Hoist by its Own Petard – A Grounding Objection to Molinism


August 26, 2018

By Andrew Harland-Smith

1. Preliminary Remarks

This exchange between John and myself concerns a narrowly framed articulation of the grounding objection. Mine is not an argument founded on any universal theory of truth; not truthmaker maximalism, not atomic truthmaker, not even truth-supervenes on being.

Rather, mine is a much narrower claim. It is only that a small but significant subset of truths, the Counterfactuals of Creaturely Freedom (‘CCFs’), require truthmakers.

This essay contains two key parts. In the first, I outline and briefly defend what I call the “Dependence Thesis” (‘DT’). Roughly, this states that:

(DT). For any person S and CCF C, if C is true, S has made it true that C

My defence of (‘DT’) is two-fold. On the one hand, it is ingredient in the claim that we are morally accountable for our actions. More significantly however, it is inherent in the reason Molinism treat the (‘CCFs’) as an object of God’s middle knowledge. If this is correct; if Molinism is committed to (‘DT’), it turns out to be committed to a thesis that spells its own demise. Molinism is, as it were, hoist by its own petard.

In the second part, I outline the apparent ramifications of (‘DT’) for Molinism. Briefly, it seems to result in something like backward causation. I acknowledge that there are moves that the Molinist may make to resists the inference to backwards causation. One may, for instance, punt to Haecceitism. But, the constraints of space are such that I cannot entertain and refute all such moves here. I will instead leave it to my opponent to raise them as he sees fit.

2. The Dependence Thesis (‘DT’)

As I have indicated, the bulwark of my argument against Molinism is (‘DT’). Before we proceed any further therefore, I had better stop to ensure that it is solid ground.

2.1 (‘DT’) as Ingredient in Moral Accountability

That ones’ actions are ‘voluntary’ is, without question, a necessary condition of moral accountability. If a person acts involuntarily, they are not accountable for any less than desirable outcomes realised as a result. In fact, it must be noted, that though they disagree upon what ‘voluntariness’ requires, this is a point on which compatibilists and libertarians will agree.

One particularly clear way to illustrate this, is simply to consider a (somewhat modified) Frankfurt type counter-example. It is November 8 2016, the day of the US Presidential elections. And William wakes up minded to vote for Clinton. However, Hilary, Williams’ wife, is somewhat concerned that he may change his mind and vote for Trump. With a view to mitigating this risk, Hilary surreptitiously installs a chip in Williams’ brain. This chip is such that if William attempts to vote for Trump, the chip will force his limbs into such motions as will mean a vote is cast for Clinton.

The moment arrives for William to cast his vote, and he undergoes a sudden change in spirit. Now he wants to vote for Trump. Sensing William’s change of heart, the chip activates, overriding his limbs, and forcing him to vote instead for Clinton.

William is not, we think, culpable for this disastrous state of affairs. Simply stated, his actions were insufficiently voluntary for him to be held accountable for his actions. In this situation, something like the following proposition is true:

(P) On November 8 2016, William’s limbs moved such that a vote was cast for Clinton.

However, most importantly for present purposes, notice what it would have taken to render William accountable. Consider that is, what would have been the case had the chip proved needless.

Granted that the chip is still present in his brain, it follows that William lacked the capacity to realise the alternate possibility. So, what, we may ask, grounds his accountability in voting for the wrong candidate? The answer, presumably, is that notwithstanding his inability to realise the alternate possibility, he is still source of his actions. Simply put, he, and the powers and dispositions within him, are the first cause of the salient outcome.

(P), notice, is again true. And again, it is perfectly obvious that it does not wont for a truthmaker. Significantly however, the source of its truth is quite different. Where (P) previously depended on the chip implanted in William’s brain, the same cannot be said here. Here, the truth of (P) depends only upon William himself. And it is for this reason that he (William) is accountable for his voting for the wrong candidate. Thus, (‘DT’).

2.2 (‘DT’) as Inherent in Molinism

The claim here, is not simply that there is good independent reason to affirm (‘DT’). The claim is rather stronger than that. It is that Molinism is itself committed to (‘DT’).

At the outset, John, myself, and a number of the leadership at Free Thinking Ministries, agreed to a joint understanding of Molinism. That joint statement contained a section 2.1.3 briefly outlining, in syllogistic form, the Molinist argument for locating God’s knowledge of the (‘CCFs’) in His Middle knowledge.

For those who have read this joint statement, it will be recalled that, between those who affirm the libertarian character of free will, and the possession by God of exhaustive foreknowledge, the contentious premise is (4). That is, the claim that the (‘CCFs’) are not an object of God’s Free Knowledge. What, we may ask, was the argument to this effect? The joint statement explains:

…if the CCFs are a feature of God’s free knowledge, they are no longer truths about what libertarian free agents would do. To the extent that the ultimate source of their truth lies in God’s creative decree, their truth has been fixed independently the relevant agent’s causal powers”.

Notice, the conditional in the first sentence is the conclusion of the argument, not a premise therein. That is, it is the point to which the Molinist hopes to drive us. Nonetheless, its antecedent proves instructive. What, specifically, are the ramifications alleged if the (‘CCFs’) were (perhaps counterfactually) located in God’s free knowledge?

