Freethinking About Molinist Gunslingers – A Response to Stratton

To contribute a chapter to a book entitled Calvinism and the Problem of Evil just is to stoke controversy and invite replies. This is normal, and should be welcomed. How else are we to gain well-earned beliefs on important matters unless we interact with those who disagree with us? Tim Stratton, a fellow Christian brother who has read my “Molinist Gunslingers: God and the Authorship of Sin,” has written up some thoughts in reply. Here are my responses to what I think are his central points.

“That is, if Calvinistic exhaustive determinism is true, then God is a moral monster and responsible as the author of every evil action. After all, on this omni-causal view, God made the Holocaust happen — not Hitler!”

Stratton seems to think that if God exhaustively determines all events (‘omni-causality’), then “God made the Holocaust happen – not Hitler!” But this last phrase – “not Hitler!” – is unmotivated by divine determinism. For there is no reason to think, either logically or biblically, that divine causation precludes human causation, such that if God makes something happen then human agents don’t make it happen. Logically, if God causes X to cause Y, then obviously X is a real cause. Perhaps Stratton has some subtle argument according to which unless an agent satisfies incompatibilist sourcehood conditions, he cannot be a genuine cause. But in the absence of such an argument, there’s not much for the Calvinist here to worry about, logically speaking. Able defenders of libertarian free will, such as Robert Kane, make this point for me: “Determinism… does not imply that we have no influence on how things turn out, including the molding of our characters. We obviously do have such an influence, and determinism alone does not rule it out” (Kane [summarizing a point made by John Stuart Mill], A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, Oxford Univ. Press, 2005, p. 20).

Biblically speaking, Stratton must have overlooked the final section of my chapter, entitled “Scriptural testimony to double-agency or double-causation”. (He never refers to it in his presentation.) There I give examples where the Scriptures teach that both God and man bring about the same event. For instance, the Sabeans and Chaldeans “struck down the servants with the edge of the sword” (Job 1:15, 17). And yet Job described these events as a case where “the LORD has taken away” (1:21). His friends confirmed that this was “evil that the LORD had brought upon him” (42:11). The verbs used here are regularly used throughout the Hebrew Bible to describe ordinary, mundane cases of causation, whether by God or man. (And notice that in saying that God caused it all, “Job did not sin or charge God with wrong,” 1:22. That is, Job wasn’t sinning in attributing this high view of providence to God.)

Or again: “Therefore Saul took his own sword and fell upon it… Thus Saul died…” (1 Chronicles 10:4, 6). Who killed Saul? Saul killed Saul, by committing suicide. “Therefore the LORD put him to death…” (1 Chronicles 10:14). Who killed Saul? God killed Saul. God put him to death. We might want to say that God killed Saul by way of Saul killing Saul, but saying that doesn’t magically convert two causal claims into one. If God killed Saul – that is, “put him to death” – then God caused his death. (After all, if you don’t cause someone’s death, you can scarcely be said to have killed him.) It follows that God’s causing an event doesn’t preclude humans causing that same event (confirming the logical point I made above). Many more texts like this can be given (and were given). So the idea that if Calvinism is true then it follows that bad moral agents can’t be causes is both a non sequitur in logic and refutable from the Bible.

“I have argued that if Calvinistic determinism is true, then God causally determines the thoughts and actions of all creatures, and thus is implicated in the evil actions of creatures because the creature’s action was “up to” God and not the creature. God is the responsible puppet master on this view.”

