Dr. Strange, Dr. Stratton, and Dr. Swenson

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

|

September 14, 2021

Philip Swenson was recently interviewed by Jordan Hampton on the Analytic Christian YouTube channel. Although Swenson’s goal was to argue against Molinism, I must admit that the two of us have much in common. Swenson, for example, is a fellow libertarian freedom fighter. On this vital issue we both agree and stand side by side in our fight against the tyranny of EDD (exhaustive divine determinism).

Swenson (a professor of philosophy at the College of William & Mary) wrote his dissertation defending the view that moral responsibility (in a desert sense) is incompatible with causal determinism. AMEN to that! Although I am a theologian (as opposed to a philosopher), I argued for something quite similar in my doctoral dissertation which provided the foundation for Human Freedom, Divine Knowledge, and Mere Molinism.

Swenson and I have much in common and I view him as a philosophical ally as opposed to an “enemy.” Where we disagree, however, is regarding what God knows. According to Taylor Cyr (in the comments of the aforementioned YouTube video):

“… [Swenson] accepts the Simple Foreknowledge view, according to which God knows everything that will happen in the future, but God doesn’t have “middle knowledge.[1]

This raises the question: How is God sovereign or in control over what will happen if He simply knows what will happen? If I travel to the future to see who wins the World Series in 2030 and come “back home” knowing who will win the World Series in 2030, how am I sovereign in any sense over who wins the World Series in 2030?

However, if God knew what will happen in the future IF he creates the universe (and even if He never does), then the “will” is actually a “would.” If an omnipotent God possesses the power to refrain from creation, then God knows what “WOULD happen IF He creates the universe.”

This is still Middle Knowledge.

Then (to use temporal language), once God decides to create the universe what WOULD happen is now transformed into what WILL happen.

This is still some flavor of Molinism (and God would also be sovereign over — and predestine — libertarian free creatures playing baseball in the 2030 World Series). 

I digress . . . the topic of the rest of this article focuses on the view of Molinism that Swenson argued against.[2] Although there might be some Molinists who hold his view, I do not think this is the strongest view of Molinism. Indeed, the view of Molinism Swenson described is not the view of Molinism I affirm. 

The “Manipulation View” of Molinism

Swenson stated:

“Molinism is an account of divine providence. It maintains that God can use his knowledge of CCFs to control what happens. So if His plan involves Curly taking a bribe, and He knows Curly would take the bribe in C1 but not C2, God can make sure Curly takes the bribe.”

I typically refrain from the “use his knowledge” kind of language. It is messy, confusing, and muddies the waters. After all, we typically do not say “I used my knowledge to cross the street.” It would be better stated, “I knew there was a significant gap in the traffic, so I crossed the street.”

Moreover, I think this idea of how God ensures his plan comes to fruition on a case-by-case basis is odd, disturbing, backwards, and probably wrong (I would reject it too). As noted above, this is not my view of God’s middle knowledge. This raises the question: How do I view God’s middle knowledge? 

Thanks for asking!

The “Strange View” of Molinism

SPOILER ALERT!

I take the Doctor Strange approach (see my video on the topic here). Consider the movies The Avengers: Infinity War and The Avengers: Endgame. Doctor Strange actualized the one world where the evil of Thanos is ultimately defeated and all people who were annihilated by  the “snap” of Thanos would ultimately be resurrected and saved. All the other “bad things” that happen (in this possible world) – including gratuitous evils – are “worth it” according to the economy and heroic nature of Doctor Strange. Still, Strange seemed to possess knowledge of all these other evils.

Strange still seemed to know that this world would lead to the death of both Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) and Tony Stark (Iron Man). And there is no reason not to think that he did not know that Gamora would provide two vicious and gratuitous knee strikes to the “family jewels” of Peter Quill (Star-Lord). With all of this in mind, right before Doctor Strange turns to dust and perishes he tells Stark  . . . “There was no other way.”

SPOILER ALERT: Doctor Strange was risen from the dead along with all the “Saints,” and evil was “crushed under their feet.”

Similarly, we can say that God created the one feasible and freedom-permitting circumstance where evil is eventually defeated forever and everyone [who is not transworld damned (TWD)] is saved![3]

I start with the big picture (eternity) and end goal in mind. God knows that if He creates this particular universe and reveals Himself to humanity exactly as He did and at the precise moment that He did, then . . . evil will eventually be defeated and everyone [who is not TWD] is saved. God does not have to “place certain people” in certain situations to ensure certain outcomes. He merely creates the world in which He knows how libertarian agents would/will freely choose – eventually leading to the defeat of evil.

Again, think about Doctor Strange. He did not need to place certain people in specific situations. He simply knew that if he gave Thanos the time stone on Planet Titan at that exact moment, evil would eventually be defeated, and all who would be annihilated by “the snap” of Thanos would also be saved and resurrected.

