The Sentence “God exists” – Part 5

In Part II of The Coherence of Theism (revised edition,1993), Richard Swinburne discusses the idea of a “contingent God”. The first chapter in Part II, is Chapter 7, “An Omnipresent Spirit”,which focuses on the following sentence:

(3) An omnipresent spirit exists.

This sentence involves two key attributes that Swinburne uses to define “God” (or “divine being”, which is a category of beings to which God belongs). In Chapter 7, Swinburne “considers what it means and whether it is coherent to suppose that there exists an omnipresent spirit.” He is not concerned here with the question of whether (3) is true or probable.

Swinburne first clarifies the meaning of (3) on pages 101-106, and then briefly makes a positive case for the coherence of (3) on page 107. The bulk of the chapter is then devoted to answering a key objection on pages 108-128.

His initial clarification of (3) is brief:

By a ‘spirit’ is understood a person without a body, a non-embodied person. By ‘omnipresent’ is meant ‘everywhere present’. That God is a person, yet one without a body, seems the most elementary claim of theism. (COT, p. 101)

So, the question at issue becomes: Is it “coherent to suppose there exists a person without a body who is present everywhere”? (COT, p.102)

Swinburne then answers three questions of clarification:

  • What is a ‘person’?
  • What does it mean to say that some person is ‘without a body’ (in this context, where God is the topic)?
  • What does it mean to say that some person is ‘everywhere present’ (in this context, where God is the topic)?

P.F. Strawson analyzed the concept of ‘person’ in terms of a distinction between M-predicates (such as: ‘weighs ten pounds’, ‘is six foot tall’, ‘consists largely of water’) and P-predicates (such as: ‘is smiling’, ‘is going for a walk’, ‘is in pain’, ‘is thinking hard’). The point of the P-predicates, according to Swinburne, is that persons, “unlike tables and chairs, are from time to time conscious.” (COT, p.102).

Swinburne agrees with an objection that was raised to Strawson’s analysis, which is that “…many P-predicates…can be ascribed to dogs and cats and monkeys, and we would not normally wish to say that these were persons.” (COT, p.102). So, the applicability of P-predicates is insufficient to show that something is a person.

Additional criteria for being a ‘person’ are suggested by Swinburne. In addition to being conscious from time to time, persons…

  • use language to communicate
  • use language for private thought
  • use language to argue and put forward objections
  • have second-order wants (they can want not to have certain wants or aversions)
  • can form and state theories about things beyond observation (e.g. electrons)
  • can form moral judgements

According to Swinburne,
If a thing is characterizable by all of the above predicates then it is a person, and if it is characterizable by none it is not. (COT, p.103)
He allows that there could be border-line cases where something is characterizable by some of these predicates but not by all of them.
I think it is worth noting that, based on these criteria, an unborn fetus would not count as a person. Swinburne does not mention this implication, but it is one that conservative Christians should be aware of before they buy into Swinburne’s line of argument here.
To be continued…