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Colors don’t smell. It seems nonsensical for them to smell. And yet, saying that a color is smelly doesn’t seem to be as contradictory in a way that a square triangle does. Rather, applying the concept of a smell to color just seems to make no sense. What would it mean for a color to smell?

Now, most wouldn’t say that a smelly color might exist. Or that “we can’t know if a smelly color doesn’t exist. It is certainly possible since it can’t be disproven”. You’d be laughed off the face of the planet if you did. We don’t remain agnostic to the existence of a crying leaf or a living stone.

If so, why is the concept of an immaterial being considered any more sensible? For starters, one can’t imagine a being that is immaterial. Can you? Perhaps you can imagine a mind, sure, but by “being” here, I mean an entity that can actually do things and affect the physical world. Can you imagine a purely immaterial being causing effects on the physical world?

The very concept of a being doing things as traditionally understood requires space or some form or some shape or some level of physical interaction which invariably requires something material or a physical substance.

And yet, there have been thousands of books, millions of pages, and full encyclopedias written about this seemingly nonsensical concept that is taken seriously in philosophy. Is this just another effect of stubborn human irrationality or is there something more to this concept?

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    Re third paragraph: mind, according to Descartes. Commented Sep 2, 2023 at 12:40
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    When you say "immaterial being", what is your definition of being? Commented Sep 2, 2023 at 23:30
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    Not an answer, but not being able to imagine things is a very poor heuristic for them being possible or not. Imagination is a powerful but extremely limited tool based on our personal experience of our extremely limited senses of an tiny fragment an unimaginably vast universe composed of an unimaginable number of unimaginably tiny interactions which behave in unimaginable ways, which is why when you're doing science, you rely on math, and insofar as your imagination is useful, it's as context for or in relation to the shape and behavior of mathematical expressions.
    – g s
    Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 17:58
  • Thousands of books? Millions of pages? Full encyclopedias all written about "immaterial beings"? Would you cite some of them please? Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 19:52
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    Synesthesisa. Smelling colours might not be so ridiculous after all. Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 3:02

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What would it mean for a color to smell?

There may well be "smelly colours" (or at least colourful smells), it is called "synaesthesia". Smells and colours are not real, they are our perceptions of aspects of reality. There is nothing to stop someone experiencing a colour as having a smell, and a quick web search suggests there have been recorded cases of smells being perceived as having a colour.

The reason "saying that a color is smelly doesn’t seem to be as contradictory in a way that a square triangle does" is because it actually happens, whereas for the definition of a triangle precludes it being square (at least for Euclidean geometry - who knows what mathematicians get up to!). Unlike smelly colours, it is ruled out a-priori by definition.

Or that “we can’t know if a smelly color doesn’t exist. It is certainly possible since it can’t be disproven”. You’d be laughed off the face of the planet if you did.

Those laughing would feel pretty silly when they found out about synaesthesia! ;o)

If you had asked most scientists 400 years ago whether it was possible to have a transparent vertebrate, it is likely that they had never seen any evidence of such a thing and they wouldn't have seen evidence that it was possible. Of course they couldn't have been disproven it either. Yet such creatures exist.

For starters, one can’t imagine a being that is immaterial. Can you?

Well, actually yes, and I am far from being the only one, as you self-answer:

And yet, there have been thousands of books, millions of pages, and full encyclopedias written about this seemingly nonsensical concept

To use one of your other examples:

We don’t remain agnostic to the existence of a crying leaf or a living stone.

I can imagine silicon based life, and an immobile silicon based life form (the equivalent of a lithops) would be a "living stone".

So what does all this mean? Carl Sagan writes in one of his books (but similar statements had been made previously)

Keeping an open mind is a virtue—but, as the space engineer James Oberg once said, not so open that your brains fall out.

I fully agree with this as I am skeptical by nature and ruling anything out is not very skeptical.

Relying on falsifiability for all questions seems like naive scientism - the belief that science is the only or best route to knowledge on all topics. However, while Popper argued that we can't prove anything, only disprove, the Quine-Duhem thesis shows that we can't unequivocally disprove anything by experiment/observation either.

So this seems to support Sagan's maxim - we should keep our mind open enough that we consider arguments and evidence, while at the same time remaining skeptical.

The real problem is that things are either possible or they are impossible, the difficulty is that we don't know which. So if we can't show something is impossible there is an epistemic possibility that it is possible in reality. Arguments often confuse epistemic possibility with possible in reality. They are not the same thing at all.

