What would evidence for the non-physical look like? A possible answer.

In the last post, I pondered what distinction between the physical and non-physical, noting that I’ve historically resisted the label of “physicalist” or “materialist” maintaining that, if any evidence for the non-physical ever did become available, I’d accept its existence.  I finished my post asking what that evidence might look like?  And if even asking that question was coherent.

In conversation with someone on that post’s thread, I might have answered my own question.  As I noted in the post, what we call empirical evidence is, in fact, sensory perception that can be reliably reproduced or at least corroborated.  There’s nothing that says that perception must be based on a physical measurement, although physicality is commonly assumed to be a crucial aspect, particularly after centuries of success with that assumption.

In the comment, I used the example of a ghost in a house.  If we received reports of ghost sightings in a house, and we investigated, and found that the ghost appeared reliably or at least with enough frequency that independent and skeptical witnesses reported similar attributes, then I’d be obliged to accept its existence.

However, that doesn’t mean that the ghost is necessarily non-physical.  It might simply be a form of matter or energy we’re not familiar with.  I’d want the ghost studied.  How are people seeing it?  Does it reflect or produce photons?  If so, then it would seem to be some kind of physical phenomena.

But suppose we discovered that no video camera could capture an image of it, no audio recorder could capture its speech (or moaning, or whatever sounds ghosts make).  At this point we’d be faced with a situation where the ghost appeared to be manifesting directly in our minds.

But we’re still not necessarily at the non-physical yet.  Does it make a difference if people go into the house wearing shielded helmets of increasingly dense material, or with magnetic pulse generators near their head?  Or does adding or removing mind altering drugs make any difference?  I’m sure there are a host of similar tests we could conduct.

But after every attempt to situate the ghost within the causal framework of physicality, we might well be faced with a situation where we have evidence for the non-physical.  It would be evidence for more than just the external phenomena itself, it would be evidence for some aspect of ourselves, or at least some aspect of the witnesses, being non-physical.

So evidence for the non-physical would have to involve sensory perceptions for which no interaction with the physical universe could be established.  Such evidence would indicate phenomena in a completely separate causal framework, for in essence, another type of substance, for some version of substance dualism.

Of course, many people claim to have such evidence, but it never seems to have be reproducible or have independent corroboration.   Ghosts and similar phenomena are notoriously fickle and unreliable, and never seem willing to show when skeptics are around.

But if we ever found such evidence, it would indicate the existence of a separate causal framework, a spirit world which many are already convinced exists.  All that remains is the non-trivial task of finding such evidence.  As always, unless I’m missing something?

In many ways, arriving at this conclusion makes me feel better.  It means that the distinction I’ve always made between being a materialist and what I call an evidentialist is a coherent one.  I’m a skeptic but a scientific one.  Show me evidence for phenomena, and I’ll accept its existence.

83 thoughts on “What would evidence for the non-physical look like? A possible answer.

  1. Isn’t it interesting that people who “make believe” have the rest of us scrambling around wondering about whether what they claim is real. The amount of effort needed to address their “imaginings” far exceeds the amount of effort concocting them in the first place. I guess this is just Brandolini’s law (The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.).

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  2. I think there is a problem with definition. If the ghost is real, would we not have to extend physics so that it covers such ghosts as well? Let’s assume we discover a new kind of dark matter, something that is outside of what current physical theories describe. I don’t think we would call it non-physical. It would be new physics, outside of the old standard modell, but physics.
    So what would a non-physical entity be? Maybe something that exists but does not work according to any laws? We could restrict physics to entities that can somehow be described in terms of mathematics. But maybe reality contains entities that cannot be described mathematically. We could call such things non-physical or we could accept their physicality and dump the idea that physics is necessarily mathematical.
    It depends on how you define physics. If you say “physics is only mechanics” (as was believed a couple of centuries ago) then electricity and magnetism
    are non-physical, and chemistry is outside physics as well.
    So I think it is, to an extent a matter of definition.

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    1. I agree that it is largely a matter of definition, on where we draw the line between what we call “physical” and what we don’t. In my previous post, I considered that the physical might simply be that which has consistent existence outside of our minds.

      But I think if the only way we could interact with an entity was by mental perception, and we could do so reliably enough to establish that it wasn’t just hallucination or group confusion, and that was the only way its existence manifested itself, then most people would likely consider it non-physical.

      Of course, there’s no evidence for anything like that, despite a great many people wanting there to be.

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      1. Maybe these people don’t know what kinds of spirits they are calling up there. They want there to be something like that, but this kind of belief usually leads into some kind of violent and suppressive system, be it religious or another ideology (I have just started to investigate something like this here: https://philosophicalexcavations.wordpress.com/2016/06/09/karl-faigl-2-from-is-to-ought-and-into-totalitarianism/ (about a 1920s/1930s German philosopher belonging into the neo-vitalistic current of German philosophy and “science”. He was trying to define a “holistic”, non-physical basis of biology and from there develop a kind of metaphysics from which values can be derived. This way of thinking lead him (and some others whom I am planning to investigate as well) strait into Nazi ideology.

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        1. It does seem like a good amount of mystical nonsense was tangled up with the Nazis. If someone is willing to accept unevidenced assertions about reality, usually because it’s what they simply want to be true, it probably shouldn’t be too shocking that they’d be willing to accept horrible public policies because they reaffirm their own prejudices.

          Of course, hindsight is 20/20. We have to remember the quack science the Soviet Union had going on (see Lysenkoism), not to mention the enthusiasm for eugenics in the US at the time.


          1. Definitely. And some of these people where quite smart (including Faigl, I am going to write more about him). The problem in those days was that DNA and its structure and way of working was not yet known, so the physicalist biologists could not really explain what was happening in organisms. Today it looks like there was just Darwinism, but there where lots of competing theories.
            A lot of mystical nonsense was indeed tangled up with the Nazis. The bad thing is that, although these things are no longer in the universities, they are still around in some peoples minds.
            The pseudo-scientific nonsense is part of the explanation how more or less educated people became followers of the Nazis. To see what happened with the simple minded ones, just attend one of Trump’s shows. Being rational is something humans are capable of, but it is nothing that comes by itself.

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      2. Is infinity, a mathematical concept, a physical reality? There is now a vast body of NDE and OBE data out there, some of which is evidential, and is most concisely explained in non physical terms. Attempts to explain them away in physical terms have proved facile. They do suggest that at some level mental states are fundamental, not derivative. Max Planck insisted that Consciousness was fundamental and we should revisit this view carefully. Our commitment to physicalism in science is starting to look like a sophisticated security blanket.


  3. “I’m a skeptic but a scientific one. Show me evidence for phenomena, and I’ll accept its existence.”

    Such a conclusion seems so utterly reasonable. It’s almost like a self-evident truth. So self-evident, in fact, you can read similar statements thousands of times each day.

    And so it makes me wonder–how much of thought is thought? How much of it is regurgitation?

    It certainly feels like thinking: puzzling out what’s credible evidence or not. Yet from the outside, it looks like nothing but repetition. Just like when reading about all those ancient Jesuits and priests, their “thinking” about God seems like nothing an aping of non-intelligent things.

