Case For Atheism: Incompatibility of Bodiless Person?


Theodore M. Drange presented, in  the Society of Humanist Philosophers published journal of Philosophy Philo,  10 incompatible properties arguments against the existence of God.  In this article I explored his 7th argument, namely the incompatibility of a nonphysical person.

Drange outlined “The Nonphysical-vs.-Personal Argument” as follows:

1. If God exists, then he is nonphysical.
2. If God exists, then he is a person (or a personal being).
3. A person (or personal being) needs to be physical.
4. Hence, it is impossible for God to exist (from 1-3).(Drange 1998: url)

Since Judeo-Christians agrees with the truthfulness of Drange’s premise 1 & 2, if premise 3 is also true, then I believe theists are forced to the conclusion that a God, who is  nonphysical  and person, does not exist.

Drange quoted Kai Nielsen as championing premise 3,  namely, “we have no understanding of ‘a person’ without ‘a body’ and it is only persons that in the last analysis can act or do things.”(Nielsen 1983: 36). Drange faithfully pointed out J. L. Mackie who disagree on their conclusion. Mackie found the idea of nonphysical person consistent and coherent.

Expounding Drange’s case, Neilsen argued that a person without a body is an incoherent idea. He wrote,

God is said to be a person and to be a spirit without a body – another contradiciton, for a “bodiless person” is a contradiction in terms. Some have thought this is too quick a way with dissenters. These considerations indeed can’t be decisive or clinching arguments for nothing can be.(Nielsen 2005: 24)

Theists would concur with Drange and Nielsen, I believe, that this argument is valid. “But” asked Nielsen, “ is it a sound one? Are all the premises true?” Nielsen recognized that not only theists would disagree with the truthfulness of premise 3 but also  “an astute fellow atheist as J. L. Mackie does not.”(ibid)

Mackie rejected the idea that the notion of bodiless person is inconsistent and incoherent. He explained,

Although all the persons we are acquainted with have bodies, there is no great difficulty in conceiving what it would be for there to be a person without a body: for example, one can imagine oneself surviving without a body, and while at present one can act and produce results only by using one’s limbs or one’s speech organs, one can imagine having one’s intentions fulfilled directly, without such physical means. Knowing what it is to be present in one place, we can form the concept of a spirit who is present everywhere. (Mackie 1982: 1-2)

Is Nielsen and Drange correct in holding that a person (or personal being) needs to be physical? I think they are not. They failure to distinguish between common properties and essential properties of personhood is to be blamed.

Responding to a similar assertion, William Lane Craig correctly observed that:

The fallacy of this reasoning is that it conflates common properties of persons with essential properties of persons. The sorts of activities delineated above are certainly common properties of temporal persons. But that does not imply that such properties are essential to personhood. Arguably, what is necessary and sufficient for personhood is self-consciousness and free volition, and these are not inherently temporal.(Craig 2006: 125)

The need to be physical is a common property of a person but not an essential property. If this is true, then we should not only agree with Drange’s own observation of his own case that  “the nonphysical-vs.-Personal argument” should “not be regarded to be among the most forceful of the various atheological arguments available”, but jettison it altogether.

Question: What reasons would you give for or against the notion of bodiless person?


Drange, Theodore M.(1998) “Incompatible-Properties Arguments: A Survey”.  Philo, Vol. 1.2: 49-60

Craig, William Lane (2006)Contemporary cosmology and the existence of God” in Analytic Philosophy Without Naturalism ed. Antonella Corradini, Sergio Galvan and E. Jonathan Lowe. Routledge.

Mackie, J. L. (1982) The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the existence of God. Oxford University Press.

Nielsen, Kai (1982) An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. New York: St. Martin’s PressCited (As cited in Drange’s essay)

______________ (2005) Atheism And Philosophy. Prometheus Books.


29 thoughts on “Case For Atheism: Incompatibility of Bodiless Person?