One doesn’t have to appeal to my ‘gunslinger’ argument to effectively push back against the above argument. When Stratton talks about “the evil actions of creatures,” he is speaking of their actual actions in history, what they in fact do. And it is clear that on Molinism which human actions actually occur in history is up to God. For, knowing would-counterfactuals about how humans would act in various circumstances, God acts on that knowledge, ensuring what they will do (as a matter of history) by actualizing the appropriate circumstances. In this way, while God has no control over would-truths about human actions (he knows these passively in his middle-knowledge), he does have control over will-truths about human actions. That is, it is up to God whether or not “the evil actions of creatures” actually occur in history with all of their specificity. For it was up to God whether or not to create creatures, and to actualize circumstances which – together with the truth of the counterfactuals – are sufficient for the evil actions occurring. (It is not up to creatures whether or not they exist and are placed in the appropriate circumstances!) As Alfred Freddoso puts it, with respect to “the created universe with its entire history,” God plays “an active causal role sufficient to ensure its exact realization” (p. 3 of his Introduction to Molina’s On Divine Foreknowledge). Undoubtedly, this includes the realization of human sin in history.

“Before proceeding, it is important to note that these “dimensions of the case” seem to assume libertarian free will — that is, this crime was “up to” the gunman (and not something or someone external to the gunman). This is because the gunman’s thoughts and actions are a necessary condition for the trajectory of the bullet, but his thoughts and actions are not sufficient for a bullet to the head because the laws of physics are also necessary. That is to say, if the gunman did not (freely?) choose to pull the trigger, then although nothing changes in regards to the laws of nature, the other man does not get shot by the gunman.”

This is exactly right. Now reread the above paragraph, except that God is the gunman. It is precisely the fact that God has libertarian free will that exacerbates the problem for Molinism. God’s ‘pulling the trigger’ – his creating human agents and placing them in specific circumstances – was up to God and not up to something or someone external to him. If God did not actualize agents and circumstances, then no sins come to pass, but if God does so actualize them, then he ensures that all their sins come to pass exactly as they do come to pass. And yet God was free to either actualize or not actualize. So if the ordinary gunman is culpable for what he brings about, then so is God.

“He argues that the gunman is still responsible for Mario’s death even though Bullet Bill possessed the libertarian freedom to choose to kill Mario or not. This is akin to suggesting that parents who know that if they have a child, their child will freely choose to sin, then the parents should be held responsible for the child’s free choice to sin later in life. My parents knew, for example, that I would not be a perfect human being long before they chose to start a family. If I get a speeding ticket should they get one too? Of course not — that is absurd!”

I agree that the consequence would be absurd, but thankfully the situations are not relevantly analogous. Avoiding these kinds of disanalogies is precisely why I laid out the Molinist gunslinger situation in such detail. Here, Stratton can only avoid my conclusion by suppressing the Molinist details that generate it, and putting in its place something akin to open theism. But this will not do. Undoubtedly the mere fact that I conceive a child is not sufficient to make me culpable for what he later chooses to do. But that’s because my choice to conceive, combined with relevant knowledge I had at the time, is not sufficient to ensure any future sins on the part of my offspring. By way of contrast, given his exhaustive and infallible knowledge of would-counterfactuals, God’s actualization of the circumstances is sufficient for the agent to sin. Yes, there are worlds in which God creates them and they don’t sin, but in those worlds the relevant counterfactuals are false. As we all know, knowledge matters for culpability, and in the actual world God infallibly knows that his actualization combined with the true counterfactuals ensures the future sinful actions of agents, in all their specificity. There is nothing remotely analogous to this in Stratton’s example of mundane conception.

Or look at it the other way around. Why do we regard the ordinary gunman to be guilty? All he did was choose to pull a trigger, and surely a trigger-pull – by itself – is not sufficient for the killing of anyone. So why do we hold him culpable for what happens ‘down the line,’ so to speak, after the trigger releases the hammer which hits the primer which explodes and ignites the propellant which creates the gas pressure which sends the bullet down the barrel, into the heart of the victim? So many things had to happen after the trigger pull, in order for the bullet to kill! So maybe he’s… not guilty? After all, so many things had to happen after conception, in order for the offspring to kill! So if parents aren’t guilty for mere conception, then ordinary gunmen aren’t guilty for mere trigger-pulls either. But clearly something has gone wrong with this analogy, and it is this: in the ordinary gunman case, the gunman has highly justified beliefs about the specific outcome – the victim will die, if the gun doesn’t misfire. He doesn’t just surmise that something or other will happen; he knows what will happen. Not so for the parents. Their choice to conceive does not ensure or guarantee any future sins. Indeed, it’s compatible with what the parent knows at the time of conception, that the child not go on to do any of the bad things he in fact goes on to do. Not so for God at the moment of creation, on Molinism. I suggest it is obvious that Molinist creation is aptly modeled by the ordinary gunman, and only misleadingly modeled by the conceiving parent, and one must temporarily forget one’s Molinism to not see this.

