More on Molinism

Molinism has come up for discussion again on Peaceful Science. Although it’s popular nowadays with significant Christian thinkers like William Lane Craig, it seems to me to be a complicated philosophical way of failing to solve the problems for which it is designed, whilst creating more.

My main objection is that, in seeking to make free-will both libertarian and determined by God, by means of the middle knowledge of possible creations that will never exist (and, paradoxically, that an omniscient God would know from eternity will never exist – there’s a conundrum!), we end up with a world in which my choices are, in any case, determined by the creation God chooses to finalise. Within that creation – the only real one, and the one that determines my eternal destiny – my choices depend on God’s determination of what he will create. As a Calvinist I have no problem with that, but the Molinist is trying to avoid that “problem.”

I do, however, have a problem with a theological system that more or less ignores the bondage of the will to sin described in Scripture, and which underestimates the wonder of the divine grace that liberates us from it, rather than accommodating creation to our corrupted wills.

As an aside, I might add that Molinism seems to lead to convoluted paradoxes about God’s will. We start at a point where nothing, apart from God, exists. He plans what he wills to happen in creation – the goals that, Molinism claims, are maintained by the alteration of circumstances to “manage” the free-wills of creatures like you and me. And yet those creatures themselves only exist in God’s mind because he wills that they (potentially) exist, in exactly the same way that his set purposes do.

What is it that makes the “unalterable” purposes more fixed than the creatures whose lives and circumstances he will change, according to his “middle knowledge,” in order to achieve them? He doesn’t need to create sinners at all. It seems, under Molinism, that the non-existent wills of creatures that God has not actually created alter the eternal will of the God who is Being itself. And, paradoxically, the only human wills that don’t alter God’s will and purpose are those that he actually will create, because they fit in with his plans! Is that not decidedly weird?

But today I want to suggest that, if Molinism actually worked, it would actually be unnecessary. So let us assume, for the argument, that God has created the universe he wants, as posited by Molinism, taking into account our totally free choices, which remain totally free even though determined in practice by the actual world God has made. We will conclude, I take it that, that this demonstrates that a single, stand-alone universe may indeed have both its outcomes determined by God, and its individual human choices freely made. Agreed by Molinist readers? If not, what is Molinism for?

Let’s examine that conclusion in a completely different context. Imagine two “possible worlds”, A & B. In A, Dr Bob is a celebrated quantum physicist who hears cold fusion mentioned, and is intrigued to explore if it is actually possible. Day and night (between other work) he tosses equations round in his head, does thought experiments and so on, and after several months of sweat works through to a simple experiment that might work. To his delight and amazement, it does, and before long he writes the definitive Nature article that changes human energy production forever.

Now, in world B, Dr Bob is a different character, though with the same achievments in quantum physics. When he hears about cold fusion, he’s intrigued, but does nothing conscious about it. Though perhaps at some unconscious level his brain doesn’t forget it. One day he is walking across the campus, when in a flash of insight he sees just how cold fusion could work in a simple laboratory experiment, he sets it up just as the world A Dr Bob did, publishes the same Nature article on the same day as A Dr Bob did, and changes the world in precisely the same way.

Unfortunately, in both possible worlds Dr Bob get struck down by a bus soon afterwards and never gets to share his different stories in the respective worlds. Therefore, in both possible worlds, cold fusion exists in exactly the same way, even though the mental process Dr Bob used to develop it was quite different in each. All other things being equal, you couldn’t tell the difference between the two worlds.

Or in other words, the identical post-cold fusion worlds A & B have nothing within them to betray which mental process Dr Bob used.

Now, if Molinism is true, we have a world – the only real world – created by God, and in it we have the happy coexistence of free choice, and the divine determinism of all outcomes. Such a world, then, is not only a possible world, but is the actual state of things. It’s as true as the existence of cold fusion in our Dr Bob worlds A and B. There is, then, no free-will/determinism problem in fact, and the human heart-searching about the problem is based on error, because there is no intrinsic conflict between free will and divine sovereignty.

