I recently listened to the exchange on Molinism and Calvinism between William Lane Craig and Paul Helm on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? radio program. It was more of a conversation than a debate, but it’s still worth a listen. In this post I want to expand on a point Helm raised but didn’t himself develop. I’ll first summarize the main tenets of Molinism before discussing what I regard as a serious objection to it. (Be patient — the first half of this post is just set-up.)
Molinism is a philosophical theory designed to reconcile a strong view of divine providence (according to which God foreordains all things) with a libertarian view of free will and a synergistic view of salvation (according to which God doesn’t cause anyone to repent and believe; instead sinners freely cooperate with God’s resistible grace in order to be saved). According to Molinism, God is able to providentially direct events by means of his middle knowledge, that is, his knowledge of what any libertarian-free creature would choose in any specific circumstances. For example, God knew prior to his decision to create this world whether I would freely choose a Boston Kreme if I were to go to Dunkin’ Donuts at noon on February 19, 2014, in such-and-such exact circumstances. God is therefore able to plan events down to the very last detail by prearranging the precise circumstances in which his creatures will find themselves and make their free choices. God doesn’t cause those choices, but he does guarantee them in some strong sense by orchestrating circumstances in light of his middle knowledge.
Molinists are therefore committed to three key claims. First, God foreordains all things, including the free choices of his creatures. Craig was quite emphatic about this during the exchange with Helm. He stated that God “preordains” everything and quipped that he could affirm almost everything the Westminster Confession of Faith says about God’s eternal decree and God’s providence — apart from the confession’s deliberate rejection of Molinism! (Note the final clause in WCF 3.2.)
The reason Molinists such as Craig want to affirm this is because they recognize that the Bible has a very strong view of providence (e.g., Gen. 50:20; Matt. 10:29-30; Acts 4:27-28; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11). And they should be commended for recognizing this (although, as I’ll explain shortly, the biblical view is even stronger than they think).
Secondly, by affirming a libertarian view of free will, Molinists are committed to the idea that if a person S freely chooses A in specific circumstances C, then it must have been possible for S not to have chosen A. It may be more likely (perhaps even overwhelmingly so) that S will choose A over not-A, but it must be possible for S to have chosen otherwise. (Here I’m glossing over the distinction some libertarians make between derivatively and non-derivatively free choices. In what follows, for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to ignore derivatively free choices; I don’t think the distinction affects my argument.)
Molinists are therefore committed to the following:
(1) If S freely chooses A in C, then it is possible for S not to choose A in C.
Or to put the point in terms of possible worlds:
(1′) If S freely chooses A in C, then there is at least one possible world in which S does not choose A in C.
Note that in these statements C here should be understood as, in effect, the entire history of the universe up to the time of S’s choice. The point is that S’s choice isn’t determined (or at any rate causally determined) by any prior events or states of the universes (including S’s character, past experiences, memories, beliefs, desires, etc.).
Thirdly, the Molinist affirms that God has middle knowledge, that is, knowledge of the (inaptly named) counterfactuals of freedom. God therefore knows, prior to his decision to create a particular world, subjunctive conditional truths like the following:
(2) If S were in C, S would freely choose A.
It is this knowledge, the Molinist claims, that allows God to foreordain events. Since God knows what every possible creature would freely choose in every possible circumstance, he can plan accordingly. He can know in advance how things would go if he were to create particular people and arrange for them to make their free choices in particular circumstances.
This means that God cannot actualize just any possible world. Molinists such as Craig will distinguish between possible worlds and feasible worlds. All feasible worlds are possible worlds, but not all possible worlds are feasible worlds. A feasible world is a possible world that God can actualize on the basis of his middle knowledge: his knowledge of truths like (2). He can “weakly actualize” any one of these feasible worlds by “strongly actualizing” those elements of the world under his causal control, viz., which creatures exist and which circumstances they find themselves in. By his middle knowledge, God knows which possible worlds are feasible worlds, and he decides (on the basis of certain criteria) which of those feasible worlds to (weakly) actualize. And that is the Molinist view of divine foreordination.
It should be noted that Molinists aren’t always clear on what counts as circumstances in truths like (2). Do the circumstances include God’s decree or God’s foreknowledge, for example? Fortunately, we don’t need to settle that question here, so long as we recognize that whatever is included under C in (2) must also be included under C in (1) and (1′).
[Addendum: Greg Welty has pointed out that I slipped up here. See below for his comments and my responses. In short, it does matter how the circumstances are defined, but I think the Molinist faces serious problems either way.]
Well, so much for the background. The question I want to pose is simply this:
Is God infallible on the Molinist view?
