The Free-Will Defense and the Impossible Worlds of Molinism

relax-gods-in-charge.jpg~original.jpegThe free-will defense of evil and suffering is a failure—so Hugh McCann con­tends. This verdict sur­prises, given the opinion of so many phi­losophers that Alvin Plan­tin­ga’s argument succeeds resoundingly. But it succeeds, maintains McCann, only be­cause it aban­dons God’s provi­dential con­trol of human volition, thus calling into question his pow­er to secure a good and truly re­demp­tive out­come. This sounds like Mc­Cann must be a determinist of some sort, but that’s not the case either. He express­ly iden­tifies himself as a proponent of libertarian freedom. While he acknowledges that compati­bilism would provide the kind of control over the world that he believes a perfect God should and must have, it sacrifices too much. Deter­minism violates the moral respon­sibility that properly belongs to crea­tures made in the image of God. If our actions were but the causal product of nature and nurture, “we would be reduced to the same status as our house pets: admi­ra­ble in many ways, perhaps, but utterly bereft of the dignity of a moral being.”1

McCann takes up what many believe to be an impossible challenge: to formulate a robust understanding of divine sovereignty that respects, and indeed makes possible, the liber­tarian freedom of rational creatures. God must be accorded, he insists, “an active role as creator in the production of human action,” yet not in such a way as to compromise or nullify the liberty he bestows.2

But wait . . . we have yet to assess the merits of a position that appears to offer precisely what McCann is looking for. “If the standard free-will defense is to be made viable,” he explains, “we must find a way for God to know as creator what world he is creating. This requires that his knowledge of creaturely decisions and actions be prior to their actual occurrence.” This priority is logical, not temporal: that is to say, God’s knowledge of our deeds must not be “ontologically dependent upon or explained by our actually performing them.”3 Fortunately for us, a Jesuit theologian in the 16th century concocted a theory that seems to fit the bill. It goes by the name of Molinism.

Oh, is that William Lane Craig standing in the back frantically waving his hand? Yes, Dr Craig, do you have something to add?

Molinism teaches that God possess an exhaustive and complete knowledge of every pos­si­ble world he might have created, including the free decisions and actions of the inhabi­tants of these worlds. He knows what every person will think, will, and do under every conceivable circumstance. Molinists call this middle knowledge. It’s as if God plays out in his mind every possible creation scenario. He comprehensively cognizes “in advance” the subjunctives of freedom. He knows all the what-ifs, maybes, and sure things. He knows all the causal per­mu­tations that lead to and flow from every event in each and every possible world.

Consider the Old Testament story of Jonah. Before God made the world, says the Molinist, he knew the subjunctive proposition “If Jonah were commanded to go to Nineveh and preach to the Assyrians, he would flee to Tarshish.” Not only this, but he also knew Jonah’s reactions, decisions, and actions in every possible set of circumstances. Now expand this middle knowledge to comprehend every prophet, every Israelite, every human being, both created and uncreated, actual and possible. McCann elaborates:

Molina referred to this kind of knowledge as scientia media or middle knowl­edge, because it falls between two other types of knowledge he attributed to God: natural knowledge and free knowledge. The first category contains all logical and conceptual truths, which Molina held, God knows simply by comprehending his own nature, in which they are embedded. Free knowledge is knowledge of propositions whose truth depends on how God exercises his own free will. Thus, given his decision to create tigers, the proposition that there are tigers belongs in this category. Middle knowledge is held to fall between the two in that, like natural knowledge, it consists of propositions whose truth or falsity is not up to God. God may decide the circumstances in which he will place Jonah, but it is Jonah who decides how he will act in them. And the truth is that in the circumstances we are considering, Jonah would decide to flee for Tarshish. This, for God, is a given from the Molinist perspective, just as it is a given that triangles, if there are to be any, shall have three sides. On the other hand, middle knowledge is like free knowledge in that it consists only of contingent propositions. The fact that there are tigers is contingent, and so is the fact that, presented with the divine commission to head for Assyria, Jonah would instead head for Tarshish.4

The advantages of middle knowledge are clear. It capacitates omniscience and sovereignty. The Creator freely actu­al­izes the one specific world (one out of zillions and zillions) that best fulfills his providential and eschatological ends. Everything happens according to his will and permission, for it is this world and not another that he has chosen to bring into being:

