Rasmussen’s New Argument for a Necessary Being

0. Introduction

Josh Rasmussen is a philosopher at Azuza Pacific University. He recently sent me a copy of a paper entitled ‘A New Argument for a Necessary Being‘ in which he lays out an ingenious cosmological argument. I have a response to it, which I will outline here.

  1. The argument

 Here is the argument:

  1. Normally, for any intrinsic property p that (i) can begin to be exemplified and (ii) can be exemplified by something that has a cause, there can be a cause of p’s beginning to be exemplified.
  2. The property c of being a contingent concrete particular is an intrinsic property.
  3. Property c can begin to be exemplified.
  4. Property c can be exemplified by something that has a cause.
  5. Therefore, there can be a cause of c’s beginning to be exemplified (1–4).
  6. If 5, then there is a necessary being.
  7. Therefore, there is a necessary being.

Part of the cleverness of this argument is how weak the premises are. This means that they are easier to motivate and harder to object to. Premise 1, for example, is a defeasible rule of thumb. It isn’t ruling out there being objects that don’t satisfy it; as Rasmussen explicitly says, his argument

“…allows for the possibility of uncaused natural objects” (p. 4)

The modesty of its presuppositions is a strength.

In some respects, this argument is similar to the modal ontological argument. That too has very modest premises. One supposedly only has to grant that it is possible that God exists to get that he necessarily exists, to the conclusion that he actually exists.

However, I have an objection. My objection is similar to the objection to the modal ontological argument, whereby one says that it is possible that God does not exist, from which it follows that he necessarily does not exist, and so actually does not exist.

I will essentially present a new version of premise 4, from which we get a new version of premise 5, from which we get the conclusion that there is no necessary being. I will argue that my new version of premise 4 is explicitly allowed because of the weakness of Rasmussen’s premises, and that the only way to avoid it would require tightening it up, which loses the distinctive appeal and novelty of his approach. In addition, my new version of premise 4 is a core doctrine of Christianity, and as such Christians cannot simply deny it in favour of Rasmussen’s premie (in fact, they must find a way to block one of the premises of my argument or deny its validity, else it would rule out Christianity from being true).

Before we come to that, we need to understand Rasmussen’s argument in more detail. He provides a useful summary of premise 1 as follows:

 “…any beginning of an exemplification of an intrinsic property can have a cause…” (p. 2)

As a defeasible rule of thumb, this is quite plausible. Rasmussen provides an a priori type of justification and an abductive justification. The a priori justification is as follows:

“…imagine an arbitrary, unexemplified intrinsic property i . Suddenly, something changes. Snap! Property ibecomes exemplified. At this point, you may wonder why isuddenly became exemplified. Your mind might thus be inclined to think that i ’s exemplification canhave a causal explanation (especially if ican have caused instances). I suspect that some philosophers who come to the table as sceptics of a necessary being will have this intuition.” (p. 2 – 3)

The abductive justification runs as follows:

“…when a scientist creates a new piece of technology, a new type of thing begins to exist, and the scientist thereby causes one or more intrinsic properties to begin to be exemplified. As another example, we can imagine hydrogen and oxygen atoms coming together to form the first water molecule, thereby causing the property of being waterto become exemplified. In general, when we consider a new type of object, we can coherently imagine a cause of the exemplification of the new intrinsic properties instantiated by that object. Thus, we might infer (1) as a plausible explanation of these cases of apparent causability.” (p. 3)

Thus, we can see the sorts of things that Rasmussen has in mind as being examples of what premise 1 is about. We can grant this for the purposes of my argument. It is not supposed to be a universal principle, and might have exceptional cases which are counterexamples to it, but:

If someone has reason to doubt (1) based upon certain exceptional cases, she could still accept (1) as a general rule of thumb. (p. 3)

I have no need to dispute this here.

Premise 2 just says that the property of being a contingent concrete particular is an example of an intrinsic property. The notion of being an intrinsic, as opposed to extrinsic property roughly means that the property is held of an object without relation to any other objects. It is an intrinsic property of me that I am 5’10”, but it is an extrinsic property of me that I am taller than my friend Joe, etc. It is tricky to spell this distinction out perfectly, and Rasmussen offers a simple sufficient (but not necessary) condition for being intrinsic, namely:

“p is intrinsic if one who grasps p does not thereby grasp any external”

We can grant this for the purposes of my response. We can also grant that being a contingent concrete particular is an intrinsic property.

Premise 3 says that the property of being a contingent concrete particular, i.e. c, can begin to be exemplified. The premise doesn’t say that it actually did begin to be exemplified, only that it is possible for it to be so. Rasmussen says as an example:

“…we can imagine a beginning to the existence of contingent bits of matter as they explode out of an initial singularity.” (p. 4)

Thus, in a broad sense, it is possible for contingent concrete things to have an origin point. We can grant this for now as well.

