Molinism and Creaturely Essences: A Response to James White (Part 1)

Jonathan

Thompson

(The Holistic Apologist)

|

February 5, 2018

To see part 2 click here.

Summary: In an episode of “The Dividing Line” entitled William Lane Craig, the Lowered Bar, Molinism, and Erasmus, James White argues that middle knowledge undermines God’s sovereignty. This essay argues that White’s criticisms either yield trivial conclusions, yield self-undermining premises, imply a viewpoint that is wholly unintelligible, inter alia. In light of these shortcomings, I reconstruct White’s argument in two different ways, attempting to formulate the objection I believe he was attempting to argue. In this essay I demonstrate that these reconstructions of White’s argument both fail.

Video Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esNDmGT3Ew0

Issue 1: James White Poisons the Well Against Molinists Who Might Respond to Him
Prior to critiquing Craig’s response to the soteriological problem of evil, White makes some critical remarks directed towards certain Molinists concerning how they’ve responded to Craig’s article as well as how White anecdotally perceives the way these Molinists are met with criticism. Specifically, White states the following:

“Basically it seems like a number of Molinists are running from what William Lane Craig said in this answer and we’ve documented this many times before. Anytime you make a criticism like this – [this is] my experience with Molinists – they simply say ‘Well, but I have my own understanding’. So many of them are just so into the ‘I’m a student of philosophy’ thing that, you know, they have a hard time coming to any type of conclusion as to what Molinism actually does or does not mean.” (30:13-30:49)

Such a response poisons the well against Molinists that might attempt to respond to James White (such as myself). Prior to explaining why I think this is the case, we should first understand what is meant by “poisoning the well”. For those unfamiliar with this informal fallacy, it occurs when an individual preemptively attempts to discredit another person (or group) to an audience by presenting that audience with adverse information about the opponent(s). Moreover this is done prior to the opponent(s) defending or presenting an idea and this fallacy can occur irrespective of if the information presented about the opponent(s) is/are true.

So with respect to Molinists like myself, it should be noted that I now stand at a rhetorical disadvantage against White, since, should I happen to separate from Craig’s view, then, as White’s comments imply, this could be due to the fact that I am one of those Molinists who is irresolute to begin with. Thus, given White’s negative comments about Molinists, non-Molinists who interact with Molinists like myself have been given a rhetorical reason to not take seriously the conclusions I draw regarding what is and is not essential to Molinism.

That said, since I stand at a rhetorical disadvantage against White, those of us who are rational therefore have good reason to be all the more charitable to the Molinist position as well as be all the more critical of the arguments White provides hereafter. This is so because rationality commands that we interpret those whom we disagree with charitably and that we be persuaded by good arguments rather than by a person’s rhetoric.

Issue 2: James White Poisons the Well Against Molinists Who Might Respond to Him Once More
Following this White repeats the same fallacy by accusing Molinists of deliberately obscuring their theology from laypeople. In particular, White states the following:

“Anyway, it seems to me in the years since [Craig’s article] appeared there have been a number of Molinists [that] have been like ‘Well, no, not really. No.’ And you know why I think it is? I’ll tell you very honestly why I think it is. It’s because Craig’s response was too accessible to the rest of us. It too accurately and fundamentally explains the real issue with Molinism and I think a lot of Molinists like being able to spout their creaturely counterfactual stuff and use all their big words and people are just left going ‘Oh, wow! You’ve done a lot of studying! I’ll just have to believe what you say.” – and just move on from there. I think some of them are like that and Craig sort of left the reservation by pointing some stuff out that most people can understand and go “Oh! Wait a minute! That’s what you mean? Noooo! No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!” (31:25-32:33)

So, according to White, the reason why certain Molinists separate from the view expressed in Craig’s article is really because these Molinists are obscurantists who strive to keep their theology inaccessible from the hoi polloi lest the eminent implausibility of Molinism be exposed. So, at this point, we’ve established that not only has White poisoned the well against certain Molinists by suggesting that they are irresolute concerning what they believe to be essential to Molinism, but White goes even further than this by suggesting that these Molinists are also obscurantists who strive to keep their theology inaccessible to certain groups. Being undaunted by White’s abrasive remarks, in the next sections I shall attempt to engage his argument charitably.

