5 / 06

#254 Does Correspondence Preclude the Truth of Counterfactuals of Freedom?

February 26, 2012

Dear Dr.Craig,

In the book "Four Views on Divine Providence", scholar Paul Kjoss Helseth raised some questions about your molinist model that you hadn't the chance to reply in detail.

For me the most important and crucial of Helseth's questions is this:

"What is the ontological status of counterfactuals of creaturely freeedom for Molinists generally and Dr.Craig in particular.?" (p.101)

In my opinion, the molinistic model stands or falls with the reply to the above question.

As far I understand Helseth's question, he's asking if such counterfactuals refers to an ontologically objective reality. (He's not asking if such counterfactuals, qua propositions, exist as abstract objects in any Platonic sense).

Moreover, I'd add a similar question to Helseth's: Which is the ontological status of the "will" statements which belong to God's foreknowledge? Do they refer to an ontologically existent, actual, objective reality in the moment of God's foreknowledge?

In your book "The only wise God", you argue that God's foreknowledge that Jones "will" do X, doesn't imply that Jones "must" do X. (Jones is still free to do otherwise, only that he won't do).

I find this argument unsatisfactory in the light of Helseth's question: Which is the ontological status the action X (that will be performed) by Jones?

If x exists (objectively), then it is impossible that Jones could ACTUALLY do otherwise, and the distinction between "will" and "must" seems to be merely semantic or linguistic, not ontological. (Note that Jones "could" do otherwise only in a purely theoretical or logical sense, not in an ontological or metaphysical one because what he will do is factually and metaphysically unavoidable).

If X doesn't exist objectively (but only AFTER Jones actually do it), then statements about the future are not true, and God's foreknowledge cannot be knowledge at all (in the sense of justified true belief). Hence, God couldn't have foreknowledge of creaturely free decisions.

So, does a "will" statament refers to something objectively existing (i.e. to an actually existing state of affairs)?

My lay opinion is this:

Future events grounded in creaturely free decisions don't exist before they're performed. The future doesn't exist in any objective sense. Therefore, all the "will" statements (not based on inference but in actual foreknowledge of free decisions) cannot be true, and hence God doesn't have foreknowledge.

Free decisions become true ONLY after they're freely taken by the individual and just in this moment they have truth values that can be known by God.

So, propositions about the future are not true before the future is actualized.

However, what is true are the future CONSEQUENCES of sum of everybody actions in a given time, and possibly this is what could be known in cases of human precognition and divine "foreknowledge".

People with precognitive faculties could know (bia paranormal means, let's to grant) the consequences of people's actions (performed in given time, let's say in February 18th, 2012)

For example, the consequences of people's actions in February 18th of 2012 will produce, ceteris paribus, such and such specific effects in 2016, and this effects could be known NOW (via paranormal means) by certain human beings and God. But this effects can be changed by the actions of people in March of 2012.

So, for each actual action, a given future consequence will follow, and in principle it can be known. But the next action could change these consequences, and to produce others consequences, which in turn could be known too.

I don't know if this proposal is too naive or ignorant, but it seems to me to be right at least in an intuitive level, as the best way to make sense of the compatibility of foreknowledge, precognition and human freedom.




Dr. craig’s response


I’m glad for your question, Mary, because it enables me to expand on my remarks to my fellow contributors that I read at the ETS convention last November. There are some confusions in your question, so let me come at it incrementally.

First, what is the ontological status of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom? This is a question that both Highfield and Helseth pose. Helseth does not unfold what the problem is supposed to be. At times Highfield seems to suggest that Molinism is committed to Platonism about propositions. He alleges,

There exists a co-eternal reality that is neither God nor God’s creature; yet, this quasi-divine reality determines and limits what God can be and do. Necessary truths determine what sort of divinity God can be, and the truths of middle knowledge determine what sort of world God can create.

Now the challenge of Platonism to divine aseity is one that we must all face. As Highfield’s example of necessary truths shows, the problem is not limited to counterfactual propositions. If propositions of any sort are uncreated abstract objects, then God’s aseity is fatally compromised. (See the symposium in the most recent number of Philosophia Christi, the journal of the EPS, where there is an exchange of three views on the topic.) There is no position on this question which is de rigeur for Molinists. For my part I incline toward a nominalist perspective, which denies the existence of abstract objects like propositions, including those expressed by counterfactuals. We can usually avoid ontic commitment to propositions simply by refusing to “ascend semantically” and, instead of asserting the truth of some proposition, just making the relevant assertion.