Premise 4, according to Rasmussen, says:

there can be a contingent concrete particular that has a cause. (p. 4)

In defence of this, Rasmussen says:

“Take me, for example: I am a contingent concrete particular and my existence was caused some time ago.”

That seems very reasonable. I won’t directly challenge this premise, but it is at this point that my argument will kick in (more on that in a moment). Before we get to that, let’s just see how Rasmussen ties these considerations together into a whole.

Premises 2, 3 and 4 establish that c is intrinsic, can begin to be exemplified, and can have caused instances. This means that it is the sort of property that premise 1 applies to; it is the sort of property according to which

“there can be a cause of [c]’s beginning to be exemplified” (p. 1)

But because c is the property of being a contingent concrete particular, this means that:

“…there can be a cause of a beginning of contingency” (p. 5)

This is premise 5, and it follows from premises 1 – 4.

The move to premise 6 is my favourite bit of the argument, and I think the most ingenious. So far, all we have established is that it is possible that there is a cause for the beginning of contingency. We have not established that there is a beginning of contingency, or that there is a cause; just that such a cause of a beginning is possible.

From this, Rasmussen says, it follows that a necessary being exists. Here is how he gets there.

First, suppose that no necessary being exists. If that is the case, then, Rasmussen says, there couldn’t be a necessary being. This is the familiar inference used in the modal ontological argument; necessary beings exist at all possible worlds, so if there is even one at which they don’t exist, they exist at none at all. But if it is not possible for a necessary being to exist, it is not possible for a necessary being to be to cause the beginning of contingency either. So if there is no necessary being, then it must be possible for a contingent thing to cause the beginning of contingency (for it to remain possible at all, as premise 5 states). But this is incoherent, and thus impossible. Rasmussen explains:

This is because c —the property of being a contingent concrete particular— would already have to be exemplified if a contingent concrete particular were to cause c to begin to be exemplified in the first place. In other words, the exemplification of contingency would be ‘prior to’ the exemplification of contingency, which is impossible. (p. 5)

Rasmussen concludes this section with the following:

Thus, if there is no necessary being, then it is not possible for anything to cause a beginning of contingency, which contradicts (5). Therefore, if there is no necessary being, then (5) is not true. This result is the contrapositive of (6). Therefore, (6) is true.
From (1)–(6), it follows that there is a necessary being. (p. 5)

Now, I must say, I think this is a brilliant bit of reasoning. It is ingenious and original. I really like it.

But I still think I have a problem for it.

2. Counter-argument

My response to this argument is not really to reject any of the premises or the inference to the conclusion. The type of response I am giving is a sort of stale-mate response, rather than a defeating response. I think that we have just as good a reason to think that the negation of the conclusion is true, and I have an argument which is almost exactly the same as Rasmussen’s. In this respect, it mimics a familiar response to Plantinga’s modal ontological argument. That argument can be stated as follows:

  1. It is possible that a necessary being exists
  2. Therefore, a necessary being actually exists

The response to this is to simply postulate an alternative argument, with premises that are just as plausible, but with the opposite conclusion:

  1. It is possible that no necessary being exists
  2. Therefore, no necessary being actually exists

The question then becomes which of the two premises is more plausible. Each premise is equally plausible. Without a way of deciding between the premises which does not beg the question, the argument ends in a stalemate. Plantinga seems to accept this stalemate, because he is merely interested in establishing the rationality, rather than the truth, of the conclusion:

“[modal ontological arguments] cannot, perhaps, be said to prove or establish their conclusion. But since it is rational to accept their central premise, they do show that it is rational to accept that conclusion” (Plantinga 1974, 221)

If my argument works, Rasmussen would be pushed into accepting merely this sort of less ambitious defence, or he would have to tighten up the premises and thus lose the attractiveness of them.

Here is my counter-argument:

  1. Normally, for any intrinsic property p that (i) can begin to be exemplified and (ii) can be exemplified by something that has a cause, there can be a cause of p’s beginning to be exemplified.
  2. The property c of being a contingent concrete particular is an intrinsic property.
  3. Property c can begin to be exemplified.
  4. Property c can be exemplified by something WITHOUT a cause.
  5. Therefore, there can be NO cause of c’s beginning to be exemplified (i.e. it is possible that there is no cause of c’s beginning to be exemplified).
  6. If 5, then there is NO necessary being.
  7. Therefore, there is NO necessary being.

The argument is the same up to premise 4. The new version of premise 4 mimics the form of Rasmussen’s fourth premise, but simply says that c can be exemplified by something without a cause. As we saw above, Rasmussen is explicit that his argument allows for “the possibility of uncaused natural objects”. This seems enough to buy us my new premise 4; after all we only need the possibility, not the actuality of such objects for this premise to work. We will come back to what reasons we might have to thinking that premise 4 is true, but for now, let’s see what affect this has on the argument if we were to grant it.

