Materialism seems very intuitive to me, so much so that when we speak of 'apparently' non-physical things (ie: belief, awareness, concepts, ideas, sensations), my initial reaction is that there must be something deeply embedded in our semantics and language that is the culprit. Something about the way in which we speak of these things which is not accurately representing reality, because for me, if something accurately represents reality, it represents something physical.

For example, take the proposition "I have an idea." For me, I take it that this could be reducible to a set of propositions which refer to something physical in the universe. Perhaps those propositions might be, "I believe x," which would be reducible to "There is brain-state y that I am experiencing."

One thing that really stumps me, though, is speaking of sensations. To feel pain or happiness, for example. These feel very real, yet they feel "immaterial". But I still have a stronger intuition that even mention of sensations can be reducible to the physical, and that no such non-physical thing exists. Calling them "immaterial" is almost nonsensical in my eyes, yet at the same time, it seems as if they are "immaterial."

The problem for me is largely feeling unsure about what we are in fact talking about when we speak of such things.

My question is, if one accepts that only the physical exists, what on earth are we doing when we refer to the aforementioned things?

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    You don't think that things like law, justice, society, the convention that we go at green lights and stop at red lights are abstract ideas? You don't believe in abstractions at all? This, I don't understand.
    – user4894
    Apr 10, 2014 at 1:47
  • Hmm. Roughly speaking, I take that to say something is a "society" is to say that there are predictable patterns that occur among a group of people. So yes, I accept that people exist, and that they do things, and that we can model these things and notice that there are patterns in the model, but that's it. It's all physical. For me, if there is mention of anything non-physical, then there's something going on in the language that isn't referring to reality.
    – Casey
    Apr 10, 2014 at 1:55
  • Or I think I could put it another way: When we speak of abstractions, there is a 'second-order' nature about what is going on about the nature of the speaking of such abstractions. Namely, there are physical sound waves occuring when we talk about an abstraction, and there are beliefs occuring (namely, the belief in said abstraction). And of course, for me, to say that something is a belief is to say that a physical brain state is occuring. So abstractions don't exist, in the sense that non-physical things don't exist, but the 'second-order' phenomena do exist.
    – Casey
    Apr 10, 2014 at 2:08
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    Why not say that there are some phenomena that do not have a succinct physical description (or perhaps not even a finite one - though this would likely be antireductionist) but they can be approximately described by sentences about physical phenomena to whatever degree of precision one cares for? So your red light law might have physical basis, but that basis is "scattered" across brains, bodies, and text books, and loads of other stuff with an unfathomable degree of combinatorial complexity. Saying "red light law" is shorthand for this complex pattern.
    – Lucas
    Apr 10, 2014 at 2:46
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    The issue is : (i) we call "things" something that "has existence"; (ii) we call "things" something that is "physical". Thus, what about "abstract" ones ? I suggest : call "objects" waht has existence aand call "things" the "physical" objects. Now the issue is more clear: are we committed to the existence of only physical objects ? Apr 10, 2014 at 5:38

9 Answers 9


To support you on "only the physical exists", if you break down all functions of the brain to be a hierarchy of thought patterns (aka electrican signals), then the sort of intangible concepts you are referring to are simply the result of very complex network of interconnected patterns.

Take for example the internet. What is the internet? Where is the internet? your computer is not 'The' internet. A particular website is not 'The' internet. They are both part of it, but the internet itself is something that emerges from the complexity of interconnections between nodes.

So to answer your question. When we speak of happiness or pain or justice or society it is a complex structure that our words are referring to. There is not one thing that we can point to. It is the combination of many things which we have encapsulated in a word for easy reference.

The reduction to something physical can, at least, be found in the human brain if not anywhere else.

Something else to consider: If you have a Pile of sand and you start removing 1 grain of sand at a time. at what point does the Pile cease to be a pile of sand? is 2 grains of sand a pile? what about 10 grains? Is the whole idea of a pile of sand not a physical reality?

Another one: A grouping of musical notes arranged in a certain way create a song. call it Song 'A'. Take those same notes and re-arrange them. Song 'A' no longer exists; However, all the same components of the Song 'A' remain. What exactly is it that made the song a song? Do you consider a song physical or non-physical?

I suggest you read: Ray Kurzweil's How to Create a Mind. - He breaks down how the mind is just a network of complex patterns.

Also read: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum - Blum takes the intangible concept of the internet and tries to give it a physical reality.

