The Myth Of Physicalism — Guest Post by The Cranky Professor

The Myth Of Physicalism — Guest Post by The Cranky Professor

Physicalism is an extreme form of materialism that says that only physical entities exist. This differs from more moderate forms of materialism like property dualism or emergentism where immaterial entities are acknowledged, only that immaterial entities like consciousness come from some type of material like the brain. Physicalism is a rigid monistic philosophy that places all existence into one category of being, viz., material beings.

One often hears from atheists all over the internet that only physical beings exist, that there’s nothing more to reality than matter and energy within space and time. They typically argue that anything immaterial is non-existent or strongly suspect to be unreal. They think that only physical beings can be known for certain to exist and that only physical beings have been evidenced to exist. Any belief that immaterial entities exist is baseless and a form of religious belief or a belief in the supernatural. All this sums up the common view among atheists. This position is clearly wrong.

Now I am not an atheist but even if I were a staunch atheist, I would never uphold this absurd position. Note it’s possible to be an atheist and to be one that endorses the existence of immaterial beings. The proposition of atheism by itself only says that there is no Divine, and not that there are no immaterial entities. So let’s forget about the atheist versus theist debate for the moment and just focus on the mere question of immaterial entities.

It’s typical thinking that “immaterial entities” are only attributed to spiritual beings that are postulated by religion. However, the category of immateriality is not restricted to the list of entities that are generally posited by religion such as God, angels, demons, and souls. Other types of entities can also be categorized as non-physical such as concepts, propositions, syllogisms, numbers, moral properties and consciousness. And some thinkers throughout history (like Isaac Newton) and even today would argue that space is something that should be considered immaterial.

It’s worth noting that an immaterial entity is not something that’s necessarily a “supernatural” or “extra-natural” entity. A supernatural entity would be an entity that exists independently and beyond the universe or nature like God or perhaps platonic forms. But an immaterial entity may be something that’s a part of nature or very much dependent on the conditions in the world like one’s consciousness. The souls of animals and human beings may be entities that are immaterial but not strictly supernatural since souls are a part of the natural world. A non-physical being might be “supernatural” but that’s not always the case.

How is something immaterial? By being an existent entity that does not share in the same set of common traits that are attributed to physical objects. Physical objects have size, shape, weight, divisibility, and are composed of stuff, whereas immaterial entities like our mental states lack those traits. Leibniz’s Law of Indiscernibility alone is sufficient to distinguish conscious states from material objects. After all, if material entities don’t share in the same features as mental states then by Leibniz’s principle they are not numerically the same thing. That’s how immaterial beings are distinguished from material beings.

It’s clear that immaterial entities exist from our everyday experience. Contrary to popular misconceptions, proving the existence of immaterial entities does not require showing anything extraordinary or unusual. No one needs to see a ghost or a miracle, for instance, to know that non-physical beings exist. It’s evident that non-physical entities exist from our everyday consciousness like an image of a white rabbit in a dream. A dream image of a white rabbit isn’t composed of atoms; it’s not a material or living thing in the world.

Nonetheless, the dream image of the white rabbit exists in that it’s being perceived by the dreamer. That’s already a proof that immaterial entities exist. Not only is there evidence that clearly shows that immaterial things exist but I would also add that the existence of immaterial entities is more certain than the existence of material entities. Sound far-fetched? Take a brief look at Descartes’ 1st and 2nd Meditations.

In the First Mediation, Descartes calls everything into doubt and supposes that maybe his life experience is due to an evil genius or demon that simply projects images of chairs, tables, persons etc. into his consciousness while none of those objects really exist or have the mind-independent existence that people normally attribute to things. In other words, the argument says that one could be in a “matrix” or in a mere world of ideas or sense-images that are projected by some demon. (We now commonly refer to these thought experiments of being in a deceptive world as a “matrix” thanks to that 90s science fiction film, The Matrix). There are several different illustrations of this type of argument like a person being a brain in a vat or a person plugged into a matrix by extraterrestrials or a person being hexed into a lifelong dream by a wizard or whatever the scenario may be. The idea that we’re in a computer simulation or the so-called “simulation hypothesis” may also be another “matrix” scenario.

Early within the Meditations, Descartes concludes that his own consciousness is completely certain. This is because there’s no way to override the fact that one is conscious. Whether one is in the “matrix” or not, one’s consciousness remains certain. Even if the dream and evil genius arguments successfully show that we are not completely certain of the existence of the external world, or even if we are living in a matrix, all this would be quite irrelevant in overriding our knowledge of our mental existence. In fact, to be deceived in a matrix or lifelong dream or to be deceived about anything at all would logically imply that one is conscious. Rocks and trees cannot be deceived about anything because they are not sentient beings. Only conscious beings with a certain degree of intelligence can be deceived.