    And then I’m forced to remember children–how, whenever they talk about ANY political topic, it immediately becomes clear they’re parroting, not reasoning.

    How much thought actually comprises thought? From this interior perspective of this moment, I certainly feel like a logical creature. Will I certainly look the part, though, hundreds of years from now? Or will it appear like my mind was too small to escape the common prejudices of the times? Hell, let’s not even go that far. Why drag the future into all of this? Why not keep it simple? From YOUR perspective, do I pass the test? Or am I just another monkey moron cobbling together pre-existing phrases and ideas?

    Hmm. This looks to be the straight road to misanthropy. Ah but rather than making me think less of people, it makes me think more of everything else. From my point of view, trees don’t think. But that same point of view suspects children don’t think either. And yet, look how much feeling exists in a child. Look how rich their inner lives are. Perhaps it isn’t so necessary to think. Or perhaps thought isn’t as important as we’d like it to be.

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    1. I think the answer is that we should always be aware that we may be prejudiced by our worldview and be open to evidence that violates our beliefs, beliefs we may not even realize we’re clinging to. Of course, the history of science seems to show that that is much easier said than done. I think of all the 19th century anthropologists whose thinking was clouded by racism. I’m sure their ideas seemed so self evidently correct to them back then, while today they seem so evidently tainted by societal hangups of the period.

      Still, what choice do we have to but make the best effort we can and be willing to test our ideas ruthlessly?

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  4. Excellent pair of posts, comment threads and all.

    I broadly agree with your line of reasoning here, assuming that I understand it: if a ghost can be seen and heard, then (with enough corroboration) one would conclude that the ghost is some kind of physical phenomenon. And, in such a case, we would merely be extending the physical realm to include ghosts in just the same way we would for a newly discovered species of plant or a newly discovered subatomic particle. And, if there were multiple, putatively reliable witnesses of the ghost, but the apparition was impossible to capture on camera or on a sound recording, then we would have to conclude either that 1) visual and sound phenomena work in a more complicated way than we once believed, or 2) that the phenomenon was occurring “in the viewers’ minds” but had no independent physical reality.

    The second conclusion is the interesting one for me, in that any number of non-physical phenomena (ghosts, divine beings, ineffable experiences) are typically argued (by materialists) to exist only in the mind of the beholder. And, a materialist would probably add, this mental experience of a ghost could be traced (if we understood the brain well enough) to a specific material cause in the brain, some particular balance of imbalance of neurotransmitters and receptors in a specific physical brain region.

    So far so good–I would agree entirely with that line of thinking. The tricky bit for me, though, is to ask whether this ghost-vision that emerges from an entirely physical brain state “means” anything, in the sense that a meaningful idea can be a valid organizing principle for human existence. Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, who informs him of the crime Claudius has committed. We could say that the ghost vision is occurring entirely in Hamlet’s mind–perhaps the ghost is a kind of unconscious welling up of what Hamlet had always intuited to be true about Claudius (Hamlet’s answer to the ghost, after all, is “Oh, my prophetic soul!”) When teaching the play, I always linger a while over this scene to tell my students that they will all be visited by the ghost of their father–maybe even before their father has died. What I mean is that the ghost is a mythological representation of a powerful organizing principle in our lives, especially as we enter adulthood and attempt to come to terms with all of the parental teaching we have absorbed.

    Would it be better for us–individually or as a society–if we tackled the issues of our parents’ teachings “rationally,” through, say, therapy, without recourse to mythological explanations like ghosts? Maybe–it’s tempting to define the word “myth” as “a false story” and then look for a more “true” (i.e. materialist) explanation of events. But I would suggest that there is a great deal of power in myth as well–the word “myth” can also be defined as a story which symbolically expresses a truth about the human condition. Our rationality is a very thin film on the deep old ocean of our brains, and some of what wells up–in dreams, or as ghosts–may be expressing a profound underlying reality about our existence that it is beyond our powers to articulate in a different way. We can say that the ghost is only in Hamlet’s mind, but that explanation (though factually, journalistically true) may be missing a larger point about what is going on in Hamlet’s life.

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    1. I very much appreciate your thoughts. I think we hold a model of every person we interact with in our minds. When the external person is gone, the model lingers. If the person meant a great deal to us, then the model probably remains with us the rest of our lives. In that sense, I think ghosts are real.

      An image occurring to one person undoubtedly means something to that person, and is probably a powerful emotional experience. Of course, if they’re the only one who saw the ghost, then we have to conclude that it’s most likely a private experience, not an objective one out in the world.

      Totally agree that myths often express truths, just as a lot of modern day fiction does. Indeed, people read and watch fiction for the same reason they used to sit around the camp fire and hear stories, to learn about those fundamental truths. As long as we don’t get literalistic about the stories themselves, and as long as we can remember that the stories reflect a particular society’s views of truth, and hence could ultimately be wrong, then all is good.

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        1. Space and time are fundamental physical concepts. Your question implies that you think they might not be. But “empty” space is a Newtonian way of thinking about the physical world. Newtonian physics considers the world to be made of well-defined objects at specific locations in space, moving in time. Modern physics isn’t really like that.

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          1. Thanks Steve, my question was triggered by Mike’s own in the title and by his subsequent remark: “. . . if any evidence for the non-physical ever did become available, I’d accept its existence.” You’re saying that space and time are ‘concepts’, and I’m trying to get at whether they’re physical or non-physical. A concept, to most minds (sic), is non-physical in essence, leaving aside its genesis being the brain. Does this concept have any referent, and if so, what is its nature – physical or non-physical? Personally, I’m dubious that the distinction has ultimate validity, but let’s leave me out of it as I’m not in any way qualified to talk on the subject.

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          2. All models of the physical universe are by their nature conceptual, and are not the thing itself. Concepts are created by the human mind; the physical universe itself is indifferent to whatever humans do or think. The challenge for science is to create models, or concepts, that map exactly to the physical universe they are supposed to represent. Space, time, energy, motion, and so on, are human-devised ways of talking about the reality in which we find ourselves.

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    1. Space and time can be warped, compressed, and stretched by the existence of matter. The recent discovery of gravitational waves was actually a measurement (indirectly) of that compressing and stretching caused by unimaginably massive objects (black holes) merging.

      In other words, they are part of the physical causal framework. (Although to be fair, we didn’t know that until Einstein.)

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        1. It seems perverse to call empty space “physical” in everyday parlance, but I think it means that it is part of the physical causal framework, and from what I understand, empty space is filled with virtual quantum particles constantly coming into and out of existence.

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          1. Then surely by that definition physicality is infinitely extant and all-pervasive; and in fact, there is no ’empty space’? Does passing time also not exist as it is ‘filled’ with things happening?

            I heard you earlier on how space and time are “part of the physical causal framework”, but that sounded a little like ducking the question, with respect, Mike. [Not that you are under any obligation to answer!]

            Your piece began asking what evidence for the non-physical would look like, and you seem to be inferring that space and time are not non-physical – i.e. they are physical.

            But let’s nail it in speaking plainly if we can, are empty space and the passing of time physical or non-physical, leaving aside causation? Or are these categories ultimately meaningless?


