At the outset it may be beneficial to define a few things, as this is going to be a fairly philosophically complex post. When philosophers refer to counterfactuals, they are referring to any set of circumstances, usually worlds or universes, that could have been, but were not. What this means for the present discussion is that God “saw” in eternity past all the possible worlds/universes that could be made. To make things “to scale” as it were, this means that if person A were to eat an apple or an orange, these would be two different world possibilities depending on which the person chose. It is common language to say that God chose to actuate this world, and I think that is telling language. Using the word actuate instead of create seems to de-personalize God, or at least make Him seem less in control (which is exactly what counterfactuals seek to do, in a sense).
It seems to me that a large number of philosophers engage in what I call Selective Counterfactualism, which means that they use counterfactuals only where they will serve their purpose, and not when they may be used against it. Both Christian and Atheist philosophers alike tend to use them, and it seems to me that they are not as far away from one another as they might seem. It’s my goal to examine the uses of them in either situation, and then show why it is far better to get rid of them entirely, both philosophically and theologically.
The atheistic use of counterfactuals seems to be a smaller issue, which could be simply because I tend to read more theistic, particularly Christian, authors. It seems to be the case that atheistic philosophers argue that (here using Graham Oppy as a model) that counterfactuals rule out the possibility of God for several reasons. He discusses various possibilities for the beginning of the universe, and settles on the fact that everything must have been in an original state, which he concludes would lead to a necessarily existing singularity. There is an implied use of Occam’s Razor in his argumentation in that he claims Christians are simultaneously committed to both the initial state of the universe (whatever form that might take) and to the necessary existence of God, outside that initial state. Therefore, the easier explanation would be to simply eliminate God from the equation (since 2 commitments is smaller than 1, per the Razor) and you are left with a necessarily existing initial state of the universe, which, in this case, is the singularity. I have a couple problems with this sort of argument. First, the Christian is not committed to the single state of initial existence in the same way that they are committed to the existence of a necessarily existent God. The universe is contingent upon God’s action, which is something that Oppy seems to acknowledge, but then seemingly ignores laterto prove his point. With the universe being a contingent reality, this means that we are not faced with Atheism, via the use of Occam’s Razor. Christians are committed to the initial state of contingent existence only to the extent that this existence is the only one for which we have been presented. That is to say that if God had chosen to create differently, we would be committed to that one instead of this one, because that one would be the one that exists. You could say that the commitment to the universe and the commitment to God belong to two separate classes. These two classes overlap (so this is not like Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA) in the sense that belief in God will determine how one acts in their life in this contingent reality, and the existence of this particular reality naturally brings about philosophical inquiry into the nature of God. The second problem I have with this particular stream of argumentation is the idea that using Occam’s Razor (falsely, as discussed above) ultimately has to lead to the idea that there must have simply been a necessarily existing single state singularity. Oppy does recognize that claiming the mereological simplicity (all features or parts of something are necessarily existing. Look up mereological essentialism for more information.) of the singularity is a bold proposal, but this is a proposition that he would have to cling to in my opinion, since he is ruling out the existence of God. Oddly enough, as he describes this initial state singularity, he could very well be describing God, or at least the god of Deism, in the sense that it is necessarily existing, and is mereologically simple, so that all that exists now had to have been “just right” in the initial state for this to work. Note how all discussion of counterfactuals has been conveniently left out of this discussion of his “god of physics” you could call it, so that there seems to be no other option other than naturalism. He does use counterfactuals, at least implicitly, when dealing with the traditional God of Theism (or Christianity, more specifically). Here the argument is quite similar to what many Christians use counterfactuals for in dealing with certain aspects of God they don’t like, which will be discussed in more detail later. The points of similarity deal with the fact that God actuated this particular universe, even though He had knowledge of an presumably infinite number of alternatives which would have been better than this one. Oppy argues that the theory of absolute (metaphysical) necessity begins from the claim that all possible worlds share the same laws and an initial segment of this history of the actual world (as a sort of web, I would suppose) and this points to Naturalism more than it does to Theism. I assume he makes this assertion based in relation to the problem of evil to some extent. What I mean is that, if all possible worlds (note the counterfactual language) share in the laws and a portion of the history of our world, then the evil we observe is not so large as we assume, or is somehow necessary or is illusory…depending on which route he would chose to go with that. He doesn’t explain his theory of counterfactual “webbing” we’ll call it (haha) or give evidence for it, but merely asserts it. I think this is a cop out because it doesn’t actually deal with the problem of evil in any significant way, and even worse than that it simply makes the problem of evil larger because instead of having to account for the evil present in this world, it now means that you have to account for the evil present in all possible worlds, which could be exponentially greater than what we currently see or experience in this world. Also, this begs the question of the existence of this initial state singularity in the sense of its relation to this supposed counterfactual multiverse (a number of questions could be brought up here). It seems to me that in arguing his theory to be the simpler explanation, it turns out to be more complex than the Christian explanation to an incredible degree.