Assuming it is a legitimate notion, middle knowledge restores God’s omniscience as creator, and does much to restore his sovereignty and providence in creating creatures with libertarian freedom. Armed with information about how any such creature would decide and act in the various circumstances in which he might be placed, God has the option of not creating the creature, or of creating him in whatever circumstances are called for by the subjunctives of freedom whose truth God wishes to be reflected in the actual world. Now of course the circumstances in which one creature is placed may depend in part on how others choose to exercise their freedom. But the willing of those others can in turn be providentially arranged, since they too fall under middle knowledge. In principle, then, nothing need occur in the actual world that does not have God’s prior recognition and consent, at least. He knows all of his options in advance, and once his creative decisions are made he knows by his free knowledge how things will go, not just how they could or would, if . . .5

This does not mean that everything happens according to God’s optimal desires. He no doubt would have preferred if Adam and Eve had not eaten of the apple; but an unfallen world, we may surmise, was unavailable for actualization. In all possible worlds free human beings always disobey their Creator and fall into alienation and wickedness; in every alternative cosmos there is sin and death. Let’s call this transworld fallenness. Similarly, God no doubt would have preferred if Jonah had gone directly to Nineveh, but in the specific world he chose to create that was not what was going to happen. “The best God could do was what, by way of tempest and levia­than, he eventually did: namely, alter Jonah’s circum­stances so they would fit a true subjunctive of freedom that had the desired outcome.”6 And note: Jonah’s libertar­ian freedom is preserved. God does not cause him to flee to Tarshish nor compel him to change his mind (though the prospects of life in the stomach of the whale was no doubt a strong incentive). Jonah simply does what Jonah will always do in this specific scenario under these circumstances. God does not need to coerce anyone. People freely do what people do, and God plans accordingly—yet not in the sense of the grand master who always can find a way to win the game, no matter what move his opponent makes. The script is logically prior. God brings into being the specific history he wants. In this way the dual concerns articulated by McCann are fulfilled: divine creation of free human actions and the infallible accomplishment of his good purposes.7


But is the notion of divine middle knowledge plausible? McCann does not think so. He advances three objections. They boil down to the decisive difference between a possible world and a real world. If Jonah enjoys genuine libertarian freedom, does it make sense to speak of what he will do in a particular situation? God can run all the simulations he wants, but in the real world people remain free to do otherwise. Possible worlds are but abstrac­tions. The real world is full of novelty, spontaneity, surprise:

We need to remember at this point that the world in which we actually exist (Wr, we’ll say)—that is, the concrete world of things like mountains, desks, and automobiles, and of real events like Booth’s assassinating Lincoln and Jonah’s making off for Tarshish—is not a possible world in the technical definition of that phrase. It is a real world—the only real world, we may suppose—which exists contingently, and whose existence theists hold to be owing to God’s creative will. The possible world that answers to the real world, namely, W0, is by contrast an abstract entity. It exists necessarily, and its existence (we may here presume) is utterly indifferent to that of Wr.8

Consider what it would mean for the Molinist Deity to actualize W0. He would need to know in advance that “he was going to create Jonah, that he would present Jonah with the com­mis­sion to preach in Nineveh, and that Jonah would instead set sail for the ends of the earth—and similarly for every single contingent fact that pertains to the real world.”9 Creation becomes script. All is programmed. Where’s the fun in that?

Molinism neatly resolves the mystery of divine sovereignty and human freedom. It is easy to see why it might be attractive. But this is not a route that I can take. The image of God delib­erating over scenarios of cosmic history and picking the one that best realizes his creative intentions strikes me as anthro­po­morphic and incompatible with the tran­scen­dence of the Christian God. That we, as temporal creatures, should think of God as knowing future events before they happen is no doubt inevitable. Even many of the Church Fathers appear to have thought of divine foreknowledge along these lines, yet the naïveté of this view becomes apparent as we ponder more deeply on divine eternity and the creatio ex nihilo.

jrr-tolkien-9508428-1-402The Molinist assumes that God can know a possible history constituted by free agents, even though it does not exist. This idea may seem initially plausible. Did not J. R. R. Tolkien imagine an (almost) fully consis­tent secondary world of Valar, Elves, Men, Ents, Balrogs, and Orcs? Yet even still, these creatures and characters only became real when Tolkien brought the story to page, at which point they assumed lives and identities of their own. In a letter to W. H. Auden, Tolkien des­cribes the process of creation as one of surprise: “But I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo.”