          2. I’d ask for charity in interpretation here Hariod as having these kinds of discussions without it is almost impossible. By “physical” in this post, I meant within the philosophy of physicalism, and by “non-physical”, I meant outside of that worldview. In that sense, I do think space and time are physical.

            However, I remain open to the possibility that the categories are meaningless, that there is nothing but the physical, particularly since there is no evidence for anything else, at least not yet.

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          1. How come only you philosophers can escape gravity? Anyway, space is completely full up with ring doughnuts all of which curve back on themselves – so watch where you’re pointing that thing! Wait a minute, you can’t throw it anywhere because there ain’t no doughnuts beyond where you are – your gravity-defying javelin won’t ‘go’ anywhere! I think the answer is your javelin turns into a doughnut.

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          2. As a physicist I feel I should draw your attention to the fact that you can’t throw a javelin through a marshmallow; only through a doughnut. Physics is very simple, really.

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          3. Because we live in cloud cuckoo land!

            What a conundrum! To throw or not to throw, that is the question. If I don’t throw, I don’t get my doughnut, I get a either useless weapon or a weapon which poses a potential self-extinguishing “existential threat” as they say. If I throw, I get to watch my useless weapon turn into a doughnut, which I will never get to eat. Now everything turns on what kind of doughnut.

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          4. Clearly you people are determined to promote the doughnut heresy. So be it.


            (Please understand I do so out of concern for your eternal marshmallowness.)

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  5. I’m not sure about this ghost being a non-physical thing. If it appears in a particular location, doesn’t that anchor it to the physical world?

    If observers “sense” it even when photons, sound waves, electromagnetic waves and so on are screened out, then doesn’t that simply make it “action at a distance” affecting the human brain? A scan might show brain activity when the “ghost” is present.

    But if a scan showed no unusual brain activity but the observer still “felt” it was there, then this would suggest that the mind has some operation independent of the brain, and the ghost was interacting directly with thought, with no reference to the physical world. But I would return to my first point of the ghost phenomenon being localised in space, and would wonder how this could be a consistent state of affairs.

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    1. “If it appears in a particular location, doesn’t that anchor it to the physical world?”
      It might, but if no accounting of the physics of that location could be shown to have any causal link to it, it might seem increasingly strained to insist that there was simply unknown physics going on.

      “A scan might show brain activity when the “ghost” is present.”
      I think even if a scan showed brain activity, our inability to account for what caused that brain activity, having ruled out anything from the senses, environment, etc, the possibility that some non-physical aspect was the cause would be hard to ignore.

      All that said, I would be extremely slow to accept a non-physical explanation. Sean Carroll often says we have a complete accounting of everyday physics. We would have to eliminate every possibility in that accounting before I’d be willing to go there. Even then, I’m sure someone would evoke quantum mechanics, particularly when talk of spooky action at a distance came up.


  6. Hi Mike,

    I think you are saying that if something is perceived without any detectable physical signatures of the object of perception, other than the perception itself, and IF this experience occurs to persons who are inclined to believe it is possible as well as those who are inclined to believe it is not possible, then it would be evidence of a non-physical phenomenon. My inclination is to suggest that any number of factors within a person’s psychological composition could be factors relating to the outcome, and that if there is no control for these factors, then it would be very difficult to imagine a successful observation.

    What you describe is nearly an exact match to the phenomenon of the visionaries at Medjugorje, for instance, which I know little about and don’t wish to draw any conclusions from– other than to suggest that I did a search for it moments ago on-line, remembering of its occurrence, and found (albeit in some very quick reading) that it fits all of the parameters you describe with the exception of universality of experience.

    As presumably such non-physical phenomena must couple in some manner with the physical body of the perceiver in order to be perceived– then in the absence of understanding this coupling mechanism, or the conditions of the experimental apparatus (the human brain presumably) that result in the outcome, I propose that the condition you have placed on the form which repeatability must take (nearly immediate and wide-ranging repeatability in a group of candidates who drive over to the address in question) to satisfy your test is somewhat arbitrary. One could suggest, for instance, that in the future the mechanism of his coupling would be discovered, perhaps better understood, along with the psychological parameters that matter to such an experience, if any do.

    There are parallels to “hard” scientific research, as when the arrangement and configuration of experiments must be quite precise, along with the way in which measurements are taken and interpreted, in order to tease out quantum effects from classical for instance. I would argue a relatively few people in the world have the requisite training, intellectual capability, and depth and breadth of knowledge to actually design and build an appropriate test apparatus, and to determine these distinctions themselves. The rest of us cannot do this, and most of us given a pile of physics, electronics, and mathematical texts still could not do this, though I am not saying no one could. But certainly nearly no one could except the original experimenters if they were told by someone that Bell’s Inequality was satisfied by an experiment in Geneva, the experimental apparatus is in tact and standing by, so they should go to Geneva and do it, too. Just show up and use what is there, and only what is there. This is a ridiculous example, I know. My point is simply that by and large we accept what those who can, tell us: that the sum total of the energy events observed, when thought about carefully in light of all the physical properties of an experimental system, and mathematically reduced, yield a particular conclusion. They can “see this” and understand it as if they could touch it. I cannot, but I believe them because they have committed themselves to a particular, rigorous discipline, and because they work within a system of others checking their findings. The system is also designed to assess particular types of things.

    So obviously I’m simply asking, why is the type of repeatability you described in your post, in advance of understanding the conditions and factors involved with a particular observation, so key to considering an expansion to what is known? Let us not even worry about physical or non-physical for a moment, for it may in the end be a meaningless distinction. Let us say a fully physical field or information-carrying potential in space whose existence we hadn’t previously understood. If someone experienced an encounter with it, why would immediate repeatability be the most important factor in determining whether or not the encounter merited further exploration?


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    1. Hi Michael,
      I think the reason we don’t usually drop everything and investigate reports of the paranormal, supernatural, or similar phenomena after they’ve been experienced by a single person, is that such experiences once were investigated. No one has ever been able to find any evidence for those experiences being anything other than private hallucinations, mistaken interpretations, or in the worst cases, outright fraud.

      What independent repeatability or corroboration brings to the table is the same thing it brings in any scientific investigation: it reduces the probability that the result isn’t any of the scenarios above.

      Incidentally, this is also why few scientists get excited whenever someone announces results that imply faster than light travel, violations of the conservation of energy, or contradicts other fundamental laws of physics. The priors against it are too strong, and the probability of a methodological error high, so the burden of proof is heavy.

      You mentioned that we have to take the word of experts for what they find in science, and that’s true. In truth, scientists themselves usually have to take the word of experts in other fields for results in those fields. Physicists generally can’t evaluate new neurobiology theories and vice-versa. We live in an age of extreme specialization. But if a field is healthy (meaning it’s producing recognizably beneficial results) and the results withstand skeptical scrutiny from other experts in the same field, then it’s rational for everyone else to accept them (provisionally, as with all things in science).

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      1. Hi Mike,

        I disagree with both the premise and the conclusion of your opening paragraph—but I think at least in part that is because we define evidence differently from one another. If multiple people experience something that is not immediately explainable through conventional means, I don’t take it to mean that it is either a hallucination, a mistaken interpretation, or an outright fraud. That it may be explained, at first, in terms that will likely yield to a more accurate interpretation later, is the nature of our movement towards greater knowledge. Nor do I assume that if a few people say it is so, that it is.

