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.