RE: [asa] The whole of reality (subject name changed)

From: Bill Powers <>
Date: Fri May 29 2009 - 09:16:12 EDT


I apologize for perhaps having read too quickly and missed a more subtle
nuance that you intended. I did notice that you said "purely physical," but I
did not grasp its significance.

What I take you be saying is that it would be miraculous if a purely physical
device could record a nonphysical event.
By "purely" you mean that there is no "nonphysical" component (for lack of a
better word) in the device. Because humans are not wholly "physical," they
can "record" nonphysical events. (Since the supernatural, I presume, would be
nonphysical, supernatural events would likewise be included.)

Am I correct in taking the word "record" as including any kind of interaction
or effect. That is, if a device could not record an event, then the event
cannot produce or affect the device?

Now I need to understand what you mean by "miraculous." Many often take the
word miraculous to entail that the event is a violation of physical law. That
presumes a certain understanding of physical law that generally would entail
that the miraculous is a physical impossibility. As soon as I say "physical
impossibility," I run into problems since it is the word "physical" that we
are struggling with.

Am I correct to conclude you are saying that for a purely physical device to
be effected by a nonphysical event is impossible, unless God were to work a
miracle that violated physical necessity?

If this is what you are saying, my point remains unchanged. I would like to
know why you believe this. To repeat myself, is this true by definition of
the "purely physical"? Do you know this by experience (i.e., it is a
contingent truth)?

As I said in previous postings, this belief appears to date from the time of
Descartes. Yet he had no problem with the idea that mind/spirit could effect
changes in the "purely physical." Of course, for Descartes there were only
two spirits, man and God. Since he believed in angels, I presume he also
thought angels to be spirit. I take spirit to be nonphysical. Yet, it seems,
angels can also affect the "purely physical."

These examples, with which I am fairly certain you will agree, are cases where
the nonphysical affect the purely physical. But isn't this the same as a
purely physical device recording (being affected by) a nonphysical event?

Not long before Descartes it was common to believe that magnetism was a kind
of spirit that had influence upon the purely physical. Similar attitudes were
sometimes associated with light. Granted that in part this is a remnant of
the Aristotelian, organic science. My only point is that perhaps even up to
the time of Newton it would not have been odd to believe that purely physical
devices could be affected by nonphysical causes.

The point at which all of this trying to get at is what we mean by physical
and what we mean by nonphysical. I claim that the notion has changed.
Indeed, I would suggest that either the distinction is impotent or that by
definition everything within the universe is physical. According to this
latter view, men can have no spirits since they wholly reside in the universe.
 This is the view of nonreductive physicalists (Nancey Murphy). I think this
is also the only view that can be spoken or employed in methodological

I hope we are making some progress. It is not that I disagree with your
categories (physical, nonphysical, spiritual). I only think that these ideas
are fuzzy enough that we are going to have difficulty saying much about them.
 I would prefer that what we say be not conceptual/definitional, but
empirical. If the latter, there is the possibility that we be surprised. For
example, it is not insane to me to entertain the notion that subatomic
particles or things like photons might be spiritual. Of course, if by
definition they cannot be, there is nothing more to say.

For example, must spiritual entail "free will"? Must it entail a kind of
will, albeit not incombatibilist free will? You see by following this line of
thinking I am following a line suggested by Cameron. It is an ancient line,
rejected by the mechanists (Boyle), but one that it seems to me has been taken
up again in our day. Surely the features of the physical that we commonly
accept today would have been insane to Boyle or Descartes. Perhaps Ted can
comment on this, being an expert on Boyle.

Well enough said. Thanks for the conversation.


