Two Too Simple Objections to Open Theism

First, let’s agree to reject dialetheic logics out of hand; it will be taken as a non-starter for me, and, I hope, for you, if any argument were to proceed on the assumption that a proposition can be both true and false at the same time and in the same sense. It may be useful, at times, to proceed as though this were the case (I’m not denying the usefulness of paraconsistent logics), but it certainly cannot be literally correct. Such logical systems do not (and, by implication granting S5, cannot) describe the extra-mental structure of modality.  

Can God know the future on open theism? It is typically assumed that open theism involves a commitment to Presentism about time (according to which future events are not real, and so propositions about the future are not literally true). I am not sure that this is correct, since they may, perhaps, accept the growing-block theory of time instead, but that will land them in precisely the same predicament as Presentism will as far as my following objections are concerned. In any case, the open theist must accept some version of the A-theory other than the moving-spotlight theory of time (or other more esoteric theories of time which will allow for the reality of future events or states of affairs). God, on the open theist view, shouldn’t be able to know the future because there is no future to know.

It seems undeniable that if “P” is true, and if “P⊃Q” is true, then “Q” is true; that’s just good old Modus Ponens. Now, let’s take P to represent the tripartite conjunction: “the state of affairs S1 in the world will entail the subsequent state of affairs S2 just in case God does not intervene in the world at some time between S1 and S2 (inclusive of S1, not inclusive of S2) and God will not intervene in the world at any time between S1 and S2, and S1 describes the current state of affairs.” Let Q represent the proposition “in the future, S2 will be the case.”

Let us say that God knows P, and God knows that P⊃Q. Does God know Q? If not, He has a deficient grasp of logic. If so, then He knows at least some fact(s) about the future.

  1. If open theism is true, God cannot know the future.
  2. Possibly, God can know propositions like “P” and “P⊃Q.”
  3. If God can know propositions like “P&(P⊃Q),” then God can know propositions like Q.
  4. If God can know propositions like Q, then God can know propositions about the future.
  5. If God can know propositions about the future, then God can know the future.
  6. Therefore, open theism is false.

What will the open theist say? The most plausible response open to them, I think, is to deny premise 5. Generally we think of propositions about the future as having truth-makers which are future states of affairs, but it is conceivable that there be true propositions about the future which have, as their truth-makers, nothing beyond present truth-makers. Perhaps P is presently true, while Modus Ponens and P⊃Q are true presently (they may be timeless truths, so we avoid saying that they are ‘presently’ true, even if they are true presently). That might be a sufficient response. A second response might go like this: premise 1 should be restated as 1*: “if open theism is true, God cannot know the whole future,” and premise 5 should be restated as 5*: “If God can know propositions about the future, then God can know at least some of the future.” Obviously 6 does not logically follow from 1*-5*.

Here’s a second argument:

  1. If a proposition is meaningful, then it cannot fail to be true or false (where the ‘or’ is exclusive).
  2. There are meaningful propositions about the future which are not entailed by any presently available truths.
  3. Therefore, there are true propositions about the future which are not entailed by any presently available truths (they cannot all be false, for if P is false, then “P is false” is true).
  4. God is omniscient.
  5. A being is not omniscient if there are truths (i.e., meaningful true propositions) it fails to know.
  6. If open theism is true, there are meaningful true propositions about the future which God fails to know.
  7. Therefore, open theism is false.

The best responses to this argument which I have heard include (i) denying premise 2 altogether, or (ii) denying premise 1. The denial of premise 1 (given our assumed rejection of dialetheic logics) amounts to a rejection of the law of excluded middle (LEM), and that, my friends, is as good as a reductio against open theism. Rather, it is a reductio of open theism! Alternatively, to deny premise 2 (by denying the meaningfulness of propositions about future states of affairs not entailed by presently available truths), seems implausible given the fact that we all apprehend the meaning of sentences like “tomorrow Julie will eat worms in the playground again.” So, we have at least one relatively good, though simple, argument against open theism.

… Maybe there’s time for a quick third: suppose that epistemic justification means something like ‘true justified belief’ (and let’s, for the moment, ignore Gettier cases, just for simplicity). Now it looks like I can know propositions like P:”tomorrow I will finally propose to her,” even though it looks like God cannot know P! That’s another reductio ad absurdam to add to our growing list of reasons to reject open theism.

My mistake; obviously this last argument presupposes the ‘truth’ of propositions like P, but that’s the very object of contention, so my argument runs in, as they say, a circle of embarrassingly short diameter.

