thomas flint

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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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Molinism and Timelessness–A Match Made in Heaven (No, really!)

It seems to me that there are few matches better made than the doctrine of Divine Timelessness and Molinism (aka Middle Knowledge). I think they truly are a match made in heaven, for God Himself possesses both of these attributes/properties.

First, some definitions. God is timeless, which means that “God exists, but exists at no time” (Leftow, xi). Middle knowledge is God’s knowledge of counterfactuals (simplifying the case to some extent here, see Thomas Flint’s discussion in Divine Providence: The Molinist Account). Jointly these propositions serve as explanations for a number of phenomena of Christianity.

First, human freedom and divine omniscience is a problem curtailed jointly by these doctrines. Timelessness solves any kind of potential incompatibility by simply denying that omniscience is foreknowledge. Instead, it is simply knowledge, known all at once in one “instant” in eternity (Leftow, 246ff). That which is not in time cannot determine things “ahead of time”.

Molinism, on the other hand, can also deny any incompatibility by asserting that the counterfactuals of God’s knowledge are not under the control of God. In other words, God has no control over whether or not Jenny will freely choose to go mountain climbing. God can control the circumstances in which Jenny is placed, and then bring it about that some other counterfactual would be true (i.e. Jenny does not go mountain climbing because she stays home to nurse her ailing goldfish). But this control over circumstances does not entail control over choices. The choices remain free (Flint, 11ff).

Now, one objection to Molinism is that because God decides which circumstances in which to place Jenny before the creation of the world, he still is determining what she will do because he picks from the circumstances. But this is not quite the case. Jenny’s actions are not determined, but some of the circumstances in which she is placed are. This doesn’t preclude her free choice, however, for God only controls the situations Jenny will encounter, while her free choices remain outside of His control.

Timelessness is sometimes denied due to a perception that a timeless God could not have meaningful interactions with His creatures. This does not seem to be the case however, once one analyzes exactly what timelessness entails. Leftow argues convincingly that timelessness can be thought of as, in some sense, a parallel “time” during which all things happen at once, though not simultaneously. The relationship of successive temporal instants can be thought of in some ways as similar to logical priority. If a timeless God has middle knowledge, furthermore, then God can indeed have “real” interactions with creatures, because He, in eternity, all-at-once performs the creative, providential act. This includes the situations in which His creatures will be placed.

Thus, by His creative act, He sets the situations in which He will interact with His creatures, and this action is a true interaction because He factors in their free choices and takes such things into account. Furthermore, the objection that God’s interactions are diminished because they happen “before” the interaction occurs is a specious claim, for if God is timeless, then none of His actions occur “at a time” other than in Eternity.

Therefore, it seems to me that jointly, a molinist account and a timeless God make quite a lot of sense. This is not to say that there are no other accounts of God that make sense, but this is part of the interest of philosophy of religion, after all, particularly among Christians: the dialogue, the interaction with the Biblical texts which perhaps speak to each issue, and the different conclusions which can be drawn. These differing conclusions do not take away from or destroy the validity of our faith, rather, they ensure that we delve ever deeper, striving for an understanding of the divine Godhead.


Leftow, Brian. Time and Eternity. Cornell University Press. 2009 (reprint).

Thomas Flint, Divine Providence: A Molinist Account. Cornell University Press. 2006.


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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