“This passage illustrates that although the father brought the son into existence the son’s free choice to sin broke the “chain of causation,” and thus, the son is independently accountable for his own sin.”

I find it curious that Stratton reads into Ezekiel 18:20 concepts that are nowhere to be found: that “the son’s free choice to sin broke ‘the chain of causation’.” The text speaks neither of the son’s ‘freedom’ nor of a ‘chain of causation’ (which then gets ‘broken’ by freedom). I fear Stratton is reading into texts the theses he needs rather than finding them there.

Here’s one reason why ordinary fathers don’t inherit the guilt of their sons, but God according to Molinism might well indeed inherit the guilt of created agents: ordinary fathers don’t govern the lives of their sons by way of a Molinist providential scheme. They don’t engage in acts of actualization that ensure or guarantee their son’s sins.

“The son’s father is not responsible for the sin of the son, God is not responsible for the sin of the son — the son is responsible for his sin (it was up to him)!”

The ambiguity of “it was up to him,” on the Molinist scheme, is what needs to be disambiguated if we are to have clarity on this issue. In one sense (a culpability-irrelevant sense) the murder of the victim wasn’t up to the ordinary gunman and in another sense (a culpability-relevant sense) it was. It wasn’t up to the gunman, because mere trigger-pulls are not sufficient for murders. A lot of other stuff has to happen; nature has to cooperate with the trigger-pull. But surely that doesn’t get the gunman off the hook! And in another sense the murder was up to the ordinary gunman, because – holding fixed the stuff over which the gunman had no control (the laws of nature) – it is obvious that the trigger-pull will ensure the murder. So the gunman is culpable. He is exploiting his knowledge of the laws of nature for his providential purposes, as it were. Likewise for Molinism: God is exploiting his knowledge of the counterfactuals for his providential purposes, as it were, and so the analogy here with Molinism is precise. Holding fixed the stuff over which God has no control (the truth of the counterfactuals), it is obvious that God’s actualization will ensure the creaturely sins in all their specificity. The only true sense in which it wasn’t up to the gunman, is a sense that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility: mere trigger pulls don’t ensure murders (strictly speaking). Likewise, the only true sense in which it wasn’t up to God, is a sense that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility: mere circumstance-actualization doesn’t ensure creaturely sins (strictly speaking). But in both cases, the part that is up to the gunman/God is sufficient to generate culpability. Stratton still hasn’t given a reason to see these two cases as relevantly disanalogous. Ordinary fathers conceiving sons simply isn’t analogous to the details of Molinist providence, and so the appeal to Ezekiel 18:20 fails.

“Bullet Bill is not causally determined to kill Mario (it is up to him) if Molinism is true. But if Calvinism is true, Bullet Bill is causally determined by the gunman (God) to kill Mario. That is to say, on Molinism Bullet Bill can freely choose to avoid murder; on Calvinism Bullet Bill has no choice but to kill Mario as God causes Bullet Bill’s thoughts, intentions, and actions.”

This is all true, but irrelevant. My argument never affirms that Bullet Bill is causally determined to kill Mario. And it never affirms that Bullet Bill’s choice is not up to him in some relevant libertarian sense. In fact I take great pains to avoid characterizing the situation in that way, because if I affirmed those things I would not be talking about Molinism, and my critique would be dead on arrival (because an obvious strawman). Nevertheless, the conclusion follows. For my argument is not: “On Molinism, God causally determines agents to sin and their choices aren’t up to them. Therefore, God on Molinism is culpable for human sin, and Molinism is as bad as Calvinism.” My argument instead is that Molinist providence is sufficiently analogous to sufficient causation, so that Molinism inherits the Calvinist liabilities with respect to authorship of sin, responsibility, and blame. I don’t believe I could have been any clearer on this point.

