A Response to the Grounding Objection: Adams, Zambrano, and Cowen—the Contemporary Debate on Molinism

By John A. Limanto


June 19, 2018

Abstract: The grounding objection (GO) looms large as the principal objection against Molinism. Among the two main types of GOs lie the truthmaker-style GO that seeks to repudiate the Molinist claim of the truths of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCF) by virtue of the lack of metaphysical groundings of those CCFs. As will be demonstrated in this paper, the grounding principles brought up can be answered satisfactorily by the Molinists.

Suppose someone were to come to you, blaming you for your recent behavioural lapses, and—even after your apology—remark, “I don’t believe that you would have done differently!” You might be taken aback by such a radical statement! Surely, we can easily conceive of us having done differently. Take one step further and consider if your detractor says, “I don’t believe that there is a possibility for there to be a fact of what anyone freely does in different circumstances!” The last statement will strike you as even odder. Surely enough, we can conceive, at least, that there are such facts about what any free creature would do in different circumstances.

Given the proliferation of literature on the model of divine omniscience called Molinism, there have spawned many literature written against Molinism as well. Championing over all the other objections against Molinism is one by the name of the “Grounding Objection” (GO). Molinism, as a model, maintains that God knew, before his volitions, what every creature would freely do in different circumstances. In rough summary, GO brings up the following question:

What would make counterfactuals of freedom of the form “If placed in circumstances C, the agent will freely do A” true before the agents themselves act? Such counterfactuals are not true of necessity, as we have seen. Nor are they true by virtue of the laws of nature. Nor are they true because God willed them to be true.1

The emphasis of GO is the objection: “there is nothing that makes counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (‘CCF’) true” As has been exposited earlier, the core of Molinism is a knowledge that God possesses of what every possible creature would do freely in different circumstances. As will be assumed in this essay, the kind of freedom that we are concerned about is a freedom by the name of “libertarian free will” (LFW). LFW, in short, is a form of incompatibilism that maintains that free will is incompatible with determinism, determinism is false, and that free will exists. One main (although not necessary) corollary of LFW is “PAP” (principle of alternative possibilities) whereby creatures have the ability to do an action a or not-a. The type of knowledge that Molinism posits in God is called “middle knowledge” and may be expressed as subjunctive conditionals2—otherwise known as “counterfactuals.” When the particular counterfactual is used to express decisions that a creature would freely do, it is called a counterfactual of creaturely freedom (‘CCF’). Therefore, the objection posits that it is impossible to give an account of what makes CCFs true and therefore, the idea of CCF should be repudiated.

The two main types of the grounding objections are the truthmaker-style GO and the causal-style grounding objection. Within this essay, we will confine ourselves to the truthmaker-style GO as formulated by Adams. The main thesis of this essay is that the two main ways that proponents of GO have posited the GO—through truthmaker theory or through explanatory priority—are demonstrably erroneous. I hope to accomplish this by dissecting each argument and providing my rebuttal in each section.

Grounding Objection (GO) Stated and Refuted
When Robert M. Adams posits one of the earliest known form of GO, he brings up the objection that there is nothing to which CCFs may correspond to for its truth.3 After having exposited on middle knowledge, he retorts, “I do not understand what it would be for any [CCFs] to be true, given that the actions in question would have been free, and that David did not stay in Keilah.”4 He continues on to explain his incomprehension through that middle knowledge is not “foreknowledge.”5 Adams explains that “[propositions of foreknowledge] can be true by corresponding to the actual occurrence of the events that they predict.”6 Yet, middle knowledge cannot be corresponded in the same way because the events both in the antecedent and the consequent may not even occur. Second, middle knowledge may also not be grounded in logical or causal necessity because that will destroy LFW and reduce itself to determinism. Third, even worse, CCFs may also not be grounded in the agent’s intentions or desires because according to LFW, not even those can determine the actions of an agent. Thus, we are back with Adams’ incomprehension.