Again, the joint statement, section 2.1.1, proves instructive. Free Knowledge, we are told, is logically posterior to God’s creative decree. Thus, it reads:

…God knows what is actual (as opposed to what is merely possible) precisely because He has elected to make it so”.

Put another way, the propositions populating God’s free knowledge are those whose truth God has determined. Hence, if the (‘CCFs’) are an object of God’s free knowledge, their truth was set prior to, and hence independently of, the relevant agents’ causal powers. Put the other way around, if the (‘CCFs’) are an object of God’s free knowledge, God, not the relevant agent, has made the salient (‘CCF’) true.

Of interest here, is not so much the validity of the argument (though that may be challenged). Rather, the interest here, is with the essence of the complaint. It would, we are supposed to agree, be a problem if the truth of the (‘CCFs’) had been set prior to, and hence independently of, the relevant agents’ causal powers. Specifically, we are told, it would undermine our status as free agents.

But what, we may ask, is the general principle here? Well, to some extent, that question has already been answered. Ostensibly, it would be a problem if the truth of the (‘CCFs’) had been fixed independently of the relevant agents’ causal powers. The obverse of this, is, necessarily, that the truth of the (‘CCFs’) are dependent on the causal powers of the relevant agent. Thus, (‘DT’).

3. Against Molinism from (‘DT’)

Granted then, that (‘DT’) is true, it follows that (‘CCFs’) do not wont for truthmakers. Specifically, it follows that their truth is grounded in the powers of the relevant agent. For the purposes of illustration, consider the following (‘CCF’):

(C) Had Andrew not come to reject Molinism, he would not have engaged John in a written exchange on the Grounding Objection

Granted that (‘DT’) is true, (C) has a truthmaker. Namely, in the nearest possible world (let’s call it ‘w2’) where I do not reject Molinism, I never exercise the relevant powers to engage John in a debate. Presumably, still being a Molinist in w2, I lack the motivation to do so.

The significant point here, is that provided (‘DT’) is true, truths about how we act have their source in us qua individual agents. Or, to come at it another way, we are explanatorily prior to the truth of propositions regarding how we act.

But, to what extent can Molinism agree that the (‘CCFs’) have their genesis in us. Prima facie, at least, it is not altogether obvious that it can. As the joint statement, section 2.1.2 explains, the (‘CCFs’) are (at least ostensibly) an object of God’s Middle knowledge. Further, as section 2.1.1 explains, Middle Knowledge logically precedes the Divine Creative Decree. As John has usefully put it elsewhere, the propositions populating God’s Middle Knowledge are “pre-volitional”. That is, they are true prior to, and hence independent of, any act of volition on God’s part. Indeed, it is precisely because they are pre-volitional in this sense, that they are capable of guiding God in His setting up the world toward His end.

But here there arises an issue of timing. Simply, truths ((the (‘CCFs’)) about how we would act were true long before we made them so. To make this somewhat more concrete, consider a situation where God elects to create, not this world, but w2. That is, the world in which I never reject Molinism, and hence never engage in this exchange. In that case, the following proposition is true:

(C’) Andrew never engages John in a written exchange.

As from the very first moment of creation (call it t), God knew (C’). And yet, as from t, there was still some 13.8 billion years to traverse before I would make it true that (C’). To the extent then, that (‘DT’) is true, it follows that my actions caused God to be in the state of knowing that (C’) before I performed them. Hence, backwards causation.

Suffice to say, backwards causation is not an intuitive pill to swallow. Formally speaking, it amounts to saying that an effect may temporally precede its cause. To saying, moreover, that possibly, the universe brought itself into being. Certainly, it deserves recalling that Daniel Dennett earned himself great scorn when he once said, in debate with William Lane Craig, that the universe in fact brought itself into being. Such an odd claim, though not strictly impossible, was risible nonetheless.

Granted that such appeals to intuition do not amount to a knock down argument against backwards causation. Such arguments are, in any event, peculiarly rare. Nonetheless, such intuitions give us cause to demand that independent reason be adduced before we accept so difficult a notion. And, absent such reasons, we should (at least provisionally) regard it as false.

Furthermore, it should also be born in mind, that if (as I’m sure many of my readers do) you find yourself wedded to an A-theory of time, your prospects of plausibly biting the bullet on backwards causation are nil. As any good A-theorist will tell you, the future does not exist. To say then, that a future cause may bring about some current effect, is to say that what does not exist, may nonetheless cause some present effect. Assuming, plausibly enough, that only extant things have causal powers, it is to say that the cause both exists and doesn’t.

4. Summing Up

In summing up, there are three things that we may say:

  1. (‘DT’) is, at least prima facie, ingredient in what it is to say that agents are morally accountable for their actions; and,
  2. Further, (‘DT’) seems to be inherent in the reason for the Molinist claim that the (‘CCFs’) are an object of God’s Middle Knowledge.
  3. Finally, the conjunction Molinism and (‘DT’) seems to drive in the unpalatable direction of backwards causation.

To re-iterate, I acknowledge that there are moves the Molinist may make to resist the third claim. There is not the space here however, to entertain and refute each such possibility. I leave it to my opponent to raise them as he sees adequate.


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