"Alexanian, Moorad" <> said:

> Bill,
> What is written carefully ought to be read carefully. I did not say “it
miraculous that a physical device could record a nonphysical or supernatural
event” rather I wrote, “It would be miraculous if purely physical devices
reacted or recorded nonphysical or supernatural ‘data.’ “ The key word is
purely physical. Humans are partly physical yet not purely physical. We want
to define the subject matter of science via purely physical devices. No humans
allowed, in principle, as collectors of data. Herein lies the objectivity of
> Suppose a neuroscientist wants to record and decipher a thought. Surely, he
can physically detect brain waves and so on but can that physical data
determine the knowledge-content of the thought. It is impossible since
knowledge is nonphysical.
> It is true that detectors do detect electrons but so can the same detectors
detect the physical aspect of humans but that does not make humans purely
physical whereas electrons can be so classified.
> Of course, one must define what is physical. First you would have to
characterize the purely physical and suppose that anything that gives rise to
a “click” in the purely physical device is itself partly or wholly physical.
Of course, I cannot prove that a spiritual being cannot give rise to a “click”
in the device but that would essentially make scientific experimentation and
knowledge null and void.
> Moorad
> ________________________________________
> From: Bill Powers []
> Sent: Thursday, May 28, 2009 7:34 PM
> To: Alexanian, Moorad
> Cc: Gregory Arago; Cameron Wybrow;
> Subject: RE: [asa] The whole of reality (subject name changed)
> Moorad:
> You say:
> >
> > The reason science can only investigate the physical aspect of nature is on
> how science collects data, which is by means of purely physical devices.
> It would be miraculous if purely physical devices reacted or recorded
> nonphysical or supernatural “data.” I find easier to deal with the concept
> of physical than material.
> First, note that I am only asking or inquiring. I am not trying to
> establish a position, but merely explore one.
> I do not find it miraculous that a physical device could record a
> nonphysical or supernatural event. Not too long ago science believed it
> did this commonly. There is no logical reason that such could not happen.
> Are you asserting that it is physically impossible? If so, on what basis
> do you do so? Or is this merely a tautology, a definition of what the
> physical is: it is what "physical" instruments record or are sensitive to.
> By this definition, if according to theory an electron causes a dial to
> move, then by definition an electron is physical.
> You say:
> >
> > One real does not need direct human sensible experience except to read the
> measuring devices and thus obtain the data. Note that all phenomena are not
> physical. Love is a human phenomenon that goes beyond its physical
> manifestation where even the supernatural comes into play.
> >
> > Humans as “detectors” can experience nonphysical and supernatural
> phenomena. That is why I do not define science via the human “detector”
> but by means of purely physical devices.
> >
> OK. I like this. Most scientists, however, would not regard "subjective"
> experience as legitimate phenomena, rather it must be depersonalized,
> universalized, and public.
> Got to go. More later,.
> bill
> > ________________________________________
> > From: Bill Powers []
> > Sent: Thursday, May 28, 2009 4:19 PM
> > To: Alexanian, Moorad
> > Cc: Gregory Arago; Cameron Wybrow;
> > Subject: Re: [asa] The whole of reality (subject name changed)
> >
> > Moorad:
> >
> > Just some quick questions.
> >
> > Why do we say that science can only investigate the physical?
> > Is there a difference between the material and the physical?
> > Are some immaterial things physical?
> >
> > It is not at all clear why we presume that the spiritual and the physical
> > cannot interact.
> > Science all the time investigates the invisible, even in principle
> > invisible (quarks). When it does so is it utterly clear that it is
> > investigating the physical?
> >
> > Science studies phenomena; and what are phenomena?
> > Ultimately, in all cases, phenomena must be capable of human sensible
> > experience.
> >
> > Complex instruments, in conjunction with complex theory of the invisible,
> > are employed in enabling us to make of the invisible phenomena.
> >
> > Are all phenomena physical?
> >
> > Why presume that because we can make of the invisible something that
