October 01, 2017
Intriguing Questions about Middle Knowledge
First, thank you very much for your monumental service to the cause of the Christ! I have some very troubled, agnostic family members and friends that I have either directed to your site or confronted with some of the arguments you present, and they have expressed some very positive feedback. My agnostic family member, for example, wrote me some time ago and said he is now a huge fan and enjoys listening to your input about "almost anything." It means a lot to me and to his immediate family to know that he is seeking truth and has found your ministry helpful. So I send my personal thanks!
I have been working through your writings on Molinism for some time now. I'm pretty fascinated by the idea, but there a couple of concepts that are causing me some mental stress. I can't quite nail down the answers to three questions, and I haven't been able to find them addressed in your essays. I would very much appreciate your input and help in clearing these up. The first is more of a curiosity. The second two are the source of more serious objections to Molinism for me.
1. Does the concept of God placing people in certain circumstances presuppose a theory of the origin of the soul? If we suppose, for example, that a soul is simply passed on biologically, then there could be several contingent factors that determine when and where a person might be born. People's decisions about where to live, when to marry, etc., would seem to affect these things. So if these contingent factors include persons' counterfactuals, then might there be worlds in which people are in places and times that are infeasible for God to actualize? Perhaps He could not help, for example, given Peter's ancestors' counterfactuals, that Peter was born in a world in which he denied Christ. Does traducianism pose any particular problem for Molinism?
2. What, prior to their creation, serves to distinguish persons in the mind of God? For God to know what Peter would freely do in circumstance A, He needs to have some concept of Peter that distinguishes him from, say, Paul. What is this distinguishing feature? Perhaps more seriously, what serves to distinguish the persons God will create tomorrow from imaginary persons that I could simply dream up? Presumably, God knows who will be born tomorrow. Indeed, on Molinism, He has purposed which person will be born. But what distinguishes this person from Bob, a person I just imagined as I typed this sentence? Why does this not-yet extant person have counterfactuals while imaginary Bob does not?
3. Aren't counterfactuals a part of the description of possible worlds? If there is a possible world in which Peter does not deny Christ and, even more seriously, if counterfactuals are not necessarily truths, then it would seem that there is a possible world where Peter's counterfactuals are different than they are in the actual world. But prior to the creation of the actual world, what prohibited God from creating the possible world in which Peter's counterfactuals were different? Why were the counterfactuals from the actual world, which had not yet been created, preferred or determinative?
Any thoughts on these questions? Like I said, they've been really giving me some grief for some time, so any help untangling them would be very appreciated!
These are great questions, David!
1. Does the concept of God placing people in certain circumstances presuppose a theory of the origin of the soul? In a word, No. I have assumed that one’s parentage is not essential to one’s identity, so that I could have been Chinese or African, for example. But middle knowledge will be all the more useful theologically if one holds that it is essential to your identity that you be born of your actual parents. For then the circumstances in which God might have created you will be greatly delimited. One needn’t ask, for example, would I have become a Christian if I had been born into another family or at a different time and place in history? So traducianism (the view that one’s soul depends on one’s parents’ souls) would make things easier, not harder, for the Molinist who wants to use middle knowledge to explain the deficiencies of this world.
2. What, prior to their creation, serves to distinguish persons in the mind of God? In Alvin Plantinga’s view persons have individual essences which nothing else shares. So each individual essence is unique. God decides which of these essences to instantiate and so which people will exist. These essences are different from imaginary Bob in that Bob is radically incomplete in your conception. In general, fictional characters are incomplete. There are different people in different possible worlds, for example, who each shares all the properties of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. By contrast individual essences are complete: for any property, that essence has it or its complement.
3. Aren't counterfactuals a part of the description of possible worlds? Yes. In fact, Plantinga argues that one of the most important factors in determining the similarity of possible worlds to one another is the degree to which they share the same true counterfactuals. You’re absolutely right that different counterfactuals are true in different worlds. That fact is crucial to Plantinga’s Free Will Defense against the problem of evil. When Plantinga says that it’s possible that no world was feasible for God having this much good but less evil, he does NOT mean epistemically possible (that is to say, for all we know). Rather he means that there is a possible world in which the true counterfactuals do not permit God to actualize the world with the better balance. Maybe in the actual world, such a world is feasible for God; but so long as it’s possible that He cannot actualize such a possible world, the logical version of the problem of evil fails.
But prior to the creation of the actual world, what prohibited God from creating the possible world in which Peter's counterfactuals were different? Why were the counterfactuals from the actual world, which had not yet been created, preferred or determinative? This was Robert Adams’ misgiving about middle knowledge, which has since been addressed by Thomas Flint, Alfred Freddoso, and myself, among others. The answer is that the actual world is instantiated in stages. Corresponding to God’s natural knowledge are all the necessary states of affairs, which don’t have to wait around for God’s creative decree to be actual (nor need God actualize Himself!). Corresponding to God’s middle knowledge are all the states of affairs expressed by counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. Since these are also independent of God’s creative decree, they are also actual logically prior to that decree. So the erroneous assumption of your question is that these counterfactual states of affairs were not already actual prior to God’s creative decree. Which counterfactuals are true or false is therefore not up to God.
If you’d like to read more about middle knowledge, begin with my book The Only Wise God, and then graduate to Flint’s Divine Providence, and Freddoso’s translation of Molina’s On Divine Foreknowledge.
Thanks for the wonderful testimonial about your family members, David! May God continue to draw them to Himself!