The Maximally Great Being

I think it’s pretty simple. So, with The Avengers in mind, let’s think about God:

Suppose that an omniscient God knew that out of all the ways He could fine-tune the initial conditions of the Big Bang, only 14,000,605 of them would eventually lead to a universe producing or allowing for libertarian free carbon-based agents who possess the opportunities to love and be morally and rationally responsible agents.

Next, suppose that out of all the 14,000,605 feasible worlds, only ONE of them ends with the eternal defeat of evil and everyone [who is not TWD] is saved. (I bracket the “who is not TWD” to leave room for “hopeful universalism” even though it is still not a probable view!) A perfect and omnibenevolent God then creates this “one lone feasible world” and rarely needs to interact, but when He does, this was also factored into “the ONE world” available in which evil is defeated. Again, think of Doctor Strange’s limited role in Endgame as opposed to its predecessor Infinity War. It was almost as if Strange was “hidden.” 

God does not need to “place people in situations where He knew they would lie to accomplish some goal” (as Swenson describes). Doctor Strange never needed to do this kind of thing and there is no reason to assume a maximally great being needs to either. 

No, the end goal (or the “Endgame”) was why God chose this world – the one world in which humans possess libertarian freedom AND evil is defeated AND all people [who are not transworld damned] are saved! Everything else that happens – including all the libertarian free choices along the way, all the natural disasters, all the animal suffering, all the gratuitous evils, and all degrees of divine hiddenness – are part of what leads to the “endgame” of evil being defeated forever.[4] That seems like a great deal and a great reason to worship “The only wise God.” 

Strange Knowledge vs All the Problems of Evil

With God’s knowledge in mind, all the problems of evil (not to mention “problems” of divine hiddenness) are defeated. Again, consider all the evil Doctor Strange allowed to exist so that evil would — and will — be defeated. Also think about how “hidden” he was in Endgame. Should Doctor Strange be condemned for allowing all kinds of evil and for being relatively hidden?[5Not at all! In fact, I would venture to guess that nearly all of the 100,000,000 or so who saw Endgame on opening weekend thought of Doctor Strange as a hero. Indeed, it seems to be intuitively obvious that Doctor Strange should be praised. 

If this is the case, why shouldn’t God be praised and worshipped for doing the exact same thing?[6]

I leave you with the words of J. M. L Monsabré, a French priest from Notre Dame:

“If God would concede me His omnipotence for 24 hours, you would see how many changes I would make in the world. But if He gave me His wisdom too, I would leave things as they are.”

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Dr. Tim Stratton


Notes

[1] Swenson personally informed me that he affirms that God possesses knowledge of what WOULD probably happen IF logically prior to the divine decree and sans creation. This is much more than simple foreknowledge (what WILL happen). It does not seem to be Open Theism either, because the Open Theist merely affirms that God knows all the possibilities that COULD happen. Swenson’s view seems to be something that falls under the banner of (or closest to) middle knowledge, even if it is not the flavor of middle knowledge traditional Molinists prefer. To be clear: Swenson’s view is inconsistent with Molinism (Molina’s original formulation). His view is also not compatible with what I have described as “Mere Molinism.” However, it seems to me that the term “modified Molinism,” a “cult of Molinism,” or “a view that is closer to Molinism than anything else” could be used to adequately describe his view. At the end of the day, this brilliant philosopher affirms both (i) humans possess libertarian freedom, and (ii) God possesses “what would [probably] happen if knowledge (perhaps with 99.9% certainty) — not grounded in creation — logically prior to the divine decree.” This grants just about everything the Molinist affirms and is why I invited him to be a part of the Mere Molinism Facebook group.

With this in mind, I am puzzled as to why Swenson thinks God knows whether a CCF is probably true logically prior to His creative decree? And this raises several questions to be explored at a later time, such as: how does God know this? And why can’t this means of knowing result in perfect certainty? It seems ad hoc (at least to me) to affirm this much, and not go all the way (only one more small step for mankind) to what Molina referred to as middle knowledge.


EDIT (9-16-21): Swenson just contacted me to provide clarification. He said, “I don’t think foreknowledge is explanatorily prior to God’s initial choice to create. If I said that I must have misspoke.” The mistake was probably on my end, but I replied: “Thanks for clearing that up . . . but you do hold that God has simple foreknowledge prior to/sans creation, right?” He responded in the affirmative: “temporally prior to creation, not explanatorily prior.”

With this clarification in mind Swenson’s view is suddenly not as “close to Molinism” as I had originally thought. I no longer claim that he is a “modified Molinist.” With that said, however, we still have much in common. The Mere Molinist affirms both (i) humans possess libertarian freedom, and (ii) God possesses “what would happen if knowledge (with 100% certainty) regarding libertarian free creatures prior to the divine decree and sans creation.” Swenson affirms (i) humans possess libertarian freedom, and (ii) God possesses “what would [probably] happen if knowledge (perhaps with 99.9% certainty) prior to the divine decree and possesses knowledge of what WILL happen prior to and sans creation. Indeed, there are subtle but important differences.

