Personal Theism and Contingent Persons

I sometimes hear it said that some people are ready to countenance that there exists a being which is necessary, transcends the world, and is related to the world as it’s explanation or cause, and yet for whom the suggestion that this being is ultimately personal is too much to swallow. I have previously noted that there are arguments to think that if there is such a cause of the world, then that being must be (or is much more plausibly than not) personal. Perhaps we can construct a different and additional argument to demonstrate that if Theism is true, then personal Theism is more plausibly true than impersonal Theism.

The conditional probability of their being contingent persons seems to be no greater or lesser on impersonal Theism than it would be on Naturalism. Thus Pr(CP|IT) = Pr(CP|N). Conversely we can infer that, ceteris paribus, Pr(N|CP) = Pr(IT|CP), and assuming that nothing in our background knowledge privileges either Naturalism or Impersonal Theism over one another, we can say that Pr(N|CP&BK) = Pr(IT|CP&BK). Naturalism/Impersonal-Theism gives us no more or less reason to suspect that the actual world would contain contingent persons than Impersonal-Theism/Naturalism (respectively). The rub of it is that contingent persons are surprising on a Naturalist ontology, where contingent persons are beings with intentional states, reflexive self-awareness, who inhabit first-person perspectives, have conscious experience, and introspectively apprehend themselves to be ‘free’ in some sense. On Naturalism these beings are very surprising, since if we gather up all the logically possible worlds at which Naturalism holds true, we should find that very few of them contain contingent persons (as described). Consider a thought experiment offered by John Bergsma:

“I think there is an even deeper problem with the Naturalistic, Materialist evolutionary worldview, which I will call NME,… it is that if NME is true it is unlikely and inexplicable that we would have cognitive processes at all. Restated, if NME is true we would expect a world without creatures that have mental states, however we do have a world with creatures that have mental states… Let’s engage in a mental experiment to show that this is the case. Imagine that we designed a very sophisticated mechanical robot that was able to land on other planets, locate raw materials, refine those materials, build a factory from them and proceed to build copies of itself. Suppose that we land that robot on a distant planet and let it get to work. 50 years later we return and the experiment has been successful, the planet is teeming with copies of our original robot all of them milling about in search of raw materials to make further copies of themselves. So from an evolutionary perspective these robots have been very successful; they have multiplied, exceedingly. However, would the robots have developed sentience? Would they be aware of their own existence? Would they actually think, feel, write poetry? In a science fiction movie maybe they would. But this is the real world, and we know that they would not. Although their behavior is adaptive and they have proliferated, they would not be one wit closer (pun intended) to actually having mental states… Mental states are invisible to evolution because evolution can only act on behavior; the only way mental states would become visible to evolution is if they actually effected behavior, and this is precisely the thing that most academics who hold to naturalist materialist evolution or NME vociferously deny. NME adherents generally deny that mental states have any influence on behavior because they intuitively sense that mental states are not material entities, or at the very least are difficult to analyze as material entities. Therefore, mental states fit uncomfortably into a materialist worldview and materialists want to deny the full reality of mental states.”[1]

However, arguably, contingent persons are more at home in (i.e., less surprising in) possible worlds where personal Theism is true. If God both exists and is personal then a world with contingent persons is, if not to be expected, at least not very surprising (or at least not as surprising as it would be on Naturalism). If we agree that the existence of contingent persons is relatively surprising on Naturalism (and, thus, too, on Impersonal Theism) then we can commit ourselves to: Pr(PT|CP)>>Pr(N|CP), and Pr(PT|CP)>>Pr(IT|CP).

Plausibly, if our background knowledge does nothing to privilege Naturalism over Impersonal Theism (which the Impersonal-Theist is likely to accept), then it does nothing to privilege Naturalism over Personal Theism either. Thus Pr(PT|CP&BK)>>Pr(N|CP&BK), from which it obviously also follows that Pr(PT|CP&BK)>>Pr(IT|CP&BK).

Although I can imagine a number of ways in which the indignant Naturalist might offer objections to this argument (for instance by insisting that our background knowledge really does make Naturalism more plausible than Theism), it seems to me that the Naturalist should find common cause with the (personal-) Theist in arguing that impersonal Theism does nothing to make contingent persons less surprising than they would be, or are, on Naturalism. Moreover, insofar as personal-Theism does make contingent persons less surprising than they otherwise would have been (and thus less surprising than they would have been on either Naturalism or impersonal Theism), the existence of contingent persons, combined with Theism, makes personal Theism more plausible than it otherwise would have been (and more plausible than Impersonal Theism).

Thus, we have a good argument to infer from ‘both Theism and the existence of contingent persons’ that God is personal. If somebody is willing to accept Theism, then it seems like Impersonal-Theism would be the harder pill to swallow.

Maybe this argument could have some interesting extension to pantheism. Pantheism is the view that there is no distinction between ‘God’ and ‘Everything,’ that God is nothing other than the whole of reality, and that all the parts of reality are parts of God. The term itself makes its first appearance “in the writing of the Irish freethinker John Toland (1705) and [is] constructed from the Greek roots pan (all) and theos (God).”[2] There are nuances to be attended to, such as that to which Thomas Aquinas drew his attention in distinguishing “between the doctrine that God is the form of all things (‘formal pantheism’) and the doctrine that God is the matter of all things (‘material pantheism’) (Moran 1989, 86).”[3] However, in general, Pantheism is the view that the terms ‘God’ and ‘the world’ pick out exactly the same thing. Thus Spinoza, perhaps the most famous of Western Pantheists, simply identifies ‘God’ with ‘Nature’ in his philosophical system.

I note that Pantheism is not to be confused with the increasibly popular view called Panentheism. As John Culp explains in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“Panentheism seeks to avoid either isolating God from the world as traditional theism often does or identifying God with the world as pantheism does. Traditional theistic systems emphasize the difference between God and the world while panentheism stresses God’s active presence in the world. Pantheism emphasizes God’s presence in the world but panentheism maintains the identity and significance of the non-divine.”[4]

Insofar as pantheism (as opposed to Panentheism) also maintains that God is ultimately impersonal, it becomes, pace the argumentation above, less plausible than personal Theism (whether classical monotheism, or Panentheism).

[1] Alvin Plantinga and John Bergsma “Science and Faith Conference” from the Franciscan University of Steubenville

[2] Mander, William, “Pantheism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[3] Mander, William, “Pantheism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[4] Culp, John, “Panentheism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.


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