One way of the new premise 4 being satisfied is by there being a first contingent thing that just pops into existence uncaused. Let’s say that a teapot pops into existence uncaused, and thus exemplifies property c. Thus, property c is exemplified by something which itself has no cause. In this scenario, premise 5 is true, because the teapot is the first (and indeed only) contingent concrete particular. Thus, it is a case of c beginning to be exemplified without any prior cause. Again, we are not saying that this scenario is true; just that it is possible that it is true.

This scenario doesn’t directly rule out a necessary being, but it does indirectly. We might think that there may be a necessary being who exists necessarily, and a teapot spontaneously pops into existence, as it were, next to her; or it may be that there is no necessary being at all (and, indeed nothing at all) and then a teapot just pops into existence on its own. Either seems possible.

But, as the familiar modal ontological argument reasoning goes, if the second scenario is even possible, then the first one isn’t. So if it is possible that the teapot pops into existence on its own, then there necessarily isn’t a necessary being. And remember, the premise

“…does not assert that this is actually the case—only that it is broadly logically possible for this [scenario] to be the case”

The test of broad logical possibility that Rasmussen uses throughout the paper was just whether we can imagine it. Recall, he said in defence of premise 3:

 “…we can imagine a beginning to the existence of contingent bits of matter as they explode  out of an initial singularity.”

If that establishes the possibility that premise 3 needs, then my being able to imagine the teapot popping into being on its own establishes my new premise 4.

But what about Rasmussen’s ingenious bit at the end of his paper, where he seemed to rule out this scenario? Didn’t he establish that “it is not possible for a contingent concrete particular to cause a beginning of contingency without circularity”?

Well, we can actually grant that he did. My counter-argument doesn’t require that the teapot causes c to become exemplified. As Rasmussen said, premise 1 is a rule of thumb, and not an exceptionalness principle. The teapot coming into existence is a case of an uncaused thing beginning to exist, and of c being exemplified without cause. Thus, we do not get caught in the trap that Rasmussen lays. We are simply explaining one way that new premise 5 is satisfied, which is that c begins to be exemplified by something uncaused, and it is one of those rare cases that premise 1 does not rule out. The very modesty of Rasmussen’s argument allows for this sort of case to pop up (in the broad logical sense).

So, if it is possible that the teapot pops into existence with no cause, then there is no necessary being (via the modal ontological argument inference). As new premise 5 states, such a thing is possible; therefore there is no necessary being.

3. Justifying new premise 4

The strategy I am employing here ends up with a stalemate, or at least that is the intention. Rasmussen’s premise 4 leads to the conclusion that God (or at least a necessary being) exists, and my new premise 4 leads to the conclusion that no necessary being exists.

One response would be to suggest that Rasmussen’s premise 4 is more plausible than my premise 4. If so, that might tip the balance in favour of his conclusion. In the case of the modal ontological argument, the thought was that no non-question-begging reasons could be brought forward that favoured one argument over the other. But perhaps there are decent reasons for thinking that the original premise is more plausible than the new one. We have already seen Rasmussen’s reason for thinking that his premise is true, which are pretty straightforward, and don’t seem remotely question-begging. His own existence as a contingent concrete particular was all that seemed to be needed.

Why think that the new premise 4 is correct though? We already saw that nothing in Rasmussen’s argument ruled it out. The modesty of the premises, which is one of its great strengths, also means there is more room for premises like mine though. The mere possibility of uncaused contingent concrete particulars is all I need, and they seem compatible with his argument. To rule them out, he would have to tighten up the premises, which would be to surrender some of the distinctiveness of his approach, and would mean that his premises would be harder to justify. But that could be done in principle. He could also take Plantinga’s route, and fall back on his argument merely establishing the rationality of belief in a necessary being rather than establishing the truth of the claim. Something has to give though, it seems to me.

However, I have one further problems related to this, specifically relating to Christianity.

Christian theism seems particularly invested in the scenario I used to satisfy premise 4 not being merely possible, but being the actual world. On Christian theism, it isn’t just that a contingent concrete particular can be exemplified by something without cause; it is the central doctrine of the religion this happened. Jesus came to earth and took on a human form. As part of the trinity, Jesus is an uncaused necessary being; what happened when he took on human form was that he exemplified a contingent concrete particular. Thus, Christianity seems invariably committed to the truth of my new premise 4.

So, while it is true that someone could tighten up the argument to avoid my counterexample, it doesn’t seem possible for a Christian.

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Richard Carrier not getting an ought from an is

0. Introduction

In the book The End of Christianity, Richard Carrier has a chapter called Moral Facts Naturally Exist, in which he claims to be able to “dispense” with the is-ought problem. I don’t think he does this. I’m not going to look at the whole piece here, because it is quite long, but I intend to come back to it later. I’m just going to look at a few remarks he makes about the ‘is-ought’ problem.