I do find Swenson’s view odd. During our conversation I noted that if an omnipotent God — possessing the knowledge of what WILL happen upon creation chooses to refrain from creation — then God would possess knowledge of what would happen if He created (including how libertarian free creatures would choose and act). This is middle knowledge. He replied by saying that he doesn’t think God would have the power to refrain from creation “after” knowing what will happen. This seems ad hoc to me.

This view seems to entail that God possesses natural knowledge of how libertarian free creatures would probably choose in freedom-permitting circumstances. Then (to use temporal language), God decides what freedom-permitting circumstance to create and gains knowledge of what WILL happen (including how libertarian free creatures WILL choose). On this view, if God is “surprised” and does not like the world He has chosen to create, He is seemingly “stuck with it.” He does not possess the power to refrain from creating the world that does not actually exist. I do not see a logical reason why God could not do this. Thus, it seems to me that this view is not only ad hoc, but also questions the omnipotence of God. Molinism should be preferred. 


[2] Swenson raised some other interesting points that I plan to address in the future. As for now, I simply wanted to point out that the view of Molinism he was arguing against is not my view of Molinism. 

[3] While this world is clearly not the best possible world, I believe it is the best feasible freedom-permitting world an omnipotent God could actualize. This distinction provides a defeater to arguments such as the following from one of my favorite atheists — who I count as a friend — Benjamin Blake Speed Watkins (taken from his Twitter feed on September 10th, 2021):

1- A perfect being cannot create anything less than an impartially best world like Heaven. 
2- Our world is not an impartially best world like Heaven. 
3- Therefore, our world was not created by a perfect being. 

With eternity in mind, I believe this world is the “impartially best” feasible world God could have created. If the best world entails true love and true love entails libertarian freedom (which I argue is the case in “Mere Molinism“) then God must create a world where creatures possess libertarian freedom. This same freedom that makes it possible to experience The Best Kind of Love is also the same power that makes it possible to commit evil. However, a maximally great being with middle knowledge is in a position to know if this current world — which is nothing like Heaven — would/will eventually become a world where evil is defeated forever and everyone [who is not TWD] is saved (See Can God Create a Morally Perfect Creature Part 1 and Part 2). This is the epitome of Heaven!

[4] In Mere Molinism (p. 262) I offer the following syllogism which explains why this world filled with all kinds of evil and suffering eventually leads to the best feasible freedom-permitting endgame:

R1 – If God is omnibenevolent, then he desires genuine eternal love relations with humans.

R2 – If God desires genuine eternal love relations with humans, then he creates humans with libertarian freedom (because):

R2.1 – A genuine eternal love relationship between God and humans necessarily requires that humans possess libertarian freedom.

R3 – If God creates humans with libertarian freedom, then he allows humans to experience suffering (because):

R3.1 – Suffering can result from libertarian free humans.

R3.2 – God created a world in which he knew that unless he permitted [all kinds of] evil, some would not freely choose to eternally preserve the suffering-free state of affairs in the new heavens and new earth (2 Cor. 4:17).

R4 – God is omnibenevolent.

R5 – Therefore, God allows humans to experience suffering.

This syllogism makes use of all three of the essential ingredients of the soteriological view of Molinism. In fact, no competing views of God’s sovereignty have logical access to this specific argument. Moreover, not only does this apply to moral and natural evil, but it also seems to make sense of what is often considered to be gratuitous evil/suffering. The following thought experiment seeks to make the point: Would a person prefer to live in a world free from any and all suffering, a world where even the lower animals never suffer? If he awoke tomorrow in that world, would he freely choose to “keep the rules” to make sure no being capable of suffering ever suffers again? If so, it seems as if Paul was onto something in 2 Corinthians 4:17. If not, then he simply will not be allowed to hang out with those who have learned to “keep the rules” for the rest of eternity so that suffering of any kind is never experienced again (at least by those who have learned). 

[5] Jacobus Erasmus and I have co-authored a forthcoming journal article (2022) entitled, A Molinist Response to Schellenberg’s Hiddenness Argument. We take an alternative Molinist view (different from the one offered here) while responding to the argument from divine hiddenness raised against the existence of God. 

[6] Kirk MacGregor reviewed an early draft of this article and offered the following enlightening comment about the doctrine of double effect:

“You’re right that God’s ultimate desire is for optimal salvation (whether that is defined mathematically as the most people saved or otherwise). If this is what God intends (and nothing else) in world selection, then the doctrine of double effect (DDE) shields God of any moral responsibility for wrongs committed in that world. To quote the ethicist Russ Shafer-Landau, ‘This doctrine refers to two relevant effects that actions can have: those we intend to bring about, and those that we foresee but do not aim for. The principle says the following: Provided that your goal is worthwhile, you are sometimes permitted to act in ways that foreseeably cause certain types of harm, though you must never intend to cause such harms’ (The Fundamentals of Ethics, 3rd ed. [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015], 224). As long as God never intends for people to lie or do anything sinful, God is permitted to choose a world of optimal salvation even if such sins eventuate from God’s choice of said world.”

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About the Author

Tim

Stratton

(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

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