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Questions on Molinism, Compatibilism, and Free Will

July 27, 2011     Time: 00:24:33
Questions on Molinism, Compatibilism, and Free Will

Transcript Questions on Molinism, Compatibilism, and Free Will


Kevin Harris: Thank you so much for being here on the Reasonable Faith podcast with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. We want to address some questions that we have on Molinism and free will. It's amazing, Bill, how many questions come in on this, given the wealth of material that you have on this view of Molinism or middle knowledge – just go to for more there – but these questions in particular are things we're going to address because there are obviously people who have interacted with your work and have some further questions.

Dr. Craig: Yes—good.

Kevin Harris: This says,

Dr. Craig, I've really been trying to find a good ground to stand on considering libertarian free will. While it seems intuitive it's not without serious problems when probed. Your work on Molinism has really opened a world of thought for me in view of the nature of God, the nature of man, and some good self-reflection as well. But – as I'm sure you're all too aware of – I've come to that fork in the road of the problem of randomness/arbitrariness that libertarianism presents. As our compatibilist friends would say, if God is not the grounding source of why we choose A over B by determining it, then what is? Why did one choose A and not B?

Let's start there.

Dr. Craig: Well, the question is misconceived for a libertarian because there isn't any determining cause or reason for why a person chose A rather than not-A. This is the essence of free will, is to make a decision oneself without any sort of determining basis or grounds. So the whole idea of agent causation is that the agent himself is the source of his decisions, and there just isn't any further explanation for why the agent freely chose A rather than not-A. Now of course you can talk about his motivations – what he wanted to do – but then the determinist will say 'but why did he want to do that?' and you launch into an infinite regress, and you simply need to cut the infinite regress off by saying that on libertarianism an agent is able to make decisions to do what he freely wants to do, and that's it. And that's not the same as saying they're random. It's not like the motion of a subatomic particle that could go this way or that indeterministically. It's not as though our choices in our minds are random events; they are events that are done for reasons, but ultimately they're because this is what an agent wants to do. And the fact that you can have such libertarian freedom is evident in the fact that even for these reformed persons who want to have a compatibilistic view, God has libertarian freedom—he isn't determined in his choices by factors external to himself. So even the compatibilist, it seems to me, ultimately has to admit the reality of libertarian freedom with respect to God—he is a free agent who is able to choose between A and not-A simply because he wants to do one and not the other.

Kevin Harris: The questioner goes on to say that he has seen that Plantinga appeals to the fact that God has libertarian freedom. So by extension it's at least possible that we do, too. But the determinists are determined to push the envelope with the question 'how?' Is an appeal to God having libertarian freedom the only route we can take here?

Dr. Craig: Well I don't think it's the only route. As I say, what you need to do is simply insist that the question pressed by the determinist is misconceived. It only makes sense given the presuppositions of determinism—that there needs to be some sort of determining cause for why you wanted to do A rather than not-A. And it's that assumption that the libertarian rejects. The whole question is just misconceived, but the illustration of God is at least for theistic compatibilists I think a very powerful demonstration of the coherence of libertarian freedom, because the compatibilist himself has to acknowledge with respect to God that you do have here a libertarian free agent, and that therefore the idea of libertarian choices is not incoherent, as he claims. So the reader is simply incorrect when he says that we're stuck with this unsolvable problem of randomness. No, no, because that is assuming the presupposition of the determinist that you have to have a determining explanation for why you wanted to do A rather than not-A. If you reject that assumption there is no problem of randomness to be stuck with at all. [1]

Kevin Harris: From what I hear you say about the agent can cause this, would it be accurate to say that the actions of libertarian free will are caused by the self, they're self-caused, they're caused by the self?

Dr. Craig: Yes, not self-caused in the sense of self-generated, but caused by the human self, that is to say the agent, the person, and he is the source of his actions, he's the source of his free actions. And this is very different from, say, event-event causation where one event is caused by another event, or state-state causation where you have one state of affairs being causally determined by another. In agent causation what one is saying is that the agent himself is the source of his actions, and there is no further determinant of why the agent freely does this rather than that—that is simply his choice.