  • Well I like what you said here "...It is the combination of many things which we have encapsulated in a word for easy reference.". Though it still stumps me when we speak of beliefs and sensations in particular. It's almost as if I have two clashing intuitions - (a) that there is only the physical and (b) beliefs and sensations are... something other than physical. I mean I understand the whole notion of these things being "emergent properties" of the physical, but even so, they must be physical if I am to accept that only the physical exists. It just doesn't feel proper calling them physical.
    – Casey
    Apr 10, 2014 at 2:41
  • Perhaps the way your thinking of "physical" is where your getting stumped. Do you consider infrared or ultraviolet light to be physical? if so why?
    – Cynapse
    Apr 10, 2014 at 2:43
  • I was just re-reading your comment and it seems you are torn between Objectivity and Subjectivity. The 'physical' being the objective and the concepts your grappling with (beliefs and sensations) the subjective. Technically speaking subjective experiences only exist for the person experiencing them. It doesn't make them any less real or meaningful. They just don't exists for anyone else exactly the same way. so your right in a sense. The only thing we share with everyone else is the Objective world (aka the physical one).
    – Cynapse
    Apr 10, 2014 at 5:42

I believe your confusion is rooted in a more profound philosophical problem, the ontology of abstraction and abstract concepts, and this is often the earliest, most fundamental problem we often find boggling our mind early in our philosophical contemplations.

I advocate the holistic view, which rejects neither the physical/material basis of abstraction nor the immaterial outcome of the act; nor does it reduce one to the other. Universals such as man, plant, rock etc to higher degree aggregates such as people, society, city, etc they are all abstractions of material reality. Tracking down their exact referents in an essentially pluralistic material realm they are found to represent a set of concrete individual beings, but as signifiers themselves they are constituents of a higher level of existence, the intellectual realm if you will.

Once abstracted, the abstract concepts exist independent of their referents while still representing them, an observation which in turn points to their very immaterial essence, i.e. non-concrete, general, and encompassing contrary to the concrete, singular and non-encompassing essence of their individual referents. Abstract concepts in reality make up a higher plane of existence while revealing the properties of their respective level in the existence gradient.

Your double intuitive feelings underline the strong unity between different grades of existence in which material and intellectual forms are both embedded while each occupying their own level.

Intellectual forms are stronger more intense beings compared to material forms, that's why you can sense them internally in a vivid intuition which doesn't need any sensual mediation. They constitute your innermost most intimate self, your soul, while for observing the physical you have to use your outermost senses, i.e. physical sensory organs.


I think the question is somewhat confused on two fronts.

First, it's quite difficult to maintain that "only the physical exists." This seems to collapse on its face before moving even to the existence of social objects and ideas. Specifically, let's say we accept that there are atoms composed of a nucleus of protons and neutrons orbited by electrons that then form various types of compounds, aggregates, and solutions. Granting this, it seems, at least on most interpretations, that we've imported a large number of laws that govern the interactions of these objects (e.g. gravity, electromagnetism, strong forces, and weak forces). Are these "physical"? If the answer is yes, I'm not sure what you mean by "physical." If the answer is no, then your thesis collapses.

Second, the doubts you have about feelings, thoughts, and beliefs seem to confuse two different aspects, viz. a physical science aspect whereby we consider things in light of their properties as material objects and a phenomenological aspect where we consider our experience. Or to put it another, even if materialism is true, there's a difference between X experienced as a belief and X reduced to a physical explanation. It remains the case no matter what else that we do experience beliefs, etc., and in fact, our experience more naturally occurs in these coordinates than physical explanations of reductions. Worded another way, I write on a laptop set on a desk while sitting in a chair. I do not in fact write on a set of carbon compounds with electronic circuits that wire into a complex electrical signalling element that due the combination of gravity, electromagnetic forces, and strong and weak interactions maintains a constant position above polymer surface with a certain density and structural integrity while my carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur organized system interacts using these forces to remain above a combination of organic and polymer matter. (the length is to point out the absurdity of imagining that the physical is what "I really experience").

Put another way, my experience is in the first-order not about materiality regardless of what material my experience stands above. Thus, whether sensation is reductively explained or not matters not as to whether sensation is distinct from the material as experienced.

If you want to stick with the materialist view, you will probably call them complex brain states that lead to experience in the subject of this kind.

