that future contingent propositions can be rationally asserted. Sure they can. “There is high probability that the Patriots will win Super Bowl XLIX” is a defensible future-oriented claim about what is presumably a future contingent event.

In the third place, that the roulette ball does still land on 20 despite the martini spill’s shorting out the mechanism that was supposed to “guarantee” that the ball lands on 20 does not entail that the prediction “The ball will land on 20” was true when it was made. We spend several pages in RBB explicitly arguing against any such entailment (esp. pp. 444–445). For C&H, therefore, to assert this as an example of a “true” future contingent is simply question-begging.

7. RBB cannot accommodate settled aspects of the future

Finally, C&H argue (pp. 65–66) that RBB can’t account for paradigm examples of causally settled aspects of the future like “The sun will rise tomorrow.” Their argument is that because of God’s freedom there aren’t any causally settled aspects of the future:

Since God is free, then barring limitations (e.g., promises) he has imposed on himself, nothing about the future is causally settled, for God could annihilate the world tomorrow. So there won’t be any true statements about the future. This makes havoc of their claim to be providing the most plausible interpretation of colloquial usage, since such usage is filled with claims about the future. (p. 66)

But why should any Christian theist believe that God is “free” is this radical sense? Why would the God who in Jesus died to save the world from sin and death regard the abrupt annihilation of the Earth as an open option? At any rate, it’s unclear why ordinary language claims about the future must regard this as a salient possibility. As we argue in RBB, rational assertibility requires that the speaker believe that predicted events are more likely to occur than not. So even if one regards abrupt divine annihilation as possible, so long as one doesn’t think it’s probable, one can still make genuine predictions.


Based on their scattershot barrage of objections against RBB’s semantic argument for a Peircean semantics, C&H claim to have shown that the semantic argument is an “unqualified failure” (p. 66). It seems to me that that description is much more accurate when applied to their own objections against the semantic argument.

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