Issue 3: White Misrepresents Middle Knowledge
Following his critical remarks on Molinists, White (presumably) misspeaks so as to mischaracterize middle knowledge. In particular, White states that “. . . middle knowledge is the assertion that God would know what any free creature would do in any given circumstance.” (33:35 -33:49). This is incorrect. Middle knowledge as a view does not assert that God would know what any free creature would do in any given circumstance, rather it is the view that God does, in fact, know what any free creature would do in any given circumstance. As William Lane Craig explains “In this [logical] moment [middle knowledge] God knows what every possible creature would do [not just could do] in any possible set of circumstances.”1 So, in this instance White simply wasn’t careful enough with his wording in his explanation of middle knowledge.

Issue 4: White’s First Argument Against Molinism Is Trivial
Moving forward, it is at this point that White proceeds to give his argument against Molinism. He states:

Well, here’s the problem:. . .Where does middle knowledge come from? It doesn’t come from God’s decree [be]cause that’s afterwards, that’s the other side of the middle part. So, if we’re talking about Bob Smith as a free creature, how can anyone – including God –  have knowledge of what Bob Smith would do in any given situation before God decided to create Bob Smith? Because that would make Bob Smith’s character, his essence, his being something that is determined someone other than God because God hadn’t decreed to create Bob Smith. . . the point is the reason that [God] would know what Bob Smith could do – would do – in any given set of circumstance [on Determinist-Calvinism] is because He’s the creator of the character of Bob Smith otherwise the very essence of that free creature is self-defined or defined by something other than God. (34:11 – 36:08)

I shall now attempt to summarize and generalize White’s argument more succinctly: Molinism stipulates that God’s knowledge of creaturely essences (including knowledge of facts such as what a creature named Bob Smith would freely do in any given circumstance) is logically prior to the divine creative decree. But since this knowledge is logically prior to the divine creative decree, this implies that the essences of free creatures weren’t determined or defined by God’s will, but rather something else. So, we can summarize this argument as follows:

(1) If God possesses middle knowledge, then the creaturely essences of free creatures aren’t determined or defined by God’s will [premise]
(2) God possesses middle knowledge [assumption]
(3) Therefore, the creaturely essences of libertarianly free creatures aren’t determined or defined by God’s will. [Follows from (1)-(2)]

This argument is logically valid, exhibiting a modus ponens structure. Thus, White’s argument is safe from any criticisms regarding its formal validity. Aside from that, however, notice that White’s argument so far is utterly trivial. Why? Because his conclusion so far isn’t that Molinism is false, undermines God’s sovereignty, or anything like that – he does not state that nor does he logically imply that in the previous quotation reproduced above. Rather White’s conclusion is that given Molinism, the creaturely essences of libertarianly free creatures aren’t determined or defined by God’s will – something which Molinists already happily affirm, but Determinist-Calvinists like White would want to deny. In other words, White’s conclusion proves that Molinism is not identical to Determinist-Calvinism – something which is news to neither Molinists nor Determinist-Calvinists. White’s conclusion so far is thus trivial.

Issue 5: White’s Argument, When Taken At Face Value, Is Self-Undercutting & Unintelligible
Following his initial remarks against Molinism White goes on to make some further comments. Unfortunately, in light of the way White presents his criticisms, I can’t adjudicate whether he is attempting to further develop his previous argument or if he’s constructing an entirely separate argument.  For this reason, in this section I shall interpret White’s claims at face value (which end up being irrelevant to his previous argument) while in the preceding section I reinterpret his comments in such a way so that they convey what I believe White was trying to convey. Here are White’s comments:

“. . . [On Molinism] you have God running through all these scenarios and coming up with the world . . . and that world is determined not . . . by God’s will. . . [that particular world] is determined by middle knowledge and God’s freedom is limited to whether he will or will not actualize [the aforementioned world]. And God’s freedom is limited to what His criteria is gonna be. . . As to the events in time, God has no freedom in those things. (38:06). . . the idea of a sovereign decree of God that determines the fabric of time and that ‘I am who I am’ because God made me to be this way: ‘No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no!'” (36:48-38:32)

