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 (or as I will argue includes) 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 (libertarian 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 purely 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 affirms a species of 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). Accordingly, Dabney’s causal determinism entails a divine foreordination not unlike Molinism in that God does not determine creaturely intention but rather he is merely sovereign over it by virtue of omnipotence and exhaustive omniscience. (If we call this causal divine determinism it is with the caveat that God is not the truth maker of Jones would intend y if presented with x. God wills event x in order that y, but God does not determine that x causes y. The “causal divine determination” of y entails MK. God wills y and, therefore, strongly actualizes x, weakly bringing about y. Like with Molinism, God does not determine all the cards available for him to play. Though unlike with Molinism, no cards are metaphysically or purely contingent. This is a hybrid Calvinism that is weak on divine attributes.)

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. God would know brute particulars.

MK is not merely an unnecessary distinction for the Calvinist, it’s a misleading misnomer. Yet for many Calvinists MK still is required, not because they affirm libertarian freedom but because they believe God knows CCFs not by free determination or natural 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 average Calvinist possible worlds typically identify as feasible worlds (i.e. it’s usually believed all possible worlds can be actualized), all metaphysically possible counterfactuals of creaturely freedom should be seen as grounded in God’s natural knowledge of all possibilities available for instantiation. (Infeasible worlds are consistent descriptions of reality that God cannot actualize. For the indeterminist God cannot know which possibly worlds are 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. God does not have middle knowledge of possible CCFs. Molinists agree.

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 a 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 intrinsic possibilities, part of God’s natural knowledge, from which God could determine and freely know any true CCF.

Whereas with Molinism feasible worlds entail human cooperation, for philosophical Calvinism logical possibility doesn’t identify as metaphysically possibility. True CCFs pertain to the latter sort. Consider the impeccability of Christ, both a human and divine being, yet a divine person. Semantically, what is logically possible (the human being sins) is metaphysically impossible (the divine person sins). The logical defeaters of Peccability, pertain to theologically informed metaphysical considerations that don’t necessarily undermine logical peccability-simpliciter. Logic alone doesn’t tell us that the Son could not sin. What’s needed are supplementary truths about the Son and sin in order to establish more broadly the logical contradiction of the peccability of Christ.

Calvinists often identify true 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 all possibilities. (The actualization of possibilities are not necessary truths, but such abstract possibilities are necessarily known.) John Frame, Paul Helm and Scott Christensen err this way.

If there is such a counterfactual in a possible world wherein Christ sins, it’s an infeasible world with respect to possible actualization because of the Son’s hypostatic-ontology. Again, these are merely semantic considerations that pertain to modality. Yet once theological propositions inform the meaning of a counterfactual, a logical contradiction can arise, which can show an infeasible world to be a logically impossible world. (Those who wrongly deny Impeccability – e.g., Hodge and Sproul – typically do so because of a misunderstanding of temptation as it relates to the hypostatic union and the ontology of the divine Second Person. It’s not because they value narrow verse broad logical possibility, which is to say narrow logical possibility over metaphysical impossibility. Yet by affirming peccability, they affirm both, even the metaphysical or broad logical possibility of the incarnated Son sinning.

Furthermore, regarding CCFs, although some CCFs might be metaphysically possible, the wouldness of CCFs are dependent upon God’s will for their truth-values. There are possible worlds in which Adam does not eat the forbidden fruit under identical conditions. Whether there is a true CCF (a would-counterfactual of creaturely freedom) to that affect is entirely another question that pertains to God’s will and not only to logical or metaphysical possibilities.

If God pre-interprets particulars to give them their causal meaning or relationships, then what God could actualize would be a matter of broad logical possibility, an object of his natural knowledge, whereas what God would know as a true counterfactual 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 under any set of circumstances. 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.