        The one point I’ve hoped to make is that there may exist phenomena whose arising is related to causal factors not fully understood at the present, at least one of which may be the conditioning of the human being. If this is true, then these phenomena would not be admissible as legitimate phenomena in the way you have defined evidence. One way of defining evidence is not in my opinion correct or incorrect in any absolute sense, except as you pointed out the other day, there are implications to one another’s quality of life. I think you and I would probably have the same long-term goals on many of those issues, regardless of our route to reaching those conclusions. The implications aside, all I’m really saying is that the nature of evidence as you have described it includes a filter.

        You are asserting that the filter is well and good because we’ve already looked at what doesn’t get caught in the filter and found it all to be nonsense, more or less without exception. In my opinion what has been found is that what isn’t trapped in the filter, without exception, doesn’t belong in the filter, and this makes perfect sense of course. What doesn’t make sense to me, except as a personal choice, is to assert that everything outside of the filter is delusional and irrelevant—meaning of no value to us as human beings in formulating an accurate understanding of “reality” or improving the quality of our shared existence. Much of what lies outside the filter may be valueless, but in my personal experience not all of it. So what I disagree with is the notion that everything outside of the filter’s purview is nonsense.

        What I propose is that the foundation of this filter is rooted in the idea of “separateness”. I am separate from you, and we are both separate from the experimental apparatus. Any and all linkages between the elements in the scene must be explainable within the context of the filter, as repeatable, physical linkages, and as the filter is applied, they are. A consistent picture of reality emerges. The result is a particular bounded set of phenomena that are considered “real” and which are consistent with the basic idea of the filter. If I suggest that another filter, rooted in the idea of “unity”, which means the human being’s condition is an active factor in the experience, would return other types of experiences, it gets uncomfortable. What am I saying? That the world is simply however we want it to be? Of course not.

        In my opinion, just as Newton’s Laws of Gravitation are very difficult to distinguish from Einstein’s Theories of Relativity without the development of a fairly complex scientific and technological infrastructure, so I suggest that what is experienced through the filter of “separateness” is quite difficult to distinguish from what is allowed in the idea of “unity”, but not impossible.

        I think it falls upon me to provide you with an example, which I will try to do. What is important to me about this example is that it emerges from a long-standing cultural tradition, e.g. it takes place within the context of a worldview that was developed over centuries, if not millennia. It is not some kids in a haunted house. I have decided to provide you with a number of links (at the bottom) to articles from various sources describing various persons’ experience in a traditional Lakota yuwipi ceremony. I don’t mean to clutter the commentary with links, but I thought they wouldn’t hurt to offer. I will further say that I have had the chance to attend two yuwipi ceremonies myself, though I am not Lakota and no longer participate in Lakota ceremonies on a regular basis. My experience was quite similar to what is described, including the experience of seeing and hearing rattles flying around the room, and in one case seeing a short streak of lightning in a room that was fully blackened (windows, doors, etc.) with all electrical devices and lighting fixtures removed, and all electrical wires wrapped in insulating tape, in a house with the main circuit breaker to the electrical utility disconnected. It could be an artifact of my retina, or sensory deprivation, except most everyone there saw the same, at around the same point in time. It could also have been a strange surge through the house’s electrical system via the grounding system, that caused an arc flash of some sort to occur. But I have no such theories on the flying rattles.

        I am not suggesting these were supernatural or paranormal experiences. There certainly are physical causes or aspects to these events in my opinion. They were not “non-physical” per se. But they are not something I am able to replicate, or that can be replicated by following a yuwipi ceremony recipe. They are experiences I suggest fall outside of the filter I described above. In my experience, most everyone in the room had a common recollection of what transpired, and it was actually all quite matter-of-fact. Others throughout hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, have had quite similar experiences, but as I said, I don’t think one can just study the physical steps involved, write them down, go back to the laboratory, and recreate it. Yet I submit to you that this phenomenon exists, that many have experienced something very similar to what I have, and that it lies outside of the filter you apply to screen what is “real”.

        I believe this would fall into the category of either personal hallucination or misinterpretation, in your taxonomy of possibilities, as I don’t personally believe all of the yuwipi men are frauds. I will submit to you that if I must pick one of three, it was a hallucination on both occasions, as I do not have a clear interpretation of it. What makes it difficult to accept the hallucination is that many people (20?) hallucinated in the same way, at the same time, in the same physical location. For the yuwipi ceremonies in general, there is in fact a remarkable consistency between their set-up, preparation, and the quality/nature of the experience. There are rules. So I think they exist, that something beautiful is occurring, but I won’t attempt to explain it.

        I am not trying to tell you what this means. I am merely trying to assert that the filter you have described is in point of fact something more than a means of ensuring limited scientific resources are invested in the most efficient manner possible. I am trying to assert that it is a decision about what the world is, and is not, and could be. Some people of scientific background would suggest that those who think differently do so because they are afraid to face reality, that they are simple-minded and unwilling to think for themselves, or afraid to stand on their own and face the world without some delusion to prop them up. (Let us not underestimate the difficulty of facing the nature of our existence, which I feel is a universal challenge, afflicting persons of just about any philosophical orientation. The difficulty is real, and it is there.) What I am hoping to communicate is that both sides of the coin have drawn their lines in the sand, and that they are not so different from one another as they like to think, at least when it comes to being unwilling to admit that their approach to interpreting the nature of being may be incomplete. There are irrational people on both sides, and plenty of people who are unwilling to do their own thinking. They are both distrustful of the other’s way of being and working in the world, and unwilling to admit the world is bigger than they would like. Generally speaking, for the religious, science pushes their world in uncomfortable directions. And for the scientific, the religious do the same.

        For those somewhat in the middle like myself, who would give the benefit of the doubt to the countless generations of thoughtful, caring, ignorant, hopeful, and passionate humans who have come before me, and to their multiple modes of perceiving “reality”, these boundaries accomplish very little with respect to deepening our understanding of what it is to be human, or expanding the scope of what is possible for the highest benefit of the most number of people.

        Thank you,




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        1. Hi Michael,
          I won’t try to interpret the events you described. I’m impressed that you’re open to the possibility that a large part of what happened may involve people’s interpretation of the event. Something to consider is that interpretation can be heavily influenced by how they were primed before the event, often with lifetime of faith traditions, although sometimes with narratives they had just heard, and by discussion afterward with other participants, which studies have shown can actually modify people’s memories. This is why independent witnesses are so important.

          On the filter, this may well not be true in your case, but I frequently get the impression in these types of discussions that people think that scientific methods are arbitrary philosophical decisions. However, scientific methods are those which have been shown to produce reliable knowledge. “Reliable” here only means conclusions that withstand the test of time, that aren’t quickly overturned with new data.

          The main point I want to make is that scientific methods aren’t a rigid thing decided at the dawn of science which never change. The only rigid dogma of science is that truth is preferable to fantasy, that reliable conclusions are better than unreliable ones. Scientific methods are constantly being fine tuned to meet that one unchangeable value. Modern scientific methods are themselves the result of scientific investigation. They will undoubtedly be updated in the future.

