Molinism can’t salvage randomness

A couple of times recently I’ve heard the suggestion, seriously made, that the way to resolve true randomness in aspects of creation, and God’s ability to bring his plans to fruition, is through Molinism. It’s four years since I addressed that idea, and it still seems to be around at the highest levels of theistic evolution and ID, so let’s give it another turn in the spotlight. Because Molinism works even less for “chance” than it does for the “libertarian free will” for which it was first designed.

Back in the 16th century Molinism proposed a “middle way” between Calvinism and Arminianism by, in the first place, adopting the latter’s view of free-will as necessarily arbitrary and autonomous, and then by inventing what it called “middle knowledge”. Actually that’s inaccurate, because Luis de Molina preceded Arminius and actually sought to resolve Roman Catholic semi-pelagian views that God can only foresee choices, with classical teaching on his foreordination of those choices.

Be that as it may, the idea was that God has “middle knowledge” of what his free rational creatures would do in any possible world he might make, and chooses to create the one world in which all those choices coincide with his desires for the outcomes. In this way, human choices are genuinely free, and yet God gets to determine the way the world is.

Now there are various ways, some ancient and some modern, to conceive how God can be the Lord of history, and yet mankind justly accountable for good and bad acts. But this one responds not so much to metaphysical mystification, as to the selfsame sense of grievance that Paul refuses to indulge in Romans 9.14, which can’t see how we should be blamed for choosing evil if, in some way, it is also within God’s plan. Nobody (apart from the truly churlish) would mind so much if God were behind our choosing good and being rewarded with eternal life. It’s often expressed in terms of impugning God’s justice because we are clearly “willing evil against our will” or “sinning through no fault of our own”. There are problems with both those statements. Or there’s a third expression (and let’s work with this one): “free will must imply that I could have done otherwise than I did.”

The problem with Molinism in this context ought to be obvious. On judgement day, God condemns a sinner for his misdeeds, and the latter replies, à la Romans 9, “You made me this way: I couldn’t have done any different.”

And the Molinist God replies, “You were absolutely free, even though I ordained the course of events.”

And the sinner says, “Oh yeah? How could I have done any differently, then?”

And God replies, “Well, in a different imaginary world that I never actually created, you would have chosen differently”.

And the sinner laughs sarcastically, “So you’re condemning for not being an imaginary person?? And whose fault was it you put me in this world rather than making the one where I chose differently?” God still has to reply in the same “unsatisfactory” way as Paul about clay answering potters back in the end, despite the metaphysical complications of imagining every possible universe before making one.

Maybe simplifying things will clarify the issue. Suppose God created an uber-simple universe in which you materialise in front of a table with a black and white brick, and he tells you to pick either one. Arbitrarily you pick black, and the game is over. The reason the universe worked out that way is that of the only two possible universes in the series, God actually created the one where you chose black, and didn’t create the one where you chose white, which in fact was just a pipe-dream of his anyway. There was one real “black” universe, and one imaginary virtual-white non-universe. I defy you to find any actual difference between that and a scenario in which God simply willed to create a universe in which you chose black, without the mental contortions involved in Molinism.

Another illustration. In some many worlds multiverse scenarios, there are currently in existence real versions of you, rather than hypothetical “yous” in the divine mind. In some of these you are the richest person in the world, or discoverer of the most important scientific theory, or a byword for evil. And even if that is actually the case, it concerns you how, exactly? You’re still you, not them. “There is a possible world in which I am the Pope” may further some philosophical argument, but is pretty empty of content otherwise.


I suppose the Molinist argument for chance in nature must run similarly. The first decision God must have made was that he decided the world he was going to create would definitely include an invention called “randomness”, which is about stuff happening that even God doesn’t plan, and which is not the result of deliberative choices by rational agents. The usual reasons given why God would want to do that are to create “spontaneity” and “variety”, presumably making life more interesting for him than just doing the sovereign design bit. God wanted to be able not to know some things about his creation. In fact one strongly suspects the real motive is to preserve certain scientific theories which depend on open-ended chance to work.

But having in this way decided to hand decisions – such as the mutations in evolution, say – over to a celestial croupier, God nevertheless had an overarching plan for the cosmos which he wanted to fulfil in Christ. If we take the common “minimalist” position held by many Evolutionary Creationists, that plan at least included the arrival of mankind as he actually is (rather than as an intelligent cabbage). That implies, according to current evolutionary theory, that the whole sequence of evolutionary changes would need to be pretty much as the earth has witnessed it in reality. But random changes don’t produce determined and known outcomes – that’s the entire reason they’re called “random”.

How did God square the circle? Well, Molinist “middle knowledge” enabled God to see, in advance, all the possible results of chance that would occur in all the worlds he might create. And all he had to do was to extract from this virtual divine multiverse the world in which he could foresee that all the random events would work out as he would want them to, within his providential plan to create the Kingdom of God. And then he created it.

In this way his faithfulness is seen in all those deterministic laws of nature whirring and clicking away in the clockwork, whilst his pizzazz and eschewal of autocracy is shown in all those spontaneous random events happening without his pulling the strings in any way.