My analogy fails, of course—every analogy walks on three legs. The act of imagination is dependent upon the artist’s experience of a pre-existing world, and the story-teller may alter his narrative innumerable times. But the analogy points to the critical flaw in the Molin­ist proposal. The assertion of middle knowledge demands, as David Burrell incisively argues, that God possess a knowledge “on the one hand of what might have taken place but does not, and on the other of what has not yet come to pass.” It therefore presupposes “determinations to the object known which only existence could bestow. . . . For if it is only esse [the act of existing] which grants an individual to be the individual it is, then God cannot know such an individual apart from granting it to be.”10 God does not, and cannot, know Moses or the Virgin Mary or Al Kimel “until” he eternally brings these beings into reality. The creatio ex nihilo thus implies, avers Burrell, a “metaphysics of actuality”:

Everything turns, of course, on the ability to characterize the creator of all things as the cause of being, and to understand the capacity to act on the part of self-determining creatures to be a participation in existence freely granted by that primary cause. If, on the other hand, we think of the creator as sur­vey­ing universes of fully determinate possible beings “before deciding” which one to create, we are at a loss to understand how such “creatures,” possessed of at best “intelligible existence [esse intelligibile],” could be understood to be free actors and hence “fully determinate.” Hence the picture we have of God as creator will imply a specific metaphysics, and vice-versa.11

A metaphysics of actuality, as opposed to a metaphysics of possibilism, requires that we reconceptualize the popular notion of divine foreknowledge. God does not know the future, for the future, by definition, does not exist. He knows, rather, that which he creates, or as Burrell puts it, “God knows—in God’s eternal now—what God does”; and what he does is bestow existence.12 We may not be able to comprehend how this is so—divine eternity and divine creation remain unfathomable to us—but we can see why it must be so.

God, who knows eternally and who knows by a practical knowing what God is doing, knows all and only what is, that is, what God brings into being. Yet by that knowledge, like an artist, God also knows what could be, although this knowing remains penumbral and general, since nonexistent “things” are explicitly not constituted as entities. By definition, an eternal God does not know contingent events before they happen; although God certainly knows all that may or might happen, God does not know what will happen. God knows all and only what is happening (and as a conse­quence, what has happened). That is, God does not already know what will happen, since what “will happen” has not yet happened and so does not yet exist. God knows what God is bringing about. Yet since our discourse is temporal, we must remind ourselves not to read such a statement as saying that God is now bringing about what will happen, even though what will have happened is the result of God’s action.

What these grammatical remarks underscore is the relentlessly actual char­acter of God’s presence to the world. The eternity thesis has the primary advantage of releasing us from so-called “counterfactuals of freedom,” which amount to asking what “Sally” would do in response to a particular invi­ta­tion, were she to be created. Besides being at a loss to know how to answer such a question, that her name is in scare quotes reminds us that the question itself is suspect. One cannot even refer to a possible individual as anything more than one of a kind, much less pretend to know how such a “one” would act freely, since such actions can only be predicated of existing persons. So to consider the statements themselves, asking whether the “counterfactuals of freedom” were true or false, would be to treat language without its mooring in reality, and thus represent an extreme “possibilism.”13

Given that we cannot picture God’s knowing of what-will-have-been, it is better to say that God does not now know what will-be and then correct the inevitable implications of that statement by insisting that God will not, however, be surprised by what in fact occurs, since what-will-have-been is part of God’s eternal intent, either directly or inversely, as in evil actions (ST 1.10.10). It remains that we will try, inescapably, to picture such an intent as God “peering into the future,” so we must then insist that the entire point of calling God’s knowledge of the “actual world” that of vision is to call to attention to the “contemporaneity” of an eternal creator with all that emanates from it, whereby what is, is so in its being present to its creator (ST 1.14.13). Yet the manner in which temporal realities are present to their eternal creative source is not available to us, so it is hardly surprising that we lack a model for God’s knowing eternally what-will-have-happened. For that reason I would prefer the arresting picture of God not knowing “the future” (which is also literally true) to the one which seems invariably to accompany the assertion that God does eternally know what will-have-happened—namely, that God can do what no one else can: peer into “the future.” God knows eternally what God brings about temporally; but this assertion does not entail that God now knows what God will bring about. The hiatus between eternity and time presents another manifestation of “the distinction” [between transcendent Creator and contingent cosmos], so it is only plausible in the perspective of creation and never comprehensi­ble.14


At this point we may suspect that Burrell is presenting a version of open theism, but the suspicion is unwarranted. He is, rather, advancing a Thomistic understanding of the eternal Creator who transcends created space and time altogether. God knows all creatures in his ineffable, eternal act of making and in this act is present to all beings and to all history.