Notice that this statement is relevantly unlike White’s previous one. In White’s previous statement he argued that Molinism implies that the essence of a free creature isn’t determined by God, but by something non-God. In this new statement, however, White is now claiming that Molinism either asserts or implies (White does not specify) that the actual world is not the result of God’s will, but middle knowledge, which, according to White, “limits God’s freedom to choosing whether he will or will not actualize. . . [a particular world]” and to “what His criteria is gonna be” (e.g. the optimal balance between saved and lost). White’s conclusion (ostensibly) appears to be that because of these factors which delimit God’s freedom, God’s sovereignty has been consequentially undermined such that He cannot even determine the events in time.

What are we to make of this argument? First, it should be understood beforehand that Molinism, as a view, does not assert that the actual, concrete (i.e. causally potent) world isn’t the result of God’s will. Indeed, on Molinism it is analytically true the actual concrete world just is the result of God’s decretive will which is logically posterior to middle knowledge. This is what Molinists call the divine creative decree. White, then, if he is not to misrepresent Molinism will have to argue that Molinism logically implies that the actual concrete world isn’t the result of God’s will. Hereafter, I will assume that White intended to argue this.

Unfortunately, if White did intend to argue that Molinism implies that the actual concrete world isn’t the result of God’s will, then White would contradict this claim with the justification that he provides for it. To demonstrate the point, one of White’s reasons for believing that Molinism implies that the world God chooses to actualize isn’t the result of His will is because middle knowledge “limits God’s freedom to choosing whether he will or will not actualize [a particular world]”. But this quote just does assert that God’s freedom has been delimited in such a way that he has the freedom to will or withhold from willing a particular world. Thus, if God decides to will a particular world, it is, by definition, the result of his will; something which contradicts White’s own premise!

Second, it’s unclear to me how God having the freedom to will or withhold a particular world counts as a sovereignty-undermining limitation of God’s freedom. Indeed, given that God is a free agent, how could His freedom possibly be otherwise? It’s not as if there could be some third option available to Him that doesn’t ultimately collapse in to His choosing to will or refraining from willing a particular world. White’s criticism thus appears to be unintelligible to me since I can’t even conceive how God’s freedom could be otherwise.

In sum, in this section we’ve seen that these latter criticisms made by White undercut themselves or else are wholly unintelligible. Due to the weaknesses of White’s criticisms as he conveys them, in the proceeding section I extend charity to White, recasting his claims in attempt to make White’s previously formulated argument against Molinism non-trivial.

Reconstructing White’s Argument (First Attempt)
At this point I will assume that White didn’t intend to argue that God possessing the freedom to will or refrain from willing a particular world undermines his sovereignty. Instead, I will assume that White meant to argue that Molinism undermines God’s sovereignty because middle knowledge restricts God’s freedom so that He is unable to create creaturely essences when His sovereignty demands that He should be able to do so. Interpreting White in this way has explanatory scope in that it explains why White thought it problematic that God’s inability to create creaturely essences undermines sovereignty. Here, we can summarize White’s argument as follows:

(1) If God possesses middle knowledge, then the creaturely essences of free creatures aren’t determined or defined by God’s will
(2) If the creaturely essences of free creatures aren’t determined or defined by God’s will, then God isn’t sovereign
(3) God possesses middle knowledge
(4) Therefore, the creaturely essences of libertarianly free creatures aren’t determined or defined by God’s will
(5) Therefore, God has no freedom over deciding the events in time
(6) Therefore, God isn’t sovereign

First, we shall address a formal concern. Notice that White’s conclusion that “As to the events in time, God has no freedom in those things”, which we have summarized in premise (5), doesn’t follow logically from any of the argument’s antecedent premises. Thus, premise (5) is a non-sequitur, rendering White’s entire argument formally invalid. We can, however, easily remedy this error simply by omitting (5) so that the argument is formulated as follows:

(1) If God possesses middle knowledge, then the creaturely essences of free creatures aren’t determined or defined by God’s will
(2) If the creaturely essences of free creatures aren’t determined or defined by God’s will, then God isn’t sovereign
(3) God possesses middle knowledge
(4) Therefore, the creaturely essences of libertarianly free creatures aren’t determined or defined by God.
(5) Therefore, God isn’t sovereign

This reformulated argument is logically valid, notwithstanding, premise (1) seems eminently challengeable. Regarding premise (1), notice that White doesn’t even attempt to explain or defend his ontology of creaturely essences. White just assumes that creaturely essences (however, he understands them) are the result of God’s will, thereby implying that these essences exist (as opposed to being merely heuristic devices as anti-realists would claim). White thus begs the question on two accounts in so far as (1) he assumes without argument that creaturely essences are the result of God’s will and that (2) realism is true in so far as White implies that creaturely essences actually exist. Furthermore, since we don’t understand White’s theory of creaturely essences (other than the fact that they apparently exist and are the result of God’s will) I consequently can’t give an analysis regarding whether God failing to create these essences on Molinism undermines His sovereignty. Premise (2) is thus unanalyzable.

To summarize, in this section I attempted to reformulate White’s objection, suggesting that his real worry is that God’s failure to create creaturely essences on Molinism is sovereignty-undermining. As we saw, White’s argument, as he presents it, is actually formally invalid. This led me to reformulate White’s argument so as to exonerate it of any structural concerns regarding its formal validity. This newly constructed argument, however, is unpromising. For we saw that if White meant to perpetuate this reconstructed argument, then he would be begging the question in favor of realism regarding creaturely essences as well as for the notion that creaturely essences are the result of God’s decretive will. This reconstructed argument is thus unsuccessful.

Reconstructing White’s Argument (Second Attempt)
So far we’ve seen that White has communicated his concerns about Molinism inarticulately. To give examples, we’ve seen that he’s presented arguments that are logically invalid, has presented concepts that are unintelligible, inter alia. This makes me wonder whether White attempted to convey a different argument altogether but simply mishandled his presentation of it. As it so happens, White’s argument sounds eerily similar to another popular objection leveled against Molinism. Perhaps it is this objection which White meant to articulate. For the sake of argument let’s assume that it is this popular objection White meant to communicate.

Now according to this popular objection, Molinism stipulates that the truth-value of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are logically prior to God’s divine creative decree. Since their truth value is logically prior to the divine creative decree, then it follows that their truth value is not caused by God (i.e. they are not the result of His decretive will). However, this is not the case on Determinist-Calvinism. For on Determinist-Calvinism God causes the counterfactuals concerning a deterministic individual’s choices (not to be confused with a counterfactual of creaturely freedom) to have a truth-value. Thus, Molinism would seem to undermine God’s omnipotence in so far as it places a restriction on his freedom with respect to His deciding the truth-value of an agent’s counterfactual decisions in a way that Determinist-Calvinism does not.

Is this argument successful? Not at all. To demonstrate the point, suppose someone were to object to orthodox Christianity by claiming that it undermines God’s omnipotence because orthodox Christianity limits God’s freedom such that He cannot perform evil. Now, orthodox Christianity conceives of God as being a morally perfect being essentially. That is to say there is no possible world according to which God’s morally perfect nature is otherwise. Moreover, omnipotence, orthodoxly conceived, only requires God possess the ability to actualize metaphysically possible states of affairs. Since God is morally perfect across all possible worlds, it follows that there is no possible world in which God performs evil. Thus, a world according to which God commits evil actually represents a metaphysically impossible states of affairs. Therefore, orthodox Christianity does not undermine God’s omnipotence by not permitting him to do evil, since, as we’ve discussed, omnipotence does not require that God be able to perform the metaphysically impossible.