Stratton’s response so far appears to be a threefold act of misdirection. First, speak of a situation that is not relevantly analogous to the particularities of Molinist providence, namely, parents conceiving children. Second, find theses about freedom and chains of causation in a text of Scripture that speaks of neither. Third, announce the gunslinger analogy is dead, and then prove it by misstating the analogy.

Perhaps a diagnostic question will help to clear the air. Assuming that Stratton believes that the ordinary gunman case is a case of culpability, which aspect of the ordinary gunman case – relevant for generating his culpability – is missing from the case of Molinist providence? In my view, the analogy is so tight that I don’t believe Stratton will be able to identify a missing feature. This is all the more the case if we put a Bullet Bill gun in the gunman’s hands.

“2- On Molinism, the gunman (God) desires Bullet Bill to freely choose to love Him (the gunman) and all people — from his neighbors to Bill’s enemies. In fact, the gunman (God) actually loves both Bill and Mario perfectly (omnibenevolence)! The gunman (God) actually desires the best for both Bill and Mario for all eternity (John 3:16; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9) and does not want Bill to choose to kill Mario, Luigi, or anyone else.”

This is all very interesting, but wholly irrelevant to undermining my conclusion. I concede these as features of Molinism. (Indeed, I am happy to describe my Calvinism in these terms too.) But how does affirming an ethical truth about God undermine my inference from the metaphysical implications of Molinism? If the ordinary gunman ‘desires’ good things for everybody, does that suddenly mean he is not culpable for murdering his victim? No, because his culpability is grounded in the fact that he acts in such a way that ensures the murder of his victim. His feelings, desires, and loves, are irrelevant. (If they are relevant, then Calvinists have a great comeback to the charge that they make God the author of sin: “God loves everybody, so Calvinist providence is perfectly fine!)

“Of course, given God’s omniscience, the gunman (God) must know that Bullet Bill will freely choose to sin and kill Mario (although he genuinely could have done otherwise). The significant difference here is that in the “ordinary gun” scenario (Calvinism), the gunman (God) actually desires the death of Mario as well as the Nazi Holocaust, Islamic terror, and all the damned who suffer in the eternal fires of hell for choices they were powerless to make.”

Stratton seems to have overlooked my reply to the seventh and final objection that I consider in the chapter. There, I note the basic moral fact that intentions are not closed under known entailment. If S intends that p, and S knows that p implies q, it does not follow that S thereby intends q. So if God intends the universe he creates because it will manifest some intrinsic value, or promote his glory, or reveal his attributes, and God also knows that the actualization of such a universe implies human sin, it does not follow that God thereby intends or ‘desires’ human sin. So there is no “significant difference here,” for if Molinists get the doctrine of double effect, so do Calvinists. If Stratton’s strategy is sufficient to deflect culpability for God on Molinism, I’m all for it! For this strategy is perfectly available to Calvinists as well. It appeals to no resources distinctive to Molinism.

In addition, by focusing our attention on “God’s omniscience,” on what God “must know,” Stratton leaves out what God does. What God does is perfectly analogous to the trigger-pull: he actualizes circumstances. The fact that the ordinary gunman does this with knowledge only increases his culpability. He pulls the trigger knowing what will result. It’s not the gunman’s knowledge, of course, that ensures the result. It’s the trigger pull (combined with the realities over which the gunman has no control, the laws of nature). Likewise, the fact that God actualizes circumstances with knowledge only increases his culpability. God actualizes circumstances knowing what will result. It’s not God’s knowledge, of course, that ensures the result. It’s the circumstance-actualization (combined with realities over which God has no control, the counterfactuals). Stratton’s focus on divine knowledge doesn’t pry these cases apart. Instead, it contributes to their similarity, and thus to my conclusion.

