[asa] The Physical

From: Bill Powers <wjp@swcp.com>
Date: Sun May 31 2009 - 18:51:35 EDT

There are a number of terms that have recently been bandied about,
including the physical, the nonphysical, the supernatural, and perhaps

Here I offer a conventional account of a framework within which to think
about these and other terms, one I'm sure you are all familiar with.

1) The semantic content of a term is intended to describe a class and
enable one to be able to determine the extension and instances of that
2) Such classes are described by certain essential properties or
3) Each element of the class must possess all the essential properties
of that class.
4) Each element may, and generally will, possess other properties that,
relative to the class, are accidental, or non-essential properties.
5) Subgroups can generally be drawn within the group using properties
that are accidental for the class, but essential for the subgroup.
6) All entities can be fit either into the class or not in the class.
7) The essential properties of those classes that are not in the class
are determined by the negation of the essential properties of those
within the class.
8) The essential properties of those classes that are outside the given
class is the alternation of the negation of each of the essential
properties of the class. That is, if essential properties of the group
are A, B, and C, then each element of the class must satisfy the
conjunction of A, B, and C, and the essential properties of classes not
in the class must include: ~A V ~B V ~C.
9) So if the essential properties of a class A includes the negation of
one or more of the essential properties of a class B, class A is not
within class B.
10) An entity cannot be both in the class and not in the class.

With this as a background, we conclude that

1) If an essential human property is the negation of any essential
property of the physical, humans are nonphysical.

Suppose, for example, that one identifies the physical with not have
"free will" and affirms that humans have "free will," then humans are
nonphysical entities.

2) If one constitutes the physical more broadly than in (1), then humans
are physical as long as all of their essential elements are not a
negation of intrinsic physical properties.

One might, then, permit "free will" to be an accidental aspect of the
physical. In doing so, of course, one permits the possibility that
physical entities might possess free will. In this way, at least with
regard to free will, humans may be regarded as physical.

It is worthwhile, in this context, to consider individuals and not
classes. With individuals the task is to determine what classes this
individual fits into. By design, all individuals fit into either the
physical or nonphysical.

If an individual possesses all the essential physical properties, the
individual is physical, otherwise, nonphysical.

Consider a human, as such he possesses all the essential properties of
humanness. All human individuals possess other accidental properties.
Suppose that one of them is something like "able to pass through walls."
Such a property would in general be an accidental property of the
physical (neutrinos can pass through walls). But can it be an
accidental property for a human? Suppose then this individual is not
human. Is it physical? Based upon our knowledge of atoms, we would
think not. Suppose this individual is composed of neutrinos and the
like (I leave it to your imagination). Is it physical? We might
presume it impossible according to physical law. But what properties of
the physical has it violated? Has it violated "physical law"? But how
do we know that if our knowledge of physical law comes from studying the
physical? Do scientist only study the physical, or is what scientists
study the physical?

Can we discover a set of criteria or properties of entities that will
serve as essential properties of all that we call physical? In doing so
and permitting all other properties as accidental, can any instances of
the physical possess any of the accidental properties and still be
called physical? Is there possibly no such classical class called the
physical, but rather a loosely connected set of groupings, each subgroup
possessing its own essential physical characteristics, but not common to
all groupings?


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Received on Sun May 31 17:43:50 2009

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