As to whether either of the former arguments will work, it seems to me that if the open theism is too deeply entrenched then the open theist will simply bite the bullet and accept the consequences of my arguments while maintaining open theism. However, at least the arguments can act as a warning to others to avoid the philosophical pit that is open theism.

 

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, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/can-a-loving-god-send-people-to-hell-the-craig-bradley-debate#section_1

[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,” http://alexanderpruss.com/papers/SCLEM.html

[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.

Three Trinitarian Theses

Abstract: In this paper I will try to argue that (i) the Trinity is a logically coherent and metaphysically possible way God could be, (ii) that the Trinity, if true, is a great-making feature of God, and (iii) that we can know that the Trinity is true.

St. Anselm classically maintained that God is “that than which nothing greater can be signified,”[1] and the method of perfect being theology, which takes its cue from Anselm, commits one to the view that the word God just means the same thing as Anselm’s famous definition. This definition makes the attribution of the classical ‘omni-’ properties natural, and although varieties exist among ‘Anselmian’ theists on the question of what properties like ‘omnipotence’ and ‘omniscience’ really amount to, this provides the common ground on which these theists stand. The Christian, however, stands out among theists of this variety by making a claim unique to, and distinctive of, Christianity. God, according to the Christian tradition, is a trinity of persons. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and yet, although He is three co-equal divine persons, “they are not Three Gods, but One God.”[2] There are three challenges which face the Christian theist here, and I aim to address them in turn. First, there is the challenge of addressing how this admittedly “odd arithmetic”[3] is not incoherent, and, therefore, conceptually possible. Second, there is the challenge of showing that the doctrine of the Trinity is, in fact, metaphysically possible. Finally, there is the challenge of showing that the Trinity would, if true, contribute in some way to God’s greatness.

Turning first to the problem of logical coherence, we should observe at the outset that logical coherence is not an altogether well-defined concept. For the purposes of this paper I will take a proposition to be logically coherent if and only if it is conceptually possible, where conceptual possibility means something like ‘involving no prima facie a priori contradiction.’ Conceptual possibility is “closely connected with consistency,”[4] and some thinkers, like Anthony C. Anderson, have elaborated it as being independent of “conceivability, semantical rules, definition, stipulation, or epistemic notions such as provability or deducibility.”[5] The doctrine of the Trinity, then, will count as conceptually possible just in case it presents no contradiction in itself.

It is tempting to think of this species of modality as being somewhere in between metaphysical possibility and merely physical possibility. There are problems with such a characterization, however, for it is not clear that all physical possibilities are either metaphysically or conceptually possible, and it is clear that not all conceptual possibilities are metaphysically possible. For instance, one might maintain that in ontological arguments both for and against the existence of God, the possibility premises are conceptually possible whether or not they are metaphysically possible (surely at least one of them is not). Moreover, if physical possibility is determined by our best scientific theories, and if theories are deemed scientifically better or worse based only on how well they satisfy certain empirical desideratum (like predictive power, explanatory scope, etc.), then it could well be that some scientific theory which is singularly better than its competitors makes claims about the world which are metaphysically and conceptually impossible. One thinks of the way the ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ thought experiment would suggest, interpreted as literally true, that outright contradictions obtain. Moreover, suppose that the infamous ‘principle of sufficient reason’ (henceforth PSR) is true, and that the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is our best scientific theory of quantum mechanics. Technically the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is not incompatible with the PSR,[6] but the story about quantum mechanics it offers, if taken literally, really is irreconcilable with the PSR, for it suggests that there are entirely indeterminate events for which no sufficient reason exists.

Why, one might ask, should we even care whether the Trinity is conceptually possible if it can be metaphysically possible either way? First, it seems that conceptual coherence is a necessary condition of sensibly affirming anything, and surely the Christian wants to affirm sensibly that the Trinity is true. Second, although a proposition’s conceptual possibility does not imply its metaphysical possibility, a proposition’s conceptual impossibility does imply its metaphysical impossibility, for the law of non-contradiction is not only a law of conceptual modality, but of metaphysical modality as well. How is one to demonstrate that there is no contradiction in the paradoxical assertion that God is three in one? The answer, of course, is ‘by making distinctions.’ God, according to the Trinitarian, is not one x and three x, but is one x and three y (where ‘x’ and ‘y’ stand in place of the predicates ‘being’ and ‘persons’ respectively). Since the doctrine clearly distinguishes the predicates ‘being’ and ‘person,’ it avoids being narrowly logically impossible,[7] and also provides a clue as to how the doctrine is supposed to be understood.

