Thomism is preferable to Molinism

Abstract: In this paper I will examine two competing theories of God’s providence, namely Molinism and Thomism, and argue that of the two Thomism is theologically preferable. I will show that Thomism can help itself to all the advantages of Molinism without inheriting its distinctive disadvantages. I will not have space to deal at length with the supposed disadvantages of Thomism, but I will suggest that the supposed disadvantages of the Thomistic view can be avoided or greatly mitigated, and that even if they could not Thomism would remain theologically preferable.

Molinism is the theological model, first put forward by the sixteenth century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, which attempts to preserve an extremely strong view of God’s providential control over the history and nature of the world while also maintaining that people have genuinely categorical, or ‘libertarian,’ freedom. The way Molina does this is to argue that in addition to God’s natural knowledge (of all necessary modal truths),[1] and his knowledge of contingent facts about the actual world, he has a ‘middle’ knowledge (scientia media) of what people would have freely done in any non-actual[2] metaphysically possible circumstance. God has access to the objects of his so-called middle knowledge logically/explanatorily prior to his choosing to create a world, and it is in light of these objects of his knowledge that he sets the world up precisely as he does, so as to bring about the best of all logically feasible[3] worlds. A world is logically feasible just in case it is both logically possible and, in addition, is possibly instantiated (by God’s creative activity) in light of the true contingent[4] subjunctive counterfactual conditionals of creaturely freedom (henceforth SCCs). The Molinist maintains that these SCCs are either entirely brute facts (contingent facts for which no sufficient explanation exists), or are grounded somehow in something other than God’s intentional assignment.

Molinism, it has been said, is “one of the most brilliant constructions in the history of philosophical theology,”[5] and has sweeping theological utility. It not only tidily explains how to put together genuine free will with God’s providential control over historical contingencies, but it also offers a stunning answer to the so-called problem of evil precisely because the morally sufficient reasons for evils in the world are grounded in objects of God’s knowledge which we have good reason to believe we are in no epistemic position to know, nor even in a position to guess! Molinism even provides an apparently promising way to defend the logical possibility of the classical doctrine of hell against objections to the effect that infinite (read here ‘everlasting’) punishment for finite crimes is incompatible with God’s justice.[6] All its notable advantages notwithstanding, Molinism also presents profound challenges to God’s sovereignty, His divine simplicity and to His impassivity. Moreover, Molinism is incompatible with the principle of sufficient reason, which provides a good reason for rejecting it. Where Molinism fails, however, Thomism can succeed.

The Thomist parts company with the Molinist on the question of the nature of God’s providence by stipulating that that SCCs must, somehow, be determined by God. Robert Koons explains that “the Thomist is supposed to believe that God knows… [subjunctive counterfactual conditionals] by having decided Himself what [they] should be.”[7] Some critics have complained that if God makes these counterfactuals true then people would not have the ‘power’ to do otherwise than they do,[8] but this objection seems confused. After all, supposing that SCCs are indeterministically assigned a truth-value, or that their truth value is in any case not the result of any deterministic process of truth-value assignment, no problem is supposed to arise for the Molinist. If our apparently free actions turned out to result from what, at bottom, can be described as a mindless indifferent unintentional indeterministic process[9] then they would be as unfree as if they were strictly causally determined by antecedent conditions entirely out of our control. However, the Molinist will deny that just because the SCCs (together with facts about what world God has elected to create) both logically entail that people will act precisely as they do and result from some unintentional indeterminism, the actions of creatures are not free. The Molinist can hold this consistently because they recognize that logical entailment is not to be confused with causal necessitation, and it is not true that if it is logically entailed that A do Y, then A is unfree with respect to Y.[10] The fact is that God does not cause a person to act as they do on either the Thomistic or the Molinist view, even if He sets up the world in such a way as to logically ensure that they act precisely as they do. This is a point to which we shall return.