Now compare this response to the objection to Molinism we’re considering. The objection claims that Molinism undermines God’s omnipotence because it limits God’s freedom such that He cannot cause counterfactuals of creaturely freedom to have a truth value. Now, libertarianism which is a necessary condition for Molinism requires that, in order for an action to be free, it cannot be (sufficiently) caused2 by anything other than the agent themselves. Thus, if God were to causally determine a counterfactual of creaturely freedom to have a truth value, it would cease to be a counterfactual of creaturely freedom since it is analytically true that these types of counterfactuals concern an agent’s libertarianly free choices. Thus, it is metaphysically impossible for a counterfactual of creaturely freedom to remain such and have its truth value (sufficiently) caused by anything other than the agent themselves. Moreover, as we have already discussed, omnipotence only requires that God be able to actualize metaphysically possible states of affairs. Hence, if God desires to create a world of libertarianly free creatures, as Molinism maintains, it will be metaphysically impossible for the counterfactuals of creaturely freedom which are entailed by that world to be (sufficiently) caused by God. Therefore, Molinism does not undermine God’s omnipotence because omnipotence does not require that God be able to perform metaphysically impossible tasks such as creating a libertarianly free world whose counterfactuals of creaturely freedom have their truth value caused by God.

Also, for what it’s worth, Molinism does not assert that it’s metaphysically impossible for God to actualize certain worlds where unilateral divine causal determinism obtains. This means that the Molinist can happily agree (at least to some extent)3 with the Determinist-Calvinist that God can cause the counterfactuals concerning a deterministic agent’s choices to have a truth value.

Addressing the Universal Possibilist Counterresponse
At this point I will address a potential counterresponse White might give to the second reformulation of the argument. One potential way White could respond to this argument is by affirming a view known as universal possibilism which is “the doctrine that there are no necessary truths”.4 On this view, God could have brought it about that even logical contradictions be true and tautologies be false. So, for example, on universal possibilism it would not be necessarily true that a triangle is three-sided or that God is identical to Himself. Rather, on this view, God can and does decree the truth value of all truths simpliciter.

Fortunately, universal possibilism is easy to refute. For we may ask White if the proposition “There are no necessary truths” is necessarily true? If he responds ‘yes’, then universal possibilism is self-refuting since the proposition “It is necessarily true that there are no necessary truths” is itself a necessary truth. If White responds ‘no’, then that entails that it’s possible there are necessary truths, but if it’s possible that necessary truths exist, then that also entails necessary truths exist in some possible world. Furthermore, if it’s possible that necessary truths exist in some possible world, then it also follows that necessary truths exist in every possible world – for that is entailed by what it means to be necessary. Even further, if necessary truths exist in every possible world, then it follows that necessary truths exist in the actual world – for the actual world just is a possible world. Therefore, necessary truths exist in the actual world.5 Universal possibilism is thus untenable.

Lightning Round: Addressing White’s Tangential Comments
Moving forward, the final points we shall address are White’s tangential comments related to Molinism. To address one, at one point he asks “Where does middle knowledge come from?”(34:42-34:43) An illustration may help elucidate my response to this question: Suppose someone were to ask you “Where does the logical moment of natural knowledge come from?” The answer to that question is that this logical moment didn’t come from anywhere, but rather is possessed by God intrinsically as a part of his supercomprehension. To therefore ask the question where the moment of natural knowledge came from therefore betrays the fact that the interlocutor has not understood the concept of natural knowledge since the questioner fails to understand that natural knowledge is essential to God’s ontology. Similarly, with respect to the logical moment of middle knowledge, Molinists have always maintained that this logical moment is an essential property of God which is possessed by Him intrinsically as a part of his supercomprehension.

Notice, moreover, that it isn’t question begging for the Molinist to just assume that God possesses this logical moment essentially. For White’s question is itself an internal one, attempting to inquire if the Molinist framework can account for God’s possessing the logical moment of middle knowledge.6

Perhaps then, White simply expressed himself poorly. Maybe he instead meant to ask where the content of God’s middle knowledge is derived. Where does, for example, God’s knowledge of the fact that Wolfgang Grimmer would freely do action, a, at time, t, in a fully specified set of circumstances, c, originate? The answer is that it is derived from the agent’s decision itself, which is logically prior, but chronologically posterior to God’s foreknowledge. In other words, the fact that God middle knows that Grimmer would freely do a at t, in c, originates from the fact that if Grimmer were put in c, he would freely do a at t.