          What gets them updated? It happens when someone either convincingly demonstrates that a new method provides reliable knowledge, or that an old method doesn’t. That’s it. Science is relentlessly pragmatic on this. Politics and cultural hang-ups may delay those kinds of changes, but over time the competitive nature of science eventually results in the changes happening.

          We should always be open to the possibility that current scientific methods are flawed, but given the track record of their development, we should require evidence of those flaws before using them as an explanation.

          Are there phenomena that may be real that we can’t currently establish reliable knowledge of yet? I don’t doubt that there is. But it’s worth noting that the vast majority of the claims throughout history for which there wasn’t reliable evidence eventually turned out to be demonstrably wrong. This means that any single claim today for which we can’t produce evidence one way or the other, statistically speaking, is most likely wrong.

          This is why I’m a skeptic. Of course, there is always the slim possibility that this might cause me to reject something that is actually real. I want to get the most accurate understanding of reality I can, wherever it leads, but we all have limited time. Rather than spending mine investigating all these claims, I require that there be generally accepted evidence before investing in them. That’s my philosophy, but I fully realize, accept, and respect that it isn’t everyone’s.

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          1. Hi Mike,

            For the record, I do have tremendous respect for the scientific method. A world without it would not be one I wished to inhabit. I think the method is vital for discovering what is happening in this world, and how things relate and interact, and I love to read about the methods and findings of science. I also respect your positions on the matters at hand, and must express my thanks for your letting me prattle on so.

            We also agree that science is yielding ever-new vantage points. You stated that the vast majority of the claims throughout history for which there wasn’t reliable evidence eventually turned out to be demonstrably wrong. I would simply add that the vast majority of the claims throughout history for which there was deemed to be reliable evidence have also been proven wrong, if by wrong we mean incomplete or subject to reinterpretation in light of additional findings. It would be foolish for either of us to suggest that the way we see things now will not be overturned by a future revolution of science, and we are probably no different than any of our forebears in thinking the latest and greatest knowledge we possess, in our time, is a little ahead of that of the previous generations. We might even think we are closer to some ultimate understanding, which I would suggest is a conclusion for which there is absolutely no evidence.

            I feel personally as though the application of the scientific method has benefited me tremendously in my inner life as well, or at least a version of it has. This is perhaps outside the bounds of what you would call science, but I find it essential to exploring fruitfully the manner in which my thoughts and feelings relate, and to the experiences that obtain. If it is true, as I believe it is, that kindness and well-being may be garnered from the careful observation and attendance to one’s inner life, and rooting out thoughts that are not entirely true, and deconstructing feelings whose conclusions are not entirely above the board, then the scientific training I have received has been indispensable in that realm as well.

            Because of the increasing specialization of scientific research, and the manner in which particular, relatively small communities (by global standards) fund and approve research, and promulgate findings– and frankly for even simpler and more general reasons– I also think it is good we have a variety of voices and opinions in the world on these matters. An exclusively scientific world seems as potentially dangerous to me as an exclusively faith-based one– the latter being one based almost solely upon feelings, unproven conventions, unfounded beliefs, and hopes alone. The human mind and the human heart both have terms in the equations that flow through me, and I think the world is best when they are forced to reconcile with one another there as well.

            Thank you again,

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  7. “centuries of success with that assumption”. Suppose we had thought that things weren’t physical, but phenomenological. Why shouldn’t we have the same or isomorphic laws and relations existing between features of phenomenology rather than physical bodies? We might have had centuries of success with these, too.

    I’m not sure if the ghost is the right example. In the first place, it doesn’t seem that you should be obligated to accept the existence of the ghost on the basis of witness reports. You might still think that what they were seeing is actually the result of as-yet-undetermined physical causes. I’m not sure if reflecting or producing photons should be a criterion for establishing whether something is physical or not. Surely there can be a physical body that does not reflect or produce photons, and (assuming that photons to not produce or reflect themselves) we still want to say that photons are physical entities. Moreover, I do not see why a ghost should even be something nonphysical – in what way could all these people see something nonphysical? Dualists aren’t dualists because they live in haunted houses; dualists are dualists because perceptual experience or qualia seem to be fundamentally distinct from the things they are of. I think that this is the thing you are missing. You take dualists to be saying that there are these nonphysical entities floating around – but this isn’t what dualists say at all.

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    1. On thinking all was phenomenological, it would depend on precisely what we meant by that. Of course, it could be modified until it was isomorphic with our current understanding of physics. Then this discussion might be about what evidence for anything outside of that worldview might look like.

      “dualists are dualists because perceptual experience or qualia seem to be fundamentally distinct from the things they are of.”
      This seems like a restatement of the hard problem. No matter how much we understand about the brain, it will never add up to the feeling of actually being the system. I understand the divide, but I think it’s a mistake to think not being able to cross it implies anything ontological, except that we have lower level cognitive machinery below our awareness. For example, our nervous system translates electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of 570 nm into the color yellow, but we’ll never find yellow in the data. It doesn’t exist in nature. Yellow is simply how our brain’s vision processing presents that wavelength to the rest of the brain.


      1. “It could be modified until it was isomorphic our current understanding of experience” Yes, but I’m saying that if scientists had taken themselves to be exploring all aspects of their phenomenology, their science would look like our physics because, in some sense, they are studying the exact same thing, just with a different word and a different ontological perspective.

        Yeah, the hard problem is the reason to be a dualist; not ghosts. “Yellow is simply how our brain’s vision processing presents that wavelength.” But why should we actually see yellow, instead of simply be mentally dark (with identical physical states and behaviors). Why should there be a quale of yellow, at all? Why doesn’t the brain do all the things it normally does, sans the quale? If you’re wrestling between physicalism and dualism, these are the kinds of questions you ask; you do not go looking for ghosts.

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        1. The problem with focusing on qualia is that people have differing intuitions about it, or perhaps more accurately, some question their innate intuitions about it while others take it as ontologically significant. Detecting ghosts (or similar phenomena) would show the distinction you’re making to be objective, not just something we have an internal feel for.

          “Why doesn’t the brain do all the things it normally does, sans the quale? ”
          I think the answer is that it’s an evolutionary adaptation. Remember that the brain is a decentralized parallel processing network. It needs some feedback mechanism to provide guidance to that network.

          I think there’s a good chance that the experience of qualia is the experience of us experiencing our own thoughts, of the feedback system providing an executive summary of the system back to the system, much as a newspaper or other news media provides an summary of what’s happening within a society to the components of that society.


          1. That doesn’t strike me as a problem with qualia. Detecting ghosts has nothing to do with the distinction I’m making. Anakin Skywalker can use the force, but that’s because he has a high midiclorian count, so that’s a physical thing. Ghosts have absolutely nothing to do with dualism.

            (1) What should be the evolutionary advantage of experience something like qualia? (2) The point is that physical reductions of qualia always skip a step. They identify some plausible neural correlate, and then make a leap to saying, “and that’s just what experience is”. It doesn’t matter whether qualia emerges from a physical mechanism, what matters is showing how something completely qualitatively distinct, like a sensation, is absolutely nothing over and above a physical firing.

            The newsanchor isn’t ontologically distinct from the things that he is reporting about.