As an example, "faster than light travel is possible", is not a falsifiable statement. We can argue based on theory that it is impossible, but we can't demonstrate it. Most people would accept that it is false, but it would be lacking in proper scientific skepticism not to consider there is a possibility that it is true. Einstein may have been wrong (or at least incomplete) just as Newton was before him.

Similarly, "there exist anti-matter galaxies outside the visible universe" isn't falsifiable either, and we have no evidence (except from theory) to support it. Should we refuse to entertain the possibility simply because it is unfalsifiable?

Just one last example. The existence of Black Holes was first proposed by John Michell in 1783. He suggested there may be "dark stars" in the night sky that we can't see. That is not a falsifiable hypothesis, while it would be possible to detect some "dark stars" if they had a visible pair as part of a double star system, however that doesn't rule out the possibility of unpaired dark stars in intergalactic space. Does that mean we shouldn't accept the possibility that the hypothesis was true (because it was, but not quite in the way Michell thought)?

BTW, as you may have worked out, while I appreciate falsificationism, I am not a hard-line Popperian.

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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Philosophy Meta, or in Philosophy Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 12:58
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    I guess I simply don’t believe you then. A purely immaterial being (if it could even exist) by definition cannot be observable. Thus it causing an effect on the physical world cannot be imagined. One can only imagine a physical cause causing a physical effect.
    – user62907
    Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 13:01
  • imdb.com/title/tt0084516 Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 17:36
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    excelent examples. I was also thinking about non-euclidian spaces. And about String Theory, which seems to work really well if it is true that we live in 10 or 11 dimensions, while only experiencing 4 of them. I don't believe in God, but I could easily imagine an 'immaterial being' actually being material, but residing in one of the other 6 dimensions. It's weird, but who knows what String Theory will bring us?
    – Jumboman
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 13:31
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(As a synesthete, I can say that some colors are smelly.)

But the point of the question: are immaterial beings nonsensical?

Today's physicists say that dark energy and dark matter constitute 95 % of the total mass–energy content of the Universe. 95 % of the Universe is completely unknown. All we know that it exists, but we don't know in what form, how it works and what it is made of. I find it unlikely that the 5 % we know of is the only thing that is capable of forming beings.

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There's a bit of language confusion here. 'Color' and 'smell' are both qualities that make no sense unless they are 'attached' to an essence (something with an ostensible existence). It makes no linguistic sense to attach a quality to another quality without the presence of an essence. We can talk about (say) a stinky brown turtle, but here's no sense talking about a stinky brown.

'Immaterial' is also a quality, but 'being' is an essence, so the phrase 'immaterial being' is a well-formed utterance. That doesn't mean that immaterial beings exist; merely that talking about immaterial beings is linguistically sound.

It's best not to base philosophy on wordplay without a whole lot more elaboration.

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  • an essence is something with an ostensible existence? You have a firm ontological system going on there, Ted, I mean you're welcome to it, but you seem awfully sure...
    – Deipatrous
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 14:20
  • @Deipatrous: Well, the philosophical system you're thinking about isn't mine, and it isn't new, going back (at lest) to Aristotle in the West. I think I'm invoking the language of some 16th or 17th century philosopher whose name escapes me at the moment; maybe that's the issue. But all I'm saying is that (philosophical) language separates things that have 'existence' from 'qualities/attributes' of such things. Qualities are singe-dimensional: you can string them together to describe different aspects of an object, but you can't combine them directly. Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 17:46
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Is this just another effect of stubborn human irrationality or is there something more to this concept?

Yes, there is something more to this concept. You see, any matter, and any being is local to a specific universe/world. In this sense, calling a being "immaterial" simply says that they are not part of our universe/world. It is a being within its own world, and probably quite material, whatever that means in their world. But since they are not part of our world, they are neither made from anything that we call matter, nor do they occupy any space/time within our world.

I think, this becomes more clear with a little thought experiment: Suppose you have a programmer who writes a game. The programmer chooses whether the game is going to take place in a 2D world, or in a 3D world. They might even do tricks like creating an unbounded finite world by wrapping space around at the edges. And the programmer decides what things exist within that game world, and how they interact with each other. Lets say, they create a 3D world where creatures and people move around. And lets suppose that those virtual people rely on some really bright AI. And they start doing physics and philosophy, much in the same way as we do. Now, would they say that the programmer is a being? Yes, of course. Their very existence is only possible because of the existence of the programmer. Would they say that the programmer is material? No, definitely not. They don't even know that the programmer is made from protons, neutrons and electrons, nor what those things are. Their world obeys different rules, and anything that they would call matter is firmly within their own world.