The point of bringing up the matrix thought experiments is not get anyone to doubt the existence of the world. The existence of the external world is a rational, strongly evidenced belief even if it cannot be absolutely proved to exist. The point is that the matrix thought experiments like in Descartes show that it’s at least logically possible or a coherent idea that consciousness can exist independently of material objects without implying contradiction.

If it’s logically possible that one can be in matrix created by a demon where there are no material objects in existence then this seems to show that consciousness is not identical nor reducible to physical entities and that it’s possible at least in principle that one’s awareness and thought can exist even when there are no physical beings out there. Supposing that one is experiencing sense-impressions created by a deceptive angel with no actual material objects is not like supposing that a triangle can exist with having only one side. We have something similar to this with dreams where a person perceives what looks like a physical environment without there being any physical objects around. Of course, the evil genius thought experiment doesn’t prove that consciousness does in fact exist independently of matter. However, the thought experiment demonstrates that consciousness cannot be strictly identical to material beings.

The matrix thought experiments like in Descartes also seem to illustrate that one’s consciousness is more certain than the existence of physical entities. Again, there’s no logical contradiction in the notion that one’s belief in the existence of extra-mental physical entities can be overridden and corrected by future evidence like if one wakes up and discovers that one has been living in type of a matrix or a dream or perhaps one dies and goes into the afterlife and learns that one has been living in Berkeley’s idealist world—a world where physical objects are only ideas among minds.

An afterlife, of course, would imply that consciousness could exist without any material entities being around.

It may be logically possible that one could be mistaken about there being external material objects in existence. However, it’s logically impossible that a person can discover that she is in error in thinking that she’s conscious. Being liberated from a matrix wouldn’t override knowledge of one’s awareness and thought like it might for one’s belief in material objects. To think, believe, doubt, or to be in error is to always presuppose that one has consciousness. One’s mental states can never be overridden by evidence no matter what the future unfolds. All evidencing can only happen in the context of a conscious being. Hence, certain immaterial entities viz., mental states are more certain than the existence of physical entities.

Thus, physicalism is not a credible position whatsoever because the mental (or immaterial in that regard) is more certain than the physical and the mental is irreducible to the physical realm. We can even demonstrate that consciousness is irreducible to physical beings given the terms of physicalism.

Materialism in all its forms defines physical things like chairs, tables, brain cells, etc. as extra-mental entities. In other words, a materialist thinks that physical objects exist outside one’s mind or conscious states. So when three people look at one chair in a room they are only looking at a single chair in that room. The materialist has to define physical entities as extra-mental entities to safeguard his ideology. If physical objects are however defined as mental entities that are merely inside our conscious perceptions like a mental image in a dream or a hallucination then this view of material objects would collapse into the theory of idealism and it would imply that physical entities have their origin in mind or consciousness contrary to materialism.

Also if physical beings are mental entities as the idealist would say, then three people looking at the appearance of one chair in a room would really be an instance of three people looking at three different chairs. Why? Because if physical entities are mental entities then there would be as many physical entities as there are minds that perceive them as such. So the materialist has to define physical objects as extra-mental entities if they want to consistently argue that consciousness has its origin in some outside, external source, viz., matter and energy. Otherwise if idealism is true and physical objects are only mental entities then consciousness cannot emanate from matter; rather it would be matter emanating from consciousness.

Now if physical objects are defined as extra-mental entities then there is no hope of ever showing that conscious states are identical to neural activity or anything physical. Not even the most advanced neurobiology can explain how subjective awareness can be identical to something that is, by definition, outside and distinct from the realm of the mental.

If physical objects exist independently of our perceptions of them then mental states cannot identical with physical entities. (After all, if a chair or a brain in a surgery room isn’t being multiplied every time there’s an extra observer in the room then that implies that the material entities are not identical to mental activity). This is also reinforced by the fact that the materialist generally wants to say that matter causes consciousness to exist but consciousness itself doesn’t cause matter to exist. And that causal distinction already implies a real difference between mind and matter altogether. Therefore, mental states can never be identical to matter and energy and its properties particularly if physical entities are defined as objective, mind-independent, extra-mental entities.

The physicalist may then realize that mental states cannot be reduced to material beings like the brain. The physicalist might try to get rid of consciousness altogether to preserve the notion that only physical beings exist. If the physicalist makes this move then he would be favoring “Eliminative materialism” or the notion that we are mere bodies or “zombies” with no real consciousness. Now eliminative materialism is clearly wrong and saddled with hopeless absurdities but it seems to be the logical implication of physicalism. After all, if only extra-mental physical beings exist then how would there be any room for mental phenomena?

