Re: [asa] Definition of Physical

From: Don Winterstein <>
Date: Sun Apr 19 2009 - 07:32:24 EDT

As I hinted earlier, I'm not sure I could come up with a universally applicable definition of "physical." A practical definition that would satisfy me most of the time is operational: An entity is physical if and only if scientists can study details of its interactions. This definition allows for the possibility that parapsychologists may be able to study spiritual events statistically but won't be able to examine cause-effect details. Note that the gospels portray Jesus as proficient in psychokinesis and ESP, so Christians can't deny the possibility that humans may have such capabilities.

I also believe touch is the most basic sense. That's a possible reason why infants come equipped at birth with more capacity to understand than we might otherwise expect. Of course, they can also hear in the womb; but as you point out, they would be able to function even if deaf.

However, our big brains and opposable thumbs allow us to investigate in detail a great many things we can't touch. (Thumbs are essential for building and operating sophisticated instruments efficiently.) IMO it's a big mistake to depreciate--as you tend to do--the real knowledge of the world we can come up with through a combination of theory and measuring instruments (experiment).


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Bill Powers<>
  To: Don Winterstein<>
  Cc: asa<>
  Sent: Saturday, April 18, 2009 9:24 PM
  Subject: [asa] Definition of Physical

  I'd like to return to this question of what is meant by the physical.
  I have suggested that it, at least at one time, and ought to now have a
  phenomonological reference.

  Aristotle believed that the primary sense was that of touch. It seems
  that this is a good place to start. Our primordial sense of what is
  physical is that it is tangible. We can touch it and feel it. This seems
  to be what we all have meant by what is physical. Ghosts and spirits are
  not physical because we cannot feel them, even if we can see them. We may
  often speak of ideas as nonphysical for the same reason.

  Metaphorical extensions of physicality would follow from extended
  notions of touch. Note that this might be different from extended notions
  of seeing. We speak of seeing solar neutrinos because we believe we can
  observe them remotely.

  How are metaphorical extensions of seeing different from touching? I am
  reminded that it was once said (I can't remember who) that something is
  real if when you kick it, it kicks back. Such an idea appears close to the
  idea of touch, and hence to the idea of something being physical. I don't
  see the danger in an electric fence when we approach it. But when it
  kicks back, we are certain of it. Do we say, then, that something
  physical has hit us? We can see a mirage, but touching/tasting the
  water is convincing.

  Perhaps our very notion of an 'effect' is an extension of touching. It
  does seem to me that touching is considered more reliable than seeing.
  Thomas said that unless he could see and touch the wounds of Jesus, he
  would not believe. It is true that we rely upon both senses. But isn't
  it so that, even if blind, if we can touch something, we believe it real,
  and, for the sake of this discussion, physical.

  So I guess that's as far as I'll go at this late hour.
  The suggestion is to look for metaphorical extensions of touching, perhaps
  in contradistinction from that of seeing, which is what is more commonly


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Received on Sun Apr 19 06:33:08 2009

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