Saving Christmas from the Grounding Objection
Molinism is a view of divine providence that harmonizes complete divine sovereignty with genuine human freedom. The primary concept is God’s middle knowledge. God’s omniscience is conceptually divided into three logical moments. First is His natural knowledge which consists of all logical possibilities (i.e. everything that could happen). Last is His free knowledge which consists of a comprehensive knowledge of the actual world (i.e. everything that did happen, everything that is happening, and everything that will happen in the future). The content of this category of knowledge comes from God’s creative decree; God created freely, hence the name free knowledge. In between His natural and free knowledge (and prior to the creative decree) is a category called middle knowledge. The content of middle knowledge consists of what are called counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCFs for short). These are statements about what a free creature would do if she were in a certain set of circumstances. The upshot is that with knowledge of these CCFs, God can meticulously and sovereignly order a world according to His pleasure without obliterating human freedom nor sacrificing His foreknowledge.
With such an attractive position, it may be difficult to believe that some people reject the idea of middle knowledge. It’s posited that these CCFs don’t actually have any semantic content; the only truths are what could be the case or what will be the case; there simply isn’t anything that would be the case. This is a version of what’s called the “grounding objection“.
In the past 500 years, Molinists have responded to all variations of the grounding objection with varying levels of success. I tend to agree with Jennifer Jensen’s assessment, namely, that while Molinists still have work to do providing a comprehensive grounding theory for CCFs, the current Molinist responses are sufficient to defeat the grounding objection . Molinists have suggested that, if taken consistently to its conclusion, the grounding objection leads to some serious problems such as destroying our knowledge of tensed facts . I would like to suggest that the grounding objection does something even more drastic, it destroys Christmas.
Well, more reservedly, it screws up two classic Christmas movies: It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. (Warning: here follows spoilers for 50+ year old movies that you should’ve seen by now).
It’s A Counterfactual Life
The plot of It’s a Wonderful Life (IAWL) centers on George Bailey’s seemingly miserable life. As a young man, he has great ambitions to see the world; however, he ends up stuck in dreary Bedford Falls responsible for the Building and Loan Office. In a moment of despair, he decides his life is worthless and contemplates jumping from a bridge to his watery death. He is then visited by Clarence the angel who shows George what would’ve happened had he not been born. As it turns out, George’s seemingly dreary life was instrumental in bringing about a plethora of wonderful things. For example: George saved his kid brother Harry from drowning who went on to save two American warships full of soldiers, George saved Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning a child, George saved Mr. Martini’s business, and George saved Bedford Falls from being taken over by Mr. Potter. Clarence showed George that had he not been born, Harry would’ve died along with the soldiers he would have saved, Mr. Gower would have gone to prison, Martini would have gone bankrupt, and quiet Bedford Falls would have become rambunctious Pottersville.
What happens if we accept the form of the grounding objection previously expounded? The categories are now only what could happen or what will happen. Given the ending of the movie, it’s clear that what Clarence showed George wasn’t actual; it didn’t happen. It can’t be in the will happen category. What about the could happen category? The problem here is that putting George’s experience in what merely could happen completely emasculates the force of the experience. Clarence could have shown George any set of possible circumstances with equal effect since all possible circumstances are, well, equally possible. George could rightly respond: “Clarence, this doesn’t mean anything; everything could have turned out the same if I wasn’t born!” George’s experience only carries weight because it was what would have happened.
Moreover, there is another CCF hiding in the background: if George Bailey were shown how valuable his life is, he would appreciate how wonderful his life is. If this weren’t true, the whole movie falls apart as Clarence’s mission becomes pointless at best!
A Christmas Counterfactual
Scrooge’s tale in A Christmas Carol (ACC) shares similarities to George Bailey’s. The plot centers on Scrooge reviewing his life through visitations from the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future. Aside from discussions of theories of time, the visions of Christmas Past and Present are non-controversial. The vision of Christmas Future, on the other hand, provides fertile ground for discussion of counterfactuals. The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge a series of depressing events. Scrooge’s death is followed by an unattended funeral, an auction of his belongings, expression of joy by debtors, and the death of Tiny Tim. All in all, Scrooge leaves earth as a “wretched man” that won’t be missed. In his despair, he famously pleads with the Ghost of Christmas Future:
Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point, answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only? Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead, but if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!
Scrooge is expressing a counterfactual. He essentially says that if men’s courses were to remain the same, certain ends would be met. Suppose instead that we were to look at this through the lens of the grounding objection. The same criticisms for A Wonderful Life can be leveled here. The events Scrooge saw fit neither in the could happen nor will happen categories. It’s clear that what Scrooge saw didn’t actually happen since the story ends with Tiny Tim alive and well, the debtors are forgiven, and Scrooge helps Bob Cratchit out of poverty; so, will happen is not the appropriate category. On the other hand (as with George and Clarence), if the events are merely what could happen, there is no need for Scrooge to become upset. He could fairly retort to the Ghost of Christmas Future: “This is only a mere possibility! It’s equally possible that everyone comes to my funeral and Tiny Tim gets better if I do nothing!”
The only reason Scrooge’s vision carries weight is because what he sees is what would happen if he were stay in his ways. As with IAWL, the plot depends on a CCF about the main character. In this case, the Ghosts know that if Scrooge were visited with these visions, he would change his ways. If this were not true, the Ghosts’ visits would have been vain.
Without counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, these two classic stories become incoherent. The upshot here is that these stories capture the intuitive nature of CCFs. Of course, these are works of fiction; however, suppose we replace Clarence and the Ghost of Christmas Future with God. Is God able to show someone the worth of their life by showing what would’ve happened if they weren’t born? Or is He able to change someone’s heart by showing what would happen if they were to continue their actions? It seems to me that any grounding principle that excludes the reality of CCFs is less intuitive than than the premise of these stories.
- Jensen, Jennifer. The Grounding Objection. Diss. Notes Dame, 2008. N.p.: UMI Dissertation, 2012. Print. Web Source.
- The gist behind this retort is that the grounding objection presupposes all true propositions must have existents in which their truth is grounded. However, on the common-sense view of time, the past no longer exists and the future has yet to exist. This means tensed statements (e.g Jesus will return to earth and Jesus was raised from the dead) can’t have truth values. But denial of these kinds of truths seems dreadfully counter intuitive and, in the case of our examples, would thoroughly destroy Christianity! For more on this, consult Wes Widner’s brief overview.