Having established the conceptual possibility of the doctrine of the Trinity, we move on to the much more difficult problem of demonstrating the metaphysical possibility of the Trinity, to which there are at least three contemporary approaches. I will briefly examine these three, argue that two of them seem viable, and that at least one of them demonstrates that the doctrine of the Trinity is metaphysically possible. Although I will take the time to briefly examine three strategies, there are really “two main strategies for solving the problem: the Relative-Identity strategy, and the Social Trinitarian strategy.”[8]

The Social Trinitarian (ST) strategy finds its impetus in some of the early Church Fathers, including Hilary of Poitiers who writes that ““each divine person is in the Unity, yet no person is the one God (On the Trinity 7.2; cf. 7.13, 32).”[9] In modern times such an approach has been prescribed and encouraged by Richard Swinburne, as well as William Lane Craig. This way of thinking about the Trinity takes the Threeness of God to be primitive, and attempts to explain how God could be one (rather than taking God’s oneness to be primitive and attempting to explain how God could be three persons). Attractive analogies for the Trinity abound on this view, and one, from W.L. Craig, is particularly worthy of examination. He writes;

 “In Greco-Roman mythology there is said to stand guarding the gates of Hades a three-headed dog named Cerberus. We may suppose that Cerberus has three brains and therefore three distinct states of consciousness of whatever it is like to be a dog… He has three consciousnesses. We can even assign proper names to each of them: Rover, Bowser, and Spike… Despite the diversity of his mental states, Cerberus is clearly one dog.”[10]

Those less familiar with Greco-Roman mythology than pop culture can replace ‘Cerberus’ with ‘Fluffy,’ the three headed dog from the Harry Potter novels. This analogy has among its benefits the ability to apparently make comprehensible a prima facie incomprehensible doctrine. It has the added advantage of providing a beautiful explanation of how the Trinity is a great-making property, for on this view the Trinity implies that God is a community of persons, and thus that God can be love.[11]

Unfortunately this ST is riddled with severe problems. It makes a mess of many of the divine attributes, such as omnipotence; questions such as whether all three persons are omnipotent, or whether the community of three is omnipotent, (etc.) arise.[12] The most profound problem, however, is that ST seems to imply polytheism, or at least has no principled way of telling polytheism apart from monotheism. Thus, the “Social Trinitarian claim that there are three minds in the Trinity,”[13] threatens to imply a subtle form of polytheism, where the divine nature is a genus, and the persons are each individual specimens belonging to the same species. They each token the divine nature, but remain distinct non-identical beings sharing in that same nature in precisely the same way as three (or more) human beings token, and share in, the same human nature. Indeed, it implies “that the old testament prophets who thundered that God is one (and whose monotheism Christians inherit) meant only that pagans preached a few too many divine beings, and did not know how alike, akin, and in accord all divine beings truly are.”[14]

A second broad approach is to begin by taking as given that God is exactly one being, and that, although the persons are each identical with God, they are not identical with each other, so that the identity relation is not altogether transitive. Although this violates Leibniz’ famous law of the identity of indiscernibles, problems for such a view of identity have already been alternatively motivated. For example, Max Black famously refuted the principle by rhetorically asking: “isn’t it logically possible that the universe should have contained nothing but two exactly similar spheres?”[15] Alternative accounts of identity have therefore arisen, and some of them will allow for exactly the kind of apparently acrobatic-like maneuver that Christians want to make. Peter Geach has maintained, for instance, that identity statements should be cashed out in terms of the general form “x is the same F as y,”[16] and maintains that “x’s being the same F as y does not guarantee that x is indiscernible from y.”[17] On his view, it can turn out that “x is an F, y is an F, x is a G, y is a G, x is the same F as y, but x is not the same G as y.”[18] What is significant here is that such theories of identity are on the market, and that Geach’s own theory isn’t the only one, as thinkers such as Nicholas Griffin and Eddy Zemach[19] also advance theories of identity which, if even possibly true, logically imply that the Trinity is metaphysically possible.

