Answering James White's Philosophical Objection to Molinism
In a fantastic debate recently held by Justin Brierly with Unbelievable?, two well-known and beloved brothers in Christ got together to discuss providence, specifically as it relates to the problem of evil. As with many debates on this program, there was a shift away from the debate topic at hand, though this shift was less tangential and more of a reduction in scope. By the end of the debate, the problem of evil was no longer central and the discussion could be framed as a general debate regarding different models of providence. As this is related to my thesis, I wanted to take time to address what seemed to be James White’s primary philosophical contention with Molinism, as a model of providence. I will call this the problem of source delimitation.
Multiple times throughout the debate, James White steered the conversation back to this problem of source delimitation. In examining the relationship between God’s act of creation across various feasible worlds and the imposition of subjunctive conditionals to generate the range of feasible worlds, James White contended that this generates a source outside of God that limits what God is able to do. Very emphatically at one point James White says,
“If there is going to be the assertion, as Middle Knowledge makes the assertion, that there are these true subjunctive conditionals that are the basis upon which God’s decree is acted out, I think it is quite necessary for us, as Christian theologians, to say from whence comes that which limits what God can do and how God can do it.”
And again later:
“If we are going to say that the great YHWH is limited in what He can do, what is feasible for Him to do, then we need to know from whence comes this strange delimiting authority.”
It was on this point of the debate where I think Dr. White and Dr. Craig were simply talking past each other. Whereas Dr. White wanted to know the source of the subjunctive conditionals or where they came from, Dr. Craig was attempting to address what makes them true by answering the grounding objection. It was odd that Dr. Craig continued to address the grounding problem as Dr. White was clear in his articulation and formulation of his primary philosophical concern. This led Dr. Craig to seem to be helping James White’s case against Molinism as he said multiple times that these subjunctive conditionals don’t come from God However, if you understand the question Dr. Craig was attempting to answer, then you can interpret his answer as saying that God does not make them true. God does not determine which subjunctive conditionals would be true because that would just be determinism. Nevertheless, if everything you were to understand about Molinism were to come from this debate, you would reasonably come away thinking that there is a source external to God that generates these subjunctive conditionals of creaturely freedom and limits God’s creative activity. That alone would be pretty persuasive to convince you that Molinism is a false view, especially with Dr. Craig continually answering the wrong question.
I wanted to attempt to answer this philosophical point that James White pressed numerous times throughout the interview because these subjunctive conditionals do find their source in God, however, they are not manufactured by God in a deterministic fashion. God does not say if Mark were in circumstance C then he would do X. Instead, these subjunctive conditionals are merely an extension or a result of God’s creative freedom.
Prior to creation, in the deliberative stage of creation, God has an infinite number of possibilities available to Him and because of His maximal knowledge, He is able to contemplate this range of possibilities and what follows from each. Contained within these possibilities there are axiomatic conditions God could apply to His act of creation. For example, God could choose to create with the axiomatic condition that there are only two colors, black and white, that exist. This creative choice by God naturally limits the feasible worlds God could create if He were to create with this axiomatic condition applied. It would not be feasible for God to create a world with blue, if God desired to apply this color limited condition to His act of creation. This same principle understanding can be applied to creaturely freedom.
Suppose God, in this deliberative stage of creation, chose to apply the axiomatic condition that human creatures will have free will. If God chooses to apply this axiomatic condition, God is limited to a range of feasible worlds that He could create that also uphold this axiomatic condition. God could then choose to instantiate a particular world from this range of feasible worlds which are a mere subset of possible worlds.
For a rough analogy to what I am saying here, think about the process of shopping online. Let’s suppose you wanted to purchase an item so you hop online. You open up a website and set before you you have every item that could be conceived available to you for purchase. However, let’s say you wanted to shop within a certain category of items. You could apply a variety of filters to this infinite range of options to more closely get to what you would like to purchase. However, with each filter you apply, you limit the range of items that you can choose from. After you apply all the filters you want to apply and you examine the range of options, you then choose which item best reflects what you wanted.
In a similar way, God in His freedom, power, and knowledge, is able to filter the range of possible worlds that He could instantiate under a certain subset of axiomatic conditions. It is well within God’s maximal freedom and power to instantiate a world where every action that is made by creatures was determined and enacted by Him. There is nothing that exists by necessity that can limit God’s creative act since God is the only necessary being. However, God is perfectly able in His freedom to impose His own limitations on the type of worlds that He would create. If God applies the axiomatic condition that human creatures will have free will, then this will automatically limit the range of world’s that God can create from, based on the axiomatic condition that He himself applied.
Since He has maximal knowledge, He has access to the subjunctive conditionals of creaturely freedom, whereas He knows what creatures would do if they were in various circumstances across a range of feasible worlds in which God has chosen to maintain the axiomatic condition that human creatures will have free will. Thus, subjunctive conditionals are not imposed on God by some external source at creation, but instead they are a natural outcome of God’s creative freedom, which I would argue is where they find their source in the sense that James White was asking. It is a limitation on possible worlds that is imposed by God Himself to generate feasible worlds.
I think this sufficiently answers the point that James White was pushing in the interview. This article is not an espousal of Molinism or any other model of providence, instead, it is an attempt to look at the topic of discussion and provide reasonable answer to this philosophical discussion. As those who watched this debate know, there are many levels to the discussion that must be examined and addressed.
What did you think about the debate? Let me know in the comments below.