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Material Or Immaterial ?


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#1 aelyn

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Posted 25 November 2012 - 02:31 AM

Hello all,

I've been thinking back recently of various conversations I had here and elsewhere in the past that involved the concept of matter vs the immaterial and I wanted to explore that question a bit. In particular I'm thinking of a discussion with Teejay on Usafjay1976's “Atheists” thread where he talked about how one couldn't use the immaterial laws of logic to argue only matter existed, while I claimed the laws of logic aren't immaterial in the first place.

I'm not interested in bare definitions here. I'd like to know what different people mean when they talk about things being “material” or “immaterial”, what kind of concepts those words encompass, and what consequences that has on how material and immaterial things can interact (if at all).

For example, I wonder which of the following things people here think are material and which (if any) they think are immaterial, and why ?

- An apple
- That apple's trajectory as it falls from a tree
- That apple's speed
- That apple's shape
- That apple's smell
- The sound of the apple hitting the ground
- A lego block
- A lego spaceship
- A fire
- The process of digestion
- A computer
- A computer virus
- The calculations done by a computer
- The internet

Actually looking at these I notice that they can be roughly divided into three categories : things, characteristics of things, and processes involving things (i.e. things interacting over time). It seems to me that while everybody usually agrees things are material, characteristics and processes are often but not always called “immaterial”. Is there some kind of rule to this, or are “objects/characteristics/processes” and “material/immaterial” completely independent categorization schemes ?

#2 gilbo12345

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Posted 25 November 2012 - 11:30 PM

Immaterial = not material hence if something exists which is not a physical entity then it is immaterial by definition. Mathematics and numbers are defined as abstract for that very reason. The laws of logic (and anything else for that matter) are by definition immaterial. I could ask you can you go to the store and get a kilo of logic? IF logic or the laws of it are not immaterial then that means they are material and thus would have a material form.

This is where naturalism falls apart since its common knowledge that there are things that exist which are not physical... However in order for the naturalist to continue within his / her naturalism they must either claim these things are (somehow) physical, or claim they do not exist.


Using your examples

apple = material
the apples trajectory / speed = constants pertaining to the laws of physics which charaterise an aspect of a material thing (so not physical in and of themselves but are associated with something material)
apples shape = physical characteristic of the apple
apples smell = chemical compounds from the apple thus physical
sound = soundwaves = physical
lego = physical
fire = light and heat however I've asked what are the flames actually "made" of and have yet to get an answer from scientists.
Can't just be light since light (is assumed to ) travel in a straight line and wouldn't create the flames that we see.
digestion = physical
computer = physical
computer virus = information that resides within a computer not physical
calculations done by computer = mathematics = abstract = not physical
the internet = servers etc are physical

#3 Mike Summers

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Posted 26 November 2012 - 12:06 AM

Hello all, I've been thinking back recently of various conversations I had here and elsewhere in the past that involved the concept of matter vs the immaterial and I wanted to explore that question a bit. In particular I'm thinking of a discussion with Teejay on Usafjay1976's “Atheists” thread where he talked about how one couldn't use the immaterial laws of logic to argue only matter existed, while I claimed the laws of logic aren't immaterial in the first place. I'm not interested in bare definitions here. I'd like to know what different people mean when they talk about things being “material” or “immaterial”, what kind of concepts those words encompass, and what consequences that has on how material and immaterial things can interact (if at all). For example, I wonder which of the following things people here think are material and which (if any) they think are immaterial, and why ? - An apple - That apple's trajectory as it falls from a tree - That apple's speed - That apple's shape - That apple's smell - The sound of the apple hitting the ground - A lego block - A lego spaceship - A fire - The process of digestion - A computer - A computer virus - The calculations done by a computer - The internet Actually looking at these I notice that they can be roughly divided into three categories : things, characteristics of things, and processes involving things (i.e. things interacting over time). It seems to me that while everybody usually agrees things are material, characteristics and processes are often but not always called “immaterial”. Is there some kind of rule to this, or are “objects/characteristics/processes” and “material/immaterial” completely independent categorization schemes ?