But don’t you see the problem? In order for the Molinist Deity to create the world that spontaneously works out as he plans, he first has to foresee the outcomes, which immediately removes all those outcomes from the category of “random”, because randomness simply means “unknown”.

Then he has to create the selected cosmos in actuality in order to cause those things to become real things rather than imaginary, middle knowledge, phantasms. And that immediately cuts across another definition of random as “uncaused”. In the act of creating that one cosmos with its determined outcomes, which includes the creation of chance itself, he immediately abolishes chance by foreclosing all possible outcomes other than those he created. Chance ends up meaning merely what happens deterministically in a host of imaginary universes plus one real one. Which is as much as to say that it doesn’t exist – and that’s a good thing, because it saves God having to take the trouble to create the impossible.


Have you ever seen (or maybe been) the kid who decides to make a difficult decision by tossing a coin? He really wants to blow his money on a computer game, but he knows his parents would like him to save it. But he’s willing to bow to the dictates of chance, and he tosses the coin. But it’s the wrong answer. So he tosses it again, and it’s still wrong. But the third toss gives him heads – and he decides that luck is with him, and goes out to buy the game.

It seems to me that kid’s a pretty accomplished Molinist.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Molinism can’t salvage randomness

  1. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    A good column, Jon. Don’t know how I missed it earlier — I think I was teaching a course on science and religion at the time, and I was probably not checking the Hump regularly then.

    I have long wanted to make similar arguments myself, so I’m glad you did this. I have only one thing to add, and that is that your formulation of the “Molinist” defense of random evolution resembles one that was once offered by “Mike Gene”, the pseudonymous author of *The Design Matrix* — who seems to have dropped altogether out of origins debates, after being a major fixture at Telic Thoughts and elsewhere.

    Mike argued, not that “real randomness” did in fact produce evolutionary outcomes, but that, even if it did, it could be squared with an orthodox Christian view of God, in the manner you have presented. An analogy that he proposed (or at least accepted, since it may have been someone else’s suggestion that he was responding to) was this:

    Imagine that God is a shopkeeper, and that the merchandise in his store is “universes”. On the shelves of his very large store are every possible universe, with every possible set of evolutionary outcomes, some of which involve “real randomness” at some points in the process — quantum events etc. which even God did not determine but left to chance. Of the millions of items in this store, one, and only one, is our universe, the particular universe containing you and me, with our exact genetic configurations (even though there is randomness involved in fertilization, etc.) and the particular history of the earth, of humanity, of Israel, of Jesus, etc. God picks that particular universe off the store shelf, and chooses to create that and only that universe. Mike Gene reasoned that this makes you and me and all human events the precise outcomes that God wanted — even though there could have been real randomness in biological evolution, sexual reproduction, etc. all the way through it. So God’s sovereign will is upheld, not by intervening in the course of nature, or even by front-loading mechanistically in a universe that is all law and no randomness, but simply by choosing a universe that he likes, randomness and all.

    Again, Gene didn’t argue that it happened this way; his point was merely that even if the “Darwinians” (and he was critical of neo-Darwinism on the biological front) could prove that “real randomness” was involved, orthodox Christian theology could remain untouched. So he wasn’t bothered by all the loose talk of chance and randomness that TE/EC folks engaged in. If science could show that real randomness had a role, he could tolerate that, theologically. He therefore didn’t really take the side of ID folks who were critical of randomness.

    Mike also claimed to have invented the term “front-loading” and that it had been misappropriated by others to mean some sort of absolute determinism based on the configuration of things at the beginning. He said that what he meant by front-loading was a sort of “nudge” (not supernatural), a sort of tilt or inclination of evolution in a certain direction which might seem to some like “design”. He didn’t claim that design could be proved scientifically, but he thought that the facts of evolution supported the idea of a nudge or tilt. I never read his book, and I never found out exactly what he meant; his idea sounded vaguely like stuff I’ve heard from Conway Morris, who also rejects supernatural intervention but seems to think evolution has a curious bias.

    I don’t know why Gene never identified himself, or why he dropped out of the debate. (Or maybe he is still around, under another pseudonym, but based on his former writing style, there is no one I can think of who matches up with him.) I was told that he was in fact a bona fide life scientist, doing teaching and/or research somewhere, and he always said that he kept his name hidden not out of fear but so that people would judge his ideas based only on their merit and not his credentials.

    He was very good about keeping the debates civilized; he sometimes would set forth rules of civilized debate, including: no ad hominem arguments, representing your opponent’s argument at its strongest, etc. All of that was admirable about him, and made his posts pleasant in the midst of all the thuggery. I wonder where he is.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks Eddie

      I actually should include a reason that Molinism abolishes chance, which I missed out here, and that is that chance is “purposeless”. In our scenario. God has chosen which “chance” universe he makes specifically to produce particular results.

      I actually interacted with Mike Gene with his version of this on his blog, and pointed out that there is a simple world for reducing any number of possible future events in your mind to just one, actual outcome. That word is “design”.

      Mike, I think, abandoned his blog to concentrate on one critiquing the new atheism, Shadow to Light. A shame, really, as New Atheism is just a busted flush now, and pointing that out is just like following the burning Messerschmidt down in your Hurricane to make sure it crashes. But maybe he felt he’d said all he could on the origins issue.

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