But neither is there anything whatsoever in this world of ours to betray by what process within the Godhead that state of things was achieved. Suppose that God is a little bit more like Dr B Bob than Dr A Bob, in that his knowledge and will are actually (as the theologians who wrote the Westminster Cathechism, for example, said) achieved in one flash of universal insight about himself as sole Creator, rather than by a long deliberation of infinite possibilities? Let us postulate that God simply created our world without any consideration of middle knowledge, as a single act of his unopposed will. And let us suppose – which is irrefutable, since it is the real world – that this actual world is identical in every respect to the one postulated under Molinism.

Is that not possible? Would it be impossible for God to create this world, with its coexistant sovereign determinism and creaturely freedom, by one means rather than another? If the combination were a logical impossibility (is cold fusion that, perhaps?) then even God could not create it. But if it is possible, then God can create it sovereignly by straight fiat as well as he would by consulting his “middle knowledge” about particular free choices.

We have already established that a world determined by God is entirely compatible with libertarian free-will. So how could it be impossible for God to create such a world in a simple act, rather than by some other means involving infinite reflection on all the other potential worlds, as Molinism supposes?

Now remember that I’ve established that there is nothing whatsoever about this world, as it now exists, that would reveal which of those two ways of creating – or any other – God used to bring it about, any more than there is anything in cold-fusion world to enable one to say if Dr Bob was an obsessional plodder or an intuitive genius like Frederick Kekule, who dreamed the structure of benzene in a dream of a snake biting its tail.

That leads to a final warning about Molinism. If we accept the classical Big Bang as the very beginning of the universe, any speculation about what caused it, or even about how God did it, is presumptuous. We are creatures of God’s making, not beings privy to the internal thoughts of God before creation.We know nothing – nothing – about how God creates, unless he should deign to tell us.

The secret of the Incarnation was hidden within the Trinity since before creation, not even being guessed by angels until God himself revealed it in Christ. It seems just a little arrogant, therefore, to speculate on what God did before creation, from within a creation that contains no information about the matter.

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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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4 Responses to More on Molinism

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    WLC lost me on Molinism when I heard him respond to a question about how divine justice comports with the supposed fate of those who never hear the Gospel.
    His solution was that God has created a version of the Universe in which he causes those who are born into circumstances where they do not hear the Gospel to be people who he knows would reject the Gospel if they were to hear it. Middle knowledge in action.
    I can get my head around this. But not my heart.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Peter – I think both my head AND heart say that there is just one real world, real choices and (mysteriously) divine sovereignty. The “hows” really ought to remain above our pay grade, though I’ve been guilty of trying to work it out instead of just taking God at his word.

      The conditionals get so unutterably complicated: “John would have believed if he’d been born as a girl in Africa rather than Bognor, in a village instead of a town, in 1992 instead of 1957, and had a job as a radio fitter rather than a surgeon…” You have to wonder in what sense he’s “John” at all in the “possible world,” since all those factors are what help to make him who is is.

      And of course, WLC (or whoever) has to answer why, having decided that God knows so much that all those who don’t hear the gospel wouldn’t have believed it anyway, he didn’t simply not create them in the first place, if indeed the whole reason is to maximise salvation and freedom.

      The absurd thing about the dialogue that prompted this piece is that there are those using Molinism not for its role in preserving human free will, but to allow God to create things by chance in evolution and still direct them (much as Open Theism is invoked to make nature free as well as people).

  2. Ashwin says:

    Hi Jon,

    Great Article. I was thinking the same thing about Molinism from the other side of the fence (i.e from a foreknowledge POV).
    The issue as i see it is not whether freewill or determinism can coexist or not. The issue is what God determined.. i.e did he choose to create a world where the destruction of some and the salvation of others is predetermined, or one in which the means of Salvation and instruments of grace are pre-determined.
    I hold to the latter. The entire debate hinges on how one understands grace IMHO.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      The entire debate hinges on how one understands grace IMHO.

      Yes – it seems to be forgotten that Molinism arose in order to support a semi-pelagian form of grace in which the will had to co-operate with God’s grace in order for anything to happen.

      That’s a view I happen to disagree with, but as with the application of Open Theism to evolution, it’s the wrong tool for the job: “choice” is not the same thing as “chance.”

      Oh, by the way, welcome to The Hump, Ashwin!

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