Now it shouldn’t require a refutation to know that eliminative materialism is bunkum. Clearly we have conscious states. Nonetheless, I’ll describe a few incoherencies within this extreme form of materialism to further my case against physicalism. Eliminative materialism fails to explain our knowledge of material objects. The eliminativist wants to say that physical entities are the only things that exist. But how can the eliminativist know or so much be rationally justified in believing that material entities exist if consciousness doesn’t exist? Doesn’t a person have to be observant of things in order to realize that physical objects exist? How can the eliminative materialist account for the existence of external objects without presupposing consciousness, (e.g., seeing, hearing and touching)?

To argue that one can be justified in believing that material objects exist without conscious perception is like trying to make a sound argument without implying the Law of Identity (the logical principle that says “whatever is, is”). It’s not something that can be done! The eliminative physicalist cannot even “know” that physicalism is true or even that physical objects exist by his own terms because to know or evidence anything would imply consciousness. Unless an insentient being like a rock can know things or realize its own unconsciousness, the eliminative materialist has no hope of knowing their own position to be true given their ideology.

As many have also pointed out, eliminative materialism also implies a contradiction about beliefs. If we take eliminative physicalism seriously it would entail that people do not have beliefs. This is because beliefs are mental entities and all mental entities are non-existent or “folk psychology” for the eliminative materialist. But then the physicalist would be trying to persuade us to believe that we have no beliefs. He would be implying that we ought to have a belief about beliefs. The eliminativist would be telling us that we ought to think that we have no beliefs. However, a denial of the existence of beliefs would have a real belief behind it. Daniel Dennet, a philosopher that promotes eliminative materialism tries to persuade people that it’s true and yet he cannot even be said to “believe” it’s true given his own worldview!

Does eliminative materialism offer a solution to Leibniz’s problem with materialism by denying that the brain produces consciousness and that the brain only produces an “illusion of consciousness”?

Obviously not. An unconscious brain cannot produce an illusion about anything. Again, it would be a contradiction in terms to say that a completely unconscious brain can produce an illusion or misimpression about anything. Also consciousness cannot be discarded as “illusionary;” for to have an illusion about anything would presuppose consciousness.

Whether the perception is misleading or not, it is still perceiving something or being conscious of something. Besides, an endorsement of eliminative materialism would be an implicit agreement with the fact that physicalism cannot accommodate subjective experience. But if that’s the case, then physicalism should be rejected off hand and it shouldn’t go the other way around where one denies consciousness in order to religiously uphold physicalism. It’s unbelievable why anyone would bother to defend eliminative materialism when one can refute it by simply referring to their own mental experience. But then again, eliminative materialists have to admit that they don’t believe in physicalism as well, since according to their own ideology, there are no beliefs!

The physicalist cannot coherently reduce consciousness to physical beings, nor can the physicalist coherently exclude consciousness in order to save their monist paradigm. Physicalism is incompatible with consciousness. The mind simply cannot fit within the absurd monistic position that only external, non-mental, material entities exist. Other monist philosophies like neutral monism and idealism may be logically compatible with our conscious experience but physicalism however is not compatible with subjective experience.

Moreover, physicalism entails that there is no such thing as truth and it greatly undermines the discipline of logic. The existence of truth requires the existence of truth bearers or entities that have the features of truth and falsity. The only possible candidates for truth bearers are immaterial meanings or contents that are understood by the mind. Whenever one understands that “2+2=4” is true and that “2+2=7” is false he isn’t saying that some physical object is true or false, he is rather holding that the understood content that’s expressed by the language is true or false.

And it doesn’t matter whether our truth bearers are mental entities like judgments or extra-mental timeless contents like ideal entities. Either way, the truth bearers have be immaterial and not material. Likewise with logic, we imply that meaning or content is something non-physical all the time. In judging arguments or syllogisms to be valid or invalid, we are not judging any material object like a chair or table to be valid or invalid; we are rather judging the understood content to be logically valid or invalid. Because physicalism cannot accommodate the existence of abstract entities in any form, it entails that there is no truth and that there’s nothing out there that can be considered logically valid or invalid. So if physicalism is true then paradoxically it isn’t true.

Thirdly, even if physicalism were “true” there would be no way of discerning its truth. Supposing if physicalism could adequately account for consciousness, truth, logic and other features of the world, there would be no way of knowing it to be the case. Even if physical beings were the only known entities to exist, it would not imply that only physical beings can exist. The mere existence of material beings doesn’t prevent there being immaterial entities out there. It’s like knowing that there’s life on our planet and that this knowledge doesn’t preclude the possibility of life on other planets.