The point is, the programmers world, and the game world are two very distinct universes with very different laws of nature. Yet both worlds exist, and the people within those worlds exist. And though the people within the game world are entirely at the mercy of the game programmer, the programmer is perfectly immaterial within their world.

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    What does it mean for a being to exist outside of space and time in its own world? I can make similar claims without evidence for other nonsensical propositions. I can say that a leaf cries not in our world, but in another where crying isn’t limited to humans
    – user62907
    Commented Sep 2, 2023 at 21:46
  • @thinkingman The leaf you see exists in our world, only. It cannot cry in another world because it cannot interact with anything within that other world. The relation between the programmer and the game world is special because the game world exists as data within the programmer's world, and the programmer has all freedom to manipulate that data to their liking. For the people in the game world, the programmer cannot be seen or be made the object of some experiment. They cannot prove/disprove the programmer's existence because of that. Yet, the fact remains that the programmer exists. Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 8:01
  • When people claim the existence of immaterial beings, those beings typically have the power to influence our world much in the same way as the programmer can influence the game world. Yet, because those beings are not themselves part of our world, they are beyond the grasp of science. Whether they exist or not cannot be proven, but we can be certain that they either do or not. And we may have evidence of their manipulating the "data" of our world. Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 8:08
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    @thinkingman Indeed. It would only be rational if you had some kind of evidence that they actually did manipulate the data of our world. Like a burning bush that does not get consumed by the fire, like water catching fire, a man walking over the water, or a man walking out of their grave, etc. pp. Without any such evidence, there's absolutely no reason to believe immaterial beings exist. With such evidence, there is reason. Because if you have such evidence, you either need to believe the evidence is fake, or that some kind of a programmer exists. It's a step of faith either way. Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 8:40
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    Excellent answer, but I'm afraid it's 'pearls for the pigs' as @thinkingman has made it quite clear he's not going to change his mind about anything. I had never heard the programmer analogy before, it's really clear!
    – Jumboman
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 13:37
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Colors don’t smell. It seems nonsensical for them to smell.

Others have already covered synaesthesia, which scuttles your particular example, but you seem to have been reaching for something in the realm of category error. We can talk about that without a specific example.

And yet, saying that a color is smelly doesn’t seem to be as contradictory in a way that a square triangle does.

I agree, that's a different kind of error. As geometric shapes, triangles are in a category to which squareness can apply. Nevertheless, the definition of "triangle" is fundamentally inconsistent with squareness.

Now, most wouldn’t say that a smelly color might exist. Or that “we can’t know if a smelly color doesn’t exist. It is certainly possible since it can’t be disproven”.

Agreed that rational people generally would not suppose that a category error might not actually be an error.

We don’t remain agnostic to the existence of a crying leaf or a living stone.

Maybe. But you've now switched to an altogether different kind of example. These are now things that you do not believe to exist, but they do not suffer from category error or any fundamental inconsistency. And you have projected your particular beliefs onto a generic "we" without clear justification.

If so, why is the concept of an immaterial being considered any more sensible?

Apparently because not everyone is burdened with the kind of mental shackles that seem to afflict you.

For starters, one can’t imagine a being that is immaterial. Can you?

I certainly can. And more than half the present population of the planet professes either Christianity or Islam, so that's a majority position without even considering any other religions. Not to mention that the concept is well entrenched in multiple fiction genres, too.

Perhaps you can imagine a mind, sure, but by “being” here, I mean an entity that can actually do things and affect the physical world. Can you imagine a purely immaterial being causing effects on the physical world?

Again, yes. And again, so can many, many other people. I don't have a mechanism to propose for that, but I don't need one merely to imagine the possibility.

The very concept of a being doing things as traditionally understood requires space or some form or some shape or some level of physical interaction which invariably requires something material or a physical substance.

Now you seem to be trying to assume the conclusion. Who says that immaterial beings could produce effects on the world only by means that are "traditionally understood"? And who gets to decide what the traditional understanding is?

And if that's you, then do you consider electromagnetic radiation producing effects on the physical world to be outside of traditional understanding?

And yet, there have been thousands of books, millions of pages, and full encyclopedias written about this seemingly nonsensical concept that is taken seriously in philosophy.

I'm sure there are lots of people who do not believe that any immaterial beings exist, but that's not at all the same thing as the concept being nonsensical. It certainly does not suffer from category error or from being fundamentally inconsistent.

Is this just another effect of stubborn human irrationality or is there something more to this concept?