  1. The argument

Characteristically, he is quite ambitious:

It’s often declared a priori that “you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’,” and that therefore science can’t possibly discover moral facts. This is sometimes called a “naturalistic fallacy.” But calling this a fallacy is itself a fallacy. Indeed, it’s not merely illogical, it’s demonstrably false. We get an “ought” from an “is” all the time.

Given this primer, I am expecting to see the demonstration of how to get an’ ought’ from an ‘is’. That is, I am expecting to see a valid argument, with true premises that are purely descriptive that has a conclusion which contains the word ‘ought’.

Yet, this is not what we get. Here is what we get:

For example, “If you want your car to run well, then you ought to change its oil with sufficient regularity.” This entails an imperative statement (“you ought to change your car’s oil with sufficient regularity”), which is factually true independent of human opinion or belief. That is, regardless of what I think or feel or believe, if I want my car to run well, I still have to change its oil with sufficient regularity

Now hold on a minute. Let’s break this down into the relevant bits. Firstly we have a conditional statement:

  1. If you want your car to run well, then you ought to change its oil with sufficient regularity.

We also have an expression of the consequent of this conditional:

2.  You ought to change your car’s oil with sufficient regularity

Yet, contrary to Carrier’s claim, 1 does not entail 2 (if you disagree, please tell me the inference rule used). To make it entail 2, we would have to add in a premise, 1a, about what you want:

1. If you want your car to run well, then you ought to change its oil with sufficient regularity
1a. You want your car to run well
2. Therefore, you ought to change its oil with sufficient regularity (1, 2, modus ponens)

Together, 1 and 1a jointly entail 2 (via MP), but on its own 1 does not entail 2.

Carrier says that 2 is “factually true independent of human opinion or belief”, but it doesn’t follow from 1 unless we have the premise, 1a, which explicitly references what people want. We can, of course, assert that 2 is true independently of human opinion or belief if we like, but we have not shown that it is derived from 1. Asserting that 2 is true surely cannot be held to be an example of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’; it would be just an assertion of an ‘ought’.

Indeed, Carrier changes scope in the very next sentence, from 2 being what is independent of human opinion of belief, to 1 being independent of human belief:

“That is, regardless of what I think or feel or believe, if I want my car to run well, I still have to change its oil with sufficient regularity”

Clearly, he is now saying that the conditional statement is what is true independently of what people feel or believe. In the previous sentence, he is making a different claim, namely that the consequent is what is independent of what people feel or believe.

But even if the conditional (i.e. 1) is true independently of what people feel or believe, this does not mean that the consequent of the conditional (i.e. 2) is true independently of what people feel or believe. You can’t derive ‘q’ merely from ‘if p, then q’. And you can’t derive ‘q is independent of what people feel or believe’ from ‘(if p then q) is independent of what people feel or believe’.

But perhaps his claim is just that we can derive 2 from 1 and 1a. If so, he is right. And I also think that 1 and 1a are both true. I’m not disputing the logical form of that argument, or either premise. So that argument is both valid and has true premises. Great!

So, what’s the problem? Well, premise 1 has an ‘ought’ in it. So this is not an example of an argument which has an ‘ought’ in the conclusion, but no ‘ought’ in the premises. We are not getting an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. We are getting an ‘ought’ from an ‘ought’ and an ‘is’. That is not what was advertised.

2. Diagnosis

What is going on here is that we often express the relationship between A and B, where A is something we want and B is the ‘optimal’ way of getting A, by saying that we ‘ought’ to do B. For example, most will happily nod along to the following:

If you want to go to university, and if studying hard for your exams is the optimal way to ensure going to university, then you ought to study hard for your exams. 

But, if you stop to think about it, the relationship between the antecedent and the consequent is not one of logical entailment. That is, the following is logically invalid:

  1. You want to go to university, and studying hard for your exams is the optimal way to ensure going to university
  2. Therefore, you ought to study hard for your exams.

I admit that this argument sounds valid. It sounds valid, and it has a descriptive premise with a normative conclusion. Contrary to what I’m claiming, many people will think that this is a way to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

Regardless of how it seems, strictly speaking it isn’t valid. In reality it is an enthymeme, or an argument in which one premise is implicit. For example, if I say “x is a horse, therefore x is an animal”, we will hear this as valid, but only because the premise “if x is a horse, then x is an animal” is implicit. In formal logic though, we need to state all our assumptions. In the ‘is/ought’ problem, this is also true.

What is implicit in our case is the following premise:

1a. If you want A, and B is the optimal way of realising A, then you ought to do B.

We might have this in our background knowledge, as an implicit assumption, but if we are talking about logical validity (as indeed we are here), then we need to make these explicit. Once we add this new premise in, we can substitute terms from 1 to 1a to get:

1b. If you want to go to university, and if studying hard for your exams is the optimal way to ensure going to university, then you ought to study hard for your exams.