“On Molinism, however, the gunman also knows that all of these freely chosen evil actions will eventually be used for the ultimate eternal GOOD (Gen 50:20; Rom 8:28; 2 Cor 4:17). The Calvinistic determinist cannot make the same case (click here for more).”

Well, when I “click here for more,” I don’t find an argument that God cannot ensure that all “freely chosen evil actions will eventually be used for the ultimate eternal good.” I find an argument that some Calvinists have speculated that divine desires for glory may preclude universal salvation. But even if this were true, Stratton’s inference wouldn’t follow. It wouldn’t follow that all evils wouldn’t be worked out by God for an ultimate eternal good. It would only follow that there is a distinction among goods, and that not all evil actions are used for the same kind of good (i.e., salvation).

“The gunman, on Molinism, never desired for Bill to kill. In fact, the gunman never shot the bullet in the direction of Mario; rather, the gunman merely placed the bullet on the table. The gunman did not project the bullet in either direction, both directions were perfect alternatives and neither of Bill’s choices contained deterministic factors. God allows Bill to make His choice freely.”

I fear that Stratton’s rhetoric is getting the best of him. To say that the Molinist gunman doesn’t shoot bullets in particular directions – he just places bullets on tables – is to fundamentally misunderstand the analogy. On Molinism, God isn’t passive. He actualizes circumstances. And he does so in a way that ensures particular outcomes – indeed, ensures the particular history of the universe in exhaustive detail! This is the fundamental point. ‘Placing bullets on tables’ isn’t a theory of providence. So here are the questions:

  1. Does the ordinary gunman pull the trigger, or not? Analogously, does God actualize circumstances, or not?
  2. In pulling the trigger, does the ordinary gunman ensure a particular outcome (as long as the laws of nature are in place)? Analogously, in actualizing circumstances, does God ensure a particular outcome (as long as the counterfactuals are in place)?
  3. In pulling triggers and ensuring outcomes, is the ordinary gunman culpable for the outcome? Analogously, in actualizing circumstances and ensuring outcomes, is God culpable for the outcome?

To be successful, Stratton has to cite a factor that is present in the ordinary gunman scenario, but absent in the Molinist scenario, that is relevant for culpability. But simply changing the analogy will not do. In his talk of ‘merely placing bullets on tables,’ is Stratton denying circumstance-actualization on the part of God? If so, then he’s not a Molinist. But if he’s not denying this, then given the rest of Molinist providence the conclusion still goes through.

“He reasons that the Molinist’s view of God is just as bad as the Calvinistic view because God created a world in which He knew how free creatures would freely choose to act.”

I’ve cited a sentence that is typical of Stratton’s lengthy section, “Predestination != Determinism”. I cite it because of how badly it represents the argument I in fact gave. If my inference were that God (on Molinism) is culpable simply because “He knew how free creatures would freely choose to act,” I would be of all philosophers most to be pitied. It is impossible to infer culpability from mere knowledge. I know of many bad actions by many people; it doesn’t follow I’m culpable for them. I might even know of someone’s bad actions ahead of time (perhaps I read of their plan); it still doesn’t follow that I’m culpable for them, for my knowledge doesn’t involve me in any way with their sin. But contrast all this with the following: I act in such a way that ensures and guarantees that everyone in history has the sinful intentions and commits the exact sins that they in fact have and commit. This changes the picture considerably.

Again and again in this section, Stratton seems to assume that I am making an inference from mere knowledge on God’s part. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am making an inference from God’s providential actions on Molinism, and that is an active thing, not a role to be played by a mere passive observer.

“Sure, on Molinism, God is “responsible” for creating a world in which creatures can freely choose to do good or evil (which is a logically necessary “side effect” of creating a world where eternal true love can be obtained), but if creatures are not forced or causally determined to do evil, then they are responsible agents and guilty of their evil deeds — not God.”