Adams’ first formulation of the grounding objection is unique as it focuses on the correspondence of CCFs to some entity that then can be used as metaphysical ground to the CCF. Setting aside that the objection was not robustly developed by Adams, the objection may further be built upon by considering further possibilities on the grounding principle that Adams could have meant in support for his argument:

(1) For any contingent proposition p, there must be an entity x that exists and corresponds to p by which p is true

However, easily, (1) is implausible to be what Adams had meant because Adams had earlier talked about the correspondence to logical or causal necessities that, in no way, are entities in themselves. Even if this is what Adams had originally meant, it can be proven false. If Adams is insisting for there to be an entity by virtue of which the proposition is true, Adams is—in other words—insisting on there being a truthmaker for the stipulated proposition.

A truthmaker is “an entity that acts as the truth’s ‘ontological ground’: it is some worldly thing whose mere existence necessitates the proposition’s truth.”7 For example, the truthmakers for the proposition “cars exist” are the entities known as “cars” that necessitate the truth of the proposition. If this is indeed the route that Adams is taking, then the question goes: what is the truthmaker for CCFs?

First, it must be noted that the existence of an “entity” as stipulated in the truthmaker theory in no way implies that it must be a concrete (i.e., causally potent) object. For example, the truthmaker of the proposition (supposing that it is true) “I will do X in 2020” may be the state of affairs that I will do X in 2020. The state of affairs of me-doing-X-in-2020 is in no way a concrete object. Secondly, the truthmaker theory does not posit that all propositions require grounding in this way. This can be argued in three different ways. First, take the proposition:

(2) This sentence has no truthmaker

What can be the truthmaker of that sentence? Any truthmaker posited in support of the truth of the statement will yield a contradiction. Suppose that the truthmaker is the state of affairs of the nonexistence of truthmakers. This would mean that the proposition becomes a contradictory proposition. Second, necessary propositions are true apart from the existence of some entity. Therefore, the proposition one plus one equals two does not seem to require any concrete object to which it corresponds to. Surely enough, the necessary nature of numbers are enough to account for its truth-value. Third, most importantly, negative existential propositions do not have truthmakers. Thus, the statement:

(3) Dinosaurs do not exist

Proposition (3) does not have a truthmaker as it is about the nonexistence of something. Of course, the nonexistence of something cannot be conflated to an existence of something.

As we have established the two desiderata of the truthmaker theory, we can already construct a rebuttal to circumvent the objection. First, given the second principle we have brought up, it is not implausible for the Molinists to doubt that CCFs require grounding in this way. After all, if we can allow for negative existential propositions to not have a truthmaker, why cannot it be insisted that CCFs also do not require truthmakers in the same vein? Second, given the first principle we have brought up, it is also possible for Molinists to posit a truthmaker for CCFs. After all, if truthmaking does not require grounding in the existence of a concrete object, then the Molinists can easily sway the objection by claiming that the state of affairs of its being the case that person P would do X in C just is the truthmaker of the CCF.8 This is the same truthmaker that is utilized in justifying the truth of future-oriented propositions.

In the same vein of Adams, Steven Cowen has also argued that the corresponding states of affairs to CCFs are invalid because

[U]nlike our future contingent above, there is no state of affairs, past, present, or future to which we can point in order to ground the counterfactual of freedom. That is, there is no time, past, present, or future, in which a present-tense version of [a CCF] corresponds to an actual, present, state of affairs.9

Cowen is here arguing that the difference between a future-tense proposition and CCF is that a future-tense proposition can be corresponded to the fact that it will occur whereas, for CCF, a vast amount of those counterfactuals may never be actualized. However, if one takes a presentist view of time, it should not matter whether or not it will occur. Within presentism, on the other hand, the future and the past do not exist in the present and to say that—in the present—future-tense propositions correspond to a non-existing state of affairs is to admit that the Molinst answer works! Even further, the reason why we ascribe truth to future-tense propositions is because when the aforementioned timeframe arrives, the event happens. In other words, it is not whether or not it will occur that matters, but whether or not it would occur even in future-tense propositions. That way, Molinists should not be accused of cheating when in reality, our epistemic justification for CCFs matches that of our epistemic justification for future-tense propositions.