  1. Pingback: The “bodiless persons are impossible” argument against theism « Theo-sophical Ruminations

  2. Hello Prayson.

    You asked how do I define personhood. Now, as you propably know there are several different definitions of personhood, and no consensus prevails on this matter. To me personhood is an ambigius term and it depends on the situation what is meant by it. Sometimes it is defined in specieistic terms, but the classical term refers to an agent who possesses continuous consciousness over time; and (2) who is therefore capable of framing representations about the world, formulating plans and acting on them.

    In legal issues this term is usually differently defined, because of historical reasons and refers excusively to humans. However, the law changes over time as the concept of morals evolves. As it has changed from times when slavery was percieved legal and moral, or from times when women had virtually no rights as legal persons. We no longer see the that the homosexuals are deserving of stoning to death, no matter what an alledged divine command from a god tells about this.These changes are results of us as societies aquiring more and better information and putting it to use in ethical thinking.

    Critique has been presented to the classical naturalistic definition, because it is not excluding animals, or machines. I see this as a bit of mixup between the legal terminology and the scientific terminology. In future as our understanding grows, we may come to change the legal concept, though. I see that this is more propable even than, that the classical concept would be radically changed. You see, we are allready becoming more and more aware of the fact that dolphins and whales are neurally as capabable as we are and sometmes even more so. And we are developing the AI at a high pace. It is possible that we will eventually develope a machine capabable of having all the properties fitting in any definition of personhood we could bestow on a human being. In that sense a perfect personhood could exist in the electrical impulses simulating the neural impulses we humans and most animals have. Yes?

    Have you seen the Star Wars movies? In them are robots that present personhood in every observable aspect similar to that of human beings. Yet these machines are treated like slaves by both the good guys and the bad guys. Billions of viewers have seen those films and not presented any public outcry, or disgust at the fact. However, when the film I Robot came out most people who saw it could easily see the “racist” attitudes presented towards robots and be disgussed of such, and the entire plot was build around the robots self awareness being the base for their individual rights as persons. These are just fictional stories, but they tell tale how our social morals is allready under change in this issue. 😉 There is pressure for a change in morals even before we actually have developed an AI capable of simulating or producing human like emotions, or reasoning.

    And before you blame me of relativism, I must say that the natural ethics have not changed, only the social morals. For example, humans were perfectly capable of forming ethical views even when social morals justified slavery. They were less informed about a great many things, but they certainly knew their slaves would rather have been free. Because as mammals our sense of empathy is very strongly based and it is included in our reasoning, unless we as individuals suffer from psychopathy. Correct?

    Happy new year,

  3. Hello again Prayson.

    I am sorry you didn’t get it. I try to summarize. The metaphysical position is extraordinary because it is not a natural part of our experiences.

    Just about any claim needs to be verified on some level.

    If I say, that I went to see a dentist yesterday, it is a plausible enough claim as long as you think, that I am a human and you are aware, that humans very often have teeth, and it is a logical conclusion, that it is possible, that I actually did as I said. That sort of thing happens in the natural world. That much is within plausibility, but you have no such information as to estimate wether the claim is actually true, or not. Do you? If I then asserted, that I have metaphysical powers, that enable me to levitate to the dentist, would you be inclined to believe me just because you accept the possibility of metaphysical. For you to take my claim at face value, you would require further evidence, and verification. Correct? Dispite the fact, that levitation is a well known concept, we do think it is an extraordinary claim to be able to levitate. It is just the same with the person outside the physical brain. As long as observations of such remain on anecdotal level of folklore, any such claim requires a scientific verification. Yes?

    Such a claim, that a person outside the physical body contradicts our modern scientific understanding of how a person is formed and functions within the brain and neural system. At the very least it is adding to that information. No phenomenon integral to these research results, that concluded this to be so, begs no further explanation. The existance of a person within a physical brain is sufficient to explain any person we ever encounter. Any claim contradicting scientific information, or adding to it, needs a scientific verification. Yes? As long as it has not been verified scientifically, it is just as good as guessing. Guessing may sometimes produce correct answers, especially if the guesser has some good information about the subject, but before we accept any guesses as truths, we usually expect them to be verified. The wilder the claim in respect to actual information, such as scientific research, the more it begs for verification. Correct?

    Do you see what I mean?

