Molinism & the Argument for Theological Fatalism

Arguments of a wide variety have traditionally been offered against Christian theism. We have chosen to treat the fatalist’s argument for at least two reasons: (1) it is one of the more common objections we have personally encountered, and (2) it has implications for several other topics that we intend to turn our attention upon soon. Regardless of whether you agree with our stance or not, we welcome your contributions to this discussion.

Stated syllogistically, the argument goes thus:
(1) If God knows all future events, then all my future choices are determined
(2) If all my future choices are determined, then it does not matter what I do.
(3) Therefore, if God knows all future events, then it does not matter what I do.

So, if this argument were compelling, then it would seem that everything that happens does so necessarily, thus rendering us incapable of acting otherwise than we in fact do. This, of course, seems to excuse us from any genuine sense of responsibility for our actions, not to mention making passivity one’s only recourse in a life intended to be lived to its fullest. Now, this argument obviously does not logically preclude the existence of God; however, it does, if true, at least cast doubt upon our conception of God qua God. But, should we accept each premise? Not obviously so.

As it happens, both (1) & (2) have been rejected. It will be sufficient for us to argue for the falsity of (1). Now, when we say we intend to reject (1), perhaps we should clarify: we accept the antecedent as true, the Bible teaches that God does indeed possess (omniscient) knowledge of future events. But what is it that compels the fatalist to think that God’s simply knowing that an event will occur necessarily entails that that event will occur? If I know that my wife will arise at 7:00 in the morning, is she now fated to arise at 7:00? Absolutely not! Why? Because we believe that she has the power to act otherwise (a feature of freedom in the libertarian sense). Hold on though, if she has the power to refrain from arising at 7:00 (and arise at say, noon), then doesn’t she have the power to bring it about that my (necessarily true) knowledge is false (which would be the power to actualize a contradiction—an impossibility)? No. It is important to bear in mind the distinction between believing something and knowing something. If I know that she will arise at 7:00, then she will arise at 7:00; if I merely believe that she will arise at 7:00, then maybe she will and maybe she won’t. If I know that she will arise at 7:00, it merely follows that she will arise then, not that she must. Therefore, she does have the power to bring it about that my true belief would have been false (she could have refrained from so acting); she will not refrain from so acting, though she could. Thus foreknowledge (knowing before hand) does not imply fatalism. Now, it is important that you understand this before proceeding, or this discussion will not benefit you much.

Let’s take this reasoning to (1). We have seen that merely knowing does not demand fatalism, but the fatalist will object that we’re not talking about humans here, we’re talking about God. Unfortunately for the fatalist, adding God to the equation does not change things; the same reasoning and principles apply. Consider that God foreknows that I will arise at 7:00 tomorrow. I have the power to arise at 5:00 or noon, and if I were to do either then God would have foreknown that instead of my arising at 7:00. In other words (as Christian theologians have always insisted), the content of God’s foreknowledge is not necessary (that content could have been different). We hold that the reason God foreknows that I will arise at 7:00 is that I will in fact arise at 7:00; if I were to choose to arise at noon, then God would have foreknown that. I could refrain, but (in this actualized world) I simply will not. This, by the way, is the foundation for demonstrating the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom.

It seems the fatalist’s only recourse is to deny that God can know future free acts. [Unfortunately some Christian philosophers have been content to assert that God qua God believes so perfectly that he can be said to know such things; this is insufficient] It seems the objection is that even though we have seen foreknowledge and freedom to be compatible, that not even God can actually have such knowledge. Well, frankly the burden of proof is on the objector. Why is divine foreknowledge impossible? We welcome any response to this question for discussion. As finite humans contemplating the infinite God, we are in no good epistemic position to explain exactly how God can have such foreknowledge. Perhaps, though, there is a way. First, an elementary distinction: we must not confuse chronological priority with logical priority; logical priority has nothing to do with temporal priority. Though God’s foreknowledge of my free choices is chronologically prior to my making them (for example, it is true that 100 years ago God knew that I would write this), my making such choices is logically prior to God’s so knowing. Indeed, A could be logically prior to B, though they are temporally concurrent. Consider an argument: its premises are obviously not temporally true one before the other; each premise is true at the same time, though the premises are logically prior to the conclusion.

It seems that the Molinist account of divine knowledge provides a compelling (if not startling) explanation of how God could know the future choices of free creatures. Simply put, this account divides God’s knowledge into three logical moments. First, God knows all necessary truths. Here we also find God’s knowledge of all possibilities, things such as all possible persons he could create, indeed here he knows each possible world he could choose to create. This we call natural knowledge. Stick with us here: in the third (logical) moment, God knows perfectly the world he has created, the actual world. This we call his free knowledge. Here we find his foreknowledge of all events and choices. As stated above, this knowledge is not necessary to Him; it is necessary that God have free knowledge, but since he could have chosen to create a different world than he in fact did, this knowledge could have been comprised by perfect knowledge of that (different) world. Finally, in the second moment, the Molinist posits middle knowledge. It is here that we find God’s knowledge of what every possible creature would do in any given set of circumstances (note that it is via his natural knowledge that God knows what any creature could do). This moment is logically prior to God’s decision to create (see below). Consider this simple illustration (modified from Craig’s chart, in The Only Wise God, p.131):

Natural Knowledge
Middle Knowledge
——- God’s decision to create some world ——-
Free Knowledge

By way of summarizing let’s return to our example from above. God eternally knows all the possible things I could choose to do if placed in certain circumstances, including whether I could arise at 7:00 or not tomorrow (via his natural knowledge). Now, God (via his middle knowledge) knows what I would in fact freely choose to do in said circumstances, for if he knows all that I could do in any circumstances, then, by virtue of his choosing which world to create (and thus, which circumstances I will find myself in), he knows whether I will in fact arise at 7:00 or not. Remember our discussion above, his mere knowing does not necessitate my so acting; I am absolutely free to do whatever I want in any set of circumstances. God chooses the circumstances to actualize (create), thus he knows what I will freely choose. Thus, God knows all future events and I am undetermined in what choices I make and the fatalist’s argument fails.

This article is intentionally written with open ends; we have left room for many questions and much discussion. All comments, questions, and (especially) objections are welcome. “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” Romans 11:33.

See, William Lane Craig, The Only Wise God, 1987 & Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 1974.

One Response to Molinism & the Argument for Theological Fatalism

  1. attilla says:

    great job keith. i dont really have anything to add or question you about, so:

    one question i have for those who disagree with you: how is it possible that i can know counterfactuals and God does not? i realize this question has no direct relation to the line of thought you have taken, but we might as well get several going.

    the question seems trite in light of your post and is not “philosophical” per se (although an issue of logic), but i have yet to hear a convincing answer….. (i guess the simple minded [read attilla] stick with simple questions).

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