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The Body Argument, the Problem of Evil, and Panentheism

Here’s a version of the “bodily autonomy” argument for abortion.

1. The fetus is a part of a woman’s body.
2. A woman has the right to do whatever she wants with any part of her body.
3. Therefore, a woman has the right to do whatever she wants with the fetus.

This argument is crass, but it’s fairly accurate to how we see many people arguing for abortion. For example, see this video

Another interesting fact about this argument is that it’s probably the most widely endorsed argument for abortion among internet atheists. For example, PZ Meyers endorses it here. Atheist Matt Dillahunty also uses this argument in his debates on abortion (see e.g., here). As these atheists understand the argument, it doesn’t matter whether the fetus is a human person or not, bodily autonomy trumps whatever rights the child might have. This is the strongest version of the argument, and it’s the one I’ll assume in this post.

Now, I said that it’s interesting that atheists use this argument. Why? Well, because atheists also think evil is a problem for theism. Indeed, for many atheists, it’s the primary reason they are an atheist. It seems to me that these atheists, antecedent to the argument I’ll be giving below, would endorse the claim that it is immoral or wrong for a good God to create human persons and then do an action that would result in their death simply because he chose to.

But now what about panentheism? On some versions of panentheistic metaphysics, the universe and human persons are said to be in (ontologically contained within) the being of God. Indeed, panentheists will often explain their view as being analogous to the relation between a person and her body. In any case, the distinction between God and the world is described in terms of the distinction between wholes and parts. We, us humans, are part of God, and ontologically contained within God. This is why many panentheists will cite Acts 17:28 as teaching panentheism: “In him we live and move and have our being.” Very similar things could be said of the relation between the fetus and its mother, e.g., “In her the fetus lives and moves and has its being.”

So, on this view, we can affirm:

1*. Human persons are part of God’s body.

We then apply the autonomy principle

2*. A person has the right to do whatever they want with any part of their body.

And we get the conclusion,

3*. Therefore, God has the right to do whatever he wants with human persons.

Now, just as 3 is consistent with the women being good or not blameworthy, so is 3*. There’s other relevant similarities. Just like with the body argument for abortion, the panentheistic version of the body argument is not affected by the personhood of humans. Second, in defending the body argument for abortion, atheists will deny that the fact that the mother helped (sometimes intentionally) creates the fetus is morally relevant to whether she may abort the fetus. Same with the panentheistic version. Just as we cannot tell the mother, “You shouldn’t have done something to bring about the child if you weren’t prepared to take care of it,” we can’t say that to God either. There’s actually many similarities between the two such that if they work as an argument for or defense of the body argument for abortion, they work for the panentheistic variation too. To be sure, there are some disanalogies. The world-body isn’t like the human body, for example. The question will be whether the disanalogies are morally relevant disanalogies.

So the tentative conclusion is this: the bodily autonomy argument for the permissibility of aborting human fetuses implies that a panentheistic God could “abort” (do something such that he did not have to sustain their lives, and which would bring about their death if he did it) all human persons. But we saw that atheists were antecedently committed to the falsity of this latter claim. Thus, they should reject the bodily autonomy argument for abortion since it implies a proposition they believe is false. They can, of course, claim that God’s aborting all human persons does not raise a problem of evil, but such would be ad hoc retrofitting designed to save their argument.


  1. You failed to first prove the existence of a god. The rest of your argument is moot. Without proof of a god you have nothing to say of any value. You have failed to explain why so many pregnancies abort naturally. You have failed to show why every sex act does not end in pregnancy. In fact, you’ve failed to show that you have any kind of valid point at all. If your omnipotent god wants something let him do it himself. Such a being doesn’t need you beaking off at others. Of course, if your god was real and did do it himself he would have no need of you explaining things. Instead of that we just have you making excuses for your invisible friend. Why don’t you pray to have him come explain it to everyone?

  2. Paul says:

    Probably going to regret allowing your comment, but I’m a risky guy. I’ll trust that most people can tell that 99% of your comment is irrelevant to this post. You do though seem to think that “you failed to prove God” is relevant to my post. It’s not, here’s why: If the body argument for abortion is logically *valid*, then so is the panentheistic version (assuming the terms ‘part’ and ‘body’ are relevantly similar). Now, an argument is valid just in case it is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false. That is, *if* the premises are true then the conclusion must be true as well. I claimed that atheists would antecedently have thought that 3* is *false* even *given* panentheism. Thus, the problem is with 2*, i.e., the bodily autonomy principle. But if 2* is false, so is 2—or so I suggested. There isn’t a problem arguing what follows *given* God’s existence or non-existence. Atheists will frequently argue that *if* God exists, then such and such would be the case. Yet you don’t run to their blog and complain that they haven’t proven that God *actually* exists. No, we’re reasoning counterfactully or counterpossibly (depending on what you take the modal status of God to be).