I suspect most Molinists will be inclined to say yes. On the very face of it, we would expect God to be infallible. “Fallible God” hardly sounds right! More significantly, the Bible teaches explicitly that God’s plans cannot fail. God’s purposes are always accomplished:
Then Job answered the Lord and said: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:1-2)
Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. (Prov. 19:21)
The Lord of hosts has sworn: “As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand… For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?” (Isa. 14:24, 27)
“Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.” (Isa. 46:8-11)
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isa. 55:10-11)
Of course, the Molinist is familiar with these texts. The strong view of divine providence expressed in Scripture is one of the reasons he favors Molinism over other positions that share a commitment to libertarian free will.
However, it should be clear from the above that according to the Molinist view there are possible worlds in which God’s plans fail. For the Molinist is committed to the claim that although God knows that S would choose A in C, and he actualizes C because he plans for S to choose A, it is nonetheless possible for S not to choose A in C. (Craig clearly affirm this point a couple of times in his exchange with Helm.) In other words, there are possible worlds in which God actualizes C so that S will choose A, but S doesn’t choose A. There are possible worlds in which God’s eternal decree doesn’t come to pass, because libertarian-free agents do otherwise than he had planned.
The upshot is this: on the Molinist view there are some possible worlds in which God is fallible. Indeed there are many, many such worlds. Any world in which God’s plans fail is a world in which God is fallible. It seems to me that this conclusion is built in to the Molinist system.
So what could a Molinist say in response? One reply would be to concede the point at to say that God isn’t necessarily infallible: he isn’t infallible in every possible world, but he’s infallible in this world (at least). God is contingently infallible.
But I think there are several serious problems with this response. In the first place, the very notion of “contingent infallibility” is logically suspect. On the face of it, infallibility is a modal concept. It’s concerned with possible failure, not merely actual failure. Infallible means not fallible, and fallible means capable of failure. If a person is fallible, it’s not because he has failed or because he will fail but because he could fail. After all, there’s nothing logically inconsistent in saying that S is fallible but S didn’t (or won’t) actually fail. What would be flatly inconsistent would be to say that S is fallible but S cannot fail.
Hence we wouldn’t describe someone as infallible simply because he actually succeeds in every case, even though he might have failed at any point. Infallibility surely entails that one cannot fail, even in principle. So it’s not clear that the notion of “contingent infallibility” is even coherent.
If I’m right about this then Molinists shouldn’t say that God is infallible. For if God isn’t infallible in every possible world then he isn’t infallible in any possible world, including the actual world. (I note for the record that this argument presupposes some widely-held modal principles which I’m not going to defend here, precisely because they’re widely held!)
Secondly, these divine-failure worlds present a problem for Molinists who are committed to perfect being theology (which is most of them, I would guess). If God is only contingently infallible, it follows that God doesn’t possess maximal greatness: for a being who is necessarily infallible is greater than a being who is contingently infallible. A being who is infallible in all possible worlds is greater than a being who is infallible in only some possible worlds. (It’s noteworthy that Alvin Plantinga, who introduced the notion of maximal greatness in his defense of the ontological argument, is one of the most prominent advocates of Molinism.)
The only way out of this for the Molinist, so far as I can see, is to take the route I suggested above: to abandon the claim that God is infallible (in this world or in any other possible world).
It seems to me that all of this exposes an unresolved tension at the heart of Molinism. When we ask the question, “Can humans frustrate God’s plans?” the Molinist is pulled in two directions. On the one hand, he’ll want to answer no. After all, God foreordains all things! God has an eternal decree. It’s inconceivable to the Molinist that God’s decree should fail.
Yet at the same time, the Molinist must also want to answer yes, because of his commitment to libertarian free will. He wants to affirm (as Craig does explicitly) that although S would choose A in C (and will in fact choose A if God has decreed it) it’s nonetheless possible for S not to choose A in C — and thus it really is possible for S to act contrary to God’s plans.
In short, the Molinist wants to have his cake and eat it too.
Another way to look at the problem is to ask whether the non-feasible worlds really are possible. Suppose that God opts for world X out of all the feasible worlds he considers. It hardly seems coherent to imagine God thinking, “I’m going to weakly actualize X — that’s my decree — but I know there’s a real possibility that I’ll end up with some other world, because of the real possibility that libertarian-free agents will act otherwise than I’ve planned!” But if that isn’t coherent, in what sense are these other worlds really possible worlds?
As I see it, this tension at the center of Molinism arises because it aspires to be a deterministic indeterminism. ‘Indeterminism’ because of its commitment to libertarian free will. ‘Deterministic’ because God’s decree somehow (we know not how) determines in advance that his creatures will make certain choices. It may not be a causal determinism, but it’s deterministic nonetheless (as many non-Molinist Arminians, such as Roger Olson, can clearly see). If preordaining that S chooses A doesn’t mean predetermining that S chooses A then what on earth does it mean?
Molinism is certainly an impressive theory. But it’s only impressive in the way that a slick cup-and-ball trick is impressive. It’s philosophical sleight-of-hand par excellence. Molinists have to be skilled in the art of misdirection. Now you see the determinism… and now you don’t!