Transcendental Arguments, a Primer

Transcendental arguments (TAs) are deductive arguments in that if the premises are true and the form is valid, then the conclusion must be necessarily true. Furthermore, TAs pertain to preconditions for the possibility of the existence of some basic or common experience. That is, TAs put forth necessary precondition(s) without which a generally accepted experience is unintelligible. Finally, another distinguishing feature of TAs is that preconditions for such basic or common experiences are not learned by experience. The preconditions pertain to what can be known only apart from experience.

In analytic form a transcendental argument may look as follows, [where P is a common experience and Q is a necessary precondition for P, which can be appealed to on an a priori basis (and not according to a posteriori inference)].

Prove Q exists by way of: If P, then Q:

1. ~Q (Assume the opposite of what we are trying to prove: Assume Q does not exist.)
2. If ~Q –> ~P (If Q does not exist, then P does not exist since Q is a precondition for P)
3. ~~P (It is false that P does not exist – i.e. P does exist.)  (Contradiction)
4. ~~Q (It is false that Q does not exist.) (Modus Tollens 2, 3 and 4)
5. Q (Q exists.) (Law of negation)

In other words, for P to exist, Q must also exist since Q is a necessary precondition for P. Since P exists, then so must Q.

The analytic form of the argument is common and is most often used for non-transcendental arguments. Because TAs are concerned with preconditions for intelligible experience and how reality is, TAs have a unique quality about them both in what is purported as a shared experience among humans as well as the profundity of the transcendental itself. They’re not so trivial as to pertain to arguments such as, if the Eagles did not win Super Bowl LII on Sunday February 4, 2018, there would not have been 700,000 Eagle Fans celebrating an Eagles Super Bowl LII win on Thursday, February 8, 2018 on Broad Street in Philadelphia. There were 700,000 fans celebrating… victory… Therefore, the Eagles won Super Bowl LII.

Although celebration of victory presupposes victory, the Eagles Superbowl experience is not universally shared. Moreover, the argument would rely upon appeals to inferences gained by experience, such as we know from observation that sports fans typically celebrate victories, not losses, and we can witness victory celebrations following victories. Therefore, the form of an argument alone does not make a transcendental argument. Aside from being deductive arguments dealing with preconditions for shared and typically uncontroversial experiences, TAs also incorporate a (transcendental) premise that can be known only a priori. (The Eagles argument fails to be a TA on two out of three counts.)

Similarly, a necessary precondition for death is life but life is not a transcendental relative to death. Death presupposes life is an a posteriori consideration. One’s knowledge that death presupposes life can be appealed to according to empirical observation.

A brief comment about traditional theistic proofs:

Aside from the fallacious formulations of the traditional arguments for God’s existence (as they have been traditionally formulated), they are not transcendental-oriented. They don’t aim to demonstrate that God is transcendentally necessary for the possibility of, for instance, causality or design. That God is a transcendent first cause does not imply that God is a necessary precondition for the intelligibility of causation. We also might want to address that the unbeliever’s implicit claim on the intelligibility of causation does not comport with her worldview presuppositions (e.g. all that exists is chance acting upon matter over time). Because the unbeliever will not acknowledge a common creator and sustainer of men and things, she works on borrowed capital when operating as if the rational thoughts of the human mind should have any correlation to the way in which the mind-independent world rationally behaves.

Regarding necessary conditions in general:

“If causality then God” merely means that causality is a sufficient condition for God and that God is a necessary condition for causality. Which is to say: if causality exists then it is necessary that God exists. However, such a premise does not delve into the question of how God and causality relate to each other. It does not tell us whether God exists because of causality or whether causality exists because of God (or neither). If, then propositions often refer only to states of affairs, not order whether logical or temporal. (It’s not unlike, if justification, then faith; and, if faith, then justification. Both are true. Yet neither premise informs us that justification presupposes faith and that faith is a necessary precondition for justification.)

TAG from causality:

Causality presupposes God says more than causality is a sufficient condition for God and that God is a necessary condition for causality. Causality presupposes God implies that God makes causality possible. Since causality exists, then so must God. (To argue either way, for or against God, even presupposes God!)

