Divine Knowledge Providence Theology Proper

Hypothetical knowledge Calvinism and libertarian freedom

John LaingThus far, I have responded to 5 criticisms leveled against hypothetical knowledge Calvinism in John Laing’s ETS paper in 2013:

In this final post of my series of responses to Laing’s critique, I come to his proposal that incompatibilist, libertarian freedom is superior to the compatibilism put forward by hypothetical knowledge Calvinism.

Laing agrees with Bruce Ware’s perception that his own criticisms of Molinism are, at root, really criticisms of libertarian freedom (p. 28, citing God’s Greater Glory, 122-13, and Perspectives on the Doctrine of God, 111). So Laing suggests that if Ware “could be convinced of the possibility of libertarianism, he would accept it as true, and move to the traditional conception of middle knowledge as a separate notion from natural and free knowledge” (p. 28).

In my own case, this is not true, because accepting that God knows counterfactuals as middle knowledge (if that were possible) would entail divine indeterminism at the micro level. It would result in affirming Molinism, which is, I grant, the type of synergism or incompatibilism or indeterminism in which God has the most control of what happens in the actual world, but a large part of that history would be determined by creatures, at the most important, micro level, not by God.

My reading of God’s involvement with the world leads me to a strong conviction that God is meticulously in control of all that he created. Consequently, if I came to believe that libertarian freedom is compatible with God’s meticulous governing of the world, I would have to affirm something like Thomism, where God knows counterfactuals as part of his free knowledge, providing a hard compatibilism rather than the soft compatibilism of Calvinism. If that were coherent, it strikes me as a wonderful situation, but I have not found a way to construct a hard compatibilism that looks viable to me, biblically, theologically, and philosophically.

I abandoned use of the term “middle knowledge” because Paul Helm convinced me that God’s knowledge need only be middle if the truth of counterfactuals were contingent upon the decision of the actors involved. It is clear to me from Scripture that God knows counterfactuals concerning the future possible acts of morally responsible creatures, but he could not know what a libertarianly free creature would do in situations that are purely hypothetical, if those creaturely decisions were determinative of the history of creation, because only their actually deciding and acting in those situations would give truth value to propositions concerning their action. So long as people have the power of contrary choice, if creatures determine most of the history of the world, there are no true counterfactual propositions concerning actions which are by definition purely hypothetical. God could, at best, assess the likelihood of a particular choice being made. In other words, God could know “might” counterfactuals, but not “would” counterfactuals. Therefore, since God knows counterfactuals of responsible creaturely action, those creatures must not be libertarianly free.

Laing offers “a few brief comments in response to Ware’s criticisms of libertarianism,” in “an effort to offer clarification and admittedly, in the hope of convincing some of the truth of middle knowledge” (p. 28). Since I am presumably included among those whom Laing would like to convince, I attended carefully to his comments.

The compatibilist charge that libertarianly free choices are arbitrary and hence not rational


argues that libertarianism undercuts the rationality of decision-making ([Laing’s] words, not [Ware’s]), for he sees it as requiring one follow the same reasons for choosing contrary courses of action. Since all factors involved in one’s decision are present at the moment he chooses, he can choose either A or not-A, then the same reasons would serve to explain the choice for A and the choice for not-A, and this renders the choice arbitrary. As Ware put it, “…according to libertarian freedom, that every reason or set of reasons must be equally explanatory for why the agent might choose A or B, or not-A. As a result, our choosing reduces, strictly speaking, to arbitrariness. We can give no reason or set of reasons for why we make the choices we make that wouldn’t be the identical reason or set of reasons we would invoke had we made the opposite choice! Hence, our choosing A over its opposite is arbitrary” (pp. 28-29, citing God’s Greater Glory, 86).

Laing would agree with Ware if this “were an accurate description of libertarianism,” but he doubts that it is accurate, first, because he knows “of no proponent of libertarian freedom who conceives of libertarian decision-making in this way” (p. 29). For instance,

