Friday, March 31, 2006

The Asymmetry of Immaterialism

A recent study which shows that prayer does nothing to help recovery of heart bypass patients got me thinking about material vs. immaterial entities. Thanks to BlackSun for posting about the study, and for inspiring this post as well.

Immaterialists are usually quick to point out that immaterial entities cannot be interacted with or observed by material entities. Most Immaterialists will assert that science cannot detect, measure, or otherwise verify the existence of anything immaterial, because immaterial entities by their very nature are not composed of matter or material energy; they exist in a different dimension where material entities cannot go, or their qualities of existence make them unable to be interacted with by material entities. You cannot punch a soul. You cannot weigh it. You cannot observe the afterlife with a telescope, even if that telescope can clearly see every last inch of the entire universe. In short, Immaterialists claim that the nature of immaterial entities makes them a priori untestable and undetectable by any scientific or material means whatsoever.

I realize of course that some Immaterialists will not agree with the above paragraph. But the majority of Immaterialists (Christians, Muslims, Tarot-Card Reading Psychics, etc...) will agree with me that science cannot test or observe immaterial entities. For those Immaterialists who do believe that immaterial entities are subject to scientific testing and observation, I invite them to take the Million Dollar Challenge.

Now let's move on to the claim that most Immaterialists hold: That immaterial entities (souls, ghosts, etc...) cannot be tested or observed by material scientific means. I say to them, "That's fine, but the door swings both ways!" What I mean is that if material entities cannot test or observe immaterial entities, then immaterial entities cannot test or observe material entities either.

A typical Immaterialist will claim that a soul cannot be "touched" or "detected" by any material instrument, including your own material senses. Yet the Immaterialist will simultaneously claim (typically) that these immaterial entities can "touch" or "detect" your material self, as well as other material entities, including inanimate objects! The Immaterialist will usually claim that immaterial ghosts can speak to people, move objects, heal people, hurt people, and interact with the material world in all kinds of ways.

What is even more absurd is that Immaterialists will claim that all human beings (or even all living things) have an immaterial "soul" or "spirit" controlling their material body. How brilliant. A soul, that cannot be detected or interacted with by any material means, somehow is able to interact with a material body and make it breathe, think, masticate, defecate, copulate, and do all those messy material things that biological organisms do so well.

It is simply not logical to claim that there is a one-way street in regards to the interaction of immaterial and material entities. Consider the following symmetrical statements:

1) For you to be in my line of sight, I must also be in your line of sight.

2) To hold up this 10 pound object, I must exert 10 pounds of force.

3) If it is wrong for me to murder you, then it is wrong for you to murder me.

4) If I am your Son, then you are my Father.

Note that the above four statements are logically correct. Now consider the following asymmetrical statements:

1) For you to be in my line of sight, I need not be in your line of sight.

2) To hold up this 10 pound object, I need not exert any force.

3) It is wrong for me to murder you, but it is not wrong for you to murder me.

4) I am your Son, but you are not my Father.

Note that these four statements are not logically correct because they are asymmetrical.

Now consider these two statements, and consider which one is logical, and why:

1a) A material entity may not interact with an immaterial entity, and an immaterial entity may not interact with a material entity.

1b) A material entity may not interact with an immaterial entity, but an immaterial entity may interact with a material entity.

Statement 1a) is symmetrical, and logical. Statement 1b) is not.

Many Immaterialists will contend, and have contended, that immaterial entities do not operate along the same logical rules that material entities do. Fair enough, but it doesn't solve the problem. In fact, it makes the problem worse for them. Why? Because material entities do obey the law of symmetry; they are forced by their very material nature to obey it. The only way a material entity can interact is in accordance with the rule of symmetry. Consequently, for any other entity to interact with a material entity, it must also observe the rules that material entities observe. To be outside the laws of logic is to be excluded from operating within its realm, the material universe.

When dealing with two kinds of entities and the interactions between them, to place a restriction on one entity is to place a restriction on the interaction between the two, because the interaction between the two entities is dependent upon, and affected by, the properties of each entity. If immaterial entities cannot be detected, tested, or interacted with by material means, then material entities cannot be detected, tested, or interacted with by immaterial means.

When dealing with an Immaterialist who claims that immaterial entities cannot be detected or tested by material means, you can use this argument:

Premise 1: If immaterial entities cannot be detected, tested, or interacted with by material means, then material entities cannot be detected, tested, or interacted with by immaterial means.

Premise 2: Immaterial entities cannot be detected, tested, or interacted with by material means.

Conclusion 1: Material entities cannot be detected, tested, or interacted with by immaterial means.

Premise 3: Human beings are material entities.

Conclusion 2: Human beings cannot interact with any immaterial entities.