TAG under delivers?:

Christians and Atheists often say that TAG does not achieve its goal because not every worldview can be refuted by a single argument. Such a claim demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the scope of transcendental arguments in general and TAG in particular. To deny the success of any particular TAG that is properly formulated is to reject logic and / or biblical truths. It’s also an indicator that one might be confusing proof with persuasion.

The transcendental premise:

The second premise bears the weight of the argument. So, what about the controversial claim that God is a necessary precondition for causality? We can ultimately defend our knowledge of the premise by appealing to the absolute authority of Scripture. Of course, the unbeliever rejects that authority; nonetheless that the unbeliever is dysfunctional in this way does not mean that an appeal to Scripture is fallacious to justify one’s knowledge of the premise. It is critical at this juncture for the Christian to distinguish for the unbeliever (a) the source of her justification for her personal knowledge that God makes causality possible, which comes from the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination through the self-authenticating Scriptures, from (b) the proof that God makes causality possible. How we know x is not the argument for x.

What’s a girl to do?

Of course, given the unbeliever’s suppression of the truth of Scripture, the presuppositional apologist defends the transcendental premise by performing internal critiques of opposing worldviews, showing that they cannot account for causality etc., while showing that Christianity can. It would be a mistake, however, to think that such an accommodation and avoidance of any serious charge of being fideistic implies that the conclusion of TAG (God exists) and the justification for the transcendental premise (God is a necessary precondition for causality) rests upon inductive inference. By refuting opposing philosophical ideologies the Christian apologist merely acknowledges that the unbeliever refuses to bend the knee to the self-attesting Word of God. Since unbelievers will not accept the truth claims of the Bible, the only thing the Christian can do before God and onlookers is refute hypothetical competitors, but that hardly implies that a formulation of any given TAG is an inductive argument, or that the transcendental premise within such an argument is inferred only after having successfully refuted enough opposing worldviews.

It has been said that although TAG is a powerful apologetic it under delivers because of the inductive aspect of defending step-2, the transcendental premise. Because of this perceived limitation, some logicians and philosophers have said that TAG only proves the high probability of God’s existence. That a Christians logician would say this is mildly astonishing given that any Christian should affirm the truth of step-2, and any Christian logician recognizes the proof as not just valid but sound. When Christian philosophers offer a similar observation that TAG cannot get beyond the limitations of inductive inference, I have to wonder why it hasn’t occurred to them that God makes inductive inference possible. What makes inductive inference possible is not a conceptual scheme that contemplates the possibility of God’s existence, but rather God’s ontological existence. We don’t infer God from induction if God stands behind induction! 

God or ~God:

Lastly, we don’t have to refute an “infinite number“ of “explanations” for the intelligibility of causality. Either God is necessary for the intelligibility of causality or God is not necessary for the intelligibility of causality. Those are the only two possibilities. It’s not a matter of God vs Naturalism, Idealism, Atheism, Platonism or any number of X-isms. It’s not a matter of a, b, c….  It’s a matter of a or ~a. Autonomy or ~autonomy reduces to  ~God or God.

The believer cannot get out from under the fact that she has an infallible word on the subject. Nor should she be embarrassed by the revelation of God as if it may not be appealed to disclose how we know what we know. There is no meaning if autonomous presuppositions are true; we know that through Scripture, though we demonstrate it by arguing for the impossibility of any proffered worldview.

Let’s reason together:

We don’t dodge the would-be competitors to God as the unifying source of otherwise brute particulars, the solution to the One and the Many. Bring them on and let’s see if they can make sense of reality, knowledge and ethical absolutes. Let’s compare worldviews to see who can make sense of men and things. As each variation of the one non-Christian worldview is refuted one by one, let’s not mistake those refutations as the basis for our knowledge of God’s existence. Rather, let’s recognize those refutations for what they truly are – a display of what we already know apart from those refutations, that only God (and not autonomous reasoning) can make sense of God’s world.