          2. On (1), I gave what I thought was the answer above. But even if the feedback one isn’t the right answer, the fact that patients who suffer certain types of brain damage that lead to their consciousness being impaired, lose substantial ability to function, to navigate the world, tells us that there is something about it that makes it crucial to that functionality. It’s not epiphenomenal.

            On (2), have you ever seen yourself on video? If you’re like me, you’re astounded about how different the experience of watching yourself is from being yourself. There is a perceptual divide, a shift in perspective, but somewhat in the opposite direction from what you’re noting. Of course, the divide between studying the brain and being the brain is more vast, but only because the brain itself is so alien from our day to day lives. At least the self on the tape resembles the version we see in the mirror every day.

            On the news anchor, it’s not them but the news itself. If you’ve ever been privy to an actual situation that makes the news, you likely know that a news report often is, at best, a hazy summary of the actual event. Sometimes it is radically different. Yet, people’s perceptions and emotions about the event, what actually enters our public consciousness, are shaped by the news report rather than the event itself. There is a difference between society’s perception of the event and the event itself, which sometimes more careful reporters or maybe later historians can discover.

            “what matters is showing how something completely qualitatively distinct, like a sensation, is absolutely nothing over and above a physical firing.”
            What aspect of qualia do you perceive is missed in all the physical explanations or theories?


          3. Back to (1). I’d be surprised if any dualist thought that the brain did not have a significant role to play in the character of our mental life. That brain damage affects conciousness means that the brain has some causal role to play in mental life, but that doesn’t mean that a brain is sufficient for consciousness or that consciousness is identical to the brain.

            On (2), the analogy to video doesn’t work. When I watch myself on video I’m just watching certain colored pixels flash in my sense experience. I’m not looking at me, nor do I think that I am. First-person experience and third-person description cannot be reduced to this sort of perspectival shift (largely in part of the fact that there is no shift in your POV in watching a video).

            What aspect of qualia is missed? Almost all of it. Why should the right collection of third-person physical facts or states-of-affairs give rise to a first-person experience? This is never spelled out. Why shouldn’t the world work exactly as it does except without perceptual experience (or any experience of qualia)? Why should a wavelength be seen as red instead of just reacted to in such-and-such a way.

            (A note. I’ve been using the word “qualia” a lot, but it’s been for the sake of facilitating the discussion. I do not believe that there are qualia)

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          4. Interesting on qualia. I have no real problem accepting that qualia exist, at least in a subjective sense, but that it’s limited as a guide to mental architecture.

            “Why should a wavelength be seen as red instead of just reacted to in such-and-such a way.”
            Maybe the question is, how should a wavelength of light from 620 to 740 nm be processed in an evolutionary adaptive manner? Maybe experiencing red as the standout color that it is, is what we needed to perceive in order to survive, allowing us to recognize ripe fruit, something useful for most primates. It’s worth noting that many mammals, including dogs, for whom fruit isn’t a thing, don’t perceive red.

            Why do we perceive at all instead of just mindlessly reacting? Again, I think because there’s an adaptive benefit. Creatures with simple nervous systems do react more or less autonomously, but their repertoire of actions are quite limited. The extra processing seems to give us the chance to retrieve past experiences, model new ones based on possible actions, and even model our own thinking. The result is an organism with far more options than would otherwise be possible.

            Could all of this be done without our experience of consciousness? I don’t know. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to the private experiences of non-human animals. Only if we ever build a robot with all human cognitive capabilities sans any sign of consciousness would we have an answer, and even then it might be a difference between what could be designed versus what could evolve.

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          5. You might wonder what it means for something to exist in a “subjective sense.”

            I don’t think the question is the same as “why should a wavelength by processed in an evolutionary adaptive manner?” It seems perfectly conceivable that an animals should evolve with certain dispositions to react to certain stimuli in such-and-such a way, without any conscious processing. This connects to your second point. I see no adaptive benefit in perceptual experience. Whether I am a conscious being or a philosophical zombie1 should have no impact on my ability to survive and reproduce.

            (And sure, dogs don’t perceive red. The particular percept in question is arbitrary, though.)

            The point about extra processing for memory retrieval is interesting. But I think that it’s worth noting that we can build machines that “learn” from their past experiences and can react in novel or unanticipated ways to various problems. But we don’t think that machines have qualia. So qualia aren’t necessary for the extra processing you describe. (And qualia don’t seem necessary for survival, either.) But even if it were, the fact that qualia emerges from physical systems does not automagically entail that qualia are purely physical.

            A philosophical zombie is a hypothetical being that is indistinguishable from a normal human except that it lacks qualia/perceptual experience. There’s a relatively robust literature on these, especially with regards to whether or not they are actually conceivable. (In my opinion, the debate about the conceivability of philosophical zombies sidesteps the whole point of talking about them.) 

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          6. “You might wonder what it means for something to exist in a “subjective sense.””
            I think it can exist in the same manner as the color white. We all perceive white as a distinct color, but it’s really a mix of all the other colors. In both cases our intuitions, while useful in many adaptive situations, seem untrustworthy for ontological determinations.

            On philosophical zombies, I can conceive of a behavioral zombie, a system that superficially seems conscious but isn’t. But neurological zombies, that is ones that are identical to a human being but without sentience, simply assumes substance dualism. Even then, that concept of zombie only works if consciousness is a straight epiphenomenon, which I think we agreed above doesn’t match up with the evidence.

            Machine learning remains a pale imitation of the human variety, or even that of many animals. If we get to a point where a machine has all the physical and social intelligence of a human, we might have an instructive case. The problem is that we might then have something that passes the Turing test and/or triggers our intuition of consciousness, and find ourselves debating whether the machine is a behavioral zombie.


          7. “We all perceive white as a distinct color, but really it’s mix of all the other colors” I’m not sure this is the right argument. If we accept this kind of reasoning, then the laptop that I’m typing this on only exists in a subjective sense because really its a mix of all sorts of composite materials that reduce to atoms and their particles.

            Like I said, I think talking about the conceivability of philosophical zombies sidesteps the point. You still need some sort of account as to why those neurological facts need to be such as they are to give rise to perceptual experience. In absence of a clear, convincing, explanatory account, dualism still has force.

            But take just the behavioral zombie. Why don’t the physical states that it happens to be in give rise to perceptual experience in the same way as the genuine philosophical zombie. Is there something special about the material?

            I’m not sure machine learning should be called a “pale imitation.” It seems like some machines are better learners than some animals, but surely dogs have perceptual experience.

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          8. Actually, is a laptop a laptop if there are no humans around? Is any human tool a tool if no human ever uses it as such? Compare to, say, a tree which remains a tree and operates like one regardless if any human is around.

            On perceptual experience, I think there are a number of promising scientific theories on it, but they’re not intuitive. This is the hard problem. Any theory that explains perceptual experience is unlikely to be intuitive. And if it’s not intuitive, people will insist it’s not solved. There may never be a solution that meets this criteria. People still reject natural selection and quantum mechanics due to their non-intuitive nature.

            The problem with a behavioral zombie is we can never be sure it is actually a zombie, since it would claim to have an inner experience. We might have designed it and never explicitly put in anything about sentience, but if it gives a convincing enough performance, we can’t be sure we didn’t stumble on the architecture of consciousness by mistake. For this reason, while I can conceive of a behavioral zombie, I’m not sure how we’d ever know if we had one.