(21 July 2015 & 27 December 2016; rev.)


[1] Hugh J. McCann, Creation and the Sovereignty of God (2012), p. 94.

[2] Ibid., p. 92.

[3] Ibid., p. 84.

[4] Ibid., pp. 84-85.

[5] Ibid., p. 85.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Yet we still find ourselves asking, Are human beings really free in the Molinist universe, given that history inexorably plays out just as God foreknows that it will. Herbert McCabe quips: the Molinist assertion of scientia media possesses “the unique merit of denying simultaneously both divine omnipotence and human freedom.” Faith Within Reason (2007), p. 72.

[8] McCann, p. 89.

[9] Ibid., p. 90.

[10] David B. Burrell, Knowing the Unknowable God (1992), p. 104.

[11] David B. Burrell, Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (1993), p. 114.

[12] Ibid., p. 107.

[13] Ibid., pp. 105-106.

[14] Ibid., p. 110.

(Go to “The World is a Novel”)

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5 Responses to The Free-Will Defense and the Impossible Worlds of Molinism

  1. David says:

    Thanks for taking us through this series again Father.

    I agree that middle knowledge conceived as ‘the counterfactuals of freedom’ is nonsense. However I am wondering whether those who reject Molinism with respect to human freedom could still affirm God has middle knowledge with respect to non-free-will-related-events?

    I agree that there just is no answer to the question ‘what moral decision would I have made in X situation’ because that is up to me – at any rate, until my will is brought fully into line with God’s – and that decision has no existence other than me actually making it.

    However, it seems to me that there *are* answers to the questions ‘what would the universe have looked like if the laws of physics were X?’ or ‘how quickly would the cat have run after the mouse if a mouse appeared?’ I suspect there are also probably answer to questions like ‘what actions would God have taken if humanity had not fell?’ and ‘what would God do if this or that sin had been committed?’

    Maybe this is stating the obvious – I certainly take it for granted that *those* kind of counterfactuals have some kind of existence – not in the sense that God actually chooses between so-called ‘possible worlds’, but that God knows some elements of the actual world derive purely from contingent human choices, and so only have existence in the making of the choice, whereas other features of our reality (such as whether or not a ball rolls down a hill) are necessitated by other secondary causes, and therefore things would have been necessitated in a specific different direction had the secondary cause been different.

    Anyway, assuming God does indeed know what would have happened had things gone differently with respect to non-free-will-related-events, is the appropriate philosophical term for that knowledge middle knowledge? Or is it just an obvious subset of God’s natural knowledge – essentially reducible to ‘whatever happens, happens’?


  2. Tom says:

    “Before God made the world, says the Molinist, he knew the subjunctive proposition ‘If Jonah were commanded to go to Nineveh and preach to the Assyrians, he would flee to Tarshish.’ Not only this, but he also knew Jonah’s reactions, decisions, and actions in every possible set of circumstances.”

    What makes this so strange is that the Molinist affirms a libertarian (pardon me Robert!) view of choice, which means that the world in which Jonah flees to Tarshish is identical to the world in which he doesn’t flee, for that is the idea behind the view of choice the Molinist is seeking to defend, that when it’s true we are free to do ‘other than we do’, we are free to do so in precisely the same world in we do what we end up doing (as opposed to doing otherwise). On the Molinist’s account, there’s a world in which Jonah obeys God in exactly the same circumstances in which he flees to Tarshish (on the assumption that Jonah was free in the sense Molinists assume). Up to the point of ‘the choice’, these worlds are identical, which makes knowledge of these possibilities useless to the Molinist in attempting to secure the robust view of providence he wishes.


    • Tom says:

      But there is no world in which I can post to Fr Al’s blog and not commit a typo.
      “…in precisely the same world in WHICH we do what we end up doing…”


      • brian says:

        The world where Tom does not commit typos is either the eschatologically perfect world where all things are made new or a diabolic permutation occupied by the nefarious pseudo-Tom recognizable by his inability to commit typos. Theologians and philosophers still puzzle over the conundrum.

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Robert Fortuin says:

    “Molinist affirms a libertarian (pardon me Robert!) view of choice” – my rational freedom wisely determines me not to chomp Tom’s bait. mwahaha 😉

    Liked by 2 people

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