However, finally, this might not be what Adams had meant. In a paper published much later in 1991, Adams argues that the grounding stipulated is explanatory.10 Thus, the argument goes:11

(4) According to Molinism, the truth of all true counterfactuals of freedom about us is explanatorily prior to God’s decision to create us
(5) God’s decision to create us is explanatorily prior to our existence
(6) Our existence is explanatorily prior to all of our choices and actions
(7) The relation of explanatorily priority is transitive
(8) Therefore it follows from Molinism that the truth of all true counterfactuals of freedom about us is explanatorily prior to all of our choices and actions
(9) Therefore it follows from Molinism that none of our choices and actions is explanatorily prior to the truth of any true counterfactual of freedom about us
(10) Whatever we bring about is something to which some choice or action of ours is explanatorily prior
(11) Therefore, it follows from Molinism that we do not bring about the truth of any counterfactual of freedom about us
(12) If I freely do A in C, no truth that is strictly inconsistent with my refraining from A in C is explanatorily prior to my choosing and acting as I do in C.
(13) Therefore, if Molinism is true, then I do not freely do A in C

To summarize the argument, the argument states that for any free action, there ought not to be a truth that is explanatorily prior to me choosing. Now, if it is the case that the truth of CCFs are explanatorily prior to me choosing, it means that I do not freely choose.

Once again, this argument fails precisely because it commits an equivocation fallacy. In response to this objection, Craig points out the equivocation to be that “The notion of ‘explanatory priority’ as it plays a role in the argument seems to me equivocal, and if a univocal sense can be given, there is no reason to expect it to be transitive.”12 The notion of “explanatory priority” as mentioned in (4)–(9) is a kind of chronological priority. However, the notion of “explanatory priority” as expounded in (10) is logical priority. Craig gives a counter syllogism to further prove the absurdity of this argument. Take, for example, that we want to start a family and on the basis of a Scripture like Proverbs 22:6 we believe that:

(A*) If children were born to us, they would come to love God
(1*) truth of (A*) is explanatorily prior to our decision to have children
(2*) Our decision to have children is explanatorily prior to the existence of our children
(3*) our children’s existence is explanatorily prior to their coming to love God
(7) The relation of explanatorily priority is transitive
(5*) The truth of (A*) is explanatorily prior to our children’s coming to love God

Given this syllogism, it seems to arrive to the conclusion that the children’s coming to love God will not be their free actions! Once again, the problem is that there is a conflation between chronological priority to logical priority.

On the other hand, if we qualify (10) to be in terms of logical priority, then there should be nothing stopping us from claiming that our action is logically prior to even the truths of the corresponding counterfactuals. Recalling our previous truthmaker for CCFs, we know that states of affairs are themselves truthmakers for the corresponding CCF. If so, then the state of affairs is logically prior as an explanation to the CCF although the CCF is true chronologically prior.

In Defence of States of Affairs as Truthmakers
Alexander Zambrano, a fellow Molinist himself, has argued against the notion of counterfactual states of affairs as the proper truthmakers for CCFs. In his paper, “Truthmaker and the Grounding Objection to Middle Knowledge”, he gives the following objection against the notion of the possibility of states of affairs as truthmakers:13

First, if counterfacts are the truthmakers for counterfactuals of freedom, then the agent’s freedom becomes a mere triviality. Freedom in the libertarian sense is supposed to be about an actual agent performing an action on the basis of her own reasons and without some ‘counterfact’ necessitating what she would eventually do in an actual and particular set of circumstances. Worse, this counterfact, which is altogether mysterious, has to exist as an abstract and non-actual state of affairs prior to God’s actualization of a world. Additionally, the counterfact is said to exist prior to the existence of the actual person and her actual dispositions, character, and reasons to act. A counterfact about a non-actual person doesn’t seem to be the type of thing that is intimately related to or a product of what the actual person in question would freely and actually do. True, it is a state of affairs about a particular non-actual person, but there is no good reason for saying that a state of affairs (a counterfact) that exists prior to an agent’s actual existence, necessitates the counterfactual about what that agent would do.

