Subject: Re: Middle Knowledge
From: Sean Ho <seanho@seanho.com>
Date: Fri, 15 Jul 2005 23:13:26 -0400
Hey I meant to ask you about this last Sunday but I forgot. Are you familiar with the concept of Middle Knowledge? And if so, what are you viewpoints on it?
Hi , I'm sorry I couldn't respond earlier due to busyness in moving preparations...

Before I go on, let me commend you; I'm glad that you are not only asking good questions but also taking initiative on your own to seek out the truth, looking for input from many resources but always coming back to the Bible as the only authoritative source. I must admit that before you mentioned it to me I had not heard of the term "middle knowledge"; so you and I both had to do some research.

I think the bottom line is that there are some things we'll never fully be able to explain in this life; it does take faith to come to Christ. I'll split the remainder of this email into three parts: first, an explanation of Molinism (middle knowledge) as I understand it; second, a brief discussion of some of its implications and corollaries; finally, my take on things.

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As I understand it, the Jesuit (Catholic) priest Luis Molina in the 1500's came up with "middle knowledge" while trying to wrap his head around God's omniscience and man's freewill. His original Latin text has been translated by Alfred Freddoso in "On Divine Foreknowledge". Prior to Molina there had been proposed two distinct (and sometimes perceived as conflicting) views of God's omniscient "knowledge":

Natural knowledge is the set of all universal truths; some philosophers have phrased this as God knowing all possibilities of the way the world could have turned out, i.e., knowing all "timelines". Free knowledge is God's knowlege about our particular universe/timeline -- the way that our world actually turned out, given the free choices we have made.

Molina proposed a third kind of knowledge, which he felt was in between natural knowledge and free knowledge. (b) "Middle knowledge", _scientia_media_, is claimed to be God's knowledge of how a free agent (human with freewill) _would_ make a decision, in all possible situations. For example, say one day I'm choosing what ice cream to eat. I have (according to our colloquial definition of the word) the _freewill_ to choose any flavor I like. Natural knowledge would be knowing all possible flavors. Free knowledge would be knowing what I actually ended up eating on that day. But someone who knew me really well, who had a degree of "middle knowledge" of me, would know that the way I think, I'd almost always choose pineapple, unless I had just eaten a bunch of pineapple and would like chocolate. Middle knowledge is knowing what flavor I'd choose in every situation.

A worldview incorporating the concept of God having middle knowledge is called "Molinism". Molina went on to claim that in creating our universe, God must have gone through these three types of knowledge in logical (though not necessarily temporal) sequence: (a) God starts with natural knowledge of all possible timelines (b) God has middle knowledge to know how all people would make free decisions in each of those timelines (c) Based on the preceding knowledge, God selects one particular timeline, and his middle knowledge is instantiated to free knowledge of our timeline.

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This is the basic definition of middle knowledge, and by itself there's not much to say against it; if anything, I feel it's a bit tautological (going in circles) on the definitions of "freewill" and "omniscience". Through the centuries since the 1500's there have been heated arguments on both sides of Molinism, but in my view these have largely been due to differing definitions of "freewill" and "omniscience", and have been exacerbated by the long-running Catholic vs. Reformation/Protestant political rivalries.

Molina presupposed a "libertarian" definition of freewill; i.e., that if a free agent makes a choice then not even God can force it to be otherwise. A conclusion drawn from this is that God is constrained; there are some things that He can't (or isn't allowed to) do. Phrased a certain way this seems to contradict God's omnipotence (i.e., God can do anything), but we already know from Scripture that there are many things God can't do (e.g., lie, break His promises, show partiality). Still, many object to a libertarian definition of freewill because it seems to put more of the responsibility for salvation on man's choice and less on God's grace.

The classic question then arises: if God foreknew all our free choices (middle-knowledge-style omniscience) and is also a loving God (omnibenevolent), then why would He make a universe (choose a timeline) where billions of people would end up in hell? A number of Catholic scholars at this point start reasoning that perhaps there were no possible timelines where everyone would freely choose salvation, or that it would only be possible in a universe with very few people, such that God had to choose our timeline to "optimize" the ratio of saved vs condemned. (Personally, it seems to me that God's "omnibenevolent" character is inconsistent with playing a numbers game with souls.)

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So what's my view on all this? I think beyond a point, the debate is a waste of time promulgated by armchair philosophers, no better than asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Middle knowledge does _not_ explain away the freewill/predestination conundrum; it merely pushes the debate onto our definition of freewill. The problem is that we don't even know what freewill means -- or rather, everything that we in colloquial use call "free choice" still lies under the umbrella of God's all-knowledge. All our human reasoning is extrapolation from our earthly experience, and so far none of us has experienced what it must be like for God to see the whole of time at once. Hence it is not just difficult but (I claim) _impossible_ for our logic to fully explain God. God has claimed that His ways are higher than our ways as the heaven is higher than the earth; it is hubris to presume that God works "the way I'd do it if I were in His shoes". This relates to the question above about sending people to hell, too: we want to criticize both God's justice and His mercy, and say, "that's not how _I'd_ do it if I were God". But we are not God, and just as well, too -- our human implementations of justice leave much to be desired.

I know a few of you have of late been raising some good questions about predestination and freewill. While I don't wish to squash your inquisitiveness and pursuit of the truth, I want to remind you that there is a limit to human knowledge and logic, and I redirect your attention back to the claims and commands given in the Bible. The bottom line is that God has told us clearly in Scripture that He is in control of the universe, that He knows the plans He has for us, that He loves us, and also that He offers us a free choice whether or not to accept His gift of life by grace. There is an urgent mandate to make disciples of all nations wherever we go, by baptizing them and teaching them to obey all of God's commandments. That's what has been revealed to us in Scripture; we go and do it.

``The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.'' -- Deuteronomy 29:29

Hope this helps; take care!

in Christ,
Sean

Wow that was pretty indepth and helpful, thanks a bunch. Hoep your moving is going smoothly by the way, sorry to bother you with this. Yea this was more for know just for knowings sake, something for me to wrap my around. But a lot of people have basically told me it really doesn't matter all that much or that there are more important things to focus on and its true. But anyways, thanks again I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this. I almost completely forgot you were moving :O. Take care!

-- == Sean Ho == seanho at seanho.com == http://seanho.com./ ==