Molinism and the Grounding Objection, Part 1

0. Introduction 

Molinism is the view that there are true counterfactuals involving agents making libertarian free choices, and that these counterfactuals are known by God. See this for more background.

Perhaps the most common objection to Molinism is referred to as the ‘grounding problem’. The issue is just that there seems to be nothing which explains why true Molinist counterfactuals are true. They seem to be just true, but not true because of anything in particular. Here is how Craig puts it in his paper Middle Knowledge, Truth–Makers, and the “Grounding Objection” (henceforth MK, and from which all the Craig quotes will come in this post):

“What is the grounding objection? It is the claim that there are no true counterfactuals concerning what creatures would freely do under certain specified circumstances–the propositions expressed by such counterfactual sentences are said either to have no truth value or to be uniformly false–, since there is nothing to make these counterfactuals true. Because they are contrary–to–fact conditionals and are supposed to be true logically prior to God’s creative decree, there is no ground of the truth of such counterfactual propositions. Thus, they cannot be known by God.”

One way of thinking about this issue is that the grounding problem itself presupposes the ‘truth-maker’ principle. According to this principle, every true proposition is made true by something. If the truth-maker principle is correct, and if nothing makes Molinist counterfactuals true, it follows that they are not true. Hence, it follows that there are no such truths for God to know.

In response to this, a Molinist can either deny the truth-maker principle, or accept it and provide a truth-maker for the counterfactuals. As Craig makes explicit, he believes he can make the case that either strategy is plausible:

“For it is far from evident that counterfactuals of creaturely freedom must have truth-makers or, if they must, that appropriate candidates for their truth-makers are not available.”

Craig gives reasons that one might want to deny the truth-maker principle in general. He also explains how one might think about Molinist counterfactuals not having truth-makers. He also offers an account of how they could have truth-makers. If any of these works, it seems that the grounding objection has been rebutted. In this series I will look at his proposals, and argue against them. In this first post, I will just look at the positive case that Craig sets out for Molinism.

  1. The (supposedly) intuitive case

Craig mentions a comment from Plantinga that he agrees with, about how plausible it is that there should be true Molinist counterfactuals:

“No anti–Molinist has, to my knowledge, yet responded to Alvin Plantinga’s simple retort to the grounding objection: “It seems to me much clearer that some counterfactuals of freedom are at least possibly true than that the truth of propositions must, in general, be grounded in this way.””

Craig goes on to say that the grounding problem is:

“…a bold and positive assertion and therefore requires warrant in excess of that which attends the Molinist assumption that there are true counterfactuals about creaturely free actions.”

Plantinga is saying that the fact that there are Molinist counterfactuals is more plausible than the truth-maker principle. To show that we should prefer the truth-maker principle to Molinist counterfactuals, we need warrant for the truth-maker principle “in excess” of that for Molinist counterfactuals. Not an easy job, thinks Craig, who says that the warrant for Molinist counterfactuals is “not inconsiderable”.

In his ‘Warrant for the Molinist Assumption’ section of MK, Craig provides three aspects of the case which supposedly shows that Molinist counterfactuals have ‘not inconsiderable’ warrant already. These are as follows:

  1. First, we ourselves often appear to know such true counterfactuals.”
  2. Second, it is plausible that the Law of Conditional Excluded Middle (LCEM) holds for counterfactuals of a certain special form, usually called “counterfactuals of creaturely freedom.””
  3. Third, the Scriptures are replete with counterfactual statements, so that the Christian theist, at least, should be committed to the truth of certain counterfactuals about free, creaturely actions.”

In this post, I will focus on the first of these three.

2. The epistemic objection – Molinist counterfactuals are unknowable

The first one of these, along with the third and Plantinga’s quote from above, are all related. They are rebutted by what I will call the ‘epistemic objection’.  According to this objection, even if they were true, it isn’t possible for an agent to know Molinist counterfactuals.

It seems to Craig to be obvious that we “often appear to know” Molinist counterfactuals to be true. Yet, there seems to be good reason to think that we cannot know Molinist counterfactuals.

In order to help explain things, I want to make an important distinction, which is between Molinist counterfactuals and what I will call ‘probably-counterfactuals’. So, an example of a Molinist counterfactual is:

a) Had Louis been tempted, he would have given in.

An example of a probably-counterfactual is:

b) Had Louis been tempted, he probably would have given in.

The difference between a) and b) is merely the word ‘probably’. The difference it plays is huge though. I think that it makes the difference between being crucial to rational reasoning generally (like b), and being utterly useless (like a). I think that Craig’s claims about Molinist counterfactuals only really make sense if they are ultimately being made about probably-counterfactuals, and I will explain why I think this in what follows.

First of all, Craig thinks that we “often appear to know” Molinist counterfactuals, like a). But this is strange. Maybe God could know them (although, I don’t think that can be maintained either), but how could a mere mortal like me know them? All I can really know, we might suppose, is i) what I have some kind of access to empirically (a posteriori), and ii) what I can reason about abstractly (a priori). And neither of these routes can get me to the conclusion that Louis would have freely chosen to give in to the sin had he been tempted.