    • Hej rautakyy,

      I do see what you mean but I was trying to show you that your claim that bodiless person as is an extraordinary because it is not a natural part of our experiences, is in itself another metaphysical position, that needs to be proved.

      How is the claim that a person outside the physical body contradicts our modern scientific understanding of how a person is formed and functions within the brain and neural system? I hope you are not confusing “human being” with personhood rautakky.


      • Hej again Prayson.

        By no means do I confuse such concepts. Where did you get that? Personhood is not limited to human beings. Most advanced animals also present different levels of evident personhood in their behaviour. Natural selection of evolution favours in many cases the more complex neural capacity since it enables a more complex personhood to make more complex conclusions of the environment and the behaviour of other individual beings. The “design” is not flawless however, as you would expect from the indifferent survival of the fittest. It bears the burden, that the more complex the neural system gets, the more false positives (i.e. superstitions) we are able to produce in our minds.The complexity of the personhood is entirely dependant on the physiological capacity of the brain. There, my position proven, though I do not accept that it is a metaphysical position as such. It is merely a position towards what is observable and natural and one reason for my rejection of any metaphysical position. Do you see the difference? 😉

        Best regards,

  4. This argument for atheism is weak. It simply begs the question in favor of materialism and atheism. It merely assumes that minds/persons are reducible to brains; that we have no immaterial mind that is capable of existing apart from our bodies. No reason is given for thinking that a mind/person needs a body other than the fact that we are not familiar with it. That’s a very poor reason. As you and WLC pointed out, they are confusing common properties with essential properties.

    They need to prove that an unembodied person is logically incoherent, which they have not done. Instead, they have offered an inductive argument based on familiarity. Such arguments are much weaker than deductive arguments. It could always be the case that we are simply ignorant of an unembodied person. To present a strong argument against theism, they need a deductive argument that proves an unembodied person is impossible, and thus the very concept of God is incoherent. They haven’t done so.

    While the notion of an unembodied person may be unfamiliar to us, it’s a mistake to confuse familiarity with plausibility. A person raised in the remote parts of the jungle has never seen ice, but his lack of familiarity with ice does not mean the existence of ice is implausible. Neither would it constitute good grounds on which for him to reject evidence being presented to him that ice exists. Likewise, just because we are not personally acquainted with the idea of an unembodied mind does not mean an unembodied mind does not, or cannot exist.

    I would argue that the kalam argument actually provides us with a good reason for believing in the existence of at least one unembodied mind/person. One arrives at that conclusion by logical deduction and logical inference. So unless the atheist can provide a deductive argument to demonstrate that the concept of a disembodies mind/person is logically incoherent, or give us reason to believe that it is more plausible to believe the universe is uncaused, caused by abstract objects, or some other heretofore-unknown-entity, then we are rationally justified in believing not only that an unembodied mind is plausible, but actual. Such an argument trumps any “familiarity argument” offered by the atheist.

    I think near death experiences involving remote viewing (cases in which people who are clinically dead are able to view things outside of their body that they would be incapable of viewing in their body) also argue strongly for the notion that minds are immaterial, and not dependent on a body. So while the atheist can only rely on inductive arguments that mistake common properties for essential properties, we have two good reasons to believe that unembodied minds are both possible and real.

    • Thank you Jason.

      You are very correct and I am honor to have your input,Jason, on this topic.

      I read your article “Not So Fast: There is no Presumption of Atheism”. Is it possible to have permission to repost it here with proper credit to you Jason?


    • @jasondoulle, the inhabitant of the remote parts of jungle in your analogy has never seen a person fly without propulsion, or wings, but should he just accept, that it is plausible, if someone suggested him there are men who can do so? His cultural heritage might have several stories of people levitating, as those are not rare, noy because people actually levitate a lot, but simply because people are able to, and do imagine a lot of fictional stuff, but should he remain unconvinced about such a story until he actually had some hard evidence, that it is in fact possible? Or should he take any such imaginary suggestions at face value? What kind of argument should he present against the plausibility of men flying without propulsion or wings, other than that it is against his experience of the world, or the logic of nothing actually ever flying without some sort of propulsion, before he had the right to disbelieve such a claim? To convince him that there actually is ice does not require complex mind games, and it is hard to even imagine what kind of philosophical argument could convince him of the existance of ice before he actually had some hard evidence about it? I think he has every right to disbelieve the existance of ice before first hand experience, and would you not say, it would be quite unethical to punish him for not believing in ice, or even to threaten him on the possibility of punishment, if he does not find the notion of ice plausible, since he has no experience of ice?