There are a wide variety of nominalist perspectives available to the theist today. I noted that Highfield’s own view is a sort of nominalism: he denies that propositions are abstract objects existing independently of God or even concepts in God’s mind. On Highfield’s view there really are no propositions. Rather God just knows Himself as a concrete object. In knowing Himself, God knows what we articulate as necessary truths like “2+2=4,” “If it is raining, then it is raining,” “If p or q, and not-p, then q,” etc.

Highfield thinks that his account does not leave room for middle knowledge. But is that correct? In knowing Himself, God also knows the logical limits on His power to actualize certain states of affairs. For example, He knows that He cannot create a stone heavier than He can lift. But in exactly the same way, the Molinist can claim that God knows that He cannot bring it about that if Peter were in circumstances C, he would freely affirm Christ three times. We articulate what God knows by saying that God knows that the counterfactual proposition expressed by “If Peter were in C, he would freely deny Christ three times” is true. But God’s knowledge is not propositional in its mode; He just knows Himself and what He is able to do.

So I don’t think the counterfactual propositions known to God via His middle knowledge in any way exist.

Now this is not how you interpret Helseth’s question. You think that he is asking whether such counterfactuals “refer to an ontologically objective reality.” Similarly, you want to know whether propositions expressed by future-tense sentences “refer to an ontologically existent, actual, objective reality in the moment of God's foreknowledge.”

Here is where confusion sets in. Propositions or sentences don’t refer to things. Reference is a function of what are called singular terms (words like proper names, definite descriptions, and demonstratives like “this” and “that”). What true propositions or sentences do, at least on a correspondence theory of truth, is correspond with reality.

So the question becomes, do true counterfactuals of freedom and future-tense statements correspond with reality? I think they do. It seems to me that taking truth to be the property of corresponding with reality does not require that all the singular terms in a true sentence refer to objects existing in the world. Far too many philosophers, I think, are still in the thrall of a sort of picture theory of language according to which successfully referring terms must have corresponding objects (or denotations) in the world. Such a view is quite mistaken. We frequently assert true statements which contain singular terms which do not denote existent objects. Consider the following examples:

• The weather in Atlanta will be hot today.
• Sherrie’s disappointment with her husband was deep and unassuageable.
• The price of the tickets is ten dollars.
• Wednesday falls between Tuesday and Thursday.
• His sincerity was touching.
• James couldn’t pay his mortgage.
• The view of the Jezreel Valley from atop Mt. Carmel was breath-taking.
• Your constant complaining is futile.
• Spasky’s forfeiture ended the match.
• He did it for my sake and the children’s.

It would be fantastic to think that all of the singular terms featured in these plausibly true sentences have objects in the world corresponding to them.

Examples like these are legion. In fact, I suspect that singular terms which refer to real world objects may actually be the exception rather than the rule in ordinary language. Consider the following paragraph quoted by the British philosopher Michael Dummett from a London daily:

Margaret Thatcher yesterday gave her starkest warning yet about the dangers of global warming caused by air pollution. But she did not announce any new policy to combat climate change and sea level rises, apart from a qualified commitment that Britain would stabilize its emissions of carbon dioxide—the most important ‘greenhouse’ gas altering the climate—by the year 2005. Britain would only fulfill that commitment if other, unspecified nations promised similar restraint.

Nothing unusual about such discourse—but, as Dummett observes, “Save for ‘Margaret Thatcher,’ ‘air’ and ‘sea,’ there is not a noun or noun phrase in this paragraph incontrovertibly standing for or applying to a concrete object. . . .”[1] There is no need to swell our ontology with such bizarre objects as would be the denotations of the singular terms in the above paragraph.

So the unit of correspondence, so to speak, need not be thought of as individual words or other subsentential expressions. Rather correspondence may be taken to obtain between a statement as a whole and the world. Such holistic correspondence is given disquotationally by Alfred Tarski’s so-called T-schema:

T. For any statement “S,” “S” is true if and only if S.

So, for example, “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. That’s all there is to truth as correspondence! So, to return to one of our examples above, the sentence “Wednesday falls between Tuesday and Thursday” is true if and only if Wednesday falls between Tuesday and Thursday. It is wrong-headed to seek correlates in reality (in this case Wednesday) for all of the singular terms featured in the sentence S.