Now, 2 follows from 1 and 1b via modus ponens. That is, the following is valid:

1. You want to go to university, and studying hard for your exams is the optimal way to ensure going to university
1a. If you want A, and B is the optimal way of realising A, then you ought to do B.
1b. Therefore, if you want to go to university, and if studying hard for your exams is the optimal way to ensure going to university, then you ought to study hard for your exams (1, 1a, substitution)
2. Therefore, you ought to study hard for your exams. (1b, 1, modus ponens)

This argument is now formally valid, and the premises are true. But again, we have needed to insert a premise, 1a, which is not purely descriptive – it contains an ‘ought’ in it. Once again, we are not deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, but are deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘ought’ and an ‘is’. In addition, 1a does not seem to be something that is empirically discoverable. It looks like a kind of conceptual truth. It doesn’t look like something that science discovered though. Yet it is needed to get to the conclusion.

Carrier says that:

There are countless true imperative facts like this that science can discover and verify, and that science often has discovered and verified, from “If you want to save the life of a patient on whom you are performing surgery, you ought to sterilize your instruments” to “If you want to build an enduring bridge, you ought not to employ brittle concrete.”

I think that what science discovers is something purely descriptive, such as that sterilising your instruments is (part of) the optimal way of performing surgery on patients without them dying. What we discovered is that people much more frequently die if we perform surgery on them with unsterilised instruments. Presumably, we want to ensure that people don’t die when we perform surgery on them. That means we have the thing desired, and (let’s say) an empirically discovered fact about the optimal way to realise that desire. But as we saw above, unless we insert a premise which links what we desire, the optimal way of realising it, and what we ‘ought’ to do, we cannot derive anything about what we ought to do. And that generalised principle, even if it is true, isn’t something science discovered.

His examples only get the varnish of looking valid by smuggling in the premise which mentions ‘ought’. Thus, all of his examples seem to fall foul of the same problem, and none of them are examples of getting an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

3. A deeper problem

But, let’s say that we agree that there are basic hypothetical normative facts about the world of the form “if you want to do x, then you ought to do y”. As I mentioned in a previous post, some of these are clearly not moral. Perhaps it is true that if you want to torture someone, you ‘ought’ to kidnap them and tie them up in your basement. Perhaps that is the optimal way of realising your desire to torture someone. A central moral intuition is that, regardless of this empirically discoverable fact about how best to realise your desire, you ought not do that. Some things are wrong, and some things are good, regardless of what we desire. Some things, like torturing innocent people, are wrong even if you are a sadist with a desire to do it; and some things, like helping old ladies across the road (or whatever) are good even if you are selfish and don’t want to do it. Someone who believes that all morality is reducible to hypothetical norms has a very hard time explaining these sorts of situations, where bad things are in line with our desires and good things in conflict with our desires.

I suspect that Carrier wants to say that people with such sadistic (etc) views are irrational somehow, but this seems like an article of faith. Why can’t there be an internally coherent belief set in which someone desires to torture innocent people? Maybe he has a response to this, but I haven’t read enough of his work to know.

Even if there are true hypothetical norms, I think these cannot be the whole story about morality. What we need in addition to these are categorical norms. Carrier’s attempt to say everything we need to about morality purely in terms of hypothetical norms seems to me to be wide of the mark, because it cannot make room in principle for immoral desires, or for moral things that go against our desires.

4. Conclusion

I intend to come back to this essay of Carrier’s, because it has many other seemingly interesting things going on in it. To sum this up, I think he fails to show how to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, and even if we give him the hypothetical norms he wants, these can never be enough to capture all moral truths.

Molinism and the Grounding Objection, Part 2

0. Introduction

In part 1, I outlined an objection to Craig’s suggestion that Molinist counterfactuals are easily known, which I called the ‘epistemic objection’. Here I will respond to a different claim that Craig makes in his paper.

Craig argues that the truth-maker principle is dubious, and states various counter-examples to it. He also suggests that even if we grant the truth-maker principle, Molinist counterfactuals can be given certain types of truth-makers anyway.

I think this is wrong. ‘Counterfactuals of creaturely freedom’ are just an instance of a type of counterfactual, which in turn fits into a wider family of counterfactuals. The overall analysis of this family of concepts shows us a different reason for rejecting Molinist counterfactuals being true.

  1. Truth-making

The dialectic works as follows.  Molinism is the position that some ‘counterfactuals of creaturely freedom’ are true, and as such are known by God. The ‘grounding objection’ is that Molinist counterfactualshave no truth-makers, and that this means that they must be regarded as being either truth-valueless or uniformly false. If so, then there are no such truths for God to know.

Part of the response to the grounding objection is to point out that it presupposes the more general principle of truth-making, according to which all true propositions are made true by something. Typical candidates for truth-makers are such things as ‘facts’ or ‘obtaining states of affairs’, etc. While such a view might initially seem plausible, it is a matter of serious dispute amongst philosophers.