When Christians use counterfactuals, they are not used to eliminate the possibility of God, but instead to limit or remove a certain aspect of God as described in the Bible. Generally, this is appealed to in relation to something called God’s Middle Knowledge, which is a theory that you won’t find to be grounded in the Bible itself. Classically, it has been understood that God has Natural knowledge and Free knowledge. Natural knowledge is, esssentially, everything that could happen (This is prior to His decree) while Free knowledge is everything that will happen in the actual world (This is after His decree). Middle knowledge is supposedly a sort of halfway point between the two classical types of knowledge, and is placed (in the order proposed above so far) after God’s Natural knowledge (still prior to the decree) and before God’s Free knowledge; essentially, this is all that “would” happen. This is a very confusing view with several problems. (For a more thorough discussion, see here) On a very basic level, it seems to be a rather unnecessary category of knowledge. If the process is, as has been classically understood, 1) God having knowledge of all possibilities, 2) God decrees what will happen, 3) God has knowledge of what actually happens in the world; then why would there be any need for what hypothetically would happen before God decrees things to happen? The issue boils down to this: a fundamental desire on the part of the individual man to steal power away from God. The reason I say this is because this assertion of middle knowledge becomes necessary when your theology has to be constrained to allow for a dogmatic assertion of free will, that is, libertarian free will. This limits the sovereignty of God, or more accurately, it tries to wrest sovereignty away from Him and place at least some of it in the hands of men. This view is advanced by Molinists (so named after Alfred Molina, the philosopher/theologian who originally came up with this idea) and also by Arminians (the two groups are one in the same fundamentally, it’s just that molinists are more philosophically aware of their position).
The relation of Middle Knowledge and free will is this, nowhere in the Bible will you find support for the Middle Knowledge position, so it has to be based on the dogmatic assertion that human beings must have free will. In order for this to work, and still at lest pay lip service to the sovereignty of God, you have to say that God knows what would happen (Middle Knowledge) and then makes a choice based on this on what He will actuate. However, the question then arises (and I have never received a good answer to this) of how it is that God acquires this Middle Knowledge. It seems to me that there are only two possible answers to the question of how God knows what we are going to do and what will happen: either He decrees it to be so, or He “looks down the corridors of time” and sees what all the possibilities are for what actions “His free creatures” will do, and then decides to actuate the “best” of these possibilities. In other words, on the Middle Knowledge view, His knowledge comes from our actions. This is how Molinists can mask their dogmatic assertion of free will with a veneer of sovereignty.
With the groundwork of Middle Knowledge and libertarian free will set, we can now proceed into how counterfactuals are used. Using Timothy O’Connor as a model, counterfactuals must exist for a few different reasons. He claims that if God is the being responsible for creation, then there are two possibilities. Either there are an infinite number of universes, or you would have to reconcile the fact that a perfect being (God) chose to actuate the current universe over other possible universes, all (or some) of which are better than the current one to “an arbitrarily large extent”. O’Connor acknowledges that this view has, by default, thrown his hat into the ring for the problem of evil situation. The idea of there being an infinite number of universes in relation to the problem of evil is, in fact, no different from the atheistic use of it as described above, and the same problems apply to it. For the Christian, this has the added difficulty of the fact that by saying that there are an infinite number of universes necessarily in existence, you have just given one of the attributes of God to a finite creation. How could it be possible that there would be an infinite number of universes if God had to at some point create them? I see two possibilities here, one is that God is diminished somehow, either in his infinitude or his omnipotence, or the number of universes cannot possibly be infinite. Ironically, William Lane Craig (an ardent supporter of Molinism) helps to clarify this when he argues against a naturalistic assertion that the universe is eternal. He states that if the universe is eternal (note that this includes time and space), then it is impossible that this present state of reality could have never arrived, since it is impossible to traverse an infinite. The other way he argues this is to point out that there cannot be an infinite amount of past events. In other words, if time is eternal, then there is no end to the “back then” side of it, and if there is no end to that, then this current time could have never arrived because we would be constantly “back there” (confusing eh?). I see this as essentially the same problem for the necessary existence of the infinite number of universes that O’Connor proposes. It seems logically impossible for an infinite number of things to have been created, because if it has been created, then it has had a beginning, and therefore not infinite. The best you could possibly say is that it had an initial creation and is now expanding/bubbling (whichever multiverse theory you prefer) towards the limit of infinity. However, even this scenario necessitates the finitude nature of the universe/multiverse. In other words, either God is not infinite or the universe is not (or the multiverse is not infinite in number). The problem of O’Connor’s necessary infinitude of universes gets a bit deeper because he claims that without them, we would have to account for the fact that God chose to not actuate world which are better than this one to an arbitrarily large extent. The question this raises is what standard or scale is being used to judge the relative “goodness” of one world against another? Perhaps this would be the number of souls that are saved (in the free will-based Arminian/Molinist sense), or some sort of quantitative/qualitative scale of suffering/evil where less evil means there is more good, and therefore the overall “goodness” of the world will go up. O’Connor doesn’t provide any justification or standards for these assertions, so this is a problem that goes unanswered, and one (among the others) which I feel discounts that view as well.