Hello all, I've been thinking back recently of various conversations I had here and elsewhere in the past that involved the concept of matter vs the immaterial and I wanted to explore that question a bit. In particular I'm thinking of a discussion with Teejay on Usafjay1976's “Atheists” thread where he talked about how one couldn't use the immaterial laws of logic to argue only matter existed, while I claimed the laws of logic aren't immaterial in the first place. I'm not interested in bare definitions here. I'd like to know what different people mean when they talk about things being “material” or “immaterial”, what kind of concepts those words encompass, and what consequences that has on how material and immaterial things can interact (if at all). For example, I wonder which of the following things people here think are material and which (if any) they think are immaterial, and why ? - An apple - That apple's trajectory as it falls from a tree - That apple's speed - That apple's shape - That apple's smell - The sound of the apple hitting the ground - A lego block - A lego spaceship - A fire - The process of digestion - A computer - A computer virus - The calculations done by a computer - The internet Actually looking at these I notice that they can be roughly divided into three categories : things, characteristics of things, and processes involving things (i.e. things interacting over time). It seems to me that while everybody usually agrees things are material, characteristics and processes are often but not always called “immaterial”. Is there some kind of rule to this, or are “objects/characteristics/processes” and “material/immaterial” completely independent categorization schemes ?

While apples are assumed to exist in the physical is eplicated in the mental in a non physical (the human mind).

Take sound, Sound is a mental phenomenon. Deaf people do not create sound (hear). Sound is a conversion of pressure differentials in our environments to the non physical mental state. Sound therefore does not exist outside our mental state.
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#4 gilbo12345

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Posted 26 November 2012 - 06:20 AM

While apples are assumed to exist in the physical is eplicated in the mental in a non physical (the human mind). Take sound, Sound is a mental phenomenon. Deaf people do not create sound (hear). Sound is a conversion of pressure differentials in our environments to the non physical mental state. Sound therefore does not exist outside our mental state.


Lol I didn't consider it that way :D Great work.

In fact all of the world is experienced as experience itself, what is experience? Is experience a physical thing which one can weigh or find atoms of?

#5 aelyn

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 01:40 PM

Thank you for both of your interesting answers !

Immaterial = not material hence if something exists which is not a physical entity then it is immaterial by definition. Mathematics and numbers are defined as abstract for that very reason. The laws of logic (and anything else for that matter) are by definition immaterial. I could ask you can you go to the store and get a kilo of logic? IF logic or the laws of it are not immaterial then that means they are material and thus would have a material form. This is where naturalism falls apart since its common knowledge that there are things that exist which are not physical... However in order for the naturalist to continue within his / her naturalism they must either claim these things are (somehow) physical, or claim they do not exist. Using your examples apple = material the apples trajectory / speed = constants pertaining to the laws of physics which charaterise an aspect of a material thing (so not physical in and of themselves but are associated with something material) apples shape = physical characteristic of the apple apples smell = chemical compounds from the apple thus physical sound = soundwaves = physical lego = physical fire = light and heat however I've asked what are the flames actually "made" of and have yet to get an answer from scientists. Can't just be light since light (is assumed to ) travel in a straight line and wouldn't create the flames that we see. digestion = physical computer = physical computer virus = information that resides within a computer not physical calculations done by computer = mathematics = abstract = not physical the internet = servers etc are physical

Your definitions aren't very helpful I'm afraid, the words "physical" and "non-physical" are exactly as difficult to define as "material" and "immaterial" (in the context of this conversation I'd even say they're exactly the same things). Thinking about what you can buy a kilo of in a shop isn't much better; you yourself give examples of that, when you say you consider sound and digestion to be physical but we can't buy a kilo of either in a shop.

I'm interested in the latter two in particular; what would you say the difference is between digestion and calculations done by a computer ? Both involve physical things interacting on a molecular/atomic level in a very specific way.
As for sound, it's basically a specific kind of movement of air molecules but not the air molecules themselves; would you call the movements of molecules a physical characteristic of those molecules, or constants pertaining to the laws of physics that are associated with physical molecules but not themselves physical, or (more likely) am I completely misunderstanding what you meant about the apples ?

On the fire thing I've long had the same issue but I think I've gotten it now; fire is heat and light, the heat and light that's produced by the exothermic combustion reaction of oxygen with carbon. That reaction needs a certain activation energy so it usually doesn't happen, but once it is triggered for a certain number of molecules (by very high temperatures, such as you might get by high friction of pieces of wood together for example) then given it's exothermic it will heat up the air around it triggering more combustion reactions, and so on in a chain reaction that lasts as long there's oxygen and carbon near the high-temperature zone and that said temperature remains high. So the actual flame is basically the bits of air that are near enough to a combustion reaction to be hot enough to emit light, and it's constantly moving because there are millions of reactions triggering each other and where they're occurring depends on where the oxygen and carbon are, so the flames will flicker with tiny air currents and creep along unconsumed carbon sources.