This first argument that Zambrano gives is that the state of affairs necessitates what an agent would do in different circumstances. Once again, as Zambrano is ambiguous in expositing this argument, two possibilities will be considered. First, it may be the case that Zambrano argues that as counterfactual state of affairs is the causal originator of the truth of any proposition, then the state of affairs necessitates for the CCFs. However, if this is what Zambrano had meant, it is a gross misunderstanding of the truthmaker theory. The implication between the truthmaker and the truthbearer as understood in truthmaker theory is in terms of correspondence and not one of causality. Thus, one can maintain consistently that the truthmaker does not determine the truthbearer. However, we have good reason to think that this is not what Zambrano had meant. More plausibly, Zambrano could have been referring to the principle of necessitarianism, which he refers to in his paper.14 The principle goes that “if X is the truthmaker for P, then it is impossible that X exists and P fail to be true…On this view, a truthmaker F necessitates the truth of a given proposition P”.15 Thereby, if it is the case that states of affairs exist, then it necessitates the CCFs. If a CCF is necessary, then it is not a freedom-permitting one.

This first objection fails because of the modal fallacy that it falls to. The principle, as stated, is:

(N) If X, then necessarily, P

If we follow Zambrano’s argument, it would be:

(N1) X
(N2) Therefore, necessarily P

However, (N2) is not valid as the necessity does not transfer. The necessity as considered in (N) is a kind of dependent necessity through material implication. On the other hand, the necessity in (N2) is a necessity de dicto,16 which is not implied by the first. Consider the following Cartesian syllogism:

(C1) If I am aware, then necessarily, I exist
(C2) I am aware
(C3) Therefore, necessarily, I exist

Yet, (C3) is fallacious as it may be the case that I wasn’t aware in the beginning and therefore, I would not exist. The same problem lies with the N-syllogism. N-syllogism would only proceed if X is necessary likewise. However, as this is not the case, P remains contingent. In the same vein, CCFs can remain contingent because the corresponding state of affairs does not necessarily exist.

Thus, what is the relation between the CCF and its corresponding state of affairs? It seems that the answer is a correspondence relation. Thus, this circumvents any attempt to claim that this entails a kind of determinism or fatalism. This would only lead to fatalism were the state of affairs be necessary de re.17

As we have seen, we have analysed, in total, two main types of GOs against Molinism: the first is from truthmaker theory and the second is from explanatory priority. The first can be circumvented through an appeal to states of affairs as truthmakers while the second can be dismissed as fallacious. Thus, as these two arguments represent the main types of GOs there are, we see that even the most prized of them have failed. If indeed GO has failed, at the very least, we can learn an important lesson about the nature of CCFs: CCFs are not ‘groundless.’ Rather, it is the states of affairs that act as the ground and the basis to which the CCFs correspond. Therefore, CCFs stand well-grounded and supported.


1Kane, Robert. A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 159

2Conditionals written in the subjunctive mood. An example would be: “Had I not joined in the baseball game, you would not have lost!”

3Adams, Robert M. “Middle Knowledge and Problem of Evil.” American Philosophical Quarterly (1977): 109-117. Document. 110-111

4Ibid. 110



7Beebee, Helen and Julian Dodd, Truthmaker: The Contemporary Debate. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. 2

8This is the same answer that is brought up by Craig in Craig, William Lane. “Middle Knowledge, Truth–Makers, and the “Grounding Objection”.” Faith and Philosophy 18.3 (2001): 337-352. .

9Cowan, Steven B. “The Grounding Objection to Middle Knowledge Revisited.” Religious Studies (2003): 93-102. 96-97

10Adams, Robert M. “An Anti-Molinist Argument.” Philosophical Perspectives (1991): 343-353. Document.

11Ibid. 346-347

12Craig, William Lane, “Robert Adams’s New Anti-Molinist Argument.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (1994): 857-861. Document. 858

13Zambrano, Alexander. “Truthmaker and the Grounding Objection.” Aporia (2011): 20-33.

14Ibid. 24; for another reference, see Merricks, Trenton. Truth and Ontology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 5


16Necessity of the proposition

17Necessity of the subject


About the Author

By John A. Limanto

John A. Limanto is a fellow leader of Philosophy group in Pelita Harapan School and an aspiring Christian apologist in his local community. After living for 7 years in Borneo, he now resides with his family in Jakarta, Indonesia where he is pursuing his research on Molinism and free will.