A third solution to the Trinitarian paradox exists which Michael C. Rea and Jeffrey E. Brower insist is the “single most neglected solution to that problem in the contemporary literature.”[20] Brower and Rea attempt to draw on the analogy provided by Aristotelian metaphysics in order to elucidate how the Trinity can be understood; they ask us to imagine that we have before us “a bronze statue of the Greek goddess, Athena,”[21] and insist that, in the same material object, we would also have “the lump of bronze that constitutes it,”[22] with which the statue is not strictly identical. This analogy, and the way Aristotelian metaphysics entreats us to deal with such funny objects, carves out room for “an object a and an object b to be “one in number” – that is, numerically the same – without being strictly identical.”[23] According to Aristotle, things picked out as material entities are actually “hylomorphic compounds”[24] which are comprised of both matter and form. In this way, however, two non-identical substances might be numerically one by being instantiated by the same matter, such as “a fist and a hand.”[25] This relation between two substances bearing a relation of “accidental sameness”[26] is precisely the right analogy on which to conceive of the relation of the persons of the Trinity to the divine nature, according to Brower and Rea. On this analogy, “each person will then be a compound structure whose matter is the divine essence and whose form is one of the three distinctive Trinitarian properties.”[27]

Although this view seems to imply the existence of what Rea and Brower call ‘kooky objects’ such as “seated-Socrates… pale-Socrates, bald-Socrates, barefoot-Socrates, and so on,”[28] it remains an attractive and viable way of thinking about the Trinity which does justice to what the Christian monotheist wants to say. Moreover, it suggests that the Trinity, along with puzzles about accidental sameness, are “special instances of a broader counting problem,[29] which takes some of the sting out of the Trinitarian paradox.

Do such models demonstrate that the Trinity is metaphysically possible, or do they merely demonstrate that the Trinity is conceptually possible? I take it that insofar as these theories can be taken to describe coherent states of affairs (coherent, at least, to all appearances), they give us as solid a reason to think that the Trinity is metaphysically possible as any arguments for the metaphysical possibility of anything can. Thus, we can safely rest the case for the metaphysical possibility of the Trinity.

How, though, are we to make sense of the claim that this odd metaphysically possible scenario of God being exactly three distinct persons each identical with the same being is a great-making feature of God? The best answer to this question is that the Trinity makes intelligible the claim that God is love, and that God is not merely disposed to love (in potentiality) but is by His very nature loving (in act). As Williams put it;

“… love in the literal sense requires more than one person. So if God is love that love must involve the love of one person by another. And if creatures cannot be the only ones who are the object of God’s love, there must be a plurality of persons in the Godhead.”[30]

To the suggestion that God might love himself merely because he is the summum bonum seems incongruent with His nature as moral exemplar, for then he would be perfectly selfish, and also command of us that we be perfectly altruistic (which he exemplifies in Christ), but as St. Anselm writes “it seems inconsistent to enjoin a thing upon us which it is not proper for him to do himself.”[31]

Latent here is actually a cosmological argument for the Trinity which, as far as I know, has not yet been developed by anyone. Bonaventure famously offered four ‘proofs’ for the Trinity in his commentary on the sentences of Peter Lombard,[32] but the argument I have in mind does not figure into any of his four arguments. The argument goes:

  1. If God created the world then He had a rational motivation to do so.
  2. If God had a rational motivation to create the world then it must be an internal, rather than external, motivation (i.e., a motivation arising from his divine nature).
  3. None of the classical divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, etc.) provide a rational motivation to create the world.
  4. If there is a rational motivation for creating the world then it is love.
  5. If God creates the world out of love then God is love (divine simplicity).
  6. Love is always shared between at least two persons.
  7. Therefore, God is at least two persons.

Another version could go:

  1. If God created the world then He did so out of love – kenosis, a self-giving love.
  2. God did create the world.
  3. Therefore God did so out of love.
  4. If God created the world out of love then love must exist in God’s nature (not merely as a potentiality, but as actuality).
  5. Love (in actuality) is always shared between at least two persons.
  6. Therefore, God in his nature must be at least two persons.

Various other ways of making the same point could no doubt be thought up. The Trinity, from this perspective, becomes something more than a quaint and puzzling theological add-on to the doctrine of God, and instead provides a way to satisfy the PSR which other forms of monotheism simply do not succeed in doing. The Trinity provides a sufficient reason for God’s creative activity, whereas Unitarianism (here understood as the claim that God is one and only one person) seems incapable of giving a comparably good answer (if it can give any answer at all) to the question of why God created the world in the first place.