[Peter] van Inwagen “has demonstrated that ‘undetermined’ and ‘uncaused’ are not the same thing, and that ‘uncaused’ is not the same as random [An Essay on Free Will, 129, 134-42]. Similarly, [Robert] Kane and others have distinguished between reasons and motives, even on an internalist understanding of decision-making; one may have reasons to act that do not move one to act and therefore, cannot explain actual choices, but actual choices are made on the different reasons and motives one has for acting [The Significance of Free Will, 30]. [Timothy] O’Connor argues that agent-causal theories of free action allow for reasons and intentions to influence, but not cause actions, since it is the agent who exercises active power in decision-making. He expressly considers and rejects the argument against rationality in libertarian decision-making [Persons and Causes, 85-107]. In addition, even opponents of libertarian free will have rejected this all-too-common line of argumentation. See, for example, [Randolph] Clarke, especially his discussion of the argument from luck [Libertarian Accounts of Free Will, esp. 77-82], and [Derek] Pereboom [Living Without Free Will, chaps. 2-3, esp. 55-88], who admits that coherence objections to agent-causal libertarianism do not stand up to scrutiny; interestingly, he rejects libertarianism based on empirical evidence, which suggests that human behavior is determined by naturalistic factors, e.g., genetic make-up.

For quite a long time, I accepted as valid the charge that libertarian freedom was irrational, and hence amoral, because of its arbitrariness. I wrestled with this idea, however, whenever I was challenged by Arminians in regard to the nature of God’s freedom. If God does not have libertarian freedom but has the sort of soft-determinist freedom that I believe God gave to moral creatures, then creation and everything else God does is necessitated by his nature. That would give us fatalism, not biblical determinism. But if God does have libertarian freedom, then it cannot be intrinsically arbitrary and irrational, for all of God’s decisions are unnecessitated (though they are constrained) by his moral nature, and they are all wise and good. Here Laing is correct in his response to this particular objection against creaturely libertarian freedom (p. 31).

Though I admit that this particular objection to libertarian freedom is incorrect, I still have various reasons for believing that creatures are not libertarianly free. Among these is my belief that God knows counterfactuals of future free creaturely choices but that this would be impossible if those creatures were libertarianly free. That grounding objection to middle knowledge is not removed by the concept of agent causation, though I am attracted to that way of understanding the action of moral creatures, particularly within a soft-determinist framework. I remain unable to conceive of how God could know what an agent would choose if that choice is not predictable on the basis of the agent’s reasons for the choice (together with his values, inclinations etc.). I note that people who claim to have libertarian freedom, are frequently able to explain after a choice why they made it. Granting that those reasons did not cause their choice, they still have important explanatory value, in the way that soft-determinists propose. Nevertheless, since God is libertarianly free, libertarianly free decisions cannot be intrinsically irrational. In God’s case, however, God does not know counterfactuals concerning his own actions. His knowledge of possible worlds entails a knowledge of how those worlds would develop if creatures were soft-deterministically free, and if he were to choose to act personally in various ways and times to bring about situations would not exist without his active intervention.

Might God be able simply to know true counterfactual propositions because he is omniscient, rather than deducing them from his knowledge of how hypothetical persons would act in hypothetical situations?

Laing’s suggestion that this is the case reminds me of Alvin Plantinga’s proposal that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely action is “properly basic,” not contingent or deduced (cf. Profiles: Alvin Plantinga, 375-79). Laing is content to assert that “how [God] knows  what he knows is something of a mystery” (p. 33). If we could be content to rest in mystery, together with Laing, the grounding objection could be left unanswered, but I am not satisfied to leave the matter there, since I think we have a better way to understand how it is that God knows counterfactuals of creaturely action. As Laing rightly discerns, however, the question of how God knows counterfactuals is really a question of “how such propositions may be true” (p. 33). Unfortunately, granting this slight difference does not take us any further, because the question of what grounds the truth value of propositions regarding counterfactuals remains.

Concluding comments

This brings me to the end of my reflections concerning John Laing’s objections to hypothetical knowledge Calvinism. I appreciate his willingness to engage with my ideas and Bruce Ware’s, because it gives me an opportunity to note where my own position differs from Ware’s and to clarify it for Laing’s benefit. It also pushes me to revisit my own understanding of what God knows and how he uses this knowledge to govern his creation in a way that maintains creaturely moral responsibility and genuine agency, while retaining his meticulous control. This revisiting sometimes results in slightly different understandings or ways of stating my position, and all of this is very benefical to me. So I thank John for his contribution to my own ongoing theological formation and formulation. I hope that my response will have some benefit to him as well.

Previous posts in this series: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5



By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

One reply on “Hypothetical knowledge Calvinism and libertarian freedom”

Thank you.

Interesting stuff.

Our view is that God uses our “free-will” as an instrument of His wrath.

And you are correct. He is in control. Even amidst our folly.

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