Some philosophers (I’m not sure if O’Connor is in this camp) have suggested that it is impossible for God to have created a world in which there was no suffering or evil. This is an interesting proposal that reminds me of the conversation Agent Smith has with Morpheus in The Matrix “I believe that human beings define their existence through suffering”. The problem with this view is the fact that it has once again stolen an attribute from God, namely, his omnipotence. The only reason I can see for positing such an idea would be the often heard objection that if God created a world that was perfect, that is, one that would include no suffering and no evil, and therefore would also include the fact that everyone do as God wanted, then that would turn us all into robots! After all, it can’t be true love or true obedience if everything is perfect and we have do as God commands, right? Note that this is simply another way to say something like “No! We have free will! God isn’t in complete control! We have power over God!”
The problems with the dogmatic assertion of libertarian free will, Middle Knowledge, and counterfactuals used to support such are many. In all cases, regardless of the formulation, it destroys one or more of the attributes of God (omnipotence, omnipresence, infinitude etc.) and it also, therefore, destroys the fact that God is self-existent. This means that, following Aquinas, we say that God is pure actuality, that is, that, there is no potentiality, God is not potentially anything, He simply is. Therefore, if the Middle Knowledge view is taken seriously, this means that God has to acquire knowledge from creatures which have libertarian free will. If this is true, then the traditional, following Aquinas again, understanding of God’s being simple would collapse, as it would mean that God does not have all knowledge within Himself, but instead has to get it from another source. Most importantly, these concepts are unbiblical, and for the Christian, this is simply unacceptable. If we are to claim the truth of Sola Scriptura, then we must deal with what the Bible says about these issues, and not try to avoid or twist certain things to make them say something which they do not. Philosophical schema do not, and indeed cannot, trump Scripture, regardless of how much we would like them to.
I mentioned above that these attempts are made to wrest sovereignty away from God and to place it, at least partially, in the hands of men, and this is a consequence of the fall. It is “natural” to want to be in control of our own lives, and to rebel against authority of any kind, particularly divine authority. However, it is vital to return to Scripture to see exactly what it says about the issue of the sovereignty of God. There are usually two points of contention people have with the teachings of Scripture, which can conveniently be summarized in two of the Five Points of Calvinism: that is, Total Depravity and Unconditional Election. The first of these points, I have written about here and the second I will discuss briefly in the remainder of this essay. I believe the more dogmatic assertion of free will comes from a fundamental denial of the sovereignty of God in His chosen method of election to salvation. We tend to view this as “not nice” or “not something which should be done” and this, of course, begs the question as to which standard we are using to judge the actions of God. Scripture teaches that God’s election is unconditional (Romans 9:16,11; 2 Timothy 1:9; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:1-2) , it is made from eternity past (Ephesians 1:4; Revelation 13:8, 17:8; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Ephesians 1:11; 2 Timothy 1:9) , it is made from the council of God’s will (Ephesians 1:11), and that it is done to, and for, the glory of God (Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14; Romans 9:17-23). For a more thorough discussion of this, see Sam Storm’s many articles on the subject, found here.
What I am proposing is not a complete abandonment of the use of counterfactuals, though I do feel that their uses are so few that if we did away with them completely, we would not lose much (though that may also show my relative ignorance of the subject). I would say that if counterfactuals are going to be used, then they need to be used in such a way as to apply them to all points of view, not just ones that support your own position and discredit a position you don’t agree with. For the Atheist, this means a serious look at the problem of evil and at the question of origins and existence and the claims of Christianity. For the Christian, this opens the door on several difficult questions, but it also places the focus properly on what Scripture actually teaches and on the sovereignty of God, for whom all glory and honor are due, Amen.