I don’t have empirical access to counterfactual situations, so that rules out the first epistemological route; nothing about the empirical world that I can investigate can tell me which of the two options Louis would have freely chosen to make.

But mere abstract reasoning cannot ever decide which of two options an agent with libertarian free choice would make either; it doesn’t follow logically from any purely a priori antecedent conditions. Thus, Louis’ choice seems literally unknowable to an agent like me. Not only that, but all Molinist counterfactuals become unknowable for the same reason.

On the other hand, knowing b) seems relatively straightforward, at least in principle. Let’s suppose Louis has a strong track record of giving in to sin when tempted, and that I know this because I have witnessed it personally. Perhaps he has also told me about how much he hates living in the stuffy confines of the monastery and yearns for some temptation to give into. Any number of scenarios like this could support the idea that I could come to believe with good reason that he probably would have given in had he been tempted.

Thus, a) seems literally unknowable, whereas b) is eminently knowable. They are therefore, epistemically asymmetric.

3. The utility objection – Molinist counterfactuals are useless

Craig says:

“Very little reflection is required to reveal how pervasive and indispensable a role such counterfactuals play in rational conduct and planning. We not infrequently base our very lives upon the assumption of their truth or falsity.”

He is right about the fact that counterfactuals play a “pervasive and indispensable” role in “rational conduct and planning”. But where is wrong is that it is probably-counterfactuals which are doing most of the work, and Molinist counterfactuals do none (and indeed, could not do any). The reason for this difference in utility is because of the epistemic asymmetry between probably-counterfactuals and Molinist counterfactuals.

Here is an example to play with to make this point clear. Imagine I am deciding whether or not to leave my bike unlocked or not while I go into the library. Let’s suppose that I see the well-known bike thief, Louis, lurking just round the corner. I decide to lock my bike up. When I return after finding the book I want, I am glad to find my bike is still there. I begin to unlock my bike, and at this point you ask me: “Why did you lock your bike up?” My answer is going to be something like this:

c) Had I not locked up my bike, Louis probably would have stolen it.

It is the likelihood of Louis stealing the bike that motivated me to lock it up. My reasoning process included the fact that I had good reasons to think that e) was true. The place that the probably-counterfactual plays in my reasoning is completely clear. It makes perfect sense for a probably-counterfactual to be what I am using here to come to my decision to lock the bike up.

The idea that I used a Molinist counterfactual is almost unintelligible though. Imagine my reply had been the following:

d) Had I not locked up my bike, Louis would have freely chosen to steal it.

It would be bizarre for me to say that, because there is no way for me to know that d) is true rather than false. Given that Louis has libertarian free will, he could have chosen to steal the bike, but he could have also chosen not to steal the bike. The scenario where he freely chooses to steal the bike, and the scenario where he freely chooses refrain from stealing the bike, are literally identical in every respect up to the point where he makes a decision. There is nothing at all, even in principle, that could justify my belief that one would happen rather than the other. Possibly, God knows something I don’t, but it is clear that I do not. Thus, there is no way it can be part of my (rational) decision making process, for I have no reason to think that it is true rather than false.

If this wasn’t bad enough, we can develop the worry. Imagine that standing next to Louis is Louise, who I know has never stolen a bike, or indeed anything, in her entire life. My belief is that she is unlikely to steal my bike. Her presence is therefore not a consideration I took into account when I locked my bike up. If you asked me when I got back to my why I did not consider her presence, I would have said that it was because of something like the following:

e) Had I not locked up my bike, Louise probably would not have stolen it.

I was under the belief that even if I had not locked my bike up, Louise probably wouldn’t have stolen it. While the presence of Louis plays a role in my reasoning, and the presence of Louise does not, and this is easily cashed out in terms of probably-counterfactuals.

But when we come to consider that it wasn’t probably-counterfactuals, but Molinist counterfactuals that were part of my reasoning, we run into a problem. This is because an entirely symmetric Molinist counterfactual can be created for Louise:

f) Had I not locked up my bike, Louise would have freely chosen to steal it.

Given that Louise has libertarian free will, she could have chosen to steal the bike, but she could have also chosen not to steal the bike. The scenario where she freely chooses to steal the bike, and the scenario where she freely chooses refrain from stealing the bike, are literally identical in every respect up to the point where she makes a decision. Each of Louis and Louise are perfectly symmetrical in this respect, so there is no reason for me to believe both that e) is true and f) is false. But unless I do have this (non-Molinist) asymmetric view about e) and f), my inclination to treat them differently utterly inexplicable.

The very thing that the counterfactual would need to do to be an ‘indispensable’ part of my reasoning process is inexplicable if they are Molinist counterfactuals.

4. A possible reply

There is a possible reply that could be made on behalf of the Molinist at this point though. Clearly, our Molinist friend might reply, we cannot know for sure whether a Molinist counterfactual like a) or d) or f) is true rather than false. Only God can know that for certain. However, I have set the bar too high. We can reasonably infer such counterfactuals from the truth of the probably-counterfactuals, which I already conceded are not problematic to know. So, for example, it is from the premise that Louis probably would have stolen the bike, that I infer that he would have freely chosen to steal the bike. Obviously, this is not a deductive inference (for it is not deductively valid), but it is a reasonable inductive inference.

