Christian Doctrines, Molinism, philosophy, theology

Scrooge, Molinism, and the “Grounding Objection”

`Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,’ said Scrooge, `answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only?’ …`Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,’ said Scrooge. `But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.’

…`They [the curtains on Scrooge’s bed] are not torn down.’ cried Scrooge, folding one of his bed-curtains in his arms,’ they are not torn down, rings and all. They are here — I am here — the shadows of the things that would have been, may be dispelled. They will be. I know they will.’-The Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

Such is Scrooge’s conclusion when he discovers that despite what he is shown about the future, he wakes up and discovers that he may change those ends. The story relies upon something which tends to be common in everyday language: the truths of counterfactuals. For example, Scrooge seems to conclude “If I change my course, then things will turn out differently.” Thomas Flint writes, “no one dismisses the story on the grounds that there simply are no such truths which ever could be revealed. The reason, I think, is that most people tacitly assume that there are such conditional truths” (Flint, 79, cited below).

It is therefore interesting that the most commonly cited philosophical objection to molinism is this very notion: that things can be true about what free beings will do in such-and-such circumstances. Most often the objection is put something like this: “What grounds the truths of these statements? If the creatures don’t exist yet, then how can there be anything to make such statements true?” I’ll be foregoing a lengthy philosophical defense of the position for now and instead focus on one rebuttal: Why suppose that such statements need to have a “truthmaker” or that they need to have a “grounding”?

What reason is there for supposing that “if a proposition is true, then something… causes it to be true…” (Alvin Plantinga quoted in Flint, 127)? Now Flint himself (and he says Plantinga follows) continues on beyond this to argue that there are in fact ways to ground such counterfactuals, but my own skepticism remains unconvinced. I’m not sure I understand the notion that propositions must have some grounds to make them true. It seems much more plausible to me that for any proposition, it is either true or false. Clearly, this is the case for many necessary truths. It is necessarily true that if something is pink it is colored. But does that mean that if nothing existed, this would not be true? Or would it follow that if no pink things existed, the statement would be meaningless? I’m not sure these things do follow, and so I remain highly skeptical of the notion that counterfactuals of freedom even need to be grounded to begin with. In any case, it seems to me highly questionable that they do.

It also seems extremely plausible to me to just accept my commonsense notion that the story of Scrooge just makes sense. If Scrooge had continued the life he had, then the things he was shown would have come about. Scrooge had a change of heart, so those things did not come about. But that doesn’t mean they would not have if he had not changed. The appeal to common sense is almost universally frowned upon in philosophy, but it seems like in this case there is little reason to doubt it.

Merry Christmas, all! I’ll resume posting after the day of the birth of our Savior!

Image  Credit: Robert Doucette



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


4 thoughts on “Scrooge, Molinism, and the “Grounding Objection”

  1. JW,
    I tend to agree with you, but I do have one objection to your position that counterfactuals don’t need to be grounded. Keep in mind that this objection is coming from someone who knows next-to-nothing about philosophy.

    The objection is in the form of analogy. When I discuss the meaning of life, the grounding of morals, or some other such philosophical objection to atheism with some atheists, sometimes they reply with something like, “I don’t see why life’s meaning [or morals, or insert some other transcendent quality of the universe] needs to be grounded. It just is obvious.”

    How would you respond to that? How do you know you’re not making the same mistake?

    Posted by Greg Reeves | December 29, 2011, 10:59 PM
    • Greg,

      That’s a very intuitive comment. It touches on the nature of truths themselves. I think a response to the “moral grounds” analogy is that they are not analogous in that moral statements necessarily have “oughtness” about them. It’s this “oughtness” which is taken to need a grounds for truth. It’s not clear that counterfactuals have anything about them which is analogous to this feature of morality.

      One could then press that the “aboutness” of counterfactuals means they must be grounded in something. For example, take a counterfactual “If A does x, then B will do y.” It seems that this counterfactual is at best vacuous if there is no grounding for or actual objects A and B.

      I’m not sure how strong I think this is, because we can make counterfactuals about fictitious persons. And we seem to take these as statements which are not void of all meaning. For example, take any fictional character whose personality is fairly well defined. One could make counterfactual statements about them with which many people would agree.

      But does this mean that these counterfactuals are anything but useful fictions?

      Then we would get into interesting discussions on fictionalism, platonism, etc.

      I tend to think that necessary truths are “grounded” in the nature of God, whilst contingent truths are grounded by those things which they are about. Now one difficulty with a denial of counterfactuals needed for molinism (those that are true prior to any real contingent objects) is that one could assert that any counterfactual is equally vacuous that is prior to the worlds. Thus, it seems to me that counterfactuals, if they need grounding at all (which they may), are grounded in possible worlds (Plantinga seems to argue this in “Nature of Necessity” and Craig follows him in “Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology”).

      The nature of truths is an extremely sticky topic. Can they be brute facts? I don’t think there is such a thing as an “ungrounded” truth, so I may reform my statement in this post. My main point is that what many mean by the “Grounding” of counterfactuals is something apart from the truth itself. Because I tend to think truths are grounded in God’s knowledge, it seems to me no more grounding is needed. But then one could assert (perhaps rightfully) that this is circular, and we’d be back to square one.

      Can counterfactuls be grounded simply by God’s knowledge of them? I say yes. Those who say no will seek out further grounds.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | December 30, 2011, 12:22 AM


  1. Pingback: Scrooge, Molinism, and the “Grounding Objection” by J.W. Wartick | Molinists Apologetics - August 3, 2014

  2. Pingback: Saving Christmas from the Grounding Objection | CapLawson - December 24, 2014

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