Hence why a match will go out faster if it's kept tip-up - because hot air goes up, so the wood under the flame never gets hot enough to combust. Also why blowing will kill a tiny fire but not a bigger one : when you blow on something you reduce its temperature and you give it more oxygen. If you're blowing on something small like a match you can reduce its core temperature under the activation energy required for combustion so the chain reaction will stop. If you're blowing on something bigger you won't be able to reduce every bit of it under that temperature, so you'll just fuel whichever bit's left with oxygen.
I think it might also be why there's what's look like a hollow in the middle of every match flame; I think the center of the flame might be oxygen-starved so there's no actual combustion going on there.
(I moved to a new flat recently that has a gas stove but no electric lighters. Can you tell I've been spending a lot of time striking matches recently ? :P)
(I've got to specify I've cobbled all this from my knowledge of chemistry and various things I've been told about what fire is over the years; I've never actually read or been told that specific explanation laid out like that, so it could be totally wrong. In fact if someone knows that's totally wrong please tell me !)


While apples are assumed to exist in the physical is eplicated in the mental in a non physical (the human mind). Take sound, Sound is a mental phenomenon. Deaf people do not create sound (hear). Sound is a conversion of pressure differentials in our environments to the non physical mental state. Sound therefore does not exist outside our mental state.

That's interesting. Would you say mental states are the only non-physical things ? That is, that everything that exists independently of our thinking about it is physical ?
I'm also curious as to whether you think any animals might have non-physical mental states.

#6 Xanifred

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 04:55 PM

That's actually a difficult question. I'd probably go with material = having a measurable physical presence, but then where does that leave thought? We tend to see thoughts as immaterial, but with brain-scanning technology we can not only measure the physical presence of a thought, we can actually tell what the thought is about, to some degree.

Ideas, memes, trends and whatnot are immaterial. But trends can be and are measured and tracked.

Could it possibly be that nothing which exists is truly immaterial?

#7 Mike Summers

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 08:18 PM

We have bias in all of our observations.
We don't seem to be able to observe our self not thinking. lol We are stuck with "mental" representations of everything outside our minds.

As far as animals, I am sure they do have a mental state. However we can't communicate with them as we can with each other. Moreover, information (our mental state) does not seem to conform to the laws of physics.

It is said that two pieces of matter can not occupy the same space at the same time,Information can. For example hundreds of different cars can be represented in our mental state (as well as yours) but, we can not store a functioning car in our minds--hence giving credence to the difference between mental and physical.

#8 Xanifred

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 08:25 PM

We have bias in all of our observations. We don't seem to be able to observe our self not thinking. lol We are stuck with "mental representations of everything outside our minds. As far as animals, I am sure they do have a mental state. However we can't communicate with them as we can with each other. Moreover, information (our mental state) does not seem to conform to the laws of physics .


This reminds me of a book I'm working my way through. It's called Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, and it's written by a neuroscientist, in layman's language. It's about what we currently know about how the brain works, and what (as far as we can determine) consciousness is, on the electrochemical level. You'd probably like it.

#9 Mike Summers

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 09:12 PM

I probably would like that book.

I have studied several theories of what causes consciousness (us aware of ourselves). For example, it was once thought that when computers reached a certain speed ( as fast as our minds) it (the computer) (the theory was called “emergence”) might become conscious. So far the world’s fastest computer is the IBM Sequoia running at 20 p flops Humans do 100 p flops. But maybe the software of the human mind is what gives us the edge. Our software is a part of the human mind/ body configuration which still is the most complex item in the known universe.

#10 aelyn

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 09:26 PM

We have bias in all of our observations. We don't seem to be able to observe our self not thinking. lol We are stuck with "mental" representations of everything outside our minds. As far as animals, I am sure they do have a mental state. However we can't communicate with them as we can with each other. Moreover, information (our mental state) does not seem to conform to the laws of physics. It is said that two pieces of matter can not occupy the same space at the same time,Information can. For example hundreds of different cars can be represented in our mental state (as well as yours) but, we can not store a functioning car in our minds--hence giving credence to the difference between mental and physical.