            The issue with machine learning is that its scope is still limited. I’m not aware of any machine that can learn to navigate the world as well as a rat, or even a bee. Granted, a rat or bee can’t drive a car or predict my purchase choices, but when you get down to it, driving a car has far fewer degrees of freedom than a rat searching for food.


          9. Yes a laptop is a laptop. It is supported by counterfactuals, i.e. if there were humans, then it would be named “laptop” and be used to quibble over wordpress. I did not say whether or not it was a tool, I just said that it is still a laptop. There is nothing subjective about its existence and it is still physically constituted in exactly the same way. A better question might be, “is a laptop conceivable with no sentient system?”, if you wanted to question the laptop. But suppose humans go extinct in the next 10 years. At that moment do all our left over laptops cease to be laptops? I suspect not.

            Comparing theories of perceptual experience to QM is a false equivalency. QM is the most successful physical theory we have, no counterexample has ever been produced for it, and it makes more accurate and more precise (like to a greater number of decimal places) predictions for the outcome of any physical system than any other theory. People should accept QM (which is really just an algorithm); people should take healthy skepticism to the various interpretations of QM (e.g. everett, bohm, schrodinger) because they all have to bite the bullet somewhere in their explanation.

            A theory that explains perceptual experience doesn’t need to be intuitive, but, even supposing they were beautifully explained, if you only explain steps 1-7 and then jump to your conclusion at 10, then you haven’t produced a satisfying theory.

            We don’t need to be able to know, we just need to be able to, if behavioral zombies are conceivable, point to a reason that they did not have conscious experience — some reason why there should be a difference. (I’m sure there are plenty of arguments around that, but haven’t really read up on that part of the literature.)

            Do you think that there is some n-degrees of freedom which demarcates machine intelligence from natural intelligence, that if only machines could achieve n-degrees of freedom that they would be on a par?

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          10. On theories about perceptual experience, let’s maybe try a different approach. Consider again the experience of red. It seems like what needs to be explained is the raw input of red, the fact that there is something experiencing that red, and that the something is aware of its experience. Here’s my shot:
            1. Photons within a range of wavelengths of 620-740 nanometers strike the photoreceptors of the retina.
            2. A portion of those receptors are sensitive to light at that wavelength and a portion are not.
            3. The portion that are sensitive trigger a pattern of electrochemical signals down the optic nerve to the brain.
            4. The signals reaches the occipital lobe of the brain where they create a certain pattern.
            5. This pattern cascades signals further into the brain, causing a number of associated patterns to fire.
            6. These associated patterns include things such as the label “red”, primal emotional firings to attract processing to this pattern (i.e. red is vivid to the system), and everything red “means” to the system.
            7. A feedback subsystem monitoring and modeling the overall attentional state of the system provides information to the executive portions of the system, which may or may not be taken into account in movement decisions.
            8. If the system is currently allocating resources to analyze its own state, the feedback subsystem may model its own modeling of the overall system recursively. (i.e. we’re thinking about our own experience)

            There are of course, loads of simplifications in the above, and no one should claim we fully understand all the steps, but what about the experience of red would you say is missing from that account? (That is, other than the intuitive feeling of actually being the system)

            “if behavioral zombies are conceivable, point to a reason that they did not have conscious experience”
            But then is it actually a philosophical zombie? If we can detect its lack of consciousness, then it doesn’t seem to meet the requirements I’ve usually read for such a concept. If we weaken the standard, then it seems like modern day chatbots qualify, which to me makes the zombie concept trivially true but not particularly interesting.

            I wouldn’t say that there is any sharp demarcation between natural and machine intelligence, except perhaps for any arbitrary one we’d like to draw. Machine learning can clearly outperform animals (including humans) in certain narrowly focused areas. It may be able to outperform simple animals, such as the c-elegans worm, ants, or fruit flies, on a more general basis (although I’m not aware of that having been demonstrated yet). But by the time we get to animals like rats, much less any form of primate, it seems clear we’ve still got a ways to go. Some of this is about raw computing power, but most of it is because we still don’t have a good enough understanding of how the brains of complex animals learn, yet.


          11. “Raw input of red” doesn’t need to be explained — that’s just the wavelength. “The fact that there is something experiencing that red” doesn’t need to be explained – the fact that there is anything like an experience of red at all is what needs to be explained.

            I take your “shot” refers to the recent neuroscience paper on the alleged neural centers for qualia generation (whatever feedback loop). If you read the article you’ll notice that they say something like, “and a representation of the representation of the representation is produced, and now…qualia!” I overstate, they don’t really claim to have discovered qualia, but the point is that there’s some missing step in between. At what point, exactly, does the representation of n-representations of whatever neural firing to whatever red stimuli become a veritable experience? There should be some account of why there is first person experience.

            The question about zombies is metaphysical, not epistemological.

            Do you think that machines must necessarily, always, be too narrowly focused to be considered intelligent?


          12. “the fact that there is anything like an experience of red at all is what needs to be explained.”
            Okay, but you noted above that steps are typically skipped in the explanations you’ve read. Can you tell me above where I skipped a step? Or can you break down further the statement you make here. What exactly about the experience of red are you not seeing explained?

            My shot wasn’t based on any one specific paper, but rather on the understanding I’ve gleaned from reading people like Pinker, Damasio, Gazzaniga, Graziano, and others. My intention was to take sort of a lowest common denominator of metacognitive theories. (BTW, that paper sounds interesting. You wouldn’t happen to have any additional info I could use to search for it, would you?)

            “Do you think that machines must necessarily, always, be too narrowly focused to be considered intelligent?”
            No. My thinking is that eventually the line between machines and biology will be between designed and engineered systems. And as we take control of our own evolution, the line will become increasingly blurry.


        2. Step 6 doesn’t explain how the firings generate a phenomenal quality of red. It just says that the patterns contain what “red” means to the system — and this says nothing about phenomenal qualities.

          Step 8 says that it “models its own modelling”, which can be construed as modeling or representing our experience or how things seem. But at one point does a model of some neural model become a phenomenal quality? Where does the first person come it?

          Here’s the link to the paper I mentioned: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3596736/

          My point about machines is that we can build functionally intelligent systems. Intelligence doesn’t entail consciousness. So something else must be going on.

          (Also, I just posted about a dualist interpretation of quantum mechanics — not that I subscribe to the view — but there’s an interpretation of empirical evidence that leads to dualism.)

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I didn’t really see step 6 by itself as being the point where phenomenal experience is explained. I do see step 8 as explaining our knowledge of it. But I see all the steps bringing components of it into being. When does it become first person in? My answer is that the whole system composes that person. The interaction between the self and the experience happens throughout steps 4-8.

            That said, I’m working on a post which delves into the self a bit more.

            Thanks for the link!

            Looking forward to checking out your post on quantum mechanics.


      2. But there isn’t any experience to speak of in steps 4-8. What isn’t spelled out is how the experience arises, why 4-8 shouldn’t be some blind, though intelligent, process? Maybe that’s something to address in your post.