Kevin Harris: Another question:

Dear Dr. Craig, I've been reading up on Molinism for a couple of years now, and I've really enjoyed your work on the subject. I understand that many Molinists believe in the concept of transworld depravity to describe that the only lost persons that God created where those who would have rejected Christ in all feasible worlds for God to create. However, in Matthew 11:20-24 Jesus describes the conditions under which the people of Sodom, Tyre, and Sidon would have repented, namely if they would have witnessed the miracles that Christ preformed – there in Bethsaida and Capernaum, and so on – however given that God knew that the people of those cities would have repented under those conditions yet God didn't provide those conditions for them means that these people were lost in our world but they weren't transworld depraved. How would someone who holds to transworld depravity handle this passage? It seems to be a clear debunking of the theory.

Dr. Craig: Just a terminological clarification: he's conflating transworld depravity – which is a doctrine that Alvin Plantinga suggested that says that in any world of free agents which God might have created persons go wrong and commit sin – he's confusing that with transworld damnation, which is a doctrine that I suggested could be possible, which is that in any world feasible for God persons who reject God and are lost would've been lost in any of those worlds, had they been created instead. Now, the passage that he mentions in Matthew 11:20-24 is one of the classic proof texts used by Molinists to prove the doctrine of middle knowledge—ironically.

Kevin Harris: Really?

Dr. Craig: Yes, it is. When you look at the Molinists from the seventeenth/eighteenth century this would be one of their proof texts along with the story of David and the men of Kala asking whether or not Saul would come down and attack the city and whether the men of Kala would deliver David over. Similarly here they appeal to this passage as saying, “Ah, Jesus is disclosing that if these miracles had been done in Tyre and Sidon then they would have repented; so, ah-ha, this proves middle knowledge.” Well, I don't think that it's a very good proof text because I think that it's highly unlikely that Jesus is disclosing a piece of middle knowledge here—I think that's weighting this with too much theological or philosophical freight. As Anthony Kenny has said, I think exegetically this is far more likely a piece of religious hyperbole on Jesus' part which is just meant to underline how wicked and recalcitrant the people are that he's talking to. He's trying to say “You people are really, really bad; if the miracles that you've seen had been seen by these other folks they would have repented.” It's not meant to be literally a piece of middle knowledge, but just religious hyperbole to underline the wickedness of those who saw Jesus' miracles and didn't repent. And so for that reason I don't think it's a good proof text for middle knowledge, and then at the same time it's not a good proof text for showing that transworld damnation is not a possibly true doctrine, either.

Kevin Harris: Another question we have is:

Dr. Craig, what do you think of Proverbs 16:4 and Romans 9:21-22 where it seems like it's saying God created some people for the purpose of punishing them so he can demonstrate his wrath and power? Is that consistent with Molinism?

Dr. Craig: Well, it would be consistent with Molinism – if you take that line – because if you distinguish between God's strongly actualizing a state of affairs, where he brings it about that something is the case directly, [2] verses his weakly actualizing it, by bringing it about simply because he knew this is the way people would freely behave, you could say that God has weakly actualized this state of affairs, knowing that these people would freely do wrong and that therefore they would be punished. Now, I don't think that that's an interpretation that is incumbent upon us, but it's not as though that's inconsistent with Molinism. Molinism has a non-deterministic view of sovereignty, whereby God weakly actualizes certain states of affairs, and so that would be consistent with their doing it freely.

Kevin Harris: Okay.

Dear Dr. Craig, ever since I came across your work I've been intrigued by the notion of middle knowledge, or Molinism, because of its explanatory power and potential to harmonize free will and divine sovereignty. However, there is one problem that I have yet to see you address directly, and if you have already then please pardon my asking. Molinism presupposes libertarian free will as opposed to compatibilism. While libertarianism has certain explanatory advantages to compatibilism, I don't see a basis for one to presume that human beings have libertarian free will, either by factual evidence or logical necessity. More importantly libertarian free will as I understand it seems to be at odds with the biblical doctrine of original sin or total depravity, which says that through the fall of Adam the effect of Adam's sin permanently altered and corrupted human nature to the point where man is unable to resist sin, unable to choose, to accept God's gift of salvation without divine intervention, and possibly even coercion. And for the sake of argument I'm only dealing with Arminianism and excluding the possibility of Calvinistic determinism. Okay—now let's go to the question: Correct me if I am mistaken, but libertarian freedom states that human beings are first cause free agents, unmoved movers who are the ultimate originators of their actions. Libertarian free will is pure autonomy and self-actuating choice that is not determined by prior existing forces or causes external to a person's own will. If that is true then is not libertarianism, and thus middle knowledge, incompatible with the doctrine of total depravity, which implies that unregenerated and unredeemed persons are slaves to sin? Is there any meaningful difference between libertarianism and Pelagianism, which is considered heresy by most orthodox traditions?