For instance, Craig offers several examples of sentences which are difficult to fit in to various naive sorts of truth-maker theory, such as the theory that all true propositions are made true by some obtaining states of affairs. Consider the following proposition:

“Dinosaurs are extinct today.”

What truth-maker makes this proposition true? The relevant state of affairs, of ‘dinosaurs existing’, is absent. So, one might argue, the proposition is not made true by a state of affairs obtaining, but rather it is made true by a state of affairs not obtaining. If so, then it is an exception to the truth-maker principle, which is that all true propositions are made true by states of affairs obtaining. The proposition would be true, but without a truth-maker. And as Craig goes on to say:

“If there can be true statements without any truth–makers of those statements, how do we know that counterfactual statements cannot be true without truth–makers?”

It seems that the onus is on the anti-Molinist to defend the thesis of ‘truth-maker maximalism’, that there are no exceptions at all to the truth-maker principle, if that is to include Molinist counterfactuals. For if there are exceptions to the truth-maker principle, such as the one above, then maybe Molinist counterfactuals are exceptions as well.

We can think of the argument like this, where M is ‘Molinism is true’, G is ‘the grounding objection is successful’, T is ‘the truth-maker theory is true’.

  1. If G, then ~M
  2. G
  3. Therefore, ~M     (1, 2, modus ponens)

However, Craig’s reply is:

  1. If G, then T
  2. ~T
  3. Therefore, ~G       (via 1, 2, modus tollens)

So, Craig’s argument is designed to block the second premise of the first premise. Craig’s argument here does not prove that Molinism is true, but if successful would remove one of the reasons people have for thinking that Molinism is false.

2. Truth-making on the cheap

But Craig plays a stronger hand than this. He suggests that there are plausible truth-makers for Molinist counterfactuals, although these are not the types that anti-Molinists typically demand.

Anti-Molinists typically want counterfactual truth-makers to be things that actually exist. Yet, if we think of the counterfactual involving Louis and the bike (see my previous post), it seems that the real, actually existing, version of Louis lacks any properties that entail whether he would have freely stolen it rather than not stolen it. Modally speaking, he was just free to do either. No investigation into any of Louis’ actual properties will ever reveal which one it would have been though. Therefore, the facts about the actual Louis underdetermine whether he would have freely chosen to steal the bike or not.

In response to this though, Craig proposes a different theory. According to this theory, Molinist counterfactuals do have truth-makers, but they are not categorical (or descriptive) properties of actually existing objects. Rather, they are a different type of property, namely modal properties. The distinction between modal properties and categorical properties is fairly easy to draw, and is done so quite nicely in the first two pages of this book by Joe Melia. Categorical properties include things like the size, shape, position, and velocity of every object that there is (insofar as modern physics allows for such properties, I guess). So, a categorical fact would be that Louis is 5’10”, and is currently in his living room watching his TV. Suppose we could specify as precisely as we liked, and include exactly which colour each pixel is on his screen, and exactly which cells in his brain are currently generating his experience, etc. The thought would be that we could extend this description of Louis out from his living room and include the properties of everything else that exists, starting with his house, the street he lives on, his city, the country, the planet, the galaxy and including the whole universe.

It would be tempting to think that such a description covered everything. Yet there is reason to think that an important class of truths would have been left out of such a description. Sure, Louis is currently sitting down. But, he could have been standing up. This is a modal fact, and describes not just how things are, but introduces how things could be; it is not just categorical, but modal.

If there are modal facts, in addition to categorical facts, then Craig could use them as the truth-makers for his counterfactuals.

In order to motivate this option, Craig favourably endorses a strategy employed in the philosophy of time, concerning tense.

There are theories of propositions according to which they have tense. We call such theories A-theories. Something very similar to the grounding objection could be pressed to A-theories, and Craig is impressed with one way that A-theorists can respond to the objection.

Take the view that there are tensed propositions, such as ‘There was snow yesterday’. A truth-maker theorist might want to say that this proposition is made true by some presently obtaining state of affairs, i.e. present-tensed fact (such as the presence of snow on the ground right now, etc). The problem is that there are various future- or past-tensed propositions for which no such presently obtaining truth-maker exists (i.e. for which no corresponding present-tensed fact exists). Take the tensed proposition ‘There was snow exactly 100 years ago today’. It is doubtful that anything about the current state of affairs determines whether there was snow exactly 100 years ago today or not. Either option is possible, for all the present facts about today determine. Thus, not all future- or past-tensed facts have presently obtaining truth-makers.

The idea here is that future-tensed propositions, like “It will be that p”, are made true by future-tensed facts. If we allow that there currently are facts of the form ‘p will be made true’, then these could be the truth-makers for future-tensed propositions. Craig quotes Freddoso:

“…there are now adequate metaphysical grounds for the truth of a future–tense proposition Fp just in case there will be at some future time adequate metaphysical grounds for the truth of its present–tense counterpart p”

Freddoso is pointing out that there may be no present-tensed obtaining states of affairs that could ground the future-tensed truth, but if we allow for future tensed states of affairs (or future-tensed facts), such as “there will be at some future time adequate metaphysical grounds for the truth of its present–tense counterpart p“, then we do have a presently obtaining state of affairs to play the role of truth-maker. The idea is that future-tensed truths require future-tensed truth makers. And it is this sort of idea that Craig is going to endorse when we come to the case of counterfactuals.