> > influences our senses that it is physical?
> >
> > Are all such invisible entities physical by definition, or is it an
> > empirical conclusion.
> >
> > It seems that it is definitional.
> >
> > It is perhaps better to drop notions such as physical, immaterial, and
> > nonphysical, and speak instead of just the phenomena and the stories we
> > concoct about the phenomena. Does it really add anything to call
> > photons physical, although they are immaterial? What is spirit and how do
> > we distinguish it from the physical? This is by no means clear. What is
> > called physical today in the early days of science was considered a type
> > of spirit.
> >
> > bill
> >
> >
> > On Thu, 28 May 2009,
> > Alexanian, Moorad wrote:
> >
> >> Gregory,
> >> The reason science cannot study the nonphysical and the supernatural is
> > that by definition those two sets are the relative complement of the purely
> > physical elements of the physical set.
> > This is so since science has been defined by its subject matter, which is
> > data that can be collected, in principle, by purely physical devices.
> > In other words, purely physical devices cannot detect thoughts and other
> > mental concepts, self, etc. nor the supernatural.
> >> The physical and the supernatural sets do overlap, but are not the same.
> > For instance, humans are elements of the union of the physical, nonphysical,
> > and supernatural sets. This is the reason I take the supernatural as being
> > part of Nature because humans are part of Nature. In addition, the creation
> > of man in the image of God forces us to make the supernatural an aspect of
> > Nature.
> >> Knowledge, the number pi, mental abstractions, etc., are nonphysical but
> > certainly not supernatural. I think, as C.S. Lewis indicates, reasoning is
> > indeed supernatural. However, God is Supernatural but, as Creator, is not in
> > Nature. Of course, the incarnation is a deliberate invasion of God himself
> > into His creation.
> >> Different kinds of knowledge study different aspects of the whole of
reality. For instance, to study only the physical aspect of man does not tell
us who man truly is. The claim that it does, is reductionism at its worst.
This is my qualm with evolutionary theory, which will eventual base all on
genetic coding, which is purely physical.
> >> I am here merely indicating what my thoughts are regarding what is real.
Future research may prove some aspects of this wrong. However, I doubt it.
> >> I am attempting to order the different kinds of knowledge, which are
defined by their subject matters, and integrate them so that we truly deal
with the whole of reality. This must be accomplished without any sort of
> >> I hope I have answered all your questions Gregory. If not, keep on
asking. Some of this material can be found in my website:
> >> Moorad
> >>
> >>
> >> ________________________________
> >> From: Gregory Arago []
> >> Sent: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 12:49 PM
> >> To: Bill Powers; Alexanian, Moorad
> >> Cc: Cameron Wybrow;
> >> Subject: RE: [asa] ID/Miracles/Design (Behe vs. Behe)
> >>
> >>
> >> Hi Bill and Alexanian,
> >>
> >> I suppose the thread has turned a bit off topic, since nobody,s talking
about Behe any more. But then again, that,s often when the fun begins on ASA,
when people diverge from often travelled pathways. : - )
> >>
> >> As with Bill, I agree that that what Moorad is proposing is appealing.
The triad of physical/non-physical/supernatural means that <science> cannot
study the <non-physical> or the <supernatural>. It also restricts the
<physical> and the <supernatural> from overlapping. And it claims that
<science> only studies one-third of what constitutes human beings, i.e. as an
<entity>, which is what Moorad calls them/us.
> >>
> >> I can,t help but suggest that Moorad,s triad echos the language of
<positive science>, like what a zoologist would speak, and not the language of
<reflexive science>, as an anthropologist would speak. But perhaps that is
part of his legitimization strategy.
> >>
> >> I wonder how Moorad distinguishes between what is <non-physical> and what
is <supernatural> given that if we *are* (as a fact) created imago Dei, the
<non-physical> aspects of humanity would be presumably available also in/to
the <supernatural>. I also wonder if Moorad,s triad is reasonable or logical
or mystical given that it opposes two different base concepts. Why not
<natural>, <non-natural> and <supernatural> instead? Why not <superphysical>
instead of <supernatural>? Perhaps he,ll address these questions here or in a