Here Stratton underdescribes Molinism and combines it with a straw man. What generates my conclusion is not some innocuous truth that God creates a world “in which creatures can freely choose to do good or evil.” What is crucial is the central Molinist claim that Stratton leaves out: God ensures and guarantees that human freedom will be used in the exact ways it is used in human history, by actualizing circumstances in light of his middle-knowledge. There is no need for scare quotes around ‘responsible’. God acts in ways that ensure outcomes, in as meticulous a way as we can imagine. That’s far different from giving a gift of free will and then hoping for the best with one’s omnibenevolent desires. And if you act in such a way as to ensure outcomes, ordinarily you are culpable for those outcomes. It is so in the ordinary gunman case. Why not in the Molinist case?

I concede that, on Molinism, “creatures are not forced or causally determined to do evil,” and so “they are responsible agents and guilty of their evil deeds.” That is the point of Bullet Bill: he is a sentient encased in steel, possessing libertarian free will. But as I pointed out in the chapter, the fact that Bullet Bill is a responsible agent is neither here nor there when it comes to the responsibility of the one who shoots the Bullet Bill gun. Let Stratton answer the question directly: if I murdered someone with a Bullet Bill gun, would he hold me culpable? Why not? Could I plead innocence because Bullet Bill wasn’t “forced or causally determined”?

“God is a necessary condition for the death of Mario (after all, God created a world in which Mario lives and can be killed), but He is not the sufficient cause because Bullet Bill has a real and genuine free choice to make.”

Again, Stratton underdescribes the content of Molinism. Notice that an open theist could endorse what is said above: God is a necessary condition for the murder of any person, for God created a world in which persons live and can be killed. Well, yes, of course. But God’s being a merely necessary condition isn’t Molinism. For being a merely necessary condition doesn’t ensure outcomes, and that’s precisely what God does in actualizing circumstances.

Notice that if Stratton’s defense here stands, then no ordinary gunman is ever culpable for murdering people with his gun. In pulling the trigger, he is ever and always only a necessary condition for the death of his victims, never the sufficient cause! Since nature has to cooperate with the trigger-pull in order to get the bullet into the victim, and whether nature cooperates isn’t up to the gunman, it follows that the gunman isn’t the sufficient cause of the murder. So either Stratton has provided us with a good reason for never holding persons culpable for the outcomes of their (insufficient!) actions, or he needs to rethink his strategy. Unless he can show a relevant disanalogy between the ordinary gun and Molinist cases, he will be stuck with something he doesn’t want: letting all murderers off the hook, or letting Calvinism off the hook.

Finally, Stratton makes much of his distinction between predestination and causal determinism, in the closing paragraphs of his presentation. I am happy to concede that on Molinism, although God does not causally determine human choices in the world, he nevertheless “predestines the evil in that world” (as Stratton puts it). Stratton finds this distinction significant with respect to claims about divine culpability, whereas I do not. But we can easily put this stance to the test: should I be held culpable for murdering people with a Bullet Bill gun? Since the gun is constructed according to the principles of Molinist providence, not Calvinist providence, then if Molinism involves ‘predestination’ rather than ‘causal determinism,’ let’s stipulate that’s an apt description of the relation between the gunman and Bullet Bill. Does that fact absolve me of culpability when I murder five people in the room with the Bullet Bill gun? I don’t see how. The options seem to be these:

  1. Deny that there can be Bullet Bill guns. But that would be saying that Molinism is incoherent.
  2. Deny that gunslingers are ever culpable, because they merely pull triggers and merely perform necessary conditions for outcomes. But that would spell the end of human culpability for outcomes.
  3. Deny that ‘Molinist predestination’ is different from ‘Calvinist causal determinism,’ for the purposes of assessing culpability for outcomes. But that would mean Molinists should drop this claim of difference from their repertoire of alleged advantages of Molinism over Calvinism. And that is my view.