Let's stop there because there's a lot to unpack.

Dr. Craig: Well, with respect to the grounds for libertarian free will I disagree with him that we have no basis for thinking that human beings have libertarian free will. I would say that I have every reason for thinking myself to be a free agent. I have an immediate experience of freedom of the will when I make free choices. So I would have to have overwhelming evidence, Kevin, for me to give up belief in my own free agency, because this is something that I sense and experience immediately by introspection. And so the burden of proof is enormous, I think, on the determinist to show that we are not ourselves libertarian free agents, because we grasp ourselves as such. Moreover, I think that the Bible teaches we are libertarian free agents. The Bible is replete with passages that assume that human beings, in their intercourse with God and with one another, are free agents who are held morally responsible for their actions. They are not like machines or puppets that do not have the ability to make free choices, and therefore would be irresponsible for their moral choices. On the contrary, God holds us morally responsible for what we do, and I think that that becomes nonsensical apart from libertarian freedom. And in fact the Bible indicates that when a person is in a position of temptation that God will always provide a way of escape so that you do not have to sin. He says you will be able to bear it; God can be counted on to give you a way of escape. So imagine a person who is in a position of temptation and he doesn't avail himself of the escape route, instead he succumbs to the temptation and gives in and sins. Was he determined to do so? Well, no, according to the Scripture. The Scripture says God has provided a way of escape so that you would be able to bear that temptation successfully. So in conditions in which a person sins he does so freely, he isn't determined to sin, he had the ability to avail himself of the way of escape and resist sin, [3] if he wanted to. So I think as Christians we have every ground for believing that we are free agents who are not determined to do what we do.

Now, what about the doctrine of original sin or total depravity, which says that we are unable to choose God's gift of salvation on our own initiative, that we are lost in sin? It seems to me that that doesn't in any way disprove that we are libertarian agents. After all, what about Adam and Eve? Does this person think that Adam and Eve were determined to fall, that they were causally determined to fall into sin? Well, surely not. Surely Adam and Eve at least were libertarian free agents. And even for us who find ourselves in this morass of sin, don't we have the ability to freely choose between the sins that we commit? Even if we can't choose the good in our incapacity surely we have the ability to choose from a variety of sins, and we're held morally responsible for that. And then there are those non-moral choices that we make. When I choose green jello rather than red jello when I go through the cafeteria line, don't I do so freely? There's nothing about the doctrine of original sin or total depravity that would suggest that my choices that are not moral choices are not free. So I'm not persuaded that the doctrine of original sin or total depravity shows that we are just deterministically scripted entities that are no longer free agents.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, I've heard it said that the image of God is not erased in fallen man, but the image of God is effaced in fallen man. That makes a lot of sense to me. We still retain enough of the image of God or aspects of the image of God, which wouldn't make us totally . . .

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's a dispute between Catholics and reformed theologians about exactly what the image of God is, and I talk about this in our Defenders podcast when we do the Doctrine of Man. What does it mean to say that man is in the image of God? And I'm inclined to think that man in God's image, though fallen, is still the image of God because we are persons as God is a person, and that this isn't in any way eclipsed by sin.