      I am not going to go into the problems of the assumed premises for The Kalam cosmological argument or the most known arguments against it, as you are (I hope) aware of those. However, I would like to ask you, if you have ever considered, that it does by no means support the idea of any particular religion, or a god? We simply do not know what that cause could have been. To me it seems like quite a leap of faith to jump into the conclusion that even if the Kalam argument premises were true, the cause should be defined as something as andropocentric as gods described by human cultures. Is it not the ultimate appeal to ignorance, that since we possibly can not know what the cause might have been, it must be a personified god as our cultural heritage from times beyond any actual human understanding (other than metaphorical gibberish) of how nature really works, claims it is such an entity?

      What in the NDEs suggests to you, that these experiences are infact any sort of evidence for an immaterial personhood existing outside the flesh and synapses of the brain and neural system? To me they seem very much like what we could expect from brainfunctions under stress.

    • “simply ignorant of an unembodied person”

      Hi Jason… have you any evidence at all of such a thing? Has there been even a tease or a faint whiff of such a thing discovered anywhere, at any time? Seems you’re just speaking from a terribly fragile of position of “wishing it to be true.” Children do that with Santa Claus. Adults do it with their gods. Same game. Same motivations.

  5. As an atheist, I would say that this particular argument is not a very strong case for the absolute claim of nonexistance of a god, but it is still a valid point for disbelief. Do you see the difference?

    It does not absolutely rule out the possibility of a god, but it certainly begs the question, why should one believe in such an extraordinary suggestion as a person without a physical form? The mere fact that there are a lot of people who can imagine a god, or a spirit does not make such claims any less extraordinary when faced with the reality where all ever encountered persons have a physical existance. Especially since we today do know much about how a personhood is formed and how it actually works within the physical form through neural synapses and even why.

    It is a bit like when you dream to fly. I at least have seen dreams in wich I could fly without any artificial wings, or engines. As if I had invisible wings, or as if I did not feel the gravity pull me down. Such dreams have felt (like dreams often are) very real sensations. Even when I am awake, I can easily imagine myself flying with no wings at all, and propably a great many people can, but were I to suggest, I can fly withoug wings, or propulsion, you propably (and hopefully) would not find this plausible. Why? Because it is a very extraordinary claim and against what our experience tells us about flying. Yet, there are plenty of folklore, that tells us stories of levitation and other similar flying. Like Santa, for example. 😉

    • I hope you never get the inclination to Kill Me rautakyy. The faithless, principleless, organic maelstrom of vanity and chance encounters of perception somehow coagulated into an organic experience of reality means that the standard by which we derive life being of ANY value at all, is extirpated to give support for the absense of the Spirit, which is the fundamental source of ALL THINGS as God is Spirit. ANY mention of a STANDARD by which life is approached which gives assent to another impetus than physiological advantage from a certain course of life’s expression, gives rise to the presense of an impetus other than physiology and the maximization of one’s resources and advantages…..SPIRIT. Yet I see men who disclaim the very Faith which they utilize to endeavor to hope for a day occurring instead of a night at the specified time or this remaining a planet instead of a star or my wife remaining in the form of a woman with the concomitant memories of a lifetime and does not morph into a male wildebeast with only instinct. These men walk and talk, and with disdain, cast derision on the very God they rise each day with Faithful reliance on Him for the consistency, over time, in the atomic structure of the air not to flux into a liquid state and are blissfully ignorant that for information to remain constant across time, an entire universe must function in a preconceived and maintained paradigm, that the information be just that and not merely sound or marks on a page which have no meaning, one segment of chaos to the next. Have you ever heard of the Colossians Force? Well there is SOMETHING holding the nucleus of an atom together against all laws of electromagnetism as positively charged protons congregate in intimate quarters without casting each other in repulsion, far and wide. I give you the reason why, from a Source long before man self congratulated himself in the great advances in knowledge* (*also revealed about these times in the same Source) of today which allotted a micro view of things…. Here we listen to Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit and speaking of the Christ prior to His incarnation unto now as He is on the Heavenly Throne…Colossians 1:16-17 (NASB) 16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him ALL THINGS HOLD TOGETHER.

