Monday, March 17, 2008

A Molinist theodicy for infant death

I was reading St. Gregory of Nyssa's "On Infant's Early Deaths". There, St. Gregory provides a two-fold theodicy for early deaths of infants. Those early deaths that are by the hand of man will have the evildoer be punished by God. (It is not clear how much this is a theodicy, unless one sees punishment as a good—as strands in the Christian tradition do.) More interesting is St. Gregory's somewhat tentative hypothesis as to natural deaths of infants. He says that

it is reasonable ... to expect that He Who knows the future equally with the past should check the advance of an infant to complete maturity, in order that the evil may not be developed which His foreknowledge has detected in his future life, and in order that a lifetime granted to one whose evil dispositions will be lifelong may not become the actual material for his vice.

While St. Gregory does not expressly distinguish between middle knowledge and foreknowledge, the idea, which he expands on, is clear: God can see that some infants if left alive would become great evildoers, and so he ensures that they do not survive to become such evildoers. St. Gregory's analogy to a host at a banquet knowing the "peculiarities of constitution" of the guests, as well as above his mention of "evil dispositions" apparently in the infant does suggest that this isn't all about simple foreknowledge (I doubt he intends a compatibilist reading either).

In case you're interested why God allows some evildoers to live a long sinful life while he stops some infants in light of knowing that they would become evildoers, St. Gregory says about the ones that God stops in infancy that "it is not unreasonable to conjecture that they would have plunged into a vicious life with a more desperate vehemence than any of those who have actually become notorious for their wickedness."

Molinism is useful. It's too bad that I don't think it's true.


Mike Almeida said...

Geeze, this is an awful thing for the parents of these infants to bear in mind. He died early, yes, but not to worry, he would have been very evil. It's difficult to believe that anyone would offer such speculation.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yes, that was one of my initial reactions...

Maybe it helps if we reflect that, assuming Molinism, almost surely there are circumstances C such that were we in C, we would be very evil. So, if we're not very evil, that's only by the grace of God which ensured that we're not in C.

The only difference is that for that child, living into adulthood is such a circumstance.

I am not endorsing the view. It seems somewhat improbable.

normajean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
normajean said...


You wrote: Molinism is useful. It's too bad that I don't think it's true.

Bill Craig is my hero… ergo, Molinism is true =)

Seriously though... What about Molinism doesn't seem true? I mean one needn't apply Molina’s vantage point to every conceivable circumstance


Alexander R Pruss said...

I have three main problems with Molinism.

1. It seems to violate the Principle of Alternate Possibilities.

2. The old grounding problem...

3. It seems that if there are non-trivially meaningful conditionals of free will about us, there are non-trivially meaningful conditionals of free will about God. But the latter would seem to be a problem, because (a) then God would know them and this knowledge might would endanger divine deliberation, and (b) they would seem to be a violation of God's sovereignty about himself.

normajean said...

That's interesting. Is there a specific landscape you use to reconcile the omniscience of God with human free will?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am completely untroubled by the relationship between foreknowledge and free will. God is outside of time, and even if he were in time, it wouldn't create a problem. Libertarian free will requires that the action not be determined by anything "prior" to the action. But "prior" here should not be read as temporal priority, but as explanatory priority.

Latenter said...

RE: "I am completely untroubled by the relationship between foreknowledge and free will."

I'm not sure I follow your point here. Even if God is outside time so that He can just "see" the future, wouldn't he have needed to "see" the future prior to creating the world to maintain Divine sovereignty? And to do this he either

1. Must determine the future prior to its happening (no free will); or

2. Known what the creatures would do in the circumstances prior to their doing it (Molinism).

Or, of course you could opt for:

3. Deny Divine sovereignty.

But, in any event, if you could clarify your position it would be greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...


I'm sure Alex can answer for himself. But, meantime, this from Prof. Freddoso should help you:

Alexander R Pruss said...

I am completely untroubled by the conjunction of foreknowlege and free will. The problem of sovereignty and free will is definitely more vexing. I've worked on things relevant to that problem, but have not tried to tackle the concept of sovereignty head-on. But see a post that will come up in a day or two.