Next, White also makes the comment that “William Lane Craig has said that there’s no possible world where everyone would be saved” (36:18-36:24). This is demonstrably false. Nowhere has Craig claimed that there is no possible world in which everyone is saved. In fact, White cites no sources supporting his claim. What Craig has, in fact, said is the following:

“I think that there certainly are logically possible worlds in which everyone freely places his faith in Christ and so is saved. What I’ve said is that, for all we know, such worlds may not be feasible for God to actualize (or, if some are, they may have overriding deficiencies that make them less preferable).”7

As this quote evinces, Craig has stated his position clearly so as to leave no room for misinterpretation. The fact that White would misrepresent Craig in light of Craig’s eminent clarity speaks all the more to the areas in which White needs improvement.

Finally, White states that “The whole idea of middle knowledge is to protect the autonomous nature, the autonomous will of man”. (36:43-36:48) This is just historically inaccurate. As Kirk MacGregor, who is perhaps world’s leading scholar on Luis de Molina has noted in his autobiography on Molina, “Molina maintained that the Bible just as emphatically teaches an extremely strong conception of divine sovereignty as it teaches libertarian human freedom, entailing the responsibility of humans for their actions.”8 The motivation behind the doctrine of middle knowledge, then, just isn’t only to preserve libertarian freedom, but also God’s sovereignty, harmonizing both horns in such a way that is biblically faithful.

That said, I’m not aware of any historical scholar of Molinism who would argue the contrary. In fact, White cites no scholarship to substantiate his own claim about middle knowledge. So, given that we’ve already seen in the first two sections of this essay that White has no problem with launching personal attacks against Molinists, perhaps then White’s comment about middle knowledge was simply his attempt to make Molinists look even worse.

Conclusion
To conclude, we saw that White’s argument against Molinism left something to be desired. We saw that a prima facie interpretation of White’s argument yielded concepts which were self-undercutting and unintelligible. Because of these shortcomings I reformulated White’s argument twice, attempting to capture what I believe he was attempting to convey. The first reformulation of his argument attempted to demonstrate that Molinism undermines God’s sovereignty since Molinism appears to be incompatible with the idea that God creates creaturely essences. We saw that this argument was unsuccessful because its adherent begs the question in favor of the idea that creaturely essences actually exist and are creations of God. It also fails in so far as its adherent fails to articulate their theory of creaturely essences. The second reformulation of White’s argument attempted to show that Molinism undermines God’s omnipotence because Molinism places an unnecessary constraint on God’s freedom such that He cannot cause counterfactuals of creaturely freedom to have a truth value. We saw that this second objection errs because it entails that God should be able to actualize a metaphysically impossible state of affairs according to which the counterfactual choices of libertarianly free agents are caused by God (and thus aren’t libertarianly free choices). In short, despite my various attempts to interpret White charitably, I’ve found all of these interpretations of his argument to be utterly lacking. Molinism thus emerges unscathed from White’s criticisms.


Notes

1William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God, p. 130

2By ’caused’ I am referring to the concept of strong actualization. For those unfamiliar with this Molinist jargon, on the Molinist schema God causes a state of affairs to be strongly actualized when He causes that state of affairs to obtain through a direct exercise of His causal power. In contrast, God weakly actualizes a state of affairs when he causes it to obtain by placing an individual in circumstances such that He knew how that individual would freely respond. Molinism is consistent with God causing an agent’s choices in the sense of His weakly actualizing them.

3I say “to some extent” because although I believe that there are metaphysically possible worlds where unilateral divine causal determinism obtains, I am nevertheless skeptical that there are worlds where this obtains and God holds these agents morally responsible for their actions.

4William Lane Craig & JP Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (2nd Edition), p. 233

5This argument is adapated from William Lane Craig & JP Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (2nd Edition), p. 233

6For an explanation of the differences between internal critiques see my article on the subject located here: http://freethinkingministries.com/the-difference-between-internal-external-critiques/

7https://www.reasonablefaith.org/question-answer/P30/should-god-create-simulations-of-reality

8Kirk R. MacGregor,Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge, (p. 106). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Tagged with:
Share:

About the Author

Jonathan

Thompson

(The Holistic Apologist)

Learn More