Also, the exact mode of the “existence” of physical entities is something quite debatable and not everyone agrees with the physicalist that material objects have an absolute, mind-independent existence. Some argue for idealism and say that material beings are only ideas or perceived objects within our minds and that material things have no extra-mental existence. Others might grant that physical entities have an extra-mental existence but are nonetheless dependent on the Mind of God for their existence. With many forms of theism, material entities wouldn’t have the absolute mind-independent existence that materialists attribute to them. If there’s a Deity by which all entities are caused to exist, then physical entities would be dependent on a transcendent Mind for their existence. There’s nothing in our experience that shows that material objects should exist absolutely independently of all minds.

In conclusion, physicalism is not a rational position. It fails to account for the reality of consciousness and other features of our everyday experience like truth and logic. Physicalism carries with it a bold and universal statement about existence that cannot be proved, known, verified, or even presumed to be true. In other words, physicalism is only a quasi-religious dogma that has no evidence backing it and plenty of evidence that refutes it.


  1. Ken

    Yesterday we read that there’s no such thing as a homosexual (in a certain sense) — even when such a person is physically standing in one’s way. Today, we read that things imagined in the mind are proof of the existence of non-physical entities.

    There’s a whole lot of deep thinking going on here designed to “see” things that aren’t … and … to not see things that are.

    All of that thinking is unnecessary — once we know what the faith-based belief system postulates we know what the inevitable conclusions will be. What’s entertaining (in a certain sense) are the pretzel-twists of”logic” applied to force out the “correct” answer.

    One can observe similar mental machinations in old references — old U.S. sources (e.g., Henry Ford and Cold Spring Harbor Lab, and more) — that similarly logically explained more mundane behavioral origins. Look up “eugenics.” If you ever find yourself using similar rational[izations] chances are you’re deluding yourself about getting to an answer rather than the answer.

  2. John Watkins

    Well, thank goodness Ken has come to our rescue, again! He’s soooo smart! He knows that nothing in our heads is real, nor in our hearts. Only physical objects are real. And they can call themselves whatever they want, and that makes it so. Too bad you didn’t bother to read the article Ken. But we know why. It contained ideas. And they aren’t real, are they?

  3. Rich

    Like Ken I find myself mistrustful of protracted chains of logic set up to reach a particular conclusion. “Everything that can be said can be said clearly” said Ludwig though it often isn’t.

  4. imnobody00

    Since Ken does not have any refutation of the sound arguments explained here (I doubt he has understood them), he puts his finger into his ears and says:” Nah nah nah, I can’t hear you”.

    Like a good fundamentalist, he says “there is no need of such thinking! Believe me without arguments”. Dunning-Kruger effect

  5. imnobody00


    “Everything that can be said can be said clearly”

    You have removed vast parts of science. Try to explain quantum mechanics or the theory of relativity. The Einstein’s mental experiments were protracted chains of logic.

    But in this case, it can be said clearly: conscious states are not physical objects since they have not the same properties as physical objects. Even if conscious states are illusions, an illusion implies a conscious being so consciousness cannot be reduced to matter.

    This is not new: it is the problem of qualia. If you did not know about it, you have some reading to do.

  6. Physicalism is a misunderstanding an engineering abstraction. Engineers (by which I mean anyone who engages in practical prediction and manipulation of the physical world) usually abstract away all subjective elements of experience because the subjective elements are not useful for what they are trying to accomplish. If you are trying to build a bridge or predict the movements of the planets, the subjective aspects of how you see the planets or feel the hardness of the bridge are not useful, so you ignore them.

    For historical and other reasons too long to go into here, I claim that mathematics, the laws of mechanics, and similar theories are engineering, not science, but scientists and philosophers have been impressed with these sorts of engineering tools since the time of the ancient Greeks, and have adopted them in confused ways, leading to such things as Zeno’s paradoxes, Plato’s theory of true forms, Humean skepticism, and physicalism. All of these views have in common that they treat the world as if it really were a mathematical abstraction.

    Naturally, since each of these views is based on a model of nature that explicitly excludes things, there are things in actual nature that they cannot account for.

  7. According to physicalism, there is no such thing as the number 2. Or history. Or logic. Or friendship. Or love.

    Perhaps it is the lack of friendship and love that drives people to adopt physicalism?