      *Daniel 12:4 (NASB) 4 “But as for you, Daniel, conceal these words and seal up the book until the end of time; many will go back and forth, and KNOWLEDGE WILL INCREASE.”

      Blind Faith, which is what I speak of in the spiritually dead above, is NOT what God offers as He gives Life to the Elect, but Faith which is the first glances through the brand new senses Living, Spiritual Faith of a new born Life. You hate God rautakyy, because THAT is your nature…you are what I once was with a passion unto the fulfillment at ALL COSTS, of my desire for Power, Pride and Pleasure to assuage the FEAR of not having my Ultimate Need which rises in all eternal beings, met by Intimate and Loving Relationship with the ONLY ONE who is Ultimate AND SELF EXISTENT…..a Source without a source…God Almighty, El Shaddai. I could NOT relate to Light as Darkness, I had to be made Light…..
      Romans 8:6-8 (NASB) 6 For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

      • Umm… OK, you convinced me. Personally, I simply hope that nobody ever gets the inclination to kill either of us. Regardless of their position on the existance of god(s), or spirits.

    • Hej rautakyy,

      Thank you for your comment. I think from a naturalist worldview it seems its an extraordinary suggestion to think of a person without a physical form, but for non-naturalist, it is ordinary. What is extraordinary to an atheist might not also be extraordinary to a theist and verse.

      In the article I paused a question, what reason(s) could be gave for or against bodiless person? Or it could be, from your comment, what make you think that bodiless person is an extraordinary claim?


      • Hi Prayson.

        I once had an out of body experience. It was under very high physical and emotional stress and there was nothing miraculous about it. To me it was obvious, that my subconscious formed a momentous, but seemingly very real experience of an image of me below myself where my physical body was. It did not require a spirit to leave my body, all it took was the information I had about my physical surroundings for my mind to create an image of how this would look like to me, if I actually were outside my body.

        We have actual information of how the subconscious works, though we do not know all about it, it can be conclusively said that it is much more prudent to assume such experiences happen in the physical brain, rather than that an ancient cultural explanation of the spirit would be a natural explanation of such. A natural explanation is easier to accept for me, because I have no predisposition of supernatural. What is natural we all experience all the time, but supernatural is a debatable concept. Therefore it is only natural to assume that if there are two different explanation models for events, the natural one is the more likely one. Yes?

        I can see how the supernatural cultural heritage would have explained what happened to me as metaphysical, but it is no different from supernatural cultural model to explain lightning as Thor the Thunderer throwing his divine bolts, or natural catastrophies as the wrath of god(s). Before people knew about neural synapses, subconscious brain activity, electricity, or tectonic movement, they were bound to come up with explanations and that is how all the gods, spirits, ghosts and such metaphysical ideas were born. That explains their cultural diversity. While their similarity is explained by our common physiological and psychological traits. That is also what makes the metaphysical view a bit obsolete.

        A bodiless person is an extraordinary claim untill it can actually be verified by some form of scientific research. Because science, dispite all its failures (or should I say as a direct result of them, as it is a self correcting system), has proven it is the best possible method we have to study reality and come to any realiable conclusions on anything. The best effort to get as close to any objective truth, with minimized cultural bias. Correct?

        Yours with respect,

        • Thank you for sharing your experience rautakyy.

          rautakyy, your observation that a bodiless person is an extraordinary claim until it can actually be verified by some form of scientific research because science is the best possible method we have to study reality and come to any reliable conclusions on anything, is a metaphysical position, not scientifically verified.

          So I think your answer’s assumption has a point to be proved. How is bodiless person an extraordinary claim until scientifically verified?