In the first place among the many arguments against Molinism comes the argument from William Hasker, which was polished and improved upon by Robert Adams, and deserves special attention. Hasker’s argument was that Molinists need for the truth of SCC’s to be explanatorily prior to the existence of libertarian-free agents and their libertarian-free actions, but, Hasker thinks, Molinism will commit one to the belief that SCC’s are grounded in a libertarian-free agents free activity. He suggests that there is a contradiction between the claim that some free agent ‘A’ can freely bring Y about, and the claim that there is a ‘hard fact’ about the past history of the world, explanatorily prior to A’s bringing Y about, which broadly logically entails that Y be brought about by A. Hasker assumes that if A can freely bring Y about then A has the power to refrain from bringing Y about. For Hasker, “A [freely] brings it about that Y iff: For some X, A causes it to be the case that X, and (X & H) =>[11]Y, and ~(H =>Y), where ‘H’ represents the history of the world [causally] prior to its coming to be the case that X.”[12] Since it is a condition of A’s being free with respect to bringing Y about that H apart from X not logically entail that Y, if there is an SCC entailed by H which, in turn, entails Y, A cannot be free with respect to Y. The history of the world cannot include an SCC which entails that Y unless A is not free with respect to bringing it about that Y. Therefore, A’s bringing Y about freely requires that the SCC entailing that A bring Y about be grounded in A’s bringing X about, rather than grounded in H. To ground SCCs in the actions of libertarian free agents, however, would entirely undo Molinism as an explanation of God’s providential control over the free decisions of His creatures.

Unfortunately I am not convinced that this argument against Molinism is any good. In fact, I am convinced that it is no good. The trouble here is that for H to broadly logically entail Y does not seem (to me) to entail that A did not freely bring it about that Y, or that A couldn’t have refrained from bringing Y about in the relevant sense. A, to be free, need only be free in the sense that nothing in H causally necessitates Y. However, for H to broadly logically entail Y is not incompatible with A’s ability to freely bring Y about. Suppose, for instance, that the A-theory of time is true, and suppose further that the history of the world has included the fact that “at t (where t is some future time) A will freely do B.” If this fact is part of the makeup of facts true in the past history of the world (and presumably it would be, since it is future-tensed), then there would be facts in the past history of the world which would broadly logically entail that A do B, but this would do absolutely nothing to negate A’s freedom with respect to doing B. One should not confuse broadly logical entailment with causal determinism. Libertarian freedom and causal determinism[13] really are incompatible, but there’s no good reason to think that libertarian free will is incompatible with free choices being broadly logically entailed by facts which have no causal influence on the free choices they entail. A can be causally free to refrain from bringing Y about even if it is broadly logically entailed by some contingent fact H that A bring Y about.

Robert Adams has articulated a similar argument, but couches the key commitment to which he invites us in the language of explanatory priority. He suggests that “if I freely do A in C, no truth that is strictly inconsistent with my refraining from A in C is explanatorily prior to my choosing and acting as I do in C.”[14] His argument operates on the crucial assumptions that explanatory priority is (i) transitive, and (ii) asymmetrical. It must be transitive because Adams wants to say that SCC’s are explanatorily prior to our free choices (because they are explanatorily prior to our very existence, which is itself explanatorily prior to our free choices), and it must be asymmetrical because otherwise our free choices could be explanatorily prior to SCCs which are explanatorily prior to our free choices. Unfortunately Adams makes the very same mistake as Hasker made when he insists that “the truth of [an SCC] (which says that if I were in C then I would do A) is strictly inconsistent with my refraining from A in C.” [15] In addition, W.L. Craig has argued that the notion of explanatory priority used in Adam’s argument may be equivocal, and that, if it isn’t, “there is no reason to expect it to be transitive”[16] in the way required by the argument. Adam’s argument, therefore, seems plagued with difficulties.

There are, however, some genuine problems with Molinism. Problems to which Thomism seems immune. The first such problem is that Molinism seriously threatens God’s divine simplicity in a subtle but profound way. According to the doctrine of divine simplicity God’s knowing is (somehow) identical with His willing, which is (somehow) identical with His being. One of the chief motivations of the Thomistic view of providence is that it satisfies “a concern to preserve the doctrine of the simplicity of God,”[17] precisely because God’s knowing and his willing amount to the very same thing.[18] By contrast Molinism suggests that God is affected by the objects of his middle-knowledge in such a way that His knowing cannot amount to the same thing as His willing, and this presents a fundamental threat to the doctrine of divine simplicity. It also threatens the doctrine of God’s impassability, according to which “God’s relation to [the world][19] is always one of cause-to-effect and never effect-to-cause.”[20] If Molinism is true then God bears an effect-to-cause relation to SCCs, which are uncreated contingent features of the world.