new thread.
> >>
> >> How does he distinguish the <natural> from the <physical.> (Or is that
not important?) For example, <physics>, as a scientific and academic
discipline, is typically categorized as a <natural science.> Is he taking
offence that <natural> is typical a <larger> or <wider> category than
<physical> and thus trying to simplify his definition of <science>?
> >>
> >> And then what about all of those <sciences>, i.e. as many people call
them, that do not particularly study <physical> things? Does his perspective
disqualify them as <science> or devalue their contribution to human
(self-)knowledge? Or does his position actually uplift those fields because
they study human beings, which are partly <supernatural> entities? And what
about all of the human-social scientists who don,t think that there is
anything <supernatural> about human beings? Are they contradictory in their
own disciplines?
> >>
> >> It also doesn't seem to me that Moorad has answered Bill,s question, or
at least not directly. Bill asked: <The materialist will argue that if ,every,
behavior can be accounted for by a physical process that the living are
nothing but physical. What would you say to that?>
> >>
> >> Moorad answered: <To the materialist I would say, go tell your wife,
husband, children, friends, etc. that they are nothing but a complicated
solution of the Schrödinger equation. Let us see how they take that.>
> >>
> >> The materialist, as you know, Moorad, can argue for <non-physical> things
just as easily as the person who believes in spiritual reality. I think this
is partly what was behind Bill,s question. Aren't there various <levels> of
explanation, which are available even to materialists, Moorad? Or is it just
something simple like <vulgar materialism> and not something more
sophisticated like <dialectical materialism> that you would argue this way
against? One could just as easily point the figure at <mechanistic> thinkers
in our age of electricity and computers (i.e. machines).
> >> Indeed, there are those in science who think <consciousness> will one day
be explained via physical or material processes. How do you respond to them?
Is it merely fantasy? Is the <power> of <science> blown way out of proportion
(no pun intended given the DPRKs recent posturing on the Korean Penninsula) to
what is most important in people,s lives? Are you <promoting> a humanisation
of <science> or rather greater relevance for whatever fields study the
<supernatural> in human existence, to contribute to our self-community
knowledge? I,d sure appreciate your insights, Moorad, as I think you offer a
unique view amongst the ASA listserve community.
> >>
> >> I think Moorad,s position can help to <put science in its place>, to
<situate> it or draw boundaries around it, so to speak. But I worry that by
limiting <science> to merely physical things, he,ll lose the strongest weapon
available against scientism. The uniqueness of human-social scholarship
conveys something that <science> as Moorad considers it can never address. But
don,t trust me on the <never>, folks, just because I,m on your side working in
a (roughly 2/3 of the academy) realm that is predominantly against us.
> >>
> >> Gregory
> >>
> >> --- On Tue, 5/26/09, Alexanian, Moorad <> wrote:
> >>
> >> From: Alexanian, Moorad <>
> >> Subject: RE: [asa] ID/Miracles/Design (Behe vs. Behe)
> >> To: "Bill Powers" <>
> >> Cc: "Cameron Wybrow" <>, ""
> >> Received: Tuesday, May 26, 2009, 7:14 PM
> >>
> >> Bill,
> >>
> >> A human is a physical/nonphysical/supernatural entity. Also, life cannot
be characterized in purely physical terms. I totally reject physicalism;
however, the subject matter of science is data that can be collected, in
principle, with the aid of purely physical devises.
> >>
> >> To the materialist I would say, go tell your wife, husband, children,
friends, etc. that they are nothing but a complicated solution of the
Schrödinger equation. Let us see how they take that. Also, let the
materialist live by what he/she preaches by not using words that cannot be
characterized in terms of the purely physical. For instance, do not use the
words like love, kindness, sin, etc. Let us face it, if a materialist
description of him/her was realized, then he/she would be reduced to a pile of
useless chemicals, viz. no life, no consciousness not self at all, the
original dirt.
> >>
> >> Moorad
> >>
> >>
> >> ________________________________
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Received on Fri May 29 09:17:05 2009

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