So, on Craig’s proposal, a counterfactual is not made true by any categorical states of affairs, but by modal states of affairs. This is explained by Flint, according to which:

“It would be the case (if c were true) that z” is now grounded iff “z is grounded” would be the case (if c were true).

We can ground the truth of “Louis would have stolen the bike had he been tempted” with the modal fact, that ‘Louis would have stolen the bike had he been tempted’. As Craig puts it himself:

“For my part, I should say that if true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom have truth–makers, then the most obvious and plausible candidates are the facts or states of affairs disclosed by the disquotation principle. Thus, what makes it true that “If I were rich, I would buy a Mercedes,” is the fact that if I were rich I would buy a Mercedes. Just as there are tensed facts about the past or future which now exist, even though the objects and events they are about do not, so there are counterfactuals which actually exist, even though the objects and events they are about do not.”

So, in summary, Craig is adopting a strategy commonly appealed to in the philosophy of time. A certain type of truth-maker (namely present-tensed facts, or purely categorical facts) is not suitable for grounding a certain type of proposition (namely future tensed propositions, or counterfactuals of creaturely freedom), and in each case a different type of truth-maker is proposed (future-tensed facts, or modal facts).

3. Objection

It has taken a while to explain Craig’s move, and it will take just as long to explain the objection. I suggest that the anti-Molinist need not posit truth-maker maximalism; nor need they posit that all truths have merely categorical truth-makers. Maybe there are truths that are not grounded in anything, such as ‘This sentence is true’. Maybe that is true but not grounded in anything. Who knows? Maybe there are tensed facts, such as that Matt Damon will be the first man on Mars. Who knows? I don’t need to rule either of those out.

Why not? Well, because I can phrase the objection in a more specific way. Consider a fair coin, with heads on one side and tails on the other, and also a rigged coin, with heads on both sides. It seems true to say of the fair coin that it could land heads, and that it could land tails. Also, it seems false to say of the fair coin that it would (necessarily) land heads, or that it would (necessarily) land tails. Things are obviously different for the rigged coin. It is true to say that it will necessarily land heads, and false to say that it even could land tails. As such, the two coins have a different set of modal properties. The modal facts about the coins is different. But ask yourself why that is. The obvious candidate answer is that they have different categorical properties. The fair coin has different things on each side, and the rigged coin has the same thing on each side. Clearly, the categorical facts explain the modal facts; and as such the categorical facts explain the modal facts. This all seems very straightforward.

But what this means is that there are various counterfactuals which, even if they are made true by modal facts, are ultimately explained by categorical facts. Here is one:

A) ‘Had I flipped the rigged coin, it necessarily-would have landed heads’.

A) is true, and let us suppose (for the sake of the argument) that what makes it true is the modal fact had I flipped the rigged coin, it necessarily-would have landed heads (to make it in line with what Craig proposes).

My conjecture, which seems pretty obvious, is that the modal fact that makes A) true is explained by (and hence grounded in) the categorical facts about the coin, and in particular about it having heads on both sides.

Consider the following pair:

B) ‘Had I flipped the fair coin, it might have landed heads’

C) ‘Had I flipped the fair coin, it might have landed tails’

Clearly, B) and C) are. Even if this is because they are made true by modal facts, it is still the case that these modal facts themselves are going to be explained (among other things) by the categorical fact that the fair coin has heads on one side and tails on the other.

I say “among other things” because no doubt there will be some modality involved in the description of the situation. The coins need to be flipped in the right circumstances, for example. If flipped in the vacuum of space, the will just spin off forever and not land at all, etc. So we would have to say something like “in normal circumstances”, and this would involve a specification of the laws of physics acting on the coins. Laws themselves have irreducibly modal aspects to them, one might think, and if so then our description is not purely categorical.

That might be true, but it doesn’t matter even if it is. All I need is that, at least in part, the modal facts are explained via reference to categorical properties (such as the actual properties of the coins). This is my conjecture, and I think it is correct.

What does it mean to deny it though? Well, remember that the coins have associated with them different counterfactuals. We can think of this as the ‘modal profile’ for the coins. The fair coin has both B) and C) in its profile, but the rigged coin only has B), for example. The question is what explains this difference in profile. My conjecture is essentially that part of the explanation involves reference to categorical facts, and cannot be purely modal. The cost of denying my conjecture is that the explanation of why the rigged coin has a different modal profile to the fair coin becomes inexplicable. The rigged coin just has different modal facts associated with it; end of explanation. Yet, we all clearly see that there is a deeper explanation which involves the categorical facts about the coin and what is on its faces. So the cost of denying my conjecture is that you end up making something clearly explicable into a mystery. This is clearly a theoretical cost, and needless.