  8. Joy

    “Engineers (by which I mean anyone who engages in practical prediction and manipulation of the physical world)”

    Which would put physiotherapy right into that bracket. It isn’t engineering though. There is a creative element.
    “usually abstract away all subjective elements of experience because the subjective elements are not useful for what they are trying to accomplish.”
    Yet subjective information is the most important of all when assessing and diagnosing. Without that, you haven’t a clue what to do next.
    On its own by no means sufficient, but definitely most important. You have to keep flipping back and forth whilst still maintaining attention to the patient. You need objectivity (clinical reasoning) both are needed.
    The subjective is where all the biggest clues are to be found. It’s the best part.

    Engineering is not like that.
    So the definition is not quite there.
    I’ve known many engineers of various stripes and that includes high tech industrial video. “In engineering, it’s what you take away, not what you add.”

    Don’t knock engineers they are the best.

  9. Joy

    Ken said, wisely,
    “…chances are you’re deluding yourself about getting to an answer rather than the answer.”
    Let It Be!

  10. Salvus

    The presentation here could use some focus and clarity, and in so doing could avoid use of strawman arguments. A first key element is to be clear about what the author means by the term “exist.” Without clearly stating what the author means by this term, the arguments given allow multiple interpretations, and criticize alleged positions of various -isms when in fact advocates of such -isms (presuming there are any as they are caricatured here) may mean something entirely different.

    First let’s look at various dictionary definitions of “exist,” keeping in mind that none of these will do if one wishes to communicate precisely what one wants to communicate.

    Definition of exist: intransitive verb
    1) a: to have real being whether material or spiritual
    Examples: did unicorns exist; the largest galaxy known to exist
    b: to have being in a specified place or with respect to understood limitations or conditions
    Example: strange ideas existed in his mind
    c: to have objective reality or being
    Example: there existed no organization to cope with espionage

    2) to continue to be
    Example: racism still exists in society
    3 a: to have life or the functions of vitality
    Example: we cannot exist without oxygen
    b: to live at an inferior level or under adverse circumstances
    Example: the hungry existing from day to day

    An attentive reader should notice a problem with all these definitions, namely the presence of various forms of the verb “to be.” If one then looks for the definition of “to be”, one finds,

    Definitions of “to be”
    1a : to equal in meaning : have the same connotation as : God is love; January is the first month; let x be 10
    b : to have identity with : to constitute the same idea or object as
    The first person I met was my brother.
    c : to constitute the same class as
    These three books are the authoritative works on the president’s life.
    d : to have a specified qualification or characterization
    The leaves are green.
    e : to belong to the class of
    the fish is a trout

    And the definition of perhaps most interest here,
    ******2a : to have an objective existence : have reality or actuality : I think, therefore I am****************
    b : to have, maintain, or occupy a place, situation, or position; the book is on the table
    c : to remain unmolested, undisturbed, or uninterrupted —used only in infinitive form
    let him be
    d : to take place: the concert was last night
    e : to come or go: has already been and gone; has never been to the circus
    f archaic : BELONG, BEFALL
    … to thine and Albany’s issue be this perpetual.
    — Shakespeare

    The one noted with asterisks seems to be the one intended in this article, but we should see the problem now. As simple words, existence is defined as being and being is defined as existing. A discussion that simply uses the terms without further clarification is certain to be hopelessly circular, and worse, advocates of alternative propositions are virtually certain to have different meanings in mind and will fail to communicate.

    So, the question should be, what do we, or anyone else proposing another view, mean when we say “exists” or “is” in the sense of “reality.”

    For an example of the lack of clarity that arises it is useful to quote the article directly (occurrences of “exist” or alternates have been surrounded by asterisks):

    ” One often hears from atheists all over the internet that only physical *beings* *exist*, that there’s nothing more to *reality* than matter and energy within space and time. They typically argue that anything immaterial is *non-existent* or strongly suspect to be *unreal*. They think that only physical *beings* can be known for certain to *exist* and that only physical *beings* have been evidenced to *exist*. Any belief that immaterial entities *exist* is baseless and a form of religious belief or a belief in the supernatural. All this sums up the common view among atheists. This position is clearly wrong.”

    Clearly there are some unstated assumptions about what “atheists” mean by exist and what the author means by exist, however, the author assumes that they both mean the same thing, which flirts dangerously with falsely invoking the excluded middle. To resolve this issue, both the “atheist” (or whatever other -ist wants to take part in the discussion) should clearly define what they mean by “exist.”

    Further, without a clear definition of what is meant by “exist” in the statements about what the author believes about something called “physicalism” or the various other -isms given caricature stick figure descriptions in the article, the rest of the discussion of how they are “wrong” devolves into saying they are wrong simply because the author believes they do not accord with the author’s (undefined and unstated) definition of “exist.”

    The author apparently is unaware of the circular nature of the arguments being presented. For example, the statement “One often hears from atheists all over the internet that only physical beings exist” is clearly a tautology conjoining the words “beings exist” which suggests, but does not define what, if any, difference there is between “being” and “existing.”