Conclusion 3: Human beings cannot contain or possess any immaterial entities, components, or properties.

But what about the Immaterialist who claims that immaterial entities can be detected and interacted with by material means? Simply ask him to support his implied assertion that immaterial entities even exist, and ask him to do it by material observation.

*UPDATE* Commenter Axel_621 helped flesh out my argument even further, and I wanted to post it in here because I think the observation that Axel_621 made is just so damn good.

Axel_621 says:

I'd like to point out that if an immaterial entity exerts force on a material object, then the material object is also applying force to the immaterial entity by default. If this were not so, then no force could be applied to the material object by the immaterial entity.

18 comments:

hoolaine said...

do you know it's illegal to sell your sould on e-bay? they don't allow it. i don't know why. i looked into this last year, i guess its so pervs don't buy it and then desecrate it or something

Aaron Kinney said...

I know why! Because its illegal to sell stuff that doesn't exist.

Its called fraud. ;)

Well thats probably not why they made that rule, but it SHOULD be why they made that rule.

Axel_621 said...

I'd like to point out that if an immaterial entity exerts force on a material object, then the material object is also applying force to the immaterial entity by default. If this were not so, then no force could be applied to the material object by the immaterial entity.

The best example is the one that seems the strangest:
If you place a brick on a table, gravity is exerting force on the brick, pulling it down into the table. But the table is also pushing up against the brick. If it were not, then the table would break and the brick fall - or if the table was something without substance (an immaterial entity), then the brick would pass right through it

Aaron Kinney said...

Axel_621, thank you for that! You helped me flesh out my argument even further.

Great observation :)

BlackSun said...

Good post, Aaron. Unfortunately, you won't convince anyone who is a supernaturalist. They've already suspended all laws of physics and logic. They're not likely to be convinced by this argument either (though it's a good one).

I've got another law: "Supernaturalists are unaffected by any force of reason." Try this the next time you meet one: Throw a solid 10 lb. fact at their head. You can't hurt them--it will pass right through!

TheJollyNihilist said...

Very nice post! You made a clear, well-thought-out argument, lacking any noticeable holes. Quite simply, if the material cannot interact with the immaterial, then the immaterial cannot interact with the material. Symmetry is the perfect word for this, and you capably demonstrated that asymmetrical statements are nonsensical.

Of course, my natural inclination is to approach these issues from a scientific, rather than philosophical, perspective. One of my favorite books of all time is Dr. Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. In that book, he pointedly asks the question how an immaterial soul could interact with a material body. But, the science packed into the book really proves his case for him.

He adequately demonstrates that the human brain easily takes on all the supposed functions of the soul. Indeed, the regionality of the brain makes things very simple to understand in this regard. For example, I wonder how many of you all have heard the story of Phineas Gage. He suffered a severe head trauma (spike through the brain), but lived through it. He suffered no permanent damage whatsoever...except his personality dramatically changed. The part of his brain that suffered injury was the part that determines personality. Thus, his personality was irrecoverably changed.

When the brain contains one's personality and one's memories, what possible purpose could a soul have? Moreover, how could "ghosts" even possess personalities or memories when the brains to which they once were attached are now rotting?

One more soul/ghost related question: Why do ghosts always appear clothed? Do shirts have an afterlife? If so, why do none of my old T-shirts haunt me?

Francois Tremblay said...

Good job Aaron.

Aaron Kinney said...

LOL BlackSun!

Tanooki Joe said...

"One more soul/ghost related question: Why do ghosts always appear clothed? Do shirts have an afterlife? If so, why do none of my old T-shirts haunt me?"

And why is the ghost always the same age as when the person dies? This, of course, would imply that the physical aging of the person affected their immaterial soul!

And where do they get the damn chains?

Of course, it bears pointing out that any force that affects material objects is, by definition, a material force.

The Schwa said...

1) For you to be in my line of sight, I need not be in your line of sight.

. . . . .

4) I am your Son, but you are not my Father.


Not trying to be a douche (OK, maybe a little), but these 2 are not necessarily illogical.

1) the one guy could be looking at the back of the other guy and thus not be in his line of sight.

4) it could be your mother.

Otherwise, great post!!

Paul Manata said...

a materialist believes that all that exists is matter.

an immaterialist believes all that exists is immaterial.

So, this argument was not against people like me.

Anyway, I'd try to learn how to use terms, mkay?

Francois Tremblay said...

"an immaterialist believes all that exists is immaterial."

As usual, Paul, you're wrong.

Simon said...

Hey, has anyone ever thought that, like, God might not even exist.

Weird, innit?

Aaron Kinney said...

Your infantile semantics nitpicking gets you no points, Paul.