Perhaps you could try to be a little less provocative? You're throwing shade at a lot of people with your "stubborn" and "irrationality".

As you observe, there is a massive body of literature, both fiction and nonfiction, dealing with various concepts related to immaterial beings. Quite a lot of thought and labor has gone into that, much of it by people who do not deserve to be called irrational. Clearly, then, there is more to the concept than you want to credit.

Whether immaterial beings are among them or not, I am confident that there are more things in heaven and earth, thinkingman, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Or mine.

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  • Good Fisking! [additional content to keep the comment validator happy] Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 14:26
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Are fields (in the physicist's sense) things you'd consider immaterial?

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  • Probably. For a sharper example, ask about quantum numbers, which are natural numbers.
    – Corbin
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 16:05
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    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 16:10
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OP: The very concept of a being as traditionally understood requires space or some form or some shape which invariably requires something material or at least some physical substance.

That is so for a being but not for being itself.

In the Heideggerian œuvre Being is what gives rise to beings. In phenomenological terms beings are things observered: living, inanimate or abstract. They are discriminated by mind and have conceptual rationalisation. For example, the table is understood as a table. A key ingredient of what gives the table existence is its interaction with mind. What gives rise to mind and facilitates that interaction is Being. Phenomenologically Being comes before thought so it is unthinkable; in practical terms it can be thought of as the biophysical basis for mind, but that is a sketch. In phenomenology we are in the realm of mind where there is no materiality, so when we say "thought exist", where it comes from is immaterial Being. The idea is to try to conceive of where thought comes from without resorting to 'things' which are the products of thoughts.

From Phenomenological Pragmaticism by O G Rose:

Phenomenology and Empiricism [...] both ultimately come down to a way to hold ourselves and approach the world. A Phenomenologist takes experience very seriously, while an Empiricist gives observation great weight, ...

the Phenomenologist is focused on “the experience which things make possible,” the Empiricist is focused on “the things in our experience.”

The phenomenologist examining nature will soon find everything is made of quarks of which there is no further knowledge aside from 6 flavours. That and other shortcomings of empirical knowledge make empiricism insufficient to explain the direct experience of their interest. Hence biophysics though gestural is not solid enough to feature in the phenomenological basis of being. From direct experience we think and our thoughts come from immaterial Being.

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As with so many philosophical questions, I would argue that this one boils down to definitions. You write

The very concept of a being doing things as traditionally understood requires space or some form or some shape or some level of physical interaction which invariably requires something material or a physical substance.

This explicitly incorporates a material nature into the definition of "being" that you are working with.

But suppose you define "material" in some way that describes physical matter in our universe. Then you could imagine another universe in which information somehow is encoded into the physics of the universe so that one state leads to another in a computational way, but perhaps this encoding is not localized and there's not even a good way to define "matter" in that universe. Then there could be an immaterial being.

To tie this to specific ideas in our culture, many people believe that the Christian God is a well-defined, unique, immaterial being. As long as you can imagine that whatever principles characterize the actions of this God are foreign enough from the physics we understand, there will be is a reasonable definition of "material" that God would not fit.

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Consider: Artificial intelligence. While we have not yet seen true artificial intelligence it will likely happen at some point. While an artificial intelligence has to be running on some sort of hardware it's not dependent on any specific hardware and thus it could very well be considered immaterial.

Thus there is a reasonable example of an "immaterial being"--it's not nonsense.

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  • "Many" is a weasel word. "An artificial intelligence" is incorrect quantification; artificial intelligence is a field of study, not a class of things. No evidence is given to substantiate your syllogism. Finally, arguments from authority are incomplete; we may always rephrase our question as a direct query to any particular authority, interrogating their evidence.
    – Corbin
    Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 16:33
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    @Corbin An artificial intelligence is an intelligence that is artificial. You'd usually expect that to be phrased as "an entity having an artificial intelligence" but given that this is most often connected to computer where the "entity" is rather irrelevant, it's usually abbreviated as artificial intelligence and that is what the field of study is occupied with. So at least that part is not incorrect or insufficient.
    – haxor789
    Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 13:48
  • @Corbin "Artificial intelligence" can refer to both the field of study and the product it produces. We aren't to the point where we can produce something that would reasonably be considered to have a mind. And I say "many" because it's a subjective definition--while it obviously must have hardware it need not have specific hardware. Commented Sep 4, 2023 at 18:55
  • This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. - From Review
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 20:44
  • @LudwigV It answers it by providing a counterexample--it's not nonsensical. Commented Sep 6, 2023 at 1:25

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