    At another point, the author states “Nonetheless, the dream image of the white rabbit exists in that it’s being perceived by the dreamer. That’s already a proof that immaterial entities exist.” This seems to suggest that the author’s definition of “existence” includes the notion “perceived by the dreamer.” This suggests that the author’s definition of “exist” does not include the notion of confirmation or replication of the state of existence by other observers. That is fine as far as it goes. For example, the hallucinations of a schizophrenic (such as the imagined roommate of John Nash), would clearly be included in this definition of existence, but would not be included in a definition that required direct observation by another observer. (The issue of how well mental states may be determinable from measurements of electrical activity in the brain is a topic of active research.) The quoted statement also includes the adjective “immaterial” which the author seems to wish to restrict to the “matter” part of the word. Earlier, the author said “A dream image of a white rabbit isn’t composed of atoms; it’s not a material or living thing in the world.” This is equivalent to saying that a digital image of a rabbit (a rabbit in the equality sense of an object that has measurable mass, temperature, etc.) is not a rabbit. Well, that is true, it is an image of a rabbit, composed of a pattern of electronic states within a memory device. Whether that device is a computer chip or a human brain is not important, the fact remains that it is an image of a rabbit, and not a rabbit. Also, the fact remains that the image is composed of a particular pattern of physical states within a memory device. Of course, the connection of the states to the concept of a rabbit requires the reading of those states into a device that displays them in a form that can be acquired by (in this case) a human eye, which is then synthesized in the brain and identified as the pattern that corresponds to the pattern previously stored as that as a rabbit. It would be difficult to find someone who would assert that an image of a rabbit “is” a rabbit, in the sense meaning “equals” where equals would mean “having all the properties of a rabbit” with respect to mass, temperature, lifetime, individual history etc. There are many images that have been specifically constructed so as to have different interpretations depending on who is looking at it and how they look. The old/young woman being one example. Numbers in color blindness tests that some people can see and others can not is another.

    One could continue this analysis of the author’s statements, but the effort is quite pointless until the author clearly defines what the author means by “exist” and how the concept relates to independent observation, or measurement, or corroboration by replication, or whatever specific means the author can suggest. The author can certainly continue the discussion in the manner given, with the realization that the text given is indeed a dream of the author, only clear and perceivable by the author. And we are all welcome to our own dreams.

  11. Salvus, your criticism is pretentious, pseudo-rational, and dishonorable. There is no base, universal, ultimately precise language in which one can give unambiguous definitions; therefore, all definitions are either ultimately circular or ultimately grounded in informal usage,. Because of this, relying on informal usage is a perfectly good strategy in an essay in which the point one is trying to make is not to expose and explore ambiguities in the word.

    There is plenty of evidence for what Professor Cranky means by “exists”, just by how he uses the word. Usage doesn’t resolve all ambiguities, of course, the but the rational, honorable way to deal with any particular ambiguity that troubles you is to point out that specific ambiguity and ask him to clarify, not to scold him in general for failing to provide an impossible, unambiguous, precise, non-circular definition.

  12. Joy@
    “Which would put physiotherapy right into that bracket. It isn’t engineering though.”
    Fair enough. I should have restricted my definition to the physical world, although I kind of intended to include purely mechanical medical work like surgery or creating drugs.

    “In engineering, it’s what you take away, not what you add.”

    That’s tremendous! I don’t suppose you could look up that video for me? What I said in my comment is part of a larger thesis of mine about science vs. engineering, and one of my primary criticisms of science is that science adds things to what is observed while engineering removes things. That is why science is logically unsound and engineering is logically sound.

    “Don’t knock engineers they are the best.”.

    Aww, thanks. You’re sweet. 🙂

  13. Salvus

    We have a difference of opinion. The author’s central thesis is that proponents of various -isms make incorrect statements about existence of things. It is incumbent on someone making such a claim to define what both they and the postulated -isms mean by existence and show how it differs. Without such clarity, the various “examples” given only muddle the point and do not clarify it.

    For example, the author makes the statement “It’s typical thinking that ‘immaterial entities’ are only attributed to spiritual beings that are postulated by religion. However, the category of immateriality is not restricted to the list of entities that are generally posited by religion such as God, angels, demons, and souls. Other types of entities can also be categorized as non-physical such as concepts, propositions, syllogisms, numbers, moral properties and consciousness. And some thinkers throughout history (like Isaac Newton) and even today would argue that space is something that should be considered immaterial.”