        1. Well, I take the explanation to have addressed experience (although I’ll admit the explanation is still one of many possible ones), and we handled the why not zombie question above. I fear we’re at an impasse, so I think we’ll have to leave it there.

          Thanks for the discussion!


  8. If the ghost can be functionalized, then it is physical. I think what you’re getting at, if I may be so bold, is whether or not something that can’t be functionalized – something epiphenomenal – can be physical. That’s synonymous with the hard problem.

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    1. I’m not sure I’d put it that way. It seems like if the ghost is part of an entirely separate causal framework, it could be entirely functional, in that framework. Of course, that framework can’t be entirely separate from the physical universe. Our ability to perceive the ghost would imply that we were a part of that alternate framework, perhaps a bridge of sorts between them. As Steve noted, the fact that the ghost would reside in a particular location would imply that it would be affected in some way by the physical world.

      The parameter space for this is increasingly making me realize how implausible the scenario is. Still, if this kind of evidence ever arose, I don’t think we could reject it.


  9. The terms materialism, physicalism and naturalism, derived from our senses, seem essentially equivalent to me, but they are awkward and lead to misunderstandings. Not everything that we now recognize in our universe are strictly or obviously material, physical or even natural. Our concepts of space and time are good examples of this problem as is the presence of numerous entities with little or no interactions with us, eg neutrinos, dark energy, etc. These things only interact with our instruments.

    Perhaps structuralism is a better term, at least it forces us to look more carefully at all the numerous important systems that make up our world and ourselves (each system occupying its own space and running on its own clock – empty space and time being very fuzzy mental constructs). So, I think I’m going to end up as a structural realist; whether of the ‘ontic’ or ‘epistemologic’ flavor, I have no idea at this point. Structuralism seems to be quite useful in studies of language, mathematics and philosophy, etc., even art and music?

    If there are somethings in this universe that are nonmaterial, non-physical, non-natural and non-structural, I predict that we will never be aware of their interaction with us or with any instruments that we construct. There may be such ‘things’ but we will never know about them, unless I am going wrong somewhere. Adherents of the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis seem to predict such a situation.

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    1. I pretty much agree, although I’m not sure about the term “structuralism”. Every time I’ve ever looked it up, I’ve come away somewhat baffled. But if you mean seeing the primary reality as underlying regularities (which we usually call laws of nature) then I agree.

      There is a pretty strong advocate for the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis that sometimes visits here. He often argues that the entire concept of the physical is meaningless except as a relative concept between related mathematical structures. Our physical might be utterly abstract from another conscious mathematical structure’s perspective.

      I’m not an MUH adherent myself, although I find the idea interesting. I did a post on Max Tegmark’s book a while back.


  10. When I think about the non-physical (in terms of knowledge, not faith), I’m less focused on beings or objects than on organizational principles, probably in a loosely Platonic way (more mystically/philosophically than the popular reading), with hints of Aristotelian analogy thrown in. It’s not something I’m looking for evidence to justify, but rather a general standard of understanding evidence for other things. There’s a big difference between the metaphysics of philosophers (numbers, causality, language, etc) and the metaphysics of the popular world (ghosts, magic crystals, ESP, etc.). The latter is problematic because it seems to focus not on nonphysical things but supernatural things – things which should be able to be proven evidentially if they are actually real – and the former are problematic because they by nature have no connection to physical “proof” – they’re elements of language that don’t need to be “real” in that way because they’re not a set of “beings”. Change out the details, or try a new system, and they could still work, if in different ways.

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    1. A lot of people consider mathematical structures to be non-physical. I’m not convinced that they are. I think mathematical structures fall into two categories.

      The first category maps patterns that exist in the physical world. In what way, they’re simply a description of that reality. The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics for understanding reality is simply a reflection of the fact that mathematics is reality.

      The second category are mathematical structures that don’t have observable correlates out in the world. I think these structures are created by extrapolating from structures in the first category but a version that is missing components from the outside observable version, or has additional components not present in the outside version.

      It’s tempting to view these second category structures as non-physical, and I often do refer to them that way in a shorthand metaphorical manner, but I think it’s more accurate to say that they exist as physical models in our brains or as physical notations on paper or other media. I think they have the same ontological status as Bugs Bunny, that is, of a fictional character. Bug Bunny is extrapolated from concepts out in the world (bunnies, personalities, etc) but ultimately only exists as models in our brains and visual images.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. What do you think about Thomas Nagel’s view that the stuff of the mind may be “non-physical?” It is certainly a radical departure from the reductionist/materialist view but has seem to caught on a bit since 2012.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mike,
      Can’t say I’m a big fan of Nagel’s ideas on mind, although I have to admit I haven’t read his book. My observation is that alternatives to the mind being a physical system are always popular. It matches a deep human intuition and it’s what a lot of people earnestly want to be true.

      The problem is that the history of science is replete with refutations of our intuitions, particularly the ones we want to be true.


      1. I would agree, except that Nagel himself has admitted he doesn’t want theistic alternatives to naturalism to be true, but can’t bring himself to accept naturalism as a viable paradigm (hence his attempt to posit a 3rd solution). If anything, you would think Nagel would want naturalism to be the obvious solution to the hard problem of consciousness.

        Anyway, here is him saying this (halfway down pg. 130):



        1. Perhaps, but from what I have read from him, I still detect an eagerness to jump to the conclusions he wants. Maybe I’d feel differently if I saw the problems he identifies with scientific reduction as actual problems.


  12. I think we experience non physicality every moment of pur lives through mental states that are fundamental units of experience but cannot be observed. If mental states could be observed then you could plug my brain into a machine and output my thoughts and images onto a screen and see them just as computer data outputs onto a screen. You would also hear any auditory phenomena,smell any odours were part of that experience and other fundamental qualia such as emotions would have to manifest. Mere brain activity such as wave recordings, thermal shifts etc are no answer. I suggest that nothing short of direct observable output is needed to prove the physicality of mental states. The default scientific position seems to be to prove non physicality but I suggest that the contrary is true: the default rational view of mental states and qualia should be non physical because we experience them yet we cannot observe them externally. Ultimately all observation is mental, not physical, since without our mental involvement to steer our physical observation there is no conclusion and the mental state cannot be observed. Physicality, thus, is not a fundamental state at all but derivative.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Arjun,
      Thanks for commenting. I think you’ve set the bar very high for evidence of mental activity being physical, while simply designating subjective experience as non-physical. A more even handed strategy might be to compare the evidence that mental activity is within the causal framework of physics to any evidence that it isn’t.

      We have a century and a half of neurological case studies that demonstrate that physical damage to the brain alters who were are. No part of the mind appears to be immune from brain injury. ‘The Tell-Tale Brain’ by V. S. Ramachandran is an excellent source of information on the effects of brain injuries.

      Scientists for centuries tried to find evidence for non-physical mental activity. No reproducible or otherwise verifiable evidence was ever found. Mainstream science doesn’t bother looking anymore, not for any ideological reasons, but because it’s simply not worth the time investment.

      Of course, there’s always a cottage industry willing to tell people what they want to hear. But the affirmative work on things like NDE or OBE are plagued by methodological problems. The more rigorous work rarely gets mentioned, except by skeptics, because it never shows anything to be there.


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