Here is the inference:

  1. Had I not locked the bike, Louis probably would have stolen it
  2. Therefore, had I not locked the bike, Louis would have freely chosen to steel it

This reply has a lot going for it. Things can be known via such inductions. I think that premise 1 is true, and that it’s truth can be plausibly construed as something which increases the (epistemic) probability of 2. Thus, the inference, though inductive, seems pretty good.

I actually don’t think that 2 could be true, but that is for semantic reasons that we do not have to get into here. Let’s just say that for the sake of the argument, I accept this type of move. Where does it get us?

It might be thought that Molinist counterfactuals can indeed be known (via inductive inference from known probably-counterfactuals). Thus, the epistemic objection seems to have been countered. Indeed, once we make this move, counterfactuals like d) (i.e. had I not locked up my bike, Louis would have freely chosen to steal it) can be believed by me with justification. Thus, it is now no longer problematic to see how they might fit into my reasoning process. I believe (via inference from a probably-counterfactual) that Louis would have freely stolen my bike, and that belief is what motivates me to lock it up. Thus, the utility objection has a rebuttal as well.

5. The redundancy reply

As I said,  I think this is a good line of response. I think it is about the best there is to be had. But even if we concede it, I don’t think much has happened of any importance. Ultimately, they rescue Molinist counterfactuals at the cost of making them redundant. If they can known and can be put to work in decision making, then they necessarily do not need to be used, because there will already be something we believe (or know) which does all of their work for them.

Even if Molinist counterfactuals, like d), can be inductively inferred from probably-counterfactuals, like c), it is not clear that they can be derived from anything else. Consider the case where someone believes that Louis will freely choose to steal the bike, but does not believe that he probably will steal the bike. Such a belief can be had, but surely it is irrational. It is like holding that this lottery ticket is the winner, even while believing that it is unlikely to be the winner. Such beliefs may be commonplace (and maybe it is beneficial to believe that you will beat the odds when fighting with a disease, etc), but they are paradigmatically irrational nonetheless. Unless you believe that something is probably going to happen, you should not believe (i.e. should lack a belief) that it is going to happen.

If that is right, then it has a similar consequence for Molinist counterfactuals being used in rational processes. Unless I have inferred it from a probably-counterfactual, I cannot reasonably believe a Molinist-counterfactual. But the only way I can use a belief in a Molinist counterfactual as part of a rational decision-making process is if I reasonably believe it. Therefore, the only way I can use a belief in a Molinist counterfactual as part of a decision making process is if I already believe the corresponding probably-counterfactual.

Here is an example to make this clear.

Let’s say that I can infer that ‘Louis would freely choose to steal the bike if left unlocked’ from the premise that ‘he probably would steal the bike if left unlocked’, and from no other premise. Let’s also say that I use believe that ‘he would freely choose to steal the bike if left unlocked’, and that I use that as part of my decision process to lock the bike up. It follows that because I used that belief as part of my rational process, that I must also believe that he probably would steal the bike.

This means that even if Molinist counterfactuals played the role that Craig thinks they do in decision making, they must come with an accompanying belief about the corresponding probably-counterfactual.

And this means that, maybe Molinist counterfactuals can be known, and maybe they can be used in reasoning processes, but they can do so only if there is a reasonably believed probably-counterfactual present as well. This makes Molinist counterfactuals completely dependent on probably-counterfactuals from both an epistemic and decision theoretic point of view. You never get to rationally believe a Molinist counterfactual unless you already believe the corresponding probably-counterfactual. And you can never use your belief in a Molinist counterfactual in some reasoning process unless you also already believe the corresponding probably-counterfactual.

And as we saw, probably-counterfactuals can already do all the explanatory work in explaining why I decided to lock my bike up. I don’t need Molinist counterfactuals if I have the right probably-counterfactual, and I never have a Molinist counterfactual unless I already have the right probably-counterfactual. That makes them necessarily redundant. Maybe they can play the role Craig wants them to play, but only if the need not play it.

 

6. Conclusion

Craig’s first aspect of the warrant for Molinist counterfactuals was that we commonly know such counterfactuals. However, I showed how it seems quite hard to see how we could know such counterfactuals directly. They are not things we can experience ourselves, and they are not deducible a priori. Probably-counterfactuals, on the other hand, are eminently knowable. Craig also claimed that Molinist counterfactuals play an indispensable role in decision making, however their disconnection from our direct ways of knowing their truth-values makes them irrelevant to decision making, unlike probably-counterfactuals.

The only response to this seems to be to claim that Molinist counterfactuals can be known via inference from probably counterfactuals. While this may be true (although I still have problems with that), all it would get a Molinist would be something which can only be known because the probably-counterfactual was also known, and only does any work explaining decision making if that work could be done by the epistemically prior probably-counterfactual. They can only be saved by being made redundant.

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