Another difficulty with Molinism is that it may not only fail to provide a promising theodicy, but may present its own form of the problem of evil. According to a standard Molinist theodicy, God has minimized the evil and maximized the good in this world by creating the best of all logically feasible worlds in light of the SCCs which happen to obtain. For illustration, we can imagine that if two logically feasible worlds W and W’ are indistinguishable (mutatis mutandis) except insofar as W involves one more person than W’ coming to freely accept God, then W will be a better feasible world than W’. However, given the indeterminate nature of SCCs, it may be the case that there are two worlds W1 and W2, such that W1 and W2 are indistinguishable in all respects except (mutatis mutandis) that W1 involves the salvation of Susie and Jim, and the damnation of Thomas, whereas W2 involves the salvation of Thomas and Jim, but the damnation of Susie. Given this situation, it seems as though an omnibenevolent God would be stuck with a classic buridan’s ass paradox. In this case God would have to arbitrarily choose to create one world rather than the other (assuming He wouldn’t just create both), but this leaves God with no morally sufficient reason for allowing the damnation of Thomas/Susie (depending on the world selected, or for the damnation of Thomas1 and Susie2 if God created both worlds). Suppose further that there is no better logically feasible world than either W1 or W2. That would mean that there is no such thing as the best of all feasible worlds, in which case God has not created the best of all feasible worlds.

Perhaps the Molinist will argue that were SCCs to have presented God with such a dilemma (or trilemma, or quadrilemma, etc.), then God would have refrained from creating any world at all. The fact that God has created a world can, therefore, be taken as an indication that the SCCs were not set-up such that God could not have had morally sufficient reason for allowing any and all actual instances of evil. The trouble here is that if Molinism requires that SCCs not present this predicament to God, then Molinism may turn out to be intolerably unlikely to be true, for of all the possible ways the SCCs could have turned out, it seems immensely (perhaps infinitely) more probable that God be faced with just such a predicament than not. For any SCC-set1 which allows for a best of all feasible worlds, there is a set [SCC-set2, SCC-set3… SCC-setn] every member of which precludes there being a best of all feasible worlds and represents a ‘closer’ logically possible SCC-set to SCC-set1 than any SCC-setx which also allows for a(nother) best of all feasible worlds.

The Molinist may object that probabilities aren’t what they seem here, since one might naïvely assume that given a randomly selected number from the set of all numbers, one is more likely to get an even number than a prime, but this is demonstrably false.[21] However, the key here is the relative closeness of the SCC-sets which morally prohibit God’s creating any world at all. For every cluster of SCCs related by family resemblance, the majority of possible SCC-sets in the vicinity will be creation-prohibiting. Imagine throwing a dart from an infinite distance in the direction of an infinite set of floor tiles each of which had one minuscule red spot, and having the dart land precisely on one of those red spots; this is what it would be like for God to happen-upon an SCC-set which isn’t creation-prohibiting.[22]

Moreover, even if the possible ‘SCC’ sets made it no more likely than unlikely that a best of all logically feasible worlds is instantiable, the fact that Molinism in principle allows the set of SCCs to proscribe God’s creating the world means that the conditional probability of Molinism given that a world exists is (significantly?) less than the conditional probability of Thomism; Pr(M|World)<<Pr(T|World).

Molinism also fails to preserve as strong a notion of God’s sovereignty as Thomism because it suggests that there are contingent objects/elements in the world over which God has absolutely no control. God is, as it were, simply confronted with SCCs which are beyond his power to do anything about, and He must make due as best He can with them. God’s omnipotence is also apparently undermined (or unnecessarily restricted) for, on standard Molinism, if it is true that ‘S if placed in C would freely do A’ then “even God in His omnipotence cannot bring it about that S would freely refrain from A if he were placed in C.”[23] In an attempt to evade such difficulties thinkers like Kvanvig have defended what is referred to as ‘maverick Molinism,’ according to which “though counterfactuals of freedom have their truth-value logically prior to God’s acts of will, God could have so acted that these counterfactuals would have had a different truth value from that which they actually have.”[24] This view, however, retains the rest of the disadvantages of Molinism, along with inviting the disadvantages which are supposed to attach themselves to the Thomistic view, such as that God becomes the author of sin. So, the Molinist’s only way out of this objection turns out to be less attractive than abandoning Molinism altogether (and embracing Thomism).