  3. There is, in my understanding, no reason to believe any god is real or extant. Given this the premise is wrong and the argument fails. I don’t argue ‘if’ god exists except to entertain the rest of an argument for the purpose of discussion. In this case the entire argument that you make is dependent on a god existing. There is no proof of such or even reason to believe such is probable. Without that there is no valid point in the rest of your argument.

    I could just as easily make an argument that starts with “If the invisible pink unicorn exists” … but that argument would be fallacious without at least some supporting evidence of credibility. That’s my point. Your conditional point makes the rest of your argument moot.

  4. Paul says:

    No, the argument I made does *not* depend on a panentheistic god existing. I explained why and you have not advanced the discussion. Indeed, I do not even think a panentheistic God exists!

    You also seem to not be very familiar with the logical concepts involved. An argument containing a false premise need not be “fallacious.” At best it will be unsound.

    But, how do we evaluate the truth of a premise? Some premises are evaluated at the actual world. That is, we go out and “look and see” if it’s true. But other premises cannot be evaluated at the actual world. For example, *counterfactual* or *counterpossible* premises. We evaluate those at nearby possible or impossible worlds (see the links below). So, you may not think God is an actually existing being. But then you think he is either a possible (just not actual) being or an impossible being. That tells you the semantics you need to use to evaluate the truth of the premise and the validity of the argument. I’m saying that in the possible or impossible world where the panentheistic god exists, atheists would have antecedently thought 3* is false. Since 1* is true in those worlds, then that leaves 2* as the false premise. Now the body autonomy principle is necessarily true if true at all, so it’s necessarily false.

  5. [Admin note: this comment was deleted due to the commenter’s inability to grasp the concepts at play and thus it was unable to advance the discussion…]

  6. Clever turn you got there. I think it’s chief vulnerability lies in the disanalogy between humans and God. We have an autonomous right to use our bodies how we like, yet we are fickle finite creatures. God may have the same right to use his “body” how he likes, but since he’s omni-[potent/scient/benevolent] he would never do such a thing and is responsible for a higher ethical standard than we are.

  7. Paul says:

    Thanks J. Right; so there’s disanalogies between the panentheistic deity and human beings. All sides agree to that. The question is whether they’re relevant disanalogies. Now, you seem to grant the crucial premises of the panentheistic version of the body argument. So it seems the conclusion goes through. You then make the claim that since the panentheistic god is all powerful, he would not in fact do that, since he’s not “fragile.” Suppose I grant that, what follows? Not much for my argument, I say. My conclusion is about what pan-god *may* do. The atheist says he “must’nt”, but body argument says he may. (Side note: what’s his goodness have to do with it? Atheists don’t think women who do what they want with their bodies are bad or evil or otherwise in the possession of a sullied character. Same for pan-god, I say.)

  8. Zslivinforgod says:

    Excellent argument. I wonder though, must one be a panentheist to run it? Are you merely trying to show its logically possible for God to be justified with doing to the world as He sees fits given bodily autonomy reasoning and panentheism is one way to reconcile that? I’m no panenthiest so I’m not sure how I could consistently run this argument although I find it fascinating.

  9. Paul says:

    Thanks. Sorry for the late reply. Yes, I’m assuming that those who use the body argument wouldn’t think God would be justified in “aborting” the people inside his body. I don’t think one need to be a panentheist to run it. Indedd, panentheism is necessarily false (well, when this is suitably defined, use the term broadly and loosely enough, you can get Christian panentheism a la Jonathan Edwards). But we can still reasoning about counterpossibles if we don’t take them to be trivially true. The atheist does this, right? They say, “If God existed, then the world would be better than it is.” They don’t need to think God exists, or even possibly exists, to reason counterpossibly.

  10. Sure both the atheist and Christian often reason counterpossibly, but I had always thought that was because they were taking up the side of their opponent to show its internal falsity. The catch being that one of the two interlocuters doesn’t think the counterpossible reasoning is false. The Atheist may reason counterpossibly for an “if God, then” argument but the Christian obviously will agree that part of it is true. My confusion is that it seems like it wouldn’t be fruitful to reason counterpossibly in a context of two interlocutors that both agree the counterpossibility is false (such as panentheism).

  11. Paul says:

    Thanks. No, I think it’s acceptable. So we both agree the antecedent is necessarily false. But we don’t want to say it’s trivially true. So we need a semantics broader than possible worlds semantics. So we use something like impossible worlds semantics. We then go to the “closest” impossible world at which the antecedent is true, and my argument is that at that world atheists couldn’t raise a POE charge against God for “aborting” us because God can just use a bodily autonomy justification. The atheist will (intuitively) want to think the undefeated POE world is closer.

    Another example. Plantinga argues against identity theories where brain state = mental content. He then asks us to remove the content and replace it with another but leave same brain states. Both he and the identity theorist will think this is impossible (violating identity). He claims the closer impossible world is the one where the person does the same action, so he thinks epiphenomenalism follows. Here, again, both sides agree the antecedent of the counterpossible is impossible.

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April 2015


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