Why Molinism Can’t Meet the Grounding Objection

By | December 3, 2021

This post has three parts: To begin, I will (§1) explain what Molinism is. I will then (§2) explain the infamous “grounding” objection to Molinism. I will argue that Molinism cannot give a positive answer to the grounding objection. The Molinist simply has to bite the bullet and admit a boatload of ungrounded contingent truths and/or brute facts. I will then (§3) give a brief additional reason why the Molinist needs God’s “middle knowledge” to be ungrounded. So that this post doesn’t become too long, in a follow-up post I will consider several Molinist proposals for how to meet the grounding objection and argue that none of them comes remotely close to defusing the objection.

§1. Molinism (briefly) explained

The term “Molinism” comes from Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina (1535–1600), who sought to understand how God could exercise meticulous providence without compromising human  libertarian freedom. His solution centered around the novel idea that God has middle knowledge (MK). MK is somewhat tricky to explain. I’ll try to break it down. Firstly, MK is non-natural in the sense that it is not grounded in God’s nature. By knowing His own nature, God knows everything that is absolutely necessary (what must be, e.g., 1+1=2) and everything that is absolutely possible (what could be, e.g., what His omnipotence can accomplish). But MK deals with hypothetical contingent truths (what would be if …) that are independent of God’s nature. Secondly, MK is pre-volitional in the sense that God’s MK is explanatorily prior to any contingent act of God’s will, including God’s free decision to create. Thirdly, because MK is independent of both God’s nature and God’s contingent will, it constrains God’s options with respect to creation. MK makes many things that are “possible” in terms of God’s innate omnipotent power inaccessible to God because he can’t bring about, directly or indirectly, anything that conflicts with His MK. Finally, God uses this MK to inform His decision about what sort of world, if any, to create. And because (according to Molinists) God has exhaustive MK of all hypothetical contingent truths, He can exercise meticulous control over every detail of creation throughout it’s entire history subject only to the constraints that MK places on God’s options.

For purposes of my presentation of the grounding objection it’s not necessary for me to say anything specific about what the contents of God’s MK look like. The most important points are that MK is (a) non-natural, (b) contingent, and (c) pre-volitional. But for those who may care about the fine details, I’ll say a little bit more (feel free to skip the next paragraph if you just want to get on with the grounding objection).

As to the content of God’s MK, it assigns determinate truth values to all conditional future contingents (CFCs). A CFC specifies for some internally consistent and fully causally specified indeterministic scenario (S) and some outcome (O) that is causally contingent with respect to that scenario, either that O would occur if S or that O would not occur if S. For example, suppose S involves Bob’s being about to make a free choice between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. For S to be “fully causally specified” its antecedent has to specific all causally relevant information including Bob’s motives and deliberations up the very moment before Bob’s choice. If we assume that chocolate and vanilla are Bob’s only options (he can’t abstain and he can’t have both), then the Molinist would say that either <If S were realized then Bob would freely choose chocolate> or <If S were realized then Bob would freely choose vanilla> is true. Furthermore, says the Molinist, there are true conditionals of this sort for any internally consistent and fully causally specified indeterministic scenario and any partition of causally contingent outcomes given such a scenario. So, for example, we could replace Bob in the ice cream scenario with any other hypothetical individual (Mary, Peter, etc.), changing only what needs changing to reflect that individual’s causal history, and there would be (says the Molinist) a determinate truth as to what that individual would freely do in the revised scenario. (As an aside, most discussions of Molinism focus on so-called “counterfactuals of creaturely freedom” or CCFs. But focusing exclusively on creaturely freedom is too narrow. To support God’s having meticulous providence, MK needs to provide God determinate information about the outcomes of every conceivable indeterministic scenario, even those that do not involve free will, such as, say, quantum-level events. That’s why I explicate Molinism in terms of CFCs rather than in terms of CCFs.)

§2. The grounding objection to MK

With respect to MK, we’re already said that MK is contingent, independent of both God’s nature and His contingent will, and explanatorily prior to the existence of any creation (since God uses MK in deciding whether and what to create). The question naturally arises: Where do all of these contingent hypothetical truths come from? How can such things even BE true?