Another problem with Molinism is that it seems incompatible with the principle of sufficient reason (PSR), according to which for every true proposition there is available some sufficient explanation of why it is true. This principle has fallen into disrepute among many philosophers today, but there are very good reasons for being reluctant to abandon it. First, the PSR seems extremely plausible at first blush, and is even considered by many to be self-evident.[25] Second, no principle should be considered philosophically proscribed by a philosophical commitment with comparably less intuitive plausibility, but Molinism and its constitutive philosophical commitments seem less intuitively plausible than the PSR. Third, although the PSR faces some impressive philosophical challenges, none of these are insuperable.[26] Finally, Pruss has offered impressive arguments for thinking that if the PSR is rejected then this would undermine not only “the practice of science,”[27] but also philosophical argumentation itself.[28]

The inconsistency between Molinism and the PSR is that whereas the PSR entails that there exists some sufficient reason for the truth of the SCCs which God knows, Molinism seems to require[29] that these truths be without any sufficient explanation. The SCCs are not determined by God, nor can they be determined by the properties of the actual world, including properties of actual persons, since these counterfactuals are explanatorily prior to the existence of the actual created world and its denizens.

Perhaps the Molinist can offer some arguments here in response; the Molinist can say, for instance, that statements of the general form “had S been in circumstance C, S would freely have done A” seem meaningful, and, if meaningful, must be either true or false. Many have argued this way by appealing to a “subjunctive conditional law of excluded middle (SCLEM),”[30] though I think one can erect an equally good argument on the basis of the law of excluded middle (LEM) itself. Since any SCC statement about what libertarian free persons would do in non-actual circumstances is true or false if and only if it is meaningful (by LEM), one need only maintain that it is meaningful in order to draw out the conclusion that it is true or false. For any SCC*, and its negation ‘~SCC*’ at least one of them will be true, whether it has a sufficient reason or not. This method of argument attempts to offset the implausibility of rejecting the PSR with the implausibility of rejecting the LEM. Moreover the Molinist can perhaps hold to a weakened, and yet still intuitively plausible, version of the principle of sufficient reason. Timothy O’Connor suggests, for instance, that “one should seek explanation for every fact other than those for which there is an explanation of why there can be no explanation of those facts.[31] This weakened principle salvages some of the intuitive appeal of the PSR, but also allows wiggle-room for the Molinist to get away with positing brute facts, so long as the Molinist can come up with some plausible story about why there can be no explanation of a subjunctive counterfactual conditional’s truth.

Although this line of argument appears to allow the Molinist to eschew uncomfortable questions about what sufficient reason there could be for SCCs, in order to argue that this weakened principle will excuse the Molinist from having to explain why the true SCCs are true, the Molinist will have to provide some explanation of why the Thomistic alternative is not (broadly) logically possible. This is not merely a tall order, it is to all appearances hopeless. In fact, the Thomist can offer an argument from ‘LEM & PSR’ for Thomism by noting first that SCCs are meaningful, and that, if true, they must have an explanation (by PSR). Thomism offers an explanation for them in terms of God’s will, and Molinism offers no explanation for them at all. Because Thomism finds no obstacle in the PSR, it has this quintessential philosophical advantage over Molinism.

The most significant difficulties, and perhaps the only real difficulties, with the Thomistic view are (i) that it appears to make God the author of sin, along with (ii) making it difficult, at best, to use a free-will defense against the problem of evil. Let us note, before offering some brief remarks about how to possibly avoid these problems, that on balance one should prefer these two difficulties to the set of difficulties Molinism comes with. Thus, even if all the ways Thomists have proposed to deal with this fail (and even fail miserably) Thomism would still be on balance preferable to Molinism. Turning to the first problem, there may be hope for the Thomist to mitigate it if he maintains that “although there is coequal responsibility for the existence of sin [between God and creature], it does not follow that there is coequal blame for sin… [for] blame attaches to actions, and actions are characterized by intentions,”[32] but God and man perform intentionally different actions in bringing it about that X. Second, one can safeguard genuine freedom if “the truth-values of the conditionals are shaped by God’s activity of willing… and yet these truth-values not be “up to God” in the relevant sense[.]”[33] However, even if such problems cannot be solved, Thomism remains preferable, on balance, to Molinism.

[1] I am not sure if it makes sense to talk about ‘nearer’ or ‘farther’ logically impossible worlds, but if it does then I will want to say that God’s natural knowledge will include this as well, and that the nearness and farness of logically impossible worlds from each other, or from possible worlds, or from the actual world, will all be necessary truths to which God has unbridled access.

[2] I am here tacitly assuming a B-theory of time. A-theorists can rephrase as ‘neither actual, nor to be actual, nor previously actual.’

