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

From: Alexanian, Moorad <>
Date: Sun Apr 19 2009 - 17:02:52 EDT

Quantum mechanics and relativity are contrary to “common sense.” The data collected by purely physical devices has given us a truer picture of what reality is than our senses will ever give us. Such data supports the interpretation of them in terms of quantum mechanics and relativity theory. Therefore, the subject matter of science is indeed data that can be collected, in principle, by purely physical devices.

From: [] On Behalf Of Don Winterstein []
Sent: Friday, April 17, 2009 1:12 AM
To: wjp
Cc: asa
Subject: Re: [asa] Re: definition of physical; was Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents

"...There is some distinction between the commonsense physical world and the
abstract entities of theories."

There exists in external reality no such thing as "the commonsense physical world." What we mean by the commonsense physical world is a very elaborate set of interpretations that we have imposed on our perceptions from before birth and ever since by a bootstrap process. The integral of all these interpretations is what we take to be our commonsense world. It is commonsense only because that's what it has come to be in our mind.

(The discovery of the vagaries of quantum mechanics has taught that our perceptions don't give us accurate models of the world. Our interpretations of our perceptions give us models of the world that are often useful but not accurate.)

What you call the "abstract entities of theories" are not what you call them. Atoms are not abstract, and they are not entities of theories any more than a man you see on the street is an entity of a theory. In reality, of course, the man on the street is an entity of a theory, the theory that your visual perceptions give you factual info, and that if some particular perception looks like a man and walks like a man that it is a man. In reality you don't know just by looking that what you see walking on the street is really a man or even human. You assume it because of prior experience.

Scientific instruments have greatly extended our perceptions, so that we can now know in elaborate detail physical entities that previously were beyond even imagining. By a bootstrap process we become able to interpret our perceptions of such entities more and more accurately in greater and greater detail. We come to realize that they exist as real entities and then learn details of their properties. The process is no different in principle from the processes we go through early in life to develop our commonsense view of the physical world. It's just that we do this kind of thing when we're more intelligent and capable and have better reasoning faculty. In the end these once unknown entities become an integral part of the commonsense physical world of those persons who get to know them. They do not become part of the commonsense world of everyone, because not everyone develops familiarity with them.

They are entities of theories only in the sense that everything else we perceive in the physical world is an entity of theories.


----- Original Message -----
From: wjp<>
To: Don Winterstein<>
Cc: Moorad Alexanian<> ; asa<>
Sent: Thursday, April 16, 2009 10:38 AM
Subject: [asa] Re: definition of physical; was Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents


Let me reply briefly.

Granted the distinction between observable and theoretical entities can
be fuzzy, but that does not, as Plato's beard, imply he has no beard.

Clearly, there is some distinction between the commonsense physical world and the
abstract entities of theories. One might suggest that all such
abstractions are analogous extensions of our commonsense world, e.g., waves
and particles.

It is also clear that our ordinary sense of seeing has been extended,
influencing in return what we take as direct observation. Even your
description of normal seeing would have been out of place not too long ago.

Are we to believe that there is no sense of "physical" outside of the
existence of atoms and the like? What seems far more likely to me is
that there is a prior sense of physical that has been extended and
modified by subsequent science. I would prefer to follow Heidegger's
advice: keep your eyes on the phenomena. No matter how much I may
believe electrons in some sense exist, they are not phenomena.
Instead, it is something else which persuades us that they are "physical."
At least that is my contention.



On Thu, 16 Apr 2009 08:17:54 -0800, "Don Winterstein" <<>> wrote:
> Moorad,
> 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.
> Don
> ----- 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?
> bill
> On
> 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
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>>
> >>> To unsubscribe, send a message to
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> >>>
> >>>
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Received on Sun Apr 19 17:03:23 2009

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