definition of physical; was Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents

From: Don Winterstein <>
Date: Thu Apr 16 2009 - 12:17:54 EDT


Your definition needs refinement, as it leaves out not only electrons and photons but also fields, space-time and the particles of high-energy physics. To construct a precise and unambiguous definition is a challenge. Ultimately there may be no way to differentiate in a completely general way between physical and spiritual. The possibility that the human spirit may be an emergent property highlights the challenge.

But what Bill says about atoms being "theoretical entities" that are not observable also needs to be challenged. By Bill's apparent standards nothing physical would be observable, because all physical observations are mediated through waves and particles, including light and sound. Then nerves must carry the "messages" to the consciousness, whatever that is. Atoms in the usual meaning of "observable" are fully observable, even though our observations are limited by the crudeness of our mediating devices.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Bill Powers<>
  To: Alexanian, Moorad<>
  Cc: ""<> ; Ted Davis<> ; Keith Miller<> ; George Murphy<> ;<> ; AmericanScientificAffiliation Affiliation<>
  Sent: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 7:48 PM
  Subject: RE: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents

  In defining what is physical you have used theoretical entities, which
  are themselves unobservable.

  Suppose one were to adopt an agnostic or instrumentalist construal of
  such entities. Using your definition, they would be committed to
  non-physicalism. Of course, Quine (an self proclaimed empiricist)
  suggested they were fictions.

  I'm suggesting that since the ontological status of theoretical entities
  is uncertain that a more phenomenological definition might be preferred.

  Photons are physical because they "interact" with physical "things."
  This interaction, I presume, has to produce a "physical effect," meaning
  that atoms and the like are influenced.

  If this is the case, why cannot God be physical? Or is this to imply that
  since God is not physical, He cannot produce physical effects?


  Wed, 15 Apr 2009, Alexanian, Moorad wrote:

