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.

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