[3] The term is borrowed from William Lane Craig, who explains that some worlds, even if logically possible, are not feasible for God to create in light of the fact that the relevant subjunctive counterfactual conditionals effectively prohibit such a world from being actual. See William Lane Craig, “Yet Another Failed Anti-Molinist Argument,” in Molinism: The Contemporary Debate (2012): 144-62.

[4] I say contingent because there are clearly some logically necessary subjunctive counterfactual conditionals if (i) Theism is true and (ii) God has free will. For instance, consider: “If Tara had freely chosen to reject God, then God would have (freely) chosen to allow her to damn herself.

[5] Robert Merrihew Adams, “An Anti-Molinist argument,” in Philosophical Perspectives (1991): 345.

[6] See William Lane Craig’s debate with Ray Bradley,

[7] Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 3.

[8] See Jonathan L. Kvanvig, “On Behalf of Maverick Molinism,” in Faith and Philosophy 19, no. 3 (2002): 1.

[9] I will take it that if any stage in an explanatory sequence involves mindless unintentional indeterminism, and if it, in turn, strictly entails all the explanatorily posterior elements in that explanatory sequence, then the explanandum in that sequence can be said to result from a mindless unintentional indeterministic process.

[10] Which is just to say that free actions cannot be logically entailed.

[11] This symbol, for Hasker, indicates broadly logical entailment/necessitation.

[12] Thomas P. Flint, “A New Anti-Anti-Molinist Argument,” in Religious studies 35, no. 03 (1999): 299.

[13] Where by causal determinism I mean that for any event, either all subsequent events are causally necessitated by it, or it is causally necessitated by antecedent events.

[14] Robert Merrihew Adams, “An Anti-Molinist argument,” in Philosophical Perspectives (1991): 350.

[15] Robert Merrihew Adams, “An Anti-Molinist argument,” in Philosophical Perspectives (1991): 350.

[16] William Lane Craig, “Robert Adams’s New Anti-Molinist Argument,” in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 54, no. 4 (1994): 858.

[17] Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 5.

[18] Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 5.

[19] I replaced Koons’ “the creature” with “the world” because it seems wrong to say that SCCs are ‘creatures’ on the Molinist view, but the way Koons’ argument proceeds seems to treat SCCs as a threat to God’s impassibility for this reason (i.e., the reason cited in the quotation).

[20] Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 6.

[21] I would have to confer with a mathematician, or a philosopher specializing in the philosophy of mathematics, in order to verify this, but to the best of my knowledge mathematicians can prove, and have proven, that the infinite set of even numbers and the infinite set of prime numbers can be bijected (without remainder) so that the probabilistic resources in either case is mathematically equivalent, and, therefore, the odds of getting either a prime number, or an even number, would be the same. Supposing I am wrong about this (and it’s entirely possible that I am), then the argument works in my favor (against Molinism) even more conspicuously, for there seem to necessarily be proportionally more SCC-sets which present God with a dilemma, trilemma, quadrilemma (etc.) than SCC-sets which do not.

[22] I don’t know if this is right, but I’m trying to suggest that the relative closeness of creation-prohibiting SCC-sets (as compared to the creation-permitting SCC-sets) gives us reason to think that the Molinist story is improbable. Also, note that if Intelligent Design theorists are right about our ability to make a rational inference to design on the basis of something like specified complexity, it seems reasonable to say that the apparent fine-tuning of the actually true SCC-set cries out for an explanation, but this explanation cannot be given by Molinism (though it can be provided by Thomism).

[23] William Lane Craig, “Yet Another Failed Anti-Molinist Argument,” in Molinism: The Contemporary Debate (2012): 127.

[24] Jonathan L. Kvanvig, “On Behalf of Maverick Molinism,” in Faith and Philosophy 19, no. 3 (2002): 1.

[25] Alexander R. Pruss, “The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009): 26-28.

[26] I do not have the space to argue this here, but I would refer readers to: Alexander R. Pruss The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[27] Alexander R. Pruss The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment (Cambridge University Press, 2006): 255.

[28] Alexander R. Pruss, “The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009): 45.

[29] Flint does apparently argue that SCCs are within our volitional control. See Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 12. This is, perhaps, an exception to the rule, but it also seems convoluted for reasons Koons deals with in his paper.

[30] Alexander R. Pruss, “The subjunctive conditional law of excluded middle,”

[31] Timothy O’Connor, Theism and Ultimate Explanation: The Necessary Shape of Contingency. John Wiley & Sons, 2012: 84.

[32] Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 23.

[33] Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom,” in Philosophia Christi 4, no. 2 (2002): 7.


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