Kevin Harris: I'm intrigued whether there is a philosophical inconsistency with someone who believes in determinism, like the fellow who is just really determined to get you to believe in determinacy. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: I am bothered deeply by that, too, Kevin. How can the decision to believe determinism ever be a rational decision if you think you're just determined to believe in it? It would be like having a tooth ache or a tree growing a limb. The decision to believe in determinism would itself not be a result of rational free reflection, but just something that you're determined to do. So it seems to me that if determinism were true it could nevertheless never be rationally affirmed. The choice to believe in determinism would be sort of self-defeating, and therefore could never be rational. This is one of the objections, by the way, Kevin, that I raise against my deterministic brethren in the new book Divine Providence or Four Views on Divine Providence,which has just been released by Zondervan. If you want to see a nice debate between a Molinist and a pair of compatibilists who are Reformed theologians, as well as an open theist, take a look at this book edited by Dennis Jowers for Zondervan called Four Views on Divine Providence and you'll see this whole debate played out there.

Kevin Harris: One more question, Bill. Is it possible to be a naturalist/atheist, a metaphysical naturalist, and so on, and not believe in determinism? Because I often hear that lobbed toward our naturalist friends that everything you're doing and saying is just determined.

Dr. Craig: I suppose it depends on what you mean by a naturalist. If the atheist is willing to be an anthropological dualist, that is to say believe that there is a soul distinct from the body, then it seems to me he can rationally affirm libertarian free will without believing in God. But few people who reject belief in God believe in the reality of the soul or the mind as something distinct from the body. But logically it would seem to me that there's space for such a view. [4]

Kevin Harris: But why is it that most naturalists who don't believe in any kind of dualism, why are they held to strict determinism? Just because of particles in motion that are eventually going to lead to . . .?

Dr. Craig: I think that would be the argument. If there isn't any sort of immaterial substance or self distinct from the body then what happens in the body is determined simply by the laws of physics and chemistry, and therefore it doesn't seem to make room for libertarian freedom. Now, having said that, Kevin, there are Christian materialists – like Peter van Inwagen – who are libertarians. Van Inwagen is a materialist with respect to human beings, at least – he doesn't believe in a soul or mind distinct from the body – but van Inwagen is a strong libertarian on the basis of moral responsibility. He thinks that we are morally responsible for our actions, and this requires libertarian freedom. He can't explain how a purely material entity can be a libertarian agent, but he says that doesn't prove that we're not—we are because we're morally responsible. And he thinks we have better grounds for thinking that we are morally responsible persons than we do for denying the reality of libertarian agency.

Kevin Harris: So if you're a Christian materialist you don't believe in any kind of dualism?

Dr. Craig: Not with respect to human beings. It wouldn't exclude necessarily God or the reality of angles and demons. But at least with regard to human beings people like van Inwagen and Nancy Murphy, Kevin Corcoran, deny anthropological dualism. Now, my fear is that this is a slippery slope because once you start treating human beings as material agents or material beings you begin to wonder 'well, what about God?' He seems to be sort of ad hoc, thrown in as an immaterial mind. If our minds are not ultimately spiritual substances or selves then why think that there is such a being as God who is an immaterial self or substance as theists believe? There's a certain uncomfortable fit here of theism with this materialistic anthropology, it seems to me.

Kevin Harris: So, what would a Christian materialist think of the afterlife? What goes on?

Dr. Craig: Well, very often they will be strong champions of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. They would say that there is no intermediate state of the soul after death because once the body is gone consciousness is gone, but that God will raise the dead someday and these bodies and persons will be restored. So they fancy themselves to be great champions of the Jewish doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.

Kevin Harris: There seems to be three views on that – three major views – on the state of the dead. And one would be that you go immediately in the presence of God in an immaterial state, the bosom of Abraham, and so on: “this day you shall be with me in paradise,” “to be absent with the body is to be present with the Lord,” and so on. The other one is that there is a soul but its in some kind of a sleep, hibernation, a soul sleep and you're just not really aware. And then there seems to be this view, this Christian materialism, that there's not any awareness, and then there's the resurrection.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and there are actually other views, as well. Some people will say you receive the resurrection body immediately upon death, so that there is no intermediate state at all. So there's a number of alternatives.

Kevin Harris: I like that one. I don't think that's the case.

Dr. Craig: No.

Kevin Harris: But that'd be nice. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's hard to make sense of 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul talks about the state of nakedness that he's reluctant to go through before receiving his resurrection body.

Kevin Harris: Exactly, yeah. Very interesting, Bill; thank you. More interesting topics and questions next time on Reasonable Faith. Thank you so much for joining us. [5]