The reason some philosophers take correspondence to imply real world objects correlated with a statement’s singular terms is that they conjoin to a correspondence theory of truth another theory called truthmaker theory. This is the doctrine that (some) statements are true if and only if there is something in the world that makes them true. Truthmaker maximalism is the doctrine that every true statement has a truthmaker. Most truthmaker theorists identify a statement’s truthmaker with the fact or state of affairs disclosed by the T-schema above. But some philosophers seem to think that a statement’s truthmakers are the denotations of the singular terms employed in the statement. Accordingly, the truth of the afore-mentioned sentence requires that Wednesdays exist as real things in the world! But I think that this assumption is unjustified for two reasons.

First, if the unit of correspondence is entire statements, then correspondence with reality does not require that a statement’s truthmakers be the objects (if any) correlated with its singular terms. For example, the statement “John couldn’t pay his mortgage” is true and so corresponds to reality, but its truthmakers will not include a non-entity like a mortgage. What some theorists call a statement’s “truth inducers” may not be the objects, if any, referred to in the statement in question. But they are still truthmakers, for they are what make the relevant statement true. Truthmaker proponents like John Heil and Heather Dyke have emphasized that the truthmakers of a sentence need not be the referents of the singular terms in the sentence. Dyke calls the assumption that descriptions of reality generate a metaphysics “the representational fallacy.” It is a fallacy because “Just knowing that sentence is true does not tell you what makes it true.”[2]She notes that if the whole statement, rather than its words, is the primary bearer of meaning, we do not have to accept that there is some entity which is the referent of every word. She maintains merely that if a discourse includes true sentences, then there is something about the world that constitutes the truthmaker for those sentences. Thus, the failure of a sentence’s singular terms to have real world referents does not imply that such a sentence is not a true description of reality and so fails to correspond to reality.

Second, not all statements corresponding to reality need have truthmakers. Truthmaker maximalism is a controversial doctrine held by a minority of thinkers. Trenton Merricks has argued persuasively that at the very most only truths about what properties are actually had by actually existing things must have truthmakers.[3] He furnishes a good number of exceptions to the doctrine of truthmaker maximalism, such as negative existentials and universal generalizations like “Hobbits do not exist” and “All ravens are black,” moral truths like “Innocent persons ought not to be tortured,” tensed truths like “The Trojans were defeated,” modal truths like “There might have been a dozen more fundamental particles,” counterfactuals of freedom like “If agent S were in circumstances C, he would freely do action A,” and dispositional truths like “If this glass were struck, it would shatter.” Merricks concludes that “Some truths are not true in virtue of how they are related to any existing entity or entities.”[4] Still such truths do tell us about how the world is and so can be said to correspond with reality. If we think of correspondence along the lines of the T-schema, then, as Merricks’ examples illustrate, truths corresponding to reality need not have truthmakers at all. If someone insists on truthmakers for counterfactuals and future-tense statements, then one can simply appeal to the counterfacts and tensed facts disclosed by the T-schema as their truthmakers.[5]

On the basis of what I’ve said, Mary, I think you can see why your statement “If X doesn't exist objectively (but only AFTER Jones actually do it), then statements about the future are not true, and God's foreknowledge cannot be knowledge at all” is unjustified. I agree with your theory of time that future events do not exist. But it doesn’t at all follow from a tensed theory of time that future-tense statements about contingent events are not true. Such a view involves a deviant logic which either denies the Principle of Bivalence (the principle that every proposition p is either true or false) or construes all future-tense statements as false, with all the logical dislocations which result. It is, moreover, an unbiblical view which is incompatible, not only all the true future-tense statements in Scripture, but especially with God’s foreknowledge and prophecies of future contingent events.

  • [1]

    Michael Dummett, Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 231.

  • [2]

    Heather Dyke, Metaphysics and the Representational Fallacy, Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 5; cf. John Heil, From an Ontological Point of View (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), chap. 7.

  • [3]

    Trenton Merricks, Truth and Ontology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), p. xvii; cf. p. 168.

  • [4]

    Ibid., p. 181.


  • [5]

    See my article on this site “Middle Knowledge, Truth-Makers, and the Grounding Objection,” Faith and Philosophy 18 (2001): 337-52.

- William Lane Craig