With respect to the question of whether one can come to know that the Trinity is a great-making property, it seems obvious that one can come to know this. First, even if one cannot clearly articulate why the Trinity adds to the greatness of God, one can come to know that the Trinity is a great-making property of God simply by knowing i) that all God’s essential attributes are great-making, and ii) that an essential attribute of God is that He is a Trinity of divine persons. One can know the former analytically, for it is a tautological truth if one accepts that God just means maximally great being. One can know the latter if one knows the doctrine of the Trinity to be true, for instance by recognizing it to be the conclusion of a sound cosmological argument, or by having religious experiences which provide sufficient confirmation of this truth, or by having a properly basic belief in the truth of the Biblical testimony – or any number of other ways. However, suppose that one wanted more here – suppose one wanted to know why the Trinity increases the greatness of God; some progress can be made here in terms of noting that the doctrine of the Trinity allows God to be essentially loving, which seems like a great-making feature. The problem is that this could be satisfied just as well if God were four persons, or five persons, or infinitely many persons. Bonaventure provided arguments for thinking that the number of divine persons must be exactly three,[33] and so one could appeal to such arguments in combination with the insight that the Trinity allows God to be essentially loving in order to explain just how the Trinity could be a great-making feature. However, even apart from such an argument’s success, there is enough to justify the Christian in believing that the Trinity is a great-making feature of God.

From what has been said it should be clear that the Christian can claim, with due propriety, to know that the Trinity is both true, and a great-making feature of God. The justifications available for both of these (true) beliefs are many and powerful. One can also show that the doctrine of the Trinity is conceptually possible (i.e., involves no inconsistency), and is metaphysically possible. In fact, one can argue from the fact that we have good reason to think that a Christian can have a justified belief in the Trinity’s truth (quite independently from whether the Trinity is in fact true) that it must be metaphysically possible, for nobody can have a justified belief in a metaphysical impossibility. The relative-identity thesis, if viable, provides a way to make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity, and is independently motivated by puzzles plaguing Leibniz’ account of identity.[34] The solution offered by Brower and Rea is also a philosophically live and promising option open to the Christian theist which, if nothing else, helps to strengthen the reasonable conviction that the Trinity is metaphysically possible.

 

 

[1] Brian Davies, “Aquinas and Atheism,” The Oxford Handbook of Atheism (2013): 120.

[2] J. Sullivan, “The Athanasian Creed,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: Robert Appleton Company: 1907). Retrieved November 17, 2015 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02033b.htm

[3] Brian Leftow, “Anti-Social Trinitarianism,” in Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 52.

[4] Marcin Tkaczyk, “A Debate on God: Anselm, Aquinas and Scotus,” Ontological Proofs Today 50 (2012): 117-118.

[5] Anthony C. Anderson, “Conceptual Modality and the Ontological Argument,” in Ontological Proofs Today. Lancaster: Ontos Verlag (2012): 299.

[6] See Alexander R. Pruss, The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment,” (Cambridge University Press, 2006): 160-170.

[7] Where by narrowly logically impossible I mean simply “amounts to a contradiction of the form ‘a is B and a is not-B’ where B is used univocally.”

[8] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Faith and Philosophy 22, no. 1 (2005): 57-76.

[9] William Lane Craig, “Toward a Tenable Social Trinitarianism,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 96-97.

[10] William Lane Craig, “Toward a Tenable Social Trinitarianism,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 98.

[11] 1 John 4:16.

[12] See Brian Leftow, “Anti-Social Trinitarianism,” in Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 62-66.

[13] Brian Leftow, “Anti-Social Trinitarianism,” in Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 60.

[14] Brian Leftow, “Anti-Social Trinitarianism,” in Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 73.

[15] Max Black, “The Identity of Indiscernibles,” Mind (1952): 156.

[16] Michael C. Rea, “Relative Identity and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 252.

[17] Michael C. Rea, “Relative Identity and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 252.

[18] Michael C. Rea, “Relative Identity and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 252.

[19] Michael C. Rea, “Relative Identity and the Doctrine of the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 252.

[20] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 269.

[21] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 263.

[22] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 263.

[23] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 263-4.

[24] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 267.

[25] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 271.

[26] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 269.

[27] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 269.

[28] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 268.

[29] Jeffrey E. Brower, and Michael C. Rea, “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 280.

[30] C.J.F. Wiliams, “Neither Confounding the Persons nor Dividing the Substance,” in Reason and the Christian Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994): 240. Cited from Brian Leftow, “Anti-Social Trinitarianism,” in Philosophical & Theological Essays on the Trinity edited by Thomas McCall and Michael C. Rea, (Oxford University Press, 2009): 54.

[31] St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, 203.

[32] St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Commentaria In Librium Sententiarium, trans. The Franciscan Archive, (n.p.: The Franciscan Archive, 2010), compact disk.

[33] St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, Commentaria In Librium Sententiarium, trans. The Franciscan Archive, (n.p.: The Franciscan Archive, 2010), compact disk.

[34] One might think to ask whether a fist and a hand are really indiscernible, for they involve different forms.