Middle Knowledge and Calvinism

Middle Knowledge (MK) is God’s knowledge of all true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom (CCF). As the word middle suggests, this knowledge falls between other types of knowledge. Specifically, MK is situated between God’s natural knowledge, which is God’s knowledge of all necessary truth, and God’s free knowledge, which is God’s knowledge of his creative decree. (MK is logically prior to free knowledge yet posterior to natural knowledge.)

Calvinists typically deny MK for two reasons. Firstly, proponents of MK typically affirm that the objects of God’s MK are contingent choices – choices that would occur under certain circumstances yet somehow might (might not) occur under those same circumstances. Given the contingent nature of such metaphysically free choices, counterfactuals of creaturely freedom cannot be true – in which case they cannot be the object of knowledge, including MK. However, an objection such as this is not based upon a denial of MK per se but rather it is an objection to a particular view of free will that would render CCFs unknowable. It’s a rejection of MK by association.

In discussions on Scientia Media, Dabney did not demur.

“As I showed you, when explaining this scientia media, in the hands of him who holds the contingency of the will, it is illogical; in the hands of the Calvinist, it becomes consistent.”

As Dabney also states,

“Let us not be scared by unpopular names. It is a knowledge conditioned on His own almighty purpose, and His own infallible sense, relative. But this is not a dangerous sense. For only lay down the true doctrine, that volitions are efficiently determined by dispositions, and there is, to God, no shadow of contingency remaining about such foreknowledge.”

So, for Dabney:

“Volitions are caused. The efficient causes of volitions are the soul’s own dispositions; the occasional causes are the objects providentially presented to those dispositions. Even we may, in many cases, so know dispositions as efficiently to procure, and certainly to predict, given volitions, through the presentation of objective causes thereof. An infinite understanding may so completely know all dispositions and all their complex workings, as to foretell and produce volitions thus in every case, as we are able do in many cases.”

Dabney believed we needn’t shy away from MK. Since CCFs are not contingent choices but rather caused choices, Dabney affirmed God’s foreknowledge of CCFs on the basis of the surety of their fruition. However, with respect to Dabney we cannot be sure, or so it would seem, that he believed that God knows all would-counterfactuals as a subset of God’s natural knowledge or his free knowledge. Consider, Dabney grounds God’s knowledge of such counterfactuals not in God’s self-knowledge either of possibilities or what he would do but in God’s infallible knowledge of dispositions and volitions of un-instantiated essences. That is no different than the MK of Molinism. Furthermore, Dabney draws an analogy of our knowledge of the predictability of the volitions of others (which certainly is not sourced from our self-knowledge) to God’s knowledge of CCFs, arguing from the lesser to the greater as a matter of degree, not kind. For Dabney God simply knows more than we do about the intricacies of the free moral agent in view. That’s how he can know CCFs. In both cases (for God and man) knowledge would be sourced from without, not within.

Dabney does not positively index God’s knowledge of counterfactuals to natural knowledge of possibilities or free knowledge of true CCFs. If anything, he denies those options. Of course, to Dabney’s credit he positively denies pure contingency of choice and affirm causal determinism. In that respect he distances himself from a Molinistic use and need of MK but not from MK itself. However, what is absent in Dabney’s analysis is how God can know “the occasional causes” that will affect the “soul’s own dispositions” in a manner that will produce a specific volition and none other. Who or what is the truth-maker of propositional CCFs for Dabney? Does Dabney require a MK that’s based upon inference from casual necessity? It would seem so (especially given his lesser to greater analogy). 

Dabney in the spirit of Calvinistic scholastics recognizes that through the presentation of objects to dispositions, volitions are caused and, therefore, implicitly necessary (though free in a compatibilist sense). On this basis we find the second reason Calvinists have often rejected MK – as superfluous since such knowledge would seemingly be captured under another category of divine knowledge. But for Dabney and many Calvinists like him, where is the propositional object of MK grounded? Certainly not in metaphysical contingency, which is the grounding of Molinism (though not acknowledged by Molinists). Notwithstanding, the only truth-maker of CCFs implicit in Dabney’s thought is the necessity of creaturely volition that is produced from dispositions as a necessary consequent of objects providentially presented to the soul. So, rather than ground CCFs in the non-causal effect of pure contingency, Dabney grounds CCFs in the efficient cause of volition from disposition (or act from will). That God providentially orders the occasional cause of objects that efficiently incline disposition causing a resultant volition is not to ground the counterfactual itself in God’s sovereign determination of which way a disposition would be inclined. In this respect Dabney is no different from the Molinist. His position entails eternal propositional CCFs that are not known according to God’s knowledge of what he could or would do. God’s knowledge would be eternally receptive in this respect. 

MK is not merely an unnecessary distinction for the Calvinist, it’s a misleading misnomer. Yet for many Calvinists MK sill is required, not because they affirm libertarian freedom but because they believe God knows CCFs not by free determination or knowledge of possibilities but rather only through an “infinite understanding… [of] all dispositions and all their complex workings,” making it possible for God “to foretell and produce volitions thus in every case.”

Since for the Calvinist possible worlds identify as feasible worlds (i.e. all possible worlds can be actualized), all possible counterfactuals of creaturely freedom should be seen as grounded in God’s natural knowledge of all possibilities available for actualization. (Infeasible worlds are consistent descriptions of reality that God cannot actualize. For the indeterminist God cannot know infeasible worlds through natural knowledge, hence God’s need of MK, in a Molinist sense, to know any libertarian free choice and consequently feasibility and infeasibility.) Since God possesses the (natural) knowledge of all possible CCFs, the knowledge of all possible CCFs cannot be situated in the middle between natural knowledge and free knowledge. In that critical respect, God does not have middle knowledge of possible CCFs. 

It seems to me that Calvinists often identify possible CCFs as would-counterfactuals. Therefore, from a Christian compatibilist perspective, given that premise, it is often thought that would-counterfactuals of creaturely freedom are properly catalogued under God’s natural knowledge, God’s knowledge of necessary truths. (The actualization of possibilities are not necessary truths, but such abstract possibilities are necessarily known.)

Calvinists ought to think of CCFs not merely in terms of God’s necessary knowledge of all possible CCFs but also in terms of God’s free knowledge of would-counterfactuals. After all, not all possible counterfactuals are would-counterfactuals! Given the same state of affairs God could determine different resultant dispositions to act. Given an identical state of affairs, God could determine a fragrance or song from yesteryear to causally produce a disposition either to look at an old photo album, pick up the phone to call someone or something else. These alternative possibilities would not be indeterminate might-counterfactuals of libertarian creaturely freedom but rather true possibilities available to God, part of God’s natural knowledge, from which God could determine and freely know any true CCFs.

If God preinterprets particulars to give them their causal meaning or relationships, then what God could actualize would be an object of his natural knowledge, whereas what God would actualize would be an object of his free knowledge – i.e. a matter of his sovereign determination of how moral agents would be inclined given any object presented to the soul. So, if there are true CCFs, then they would be a matter of God’s free knowledge. 

Properly understood, God’s knowledge of all possible CCFs is included in his natural knowledge. If God has knowledge of counterfactuals that he would actualize, then that knowledge would have to be a matter of what God freely knows. Yet once we recognize that the set of true CCFs is a subset of possible CCFs, we then can see that true CCFs aren’t necessarily known as contingently true but rather freely known as contingently true. Therefore, we must expand our understanding of free knowledge to more than the creative decree if free knowledge is to capture true CCFs, that is to say would-counterfactuals.

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