> Of course, photons are detect by atoms and/or molecules and so are physical.
> Moorad
> ________________________________________
> From: Bill Powers []
> Sent: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 7:02 PM
> To: Alexanian, Moorad
> Cc: ""<>; Ted Davis; Keith Miller; George Murphy;<>; AmericanScientificAffiliation Affiliation
> Subject: RE: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents
> So photons are not physical?
> bill
> On Wed, 15 Apr 2009, Alexanian, Moorad wrote:
>> The purely physical are objects or things that are made of atoms and/or
  molecules, inorganic or non-living.
  Apparatuses or detectors used to collect data in the experimental sciences
  are usually purely physical devices.
  I am not considering areas, say, experimental psychology where the
  human beings may enter also as “detectors” in addition to the
  purely physical devices.
  In such cases, the subject matter is not the physical aspect of Nature
  but living, conscious beings like humans.
>> Moorad
>> ________________________________________
>> From: wjp []
>> Sent: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 3:41 PM
>> To: ""<>; Alexanian, Moorad
>> Cc: Ted Davis; Keith Miller; George Murphy;<>; AmericanScientificAffiliation Affiliation
>> Subject: RE: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents
>> Moorad:
>> I'll take you up on that one:
>> How do you define physical in an unambiguous way?
>> bill
>> On Wed, 15 Apr 2009 12:07:04 -0400, "Alexanian, Moorad" <<>> wrote:
>>> I have not followed all the nuances of this thread but something like "Is
>>> Nature all there is?" is quite equivocal unless one defines precisely
>>> what the word "Nature" means. I think are more meaningful statement, which
>>> may be what is involved, is "Is the physical all there is?" since I can
>>> precisely define what is the physical aspect of Nature.
>>> Moorad
>>> -----Original Message-----
>>> From:<> [] On
>>> Behalf Of Ted Davis
>>> Sent: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 11:18 AM
>>> To: Keith Miller; George Murphy; Bill Powers;<>
>>> Cc: AmericanScientificAffiliation Affiliation
>>> Subject: Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents
>>> I respond here to these two paragraphs from Gregory's post:
>>> The problem is not your history here, it is your philosophy. Robert
>>> Boyle's
>>> statement proves my point that "Those who claim MN has been used as a
>>> principle for hundreds or thousands of years are in love with
>>> retro-diction;
>>> they thrive on anachronism." The way MN is meant today would have been
>>> inconceivable to Boyle and his colleagues; they were mainly religious
>>> believers who did natural philosophy and 'science' and didn't divide them
>>> like we do today.
>>> Again Ted, you are supporting the negative definition of MN 'one ought not
>>> to invoke divine omnipotence in natural philosophy.' But there is nothing
>>> positive or helpful in that (except maybe for debates with creationists or
>>> IDists, which is not for the most part seriously academic)! The positive
>>> case for naturalism (MN or otherwise) seems often to slide too easily and
>>> directly into scientism. This is why Dawkins and Dennett and Harris are so
>>> pleased to see religious folks defending MN and TE; it supports their case
>>> more than it presents a responsible case for balancing 'science,
>>> philosophy
>>> and religion,' which is what, it seems to me, that you and Keith and
>>> George
>>> are ultimately seeking. But where are your non-natural
>>> silence?
>>> ****
>>> Gregory, Boyle's statement proves the narrow point I made: namely, that
>>> there is nothing modern about scientists looking for "natural" causes, in
>>> exclusion of "supernatural" ones. There was apparently something
>>> helpful
>>> in it, when Boyle responded to Line in the manner I indicated: he thought
>>> that Line, by invoking God's absolute power to account for the meniscus in
>>> the barometer, was simply evading the question. Line was not giving the
>>> kind of explanation that Boyle, arguably the leading Christian scientist
>>> of
>>> his generation and certainly one of the most genuinely pious, found to be
>>> consistent with good science. You have asked me to make a positive case
>>> *for* methodological naturalism, but IMO the whole history of science is
>>> just such a case. The explanatory success of looking for and (usually)
>>> finding "natural" causes for phenomena is hard to top. This need not mean
>>> that *all* events will *always* have natural causes, and it does not mean
>>> that "nature" is the ultimate explanatory entity -- indeed it is not (see
>>> below). But it does mean that you are asking for a positive case that you
>>> are overlooking.
>>> As for Dawkins and company, I would be pleased to debate any of them on
>>> the
>>> question, "Is Nature all there is?" If you or someone else can arrange
>>> the
>>> details, please be in touch. MN itself needs an explanation--*why* is it
>>> so
>>> successful? Under polytheistic religion it ought not be so, and under
>>> atheism it ought not be so, either. Only monotheism can give a clear and
>>> coherent account of why MN works so well. I don't give a hoot if Dawkins
>>> is
>>> happy to see theists defending MN, but I do care whether he can account
>>> for
>>> the success of his own science as well as theists can. I don't think he
>>> can.
>>> Finally, concerning Boyle and the division of knowledge, I have another
>>> surprise for you. In published catalogs that he approved, as well as in
>>> private catalogs for his own use, Boyle divided his own works into two
>>> main
>>> categories: natural philosophical and theological. There are numerous
>>> such
>>> examples, and some of the hitherto unpublished ones are found in vol. 14
>>> of
>>> the edition of his works that I did with Michael Hunter. Sometimes he did
>>> not make this distinction, simply listing all sorts of works-in-progress
>>> to
>>> keep track of them, but often enough he did make this distinction. When
>>> he
>>> made any sort of distinction, it was usually as described here. And, he
>>> did
>>> so at the height of his career in the 1670s as well as at the height of
>>> his
>>> fame at the end of his life in 1691. Furthermore, he typically published
>>> his "theological" works under a pseudonym such as "[Rober]T. [Boyl]E. a
>>> lay-man," or "A Fellow of the Royal Society," or even no name at all on
>>> the
>>> title page. This was in fact the norm for his theological works, further
>>> indicating that he accepted the kind of distinction that you claim he did
>>> not make. For more on this see the introduction to vol. 1 in the edition.
>>> Ted
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Received on Thu Apr 16 11:16:37 2009

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