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

From: Alexanian, Moorad <>
Date: Sun Apr 19 2009 - 20:31:42 EDT

 Hi Gregory,
The basic question is what is the subject matter of science? I define it to be the physical aspect of Nature. Therefore, how do we get the appropriate data of the physical aspect of Nature? This is accomplished with the aid of purely physical devices. Period!
What is left out that you consider part of science? Herein lies the limitations of science of not being able to study the whole of reality but only the physical. Surely, human beings design the physical apparatuses that do the measurements but that is the extent of human involvement in procuring the data. After the data is obtained, humans do the theorizing and the model development. However, the main point is what constitutes the data and how do you get it.
A main characterization of the purely physical is that it is inorganic, nonliving. For instance, to what extent is DNA a human being? DNA is purely physical; humans are physical/nonphysical/supernatural. Therefore, those who claim to know all about humans because they know all about their DNA are throwing the baby with the bath water.
What theory do you need to know that to observe that a stone tends to fall toward the earth when released? None. Newton developed the theory that allowed much more from such mere observation.
Philosophers and philosophers of science have spoken and written about what is time. In science, time is defined operationally and based on that science has advanced. On the nature of time, philosophers and philosophers of science will talk until hell freezes over and they will accomplish nothing.

From: Gregory Arago []
Sent: Sunday, April 19, 2009 5:12 PM
To: Don Winterstein; Bill Powers; Alexanian, Moorad
Cc: asa
Subject: RE: definition of physical; was Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents

Hi Moorad,

Sorry to jump in here, but now it is you who are revealing your biases. You are a physicist. Does it not make sense that you would 'privilege' the physical?
I find your view of 'science' far too narrow. It is way out of tune with what philosophy of science has come to know in the last 30 or so years. This is imo partly why you have had such difficulty with and resistance from people on this list, e.g. with your views about 'operational' and 'origins' or 'historical' science.

For example, you write:
"All the apparatuses used in physics are purely physical devices. The data obtained by these measuring devices form the subject matter not only of physics but also of science. That is my definition of what science is."

Your definition of what science is, however, doesn't take into any account human beings, i.e. those who *made* the science itself. To put a name on it, your 'science' is entirely 'unreflexive.' It seeks to be 'objective' by retreating into the 'purely physical,' when as a matter of fact, flesh and blood and soil, such a view is impossible to maintain.

Science *is* a human construction. These 'purely physical devices' you speak of as scientific instruments to collect data are all man-made. You are basing your views on an objectivity myth.

On this, indeed, Bill is entirely correct to question you. If you have used no theory to define what is 'physical' then please say so. Have you used *no theory* at all to define 'physical'?

"By our theories you shall know us." "It is the theory which decides what can be observed."

Bill's mentions of phenomenology show that he is much more in tune with current philosophy of science than you are Moorad. And as it turns out, philosophy of science and not physics rules the roost on this topic.


--- On Mon, 4/20/09, Alexanian, Moorad <> wrote:
From: Alexanian, Moorad <>
Subject: RE: definition of physical; was Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and Effect, Non-Natural Agents
To: "Don Winterstein" <>, "Bill Powers" <>
Cc: "asa" <>
Received: Monday, April 20, 2009, 12:55 AM

I am glad the subject of this thread has been changes since I believe that
determining what is physical is all important in knowing what science is and
what it is not. I often use the term purely physical to emphasize the physical
aspect. Of course, there is an ontological aspect even to a stone, which
possesses existence as well as being “purely” physical. In studying
consciousness in science, we deal only with its physical manifestation and not
the nonphysical and supernatural aspects of consciousness.

From: Don Winterstein []
Sent: Thursday, April 16, 2009 12:17 PM
To: Alexanian, Moorad; Bill Powers
Cc: asa
Subject: definition of physical; was Re: [asa] Natural Agents - Cause and
Effect, Non-Natural Agents


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
This interaction, I presume, has to produce a "physical effect,"
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
> 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
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
>> 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
>>> 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
>>> I respond here to these two paragraphs from Gregory's post:
>>> The problem is not your history here, it is your philosophy.
>>> 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
>>> 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
>>> 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
>>> 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
>>> 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
>>> 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
>>> 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
>>> 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
>>> 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
>>> 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
>>> main
>>> categories: natural philosophical and theological. There are
>>> 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
>>> to
>>> keep track of them, but often enough he did make this distinction.
>>> 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
>>> 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,
>>> 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
>>> Ted
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Received on Sun Apr 19 20:33:26 2009

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