Yet, a Molinist has to make such a move. This is because if we introduce Molinist counterfactuals into the picture, then we have to suppose that our fair coin has in its modal profile a counterfactual proposition of the following form:

D) ‘Had I flipped the fair coin, it just would have landed tails’

This proposition doesn’t express either that the coin had to land heads, nor that it merely could have done; rather it expresses the idea that God knows which way it would have contingently landed if you had flipped it.

When it comes to these counterfactuals, Craig supposes that we can have a purely modal truth-maker for it. The proposition ‘Had I flipped the fair coin, it just would have landed tails’ can be made true merely by the modal fact that had I flipped the fair coin, it just would have landed tails.

But now consider the two things side by side. On the one hand, we have strong ‘would’ and mere ‘might’ counterfactuals, and these seem to require reference to categorical facts, even if they have modal truth-makers. On the other hand, we have Molinist counterfactuals, which Craig supposes can have purely modal truth-makers. Given that they are clearly in the same family of expressions, it is puzzling as to why they have such different types of semantics. Why does one have to have categorical aspects to it’s grounding while the other does not?

We might try to align them to avoid this weird asymmetry. We could either try to introduce some categorical facts into the explanation of the Molinist truth-maker, or we could try to remove the categorical facts from the explanation of the other counterfactual’s truth maker. Well, as I argued above, if we remove reference to the categorical facts about the coin from the explanation of the truth-makers for the first type of counterfactuals, then we made an explanation into a mystery. As such the latter option is a non-starter. As such, to align the analysis of counterfactuals, we need to introduce something categorical into the explanation of the Molinist counterfactuals. But what could this be? There is clearly nothing categorical, nothing purely descriptive, about the fair coin which determines that it would land heads rather than tails on any given flip. This is really the heart of the grounding objection. Up to the point of being flipped, the world where the fair coin lands heads is utterly identical to the world where it lands tails. As such there cannot be any purely categorical fact that tells between heads and tails.

But this leaves us with a weird asymmetry. The analysis of would and might counterfactuals takes one form, but the analysis of Molinist counterfactuals has to take another. Why is the analysis symmetric? Is there anything that accounts for it? I think there isn’t. There is no principled reason why Molinist counterfactuals have such a different type of semantics from all the other types of counterfactual. But the fact that they appear on their own, untethered from the satisfying and explanatory semantics that their cousins enjoy, makes Molinist counterfactuals look suspect. They look like gerrymadered creations. It is not just that they have to have modal facts, but they also have to have a different type of analysis of their own.

Let me make the point sharply before stopping.

Here is the analysis of a might counterfactual:

Propositions B) and C) are both true of the fair coin. Why is that the case? Well, let’s say that they have modal truth-makers which make those propositions true, i.e. which give them their modal profile. What accounts for the difference in modal profile between the rigged and fair coin? Well, this is accounted for by a deeper description, at least partially involving categorical facts about the actually existing coins themselves.

Here is an analysis of a Molinist counterfactual:

Proposition D) is true of the fair coin (at some particular time). Why is that the case? Well, let’s say that it has a modal truth-maker which makes that proposition true. What explains why D) is true right now of this fair coin, but that two minutes later, if flipped again, it would have happened to have landed tails? Well, all Craig can say is that it has a different modal truth-maker two minutes late. But why is this the case? There is no reason; the analysis ends here. Nothing categorical can be wheeled in to explain it, and all we have is a sort of brute fact.

When put like this, the two analyses seem very different, and the onus is on the Molinist to either realign their analyses or to find some non ad hoc way of accounting for the difference. I think it is obvious that they cannot be realigned (as we went through the options above), and given the closeness of the propositions grammatically, any explanation of why their analysis is so different is bound to be ad hoc. Maybe God wants them to have different analyses, for example, is not going to cut it.

4. Conclusion

The conclusion is that counterfactuals, even if they have modal truth-makers at some level, are tethered to categorical facts about how things actually are. It is because Molinist counterfactuals cannot be tethered to reality in this way, and can only be supported by purely modal facts, that we can see that they are just a philosopher’s fantasy. This is the real grounding objection, in my opinion. I’m not proving that they are a philosopher’s fantasy, but I am bringing out how much strain they put on the analysis, and what a big semantic problem they have. Craig makes it seem like it is an effortless move to make, but by making the move he breaks from the clear and obvious way we analyse all other counterfacuals. The complaint is that the difference in analysis can only be justified by special pleading. Counterfactuals are analysed like this, says me. That’s true of the others, but not when it comes to these ones, says Craig. But why are they treated differently? That is the question I need to hear an answer to, and I don’t think there is one, apart from ‘because if they are then my theory works’, which is the definition of ad hoc.