To focus these questions, it will be helpful to talk about what grounding normally requires. A widely accepted principle is that truth supervenes on being (TSB). TSB includes two claims: a concrete difference principle and an explanatory priority principle. The concrete difference principle says that for any contingent truth P, reality must be relevantly and concretely different if P is true than it would be if P is false. The explanatory priority principle says that for any contingently true P, concrete reality is explanatorily prior to P’s being true. So defined, TSB seems very intuitive and commonsensical. In fact, it’s arguably entailed by the correspondence theory of truth. For example, if <a cat is on a mat> is true, then according to TSB it is true in virtue of concrete reality being as, or corresponding to, what the proposition describes, namely, there must be a cat and a mat and the two must be spatially related such that the cat is “on” the mat. If that proposition were not true, but false, then TSB tells us that concrete reality would have to be appropriately different—it would have to lack either cats, mats, or cats-positioned-onwise-with-respect-to-mats. In general, it is the configuration of concrete reality that determines what’s contingently true and what’s contingently false.

Now consider an arbitrary contingent hypothetical P, where P = <If S then O would (indeterministically) occur>. Let’s suppose that P is part of God’s middle knowledge (MK) and that P is true. Since P is contingent (i.e., the antecedent doesn’t entail the consequent), TSB applies. So, by TSB, we need a concrete (i.e., non-abstract) ground for P. What part of concrete reality would be different if P were false rather than true? An initial thought might be that something in creation could ground it. But, no, that won’t work, for P to be part of MK its truth-value has to be available to God pre-volitionally and thus independently of whether there is any creation at all. So we need a concrete, pre-volitional ground for P. But apart from creation (and any contingent divine volitions) it seems that the only concrete reality is God’s self-exemplification of the divine nature. Perhaps the Molinist might try to invoke the concrete property-instance God’s pre-volitionally knowing that P. But this won’t work. If God pre-volitionally knows that P, He does so because P is true. To suggest that P is true because God’s knows it gets the explanatory order exactly backwards. So all we’re left with is God’s divine nature and His exemplification thereof. But if P were grounded in God’s nature, then P would be part of God’s natural knowledge. That’s impossible for two reasons: (a) MK is explicitly non-natural, i.e., independent of God’s nature. (b) If P were grounded in God’s nature then it couldn’t be contingently true. As a necessary being, God’s nature is necessarily exemplified in every possible world, and so any truths grounded in God’s nature have to be just as necessary as God is.

Since we’ve exhausted the possible options, it follows that there can be no grounded contingent pre-volitional truths. Hence, the only way there can be MK is if it is ungrounded. The consistent Molinist should simply admit that the truths of God’s MK, assuming they exist, are just brute facts. But that’s deeply counterintuitive and thus counts heavily (I would say decisively) against Molinism. I mean, if MK can be ungrounded, then why can’t other truths as well? Should we just jettison TSB and truth as correspondence altogether? If some contingent truths can simply “float free” of reality, then the whole truth–reality connection is severely undermined. Moreover, to say that these free-floating contingent truths somehow constrain the creative options of an almighty God is to runs completely counter to the theological doctrine of God’s aseity. It makes God in some respects more like a Demiurge than a sovereign Creator. He must simply do the best He can with the external constraints that He finds Himself with.

Many Molinists have tried to blunt the objection by proposing various “grounds” for MK. But all of these proposals either (a) conflict with the need for MK to be contingent, pre-volitional, and non-natural, (b) fail to ground by not supplying sufficient conditions for the truth of MK, or (c) invoke some kind of abstract entity as grounds, which violates TSB and merely pushes the grounding question back a step. In a follow-up post I will canvass most of these replies and show that they are, without exception, egregiously bad. The more I think about Molinism the more convinced I become that it’s nothing but a theoretical house of cards built on a pile of shifting sand.

§3. Molinists need MK to be ungrounded

I’ll close with a brief final thought. If, somehow, MK were grounded, then whatever grounds it could take over all of the explanatory functions that MK is supposed to have. In other words, if <If S then O would (indeterministically) occur> were prevolitionally grounded in, say, fact F, then we wouldn’t really need MK at all. We could do the same work by talking about how F and its ilk constrain and inform God creative options. So if MK were grounded, then the theoretical posit of MK would become an unnecessary third wheel. It might still be more convenient to speak in terms of MK, but the real explanatory work would be done by the grounding realities and not by MK.

2 thoughts on “Why Molinism Can’t Meet the Grounding Objection

  1. Pingback: A Quick Refutation of Molinism – Open Future

  2. Pingback: Evaluating Molinist Strategies for Meeting the Grounding Objection – Open Future

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