    This statement muddles the issue considerably, since, as the author points out, many entities are commonly used in the parlance of existence that may not have measurable properties such as mass, temperature, etc and the author lists several. It is unclear whether anyone actually fits the caricature of “physicalist” as set up in the essay, but let’s focus on the issue of existence of a number, or a proposition. If one wishes to say a number exists that solves the equation x^2 = 4, there is a well prescribed procedure such that anyone can satisfy themselves that there is indeed a number (within a well-defined set of numbers) that satisfies the equation. In this case existence is defined in a non-circular manner by a clear procedure by which any other person can satisfy themselves as to the number’s existence, and show it to others. The importance of a clear definition of what is meant by existence in this case occurs in many other instances. For example, many people are interested in determining whether a number exists that is a non-trivial zero of the Reiman zeta function that is not either a negative even integer or a complex number with real part equal to ½. It would not do for everyone to use their own ambiguous definition of what existence means and hope others could figure it out by context.

    The need for clarity with respect to “existence” is quite common. For example, there are many mathematicians who hold that something cannot be claimed to “exist” unless it can be explicitly constructed by anyone who wishes to do so. These people are sometimes labelled with an -ist called strict constructivist. There are a number of unproven, but postulated, theorems in math for which the existence of a solution has not been demonstrated. A strict constructivist might hold that proofs of such theorems do not show a solution “exist” unless the solution can be explicitly constructed by anyone. For example, proving that a solution exists by assuming that none exists and demonstrating it leads to a contradiction might not be accepted by a very strict constructionist. Some also hold that a proof using mathematical induction does not show the existence of a solution. (As a reminder, induction holds that if a statement is true for some integer p, and if the statement is true for some number n, greater than p, and this statement implies the truth of the statement for the number n+1, then the statement is true (i.e. a solution exists) for a all m > p.) It turns out to be very useful to consider the class of things that can be constructively demonstrated versus the class of things which cannot. Clarity in what is meant by “exist” is crucial to clear thinking about such things.

    One of the commenters brought up the issue of quantum mechanics (relativity was mentioned as well, but we could discuss that separately if you wish). Quantum mechanics (QM) is a good example of the necessity of clarity in what one means by existence. A very good introduction to the notion of existence with respect to QM could be obtained by reading one of Feynman’s popularizations of QM called “QED: the strange theory of light and matter” and the introduction to his more technical book called “Quantum mechanics and path integrals” co-authored with one of his students A. R. Hibbs. In those books, QM is portrayed as involving two kinds of “existence.” One kind thing that “exists” is conceptual, namely a set of rules by which anyone can calculate what will be the frequency of occurrence of specific values of future measurements of a physical quantity. Another thing that “exists” are the results of the measurements themselves. Now as Feynman says, the set of rules appear crazy, and they are not unique. He presents one set of rules in QED, which lead to the famous Feynman diagrams. These rules turn out to predict the results of experiments to very high accuracy. He presents another set of rules in the path integral book, which generally predict the same results for future experiments. The basic idea behind both sets of rules are that the probability of a specific value being obtained for a future measurement can be obtained by doing a well-defined sum of quantities that conceptually represent all possible paths that the physical entity could take to go from point A to point B. In a certain sense, QM entities give future measured values as if the entity took all possible ways to get somewhere. The modern parlance is that the act of observation (i.e. measurement) collapses the infinity of possible states into the one measured outcome, which is what “exists”. Now one might ask, do (or did) the infinite possible paths summed over “exist?” Here one needs to be clear about what one defines as exist, or in the words of a former US president, what the definition of “is” is. The physicist (e.g. Feynman) would say the possible paths do not “exist” in the same meaning as the results of measurement “exist.” In other words, a physicist restricts the things considered to “exist” in physics to be those that are observable, i.e. measured in an experiment. The rules of calculation, i.e. the math, do not “exist” in the same sense. The measurement based definition allows anyone to replicate the “existence” of the result of the measurement by doing it themselves. John Wheeler expressed this notion as “no phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.” None of this purports to say anything other than to provide a clear working definition for what the meaning of “is” is adopted. One may certainly choose to adopt other definitions, but if one does, one should be clear about what definition one is using so that anyone else can determine themselves if something “is.”

    Wheeler contributed another idea that illustrates the need to be clear about what one means by “exist,” namely the so-called Everett-DeWitt-Wheeler many worlds interpretation of QM. In this notion, the claim is made that the quantum state of the whole universe (remember the infinite possible paths) evolves into the future but the multitude of states describing the universe is not “collapsed” by individual measurements but instead the measurement simply chooses a particular branch of time evolution and all the other possibilities continue to evolve unabated. In this interpretation, there might be infinite copies of the universe evolving and the one the observer happens to perceive by observation is just one of the many choices possible. In other universes, the same observer might be experiencing the outcome of other possible universes. An question often raised about this interpretation is “do the multiple universes ‘exist’?” In the sense of can the notion be verbally conceptualized so that it is more or less understood in the same way by other people, the answer is yes, certainly. In the sense used in physics, i.e. is it observable, the answer is no. So far, no method of measuring had been determined that can distinguish between multiple universes, so in that sense they do not “exist.”