Again, everyone knows exactly what I'm talking about, but only you adhere so strictly to the "letter of the law".

Funny that you are not so strict when you interepret Bible verses. Duhhhh... Does "all" always mean "all"?

I didn't think anyone would whine about the definitions of these terms, but I was wrong. Time for me to define my terms to, hopefully, get you to address the meat of my post:

Materialist: One who believes all that exists is material.

Immaterialist: One who believes all that exists is either material or immaterial.

ndgoat4 said...

Perhaps the more precise term then, would be dualist. I’m no dualist, but I think it is worth pointing out that a Cartesian would reply to the argument as follows:

Granted, one may not be able to explain or detect how mind (immaterial) and body (material) interact. But it does not follow that they do not interact.

Anonymous said...

There are some fairly formidable arguments against the idea of immaterialism. This is not one of them. There are huge holes in your logic. Let's looks at your stream of sample logic.

1) For you to be in my line of sight, I must also be in your line of sight.

Wrong: Reflective surfaces can be angled in such a way as to make it possible for me to hold you in my line of sight, while I may not be in your line of sight.

2) To hold up this 10 pound object, I must exert 10 pounds of force.

Wrong: I may exert less than 10 lbs of force to raise a 10 lb object via the use of a simple lever mechanism.

3) If it is wrong for me to murder you, then it is wrong for you to murder me.

Wrong (in part): Murder is wrong, but defining it a matter of perspective and moral judgment, not pure logical action and reaction. It may be wrong for you to kill me, but not wrong for me to kill you, if you are standing over my child preparing to plung a knife into his chest.

4) If I am your Son, then you are my Father.

Maybe: How about adopted kids? What about invitro babies? What about babies born from incest, where their father is also their brother?

On the face of them, your statements appear logical. However, if you look a bit more closely, none of them can be considered universal truths.

Likewise your statements about the immaterial and the material are poorly deducted.

Observe your statement 1a) A material entity may not interact with an immaterial entity, and an immaterial entity may not interact with a material entity.

Wrong: In the field of particle physics new discoveries are made on a regular basis about both immaterial particles. Just because we have not discovered all of these particles, or the dimensions that contain them, does not mean they don't exist, nor does it mean they do not interact with the material world. Consider that at one time x-rays were unknown to us, yet these immaterial radiation particles have always interacted with the material via the rays of the sun. Just to be clear, these particles have no mass and so cannot be considered material.

My above logic actually show how you have incorrectly defined the logic in your argument.

We perceive that we live in a four dimensional world. However, physics theory supports the notion that we are part of a ten dimensional universe and are unable to directly observe the higher dimensions. However, without the higher dimensions, the principles of physics no longer hold true.

A rudimentary example of higher dimensions can be explained in a way that shows how the spirits, souls or whatever you wish to call them can exist and interact with us, while remaining immaterial to us. It goes as follows:

Imagine a two dimensional world that is as flat as apiece of paper. We'll call it Flat Land. On flat land we observe that two stick men are dressed as prison guards, while a third stick man is kept prisoner within a circle. The prisoner cannot escape the circle because he can only move in two dimensions of the width and length of flat world.

Now imagin that you, as a person existing on a higher dimensional plane of three or more dimensions, were to reach down a left the two dimensional prisoner up into the third dimension and place him back in flat land on the outside of the circle.

The two stickmen prison guards would be amazed, since from their perspective the prisoner would have disappeared from within his cell and reappeared outside the cell. Because the guards live on a two dimensional plane, they simply cannot comprehend that a three dimensional being simply picked up the prisoner and placed him outside the circle.

Likewise, we can see how things may exist that might call immaterial, however this may just be our way of perceiving an object that exists on a dimensional level that is higher than our perception can explain.

The reality is that when you look at any form of matter closely enough, it doesn't exist in any material sense. Most physicists will tell you that the smallest particles in the quantum world (the world of the subatomic) act like flickers of light that disappear and reappear in different locations and have no real material substance. It is more like all matter at this level is made up of a concept rather than of material substance. The question then becomes who is the author of the concept that we call reality?

Francis said...

One might consider that all is possible, things can work in a logical way or not. Truth is what you believe. If you get the ideas to work for you, you've got something till the next idea changes things. There is a nice flexibility here. What you have is true and works but you can change it later and learn to fly or not die or what ever if you can get the ideas to work to your satisfaction. Improve your imagination and you can have more possibilities.

Aaron Kinney said...

1) For you to be in my line of sight, I must also be in your line of sight.

Wrong: Reflective surfaces can be angled in such a way as to make it possible for me to hold you in my line of sight, while I may not be in your line of sight.