I disagree that we know that different bits of information can occupy the same space at the same time. I can store data about a hundred different cars on my computer, and that data will be physically stored in different places, and will be recalled at different times. We have no way of knowing that the information about a hundred cars isn't similarly stored in different bits of our brains and recalled at different times. Actually I even disagree that we can represent a hundred different cars in our mental state at the same time. I certainly can't picture a hundred cars at the same time, unless I'm picturing a full parking lot and that's just an image, not all the information relative to each functioning car. In fact I can't even represent all the information of one functioning car in my mind - I don't know everything about how a car works, let alone a specific car. A car expert could certainly do better but I still don't see how one can consciously think of a hundred different things in their specifics at the exact same time. We can't even multitask correctly for Heaven's sake. People doing many different mental tasks "at once" are actually constantly switching between them.

#11 Xanifred

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 09:38 PM

But maybe the software of the human mind is what gives us the edge. Our software is a part of the human mind/ body configuration which still is the most complex item in the known universe.

I'd argue that the universe itself is the most complex item in the known universe. But that might be too meta even for me.

#12 aelyn

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Posted 30 November 2012 - 09:38 PM

I probably would like that book. I have studied several theories of what causes consciousness (us aware of ourselves). For example, it was once thought that when computers reached a certain speed ( as fast as our minds) it (the computer) (the theory was called “emergence”) might become conscious. So far the world’s fastest computer is the IBM Sequoia running at 20 p flops Humans do 100 p flops. But maybe the software of the human mind is what gives us the edge. Our software is a part of the human mind/ body configuration which still is the most complex item in the known universe.

I don't think the software/hardware distinction is that valid for human brains, but from what I hear you're exactly right - cognitive science and neuroscience has been finding out over the last decades is that consciousness is a very specific process or set of processes, not something that just comes automatically with high processing speeds.

#13 Mike Summers

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Posted 01 December 2012 - 10:52 AM

The definition of a program that I am using is a set of instructions to not only coordinate the 70 or so organs we have as well as oxygenate, remove waste and feed the 100 trillion cells of the average body. In addition 300 million cells die every minute. They have to be disposed of. 80% of the “dust” in our homes is dead skin cells. Cells that die deep within the body are a different story. There are nano-vehicles that navigate the 67,000 mile long circulatory system at an astounding 200,000 miles per hour Additionally we also have a mental life which requires a memory function and an elaborate relational database so that we can decide how to respond to situations (stimuli) in our internal and external environments. The brains software does millions of multi tasking events.

Actually when a person is brain dead some of their software ceases to function. Their brain cells are not dead though—because their metabolism is still functioning. In other words their brain cells are not necrotic. It’s got to be an incredibly complex software program that controls the body and creates our mental life.

I was alluding to most scientists who believe the universe is very predictable. The human mind does not function like the universe. Scientists believe all areas of the universe have the same laws such as gravity.

#14 aelyn

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Posted 01 December 2012 - 03:38 PM

The definition of a program that I am using is a set of instructions to not only coordinate the 70 or so organs we have as well as oxygenate, remove waste and feed the 100 trillion cells of the average body. In addition 300 million cells die every minute. They have to be disposed of. 80% of the “dust” in our homes is dead skin cells. Cells that die deep within the body are a different story. There are nano-vehicles that navigate the 67,000 mile long circulatory system at an astounding 200,000 miles per hour Additionally we also have a mental life which requires a memory function and an elaborate relational database so that we can decide how to respond to situations (stimuli) in our internal and external environments. The brains software does millions of multi tasking events. Actually when a person is brain dead some of their software ceases to function. Their brain cells are not dead though—because their metabolism is still functioning. In other words their brain cells are not necrotic. It’s got to be an incredibly complex software program that controls the body and creates our mental life. I was alluding to most scientists who believe the universe is very predictable. The human mind does not function like the universe. Scientists believe all areas of the universe have the same laws such as gravity.


I'm not sure what you mean by that. All areas of the universe have the same laws such as gravity (and electromagnetism, and the strong and weak forces) but not all parts of the universe are predictable to the same extent, it depends on how complicated the interaction between different elements and laws is. For example just looking at gravity, a system with two massive bodies in empty space is very easy to predict. One with three massive bodies of similar masses is currently impossible to predict; the interactions between just those three bodies make the system too complicated for our current abilities. Similarly the behavior of objects in empty space is very different from their behaviour on a planet in an atmosphere or in water where you have to add the interactions with friction and fluid dynamics and so on.
Brains are some of the most complicated systems we know of, especially human brains, so even if it obeys exactly the same laws as the rest of the universe it will still be extremely difficult to predict and understand.




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