  6. Something to consider, leaving out what the Bible says about our Spirit, is Science…

    The Scientific community is on the fence when it comes to any Paranormal object, be it a ghost or otherwise. However, where once it was considered “fringe science”, the serious investigation of Paranormal activity is now being pursued by many top Universities and Colleges, using scientific methodology and equipment. As we learn more, and more people with scientific backgrounds become involved, more theories on how ghosts manifest or where they exist will be proposed. Remember that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity postulates an infinite number of alternate realities and many other things that most people don’t believe in either – but are universally accepted by the scientific community, largely in part because many elements of his theory have been proven to be correct by scientific experiment.

    Bodiless persons, Spirits and Ghosts ???
    Philosophers and witnesses put forth these ideas for scientists to prove or disprove.

    We often consider ourselves smarter than we really are, and science, though often right, isn’t always correct by a long-shot. In the end, seeing is believing, and for anyone who has ever been affected by or witnessed any type of entity or, be it active or residual (a “recording” of an event that repeats and cannot interact with the viewer), there is no question of their existence.

    I see #3 “A person (or personal being) needs to be physical.” takes us beyond our current understanding and shows a pompous attitude. Are we really that smart, right now, to make that assumption about GOD?

    • Morning Roy… care to cite some examples of science pursuing paranormal investigation, or are you just making this up to satisfy the argument you want to fashion?

  7. In keeping with this quote All the proofs of God’s existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists. In short, to show that the proofs do not work is not enough by itself. It may still be the case that God exists. what kind of god can we reasonably suppose exist?

    • Proofs are Proofs M. I agree.

      If God truly exists, then we are dealing with a factual proposition, and what we really want when we ask for proof of a factual proposition is not a demonstration of its logical impossibility but a degree of evidence that will exclude reasonable doubt. Something can be so probable that it excludes reasonable doubt without being deductive or analytical or demonstrative or logically inevitable. I feel that the theistic proofs, excluding the ontological argument, fall into this category.

      Natural theology, however, can never establish the existence of the biblical God. These proofs may make one a deist, but only revelation will make one a Christian. Reason operating without revelation always turns up with a deity different from Yahweh, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

      Paul seems to demand a high view of the theistic proofs when he says that the unbelievers are “without excuse.” “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19 – 20).

      Paul was not necessarily affirming that the arguments are deductive, analytical, or demonstrative. If someone rejected a proposition of high probability, we could still say that he was “without excuse.” The arguments, in their cumulative effect, make a very strong case for the existence of God, but they are not logically inexorable or rationally inevitable. If we define proof as probable occurrence based on empirically produced experiences and subject to the test of reasonable judgment, then we can say the arguments prove the existence of God.

  8. It really is sad that the only dimension the atheist sees is physical. Through acceptance of
    God’s reality by faith, I find Him embodied in scriptures, see His handiwork in lives changed. I can see giving my existence to prove His existence, but not giving my life to proving anything does not exist. I would think it such a waste to give life to disproving Santa. To explain God seems futile. To give my personal testimony of what He has done for me, brings spiritual experience into physical world, and causes the indwelling Spirit of God to reach out to those I share that with. God cannot be comprehended with rational human thought, Is.55. Even Buddha said, “if I comprehend my god, he ceases to be god.”

  9. I know a good many intelligent atheists. Every once in a while I’m reminded that there are truly silly arguments that get made in favor of the proposition that God does not exist. This isn’t even slightly plausible. Good solid argument on your end though.

    • Thanks Derek.

      I keep reading both classical atheists and brilliant contemporary atheists philosophers like Martin, Nielsen, Mackie, Ruse, Nagel, Monton, Tooley et cetera hoping to find a solid sound case for atheism but I yet to find one 😦

      As atheist Kai Nielsen in Reason and Practice, published by New York: Harper & Row(1971), observed: “All the proofs of God’s existence may fail, but it still may be the case that God exists. In short, to show that the proofs do not work is not enough by itself. It may still be the case that God exists.” (143-4) I wish atheists would at least have a sound case for believing that God does not exist(Or reason(s) for lacking the belief in God).

      I will keep looking, since I enjoying reading and evaluating worldviews opposite to me.


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