Nice claim, but can you back it up? Got any diagrams of reflective surfaces and line of sight? I can promise you that if a photon can travel a path in one direction, it can certainly travel that same path in the opposite direction.

2) To hold up this 10 pound object, I must exert 10 pounds of force.

Wrong: I may exert less than 10 lbs of force to raise a 10 lb object via the use of a simple lever mechanism.


Nitpicking. The level mechanism would still have to exert 10 pounds of force on the object, even if through leverage your personal exertion is less than 10 pounds. The point here is that a total of 10 pounds of force would have to be applied by some means.

3) If it is wrong for me to murder you, then it is wrong for you to murder me.

Wrong (in part): Murder is wrong, but defining it a matter of perspective and moral judgment, not pure logical action and reaction. It may be wrong for you to kill me, but not wrong for me to kill you, if you are standing over my child preparing to plung a knife into his chest.


You are confusing the words "kill" and "murder." They do not mean the same thing.

4) If I am your Son, then you are my Father.

Maybe: How about adopted kids? What about invitro babies? What about babies born from incest, where their father is also their brother?


None of those objections have anything to do with the validity of my statement. Adoption, in vitro, incest, etc situations would still qualify.

On the face of them, your statements appear logical. However, if you look a bit more closely, none of them can be considered universal truths.

Thats funny cause I was gonna say the same thing about your objections.

Likewise your statements about the immaterial and the material are poorly deducted.

Observe your statement 1a) A material entity may not interact with an immaterial entity, and an immaterial entity may not interact with a material entity.

Wrong: In the field of particle physics new discoveries are made on a regular basis about both immaterial particles. Just because we have not discovered all of these particles, or the dimensions that contain them, does not mean they don't exist, nor does it mean they do not interact with the material world. Consider that at one time x-rays were unknown to us, yet these immaterial radiation particles have always interacted with the material via the rays of the sun. Just to be clear, these particles have no mass and so cannot be considered material.


You are confusing "immaterial" in a physics sense with "immaterial" in a spitirual/religious sense. This is a religious criticism blog and this post is about religious notions of immaterial entities, like God or angels or souls. These are not considered particles like a photon or a quark or whatever. These particles you speak of are certainly "material" in the sense that I am using the word here: these particles are observable by material means, and interact with material things. These particles do not qualify for the "immaterial" label the way that an angel or soul or heavenly realm does.

My above logic actually show how you have incorrectly defined the logic in your argument.

Yeah sure, until of course I actually responded to your comment. It seems to me that your objections are all half baked, while my argument on the other hand is well done and ready to serve.

We perceive that we live in a four dimensional world. However, physics theory supports the notion that we are part of a ten dimensional universe and are unable to directly observe the higher dimensions. However, without the higher dimensions, the principles of physics no longer hold true.

11, not 10. And actually, we can predict and detect these dimensions through physical, material means. According to science, these extra dimensions are not immaterial or undetectable, but only very small.

A rudimentary example of higher dimensions can be explained in a way that shows how the spirits, souls or whatever you wish to call them can exist and interact with us, while remaining immaterial to us. It goes as follows:

Imagine a two dimensional world that is as flat as apiece of paper. We'll call it Flat Land. On flat land we observe that two stick men are dressed as prison guards, while a third stick man is kept prisoner within a circle. The prisoner cannot escape the circle because he can only move in two dimensions of the width and length of flat world.

Now imagin that you, as a person existing on a higher dimensional plane of three or more dimensions, were to reach down a left the two dimensional prisoner up into the third dimension and place him back in flat land on the outside of the circle.

The two stickmen prison guards would be amazed, since from their perspective the prisoner would have disappeared from within his cell and reappeared outside the cell. Because the guards live on a two dimensional plane, they simply cannot comprehend that a three dimensional being simply picked up the prisoner and placed him outside the circle.

Likewise, we can see how things may exist that might call immaterial, however this may just be our way of perceiving an object that exists on a dimensional level that is higher than our perception can explain.


All your analogy described is a MATERIAL 3rd dimension that the 2d beings cannot conceive of. Lack of imagination or lack of understanding does not mean that the thing that cannot be understood is immaterial.

The reality is that when you look at any form of matter closely enough, it doesn't exist in any material sense. Most physicists will tell you that the smallest particles in the quantum world (the world of the subatomic) act like flickers of light that disappear and reappear in different locations and have no real material substance. It is more like all matter at this level is made up of a concept rather than of material substance. The question then becomes who is the author of the concept that we call reality

Bullshit. I think youve been watching "what the bleep do we know?" far too much. The only place Ive seen this kind of argument put forward is in the pop-science crap like WTBDWK and that baloney gets lambasted and ridiculed by the scientific community at large.