    Now, one might say, wonderful, I choose to adopt the definition of existence such that if anything can be verbally conceptualized so that another person more or less understands what is being said in the same way, then it “exists.” This definition is a reasonably well defined (with a couple of slightly ambiguous notions involved, but that’s OK) and could be adopted. By this definition any fictional object, character or entity would be said to exist. For example Jonathan Swift’s Lilliputians “exist,” the various characters in Edwin Abbott’s Flatland “exist,” as does Queequeg in Melville’s Moby Dick. Fine. By that same definition, one could say that since they can be verbally conceptualized, the concepts of Zeus, or Allah, or Yahweh, all exist in the same fashion. However, that definition would likely be unpalatable to the author since that says that the “supernatural” entities “exist” in the same sense that fictional characters “exist,” which would mean that they have no more existence than as fictional constructions.

    Clearly the author intends to propose that such entities have more than a fictional “existence.” If so, how that existence is “more” should be as clearly defined as the notions of “existence” in use in disciplines with well defined notions of existence. It is incumbent on the author to define that, not leave readers to speculate on what is meant from the miscellaneous, contradictory, and ill-defined examples given. If the author has something to say, it should be said, not left to the guesswork of others.

  14. Joy

    David Gudeman,
    “slow motion i-speed 7 reel from 46 films media arts”
    high speed.
    “Particle Image Velocimetry with the i-SPEED 7”

  15. DG

    Well some interesting comments from Watkins, Imnobody, David and McChuck!
    And it seems that Salvus didn’t read the entire article. He doesn’t even seem to get the “central thesis ” of the essay from his description of it even though it was manifested in the title of the article. The thesis of the essay is that physicalism is false. And he makes no mention of the different theories of how a material object may be said to exist that are mentioned in the essay. But even if he were correct in asserting that the author was not clear enough about the use of the term “existence ” it would not change the fact that physicalism has a problem with truth- a point mentioned in the essay. If everything is physical then there would be no truth. Material objects cannot be bearers of truth and falsity; only understood meanings can be. And there’s no point in seeking a clear definition and description about existence if there’s no truth given the terms of physicalism.

  16. Joy

    Ken’s first couple of lines illustrates the kind of thing Salvus was saying iwth respect to defining “exist”.
    It is a rather glaring ommission. Also a bit wierd to try to cliam anyone would say that numbers don’t exist. It is a play on words for the convenience of argument.

    It also did occur to me that Cranky man was describing soeone or a philosophical category that nobody would fall into.
    The arguments did appear to be straw man arguments.
    Kieth Ward describes the word Exist as if you had to make a list of things in the universe ‘consciousness” would be on the list along with atoms and space,, black holes….so it is seen as a phenomenon in itself.
    Not sure I abree about that but there is stilll the matter of ‘being’ to sexplain and truth, as menioned before.
    Are they just propeties brought about by certain combinations of energy and matter? Information emerges and is only information as Dav said, while there is a memory for it to use?
    I think that’s nearer the mark.
    Still, there are some mysteries I can’t explain.
    For those who like audio there is a discussion between Kieth Ward and Daniel Dennet on youtube. Mind, consciousness and materialism are discussed.

  17. Joy

    without typos:
    Without the typos, sorry.
    Ken’s first couple of lines illustrates the kind of thing Salvus was saying with respect to defining “exist”.?It is a rather glaring omission. Also a bit weird to try to claim anyone would say that numbers don’t exist. It is a play on words for the convenience of argument.
    It also did occur to me that Cranky man was describing someone, or a philosophical category that nobody would fall into.?The arguments did appear to be straw man arguments.

  18. Rick C.

    Believe it or not, there are a bunch of smart people out there who think every human thought is an illusion. Seriously, people like the widely-followed atheist neuroscientist, Sam Harris.

    An experiment using infinity mirrors punches holes in the Illusion theory:

    It even has pictures!

    Others claim every human thought is determined by material (physics and chemistry) causes. The infinity mirror experiment demolishes that view as well:

  19. Bobcat

    “Believe it or not, there are a bunch of smart people out there who think every human thought is an illusion.”

    Ah but if they believe it, then they’re no longer consistent eliminativists!

    By the way, thanks for the links there Rick C.!

    – Cranky Professor

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