  • I tend to agree with you. With respect to the point about scientific laws: someone like OP could respond that there are gravitrons, electromagnetic waves, etc., which are physical (even if not visible). The so-called laws are really just models for how these physical things behave that are pretty good approximations. Models in turn are something constructed in our minds, and thus are physical in the sense that they are a particular pattern of neurons. Apr 11, 2014 at 16:59
  • @James that's exactly how I think about these 'laws' - the idea that to call it a law is to say that there exists a physical phenomena, and that we have modeled the physical phenomena; not that there is actually a law in itself that just 'exists out there'. And in addition to that, yes "...Models in turn are something constructed in our minds, and thus are physical in the sense that they are a particular pattern of neurons..." is roughly how I think about the model itself.
    – Casey
    Apr 11, 2014 at 19:43
  • @Casey It sounds nice but the models cannot be merely constructed in our minds. The behavior of the particles is non-arbitrary and insofar as the particles are quantitatively involved in the occurrence, they don't determine the nature of the qualities that matter. I don't really see anyway to get around that point on a basic level. But even granting that there still remain two differing perspectives through which we (whatever we are) approach our reality: one quantitative and measuring and the other objective (in the meaning that we interact with things as objects).
    – virmaior
    Apr 13, 2014 at 9:57

Ask yourself the following question: “what advantage does assuming ‘this’ or ‘that’ is physical (as opposed to non-physical) confer upon my agency as it is brought to bear on ‘this’ or ‘that’” and you will quickly see that it is irrelevant. Your understanding of something and your capacity to maintain some useful/purposeful and relatively controlled interaction with it boils down to mostly something you’re doing and how well you manage to coordinate/regulate that in the interaction. Obviously considerations of material properties might come into play (eg. softness, hardness, sponginess, brittleness, viscosity, reflectance, etc,..) but the question of whether something is physical or not is patently vacuous.


I agree with you that only physical things are "real". At the heart of your question is how we can consolidate our common sense intuitions about how our minds function, especially in the domain of how we are able to think about stuff (or intentionality) within an entirely physicallist account of the mind/brain.

For one thing, I think you are mistaken when you talk about having a brain state that represents a proposition like "I believe x". Alex Rosenberg provides an accessible explanation of the problem in The Atheist's Guide to Reality. The problem, in short, is that any proposed physicalist solution on how one configuration of matter (neurons) can be about another configuration of matter (like Paris) runs into an infinite regress problem on the neurophysiological level.

The solution? As we both agree, we cannot abandon the physicallist approach to reality. Instead, we could abandon our common sense intuition about propositions - the way introspection tells us how our mind works must simply be untrue. Paul Churchland expresses this view wonderfully. If EM is true, a human mind is really just a narrative generator about the deeper facts of brain processes - i.e. we are creating stories that explain the behaviours of other people (and ourselves), but these stories are essentially just fictions that have very little to do with reality. You do not really want to drink that fuzzy drink, your neurophysiological system is causing your hand to reach for that glass of Coke (in turn caused by a other physiological states like dehydration/low sugar levels etc.) and your mind is generating a narrative about how you would love to take a sip of that Coke.

If this is not satisfying to you, you may consider moving towards a Dennetian stance. Dennett essentially accepts the eliminative materialist account of reality, but goes a step back and claims that these narratives are not merely fiction, but has a useful function in how we understand the things around us, even if they are not reducible to physical brain states. According to Dennett, it is as correct to assign propositional attitudes to people as it is to machines or inanimate objects (it is just as correct to say that your car does not want to start on a cold morning as it is to say that you want a flavour of ice cream). This is a form of instrumentalism that many find satisfying, as it maintains our common sense intuitions. However, Rosenberg for one, considers this a shameless dodge.


What is mind? - Never matter! What is matter? - Never mind! But what is That that perceives? If you accept that you are a materialist, who perceives? If someone is dead, their brain complex no longer perceives this universe - yet, the brain is still there (albeit decomposing - but you don't feel the decomposing....). Whom then is perceiving this universe when you are living? Many people analyze the world as being either one of two states of existence, one of stone (matter) and the other of thought (mind). What right have you to limit existence to these two? Is human thought, human consciousness, the ultimate in consciousness? Cannot there be something greater than human consciousness? Taking for granted that there is no greater or higher state, what are we going through this circle all the time; what reason can explain this world? The sensible world will be the limit to our knowledge if we cannot go farther. But what reason is there is there to believe in the testimony of the senses? If reason is all in all, it leaves us no place to stand on this side of nihilism. Kant has proved beyond all doubt that we cannot penetrate beyond the tremendous dead wall called reason. But that is the very first idea upon which all Indian thought takes it's stand, and dares to seek, and succeeds in finding something higher than reason, where alone the present state is to be found. Mind and matter are not opposed to each other but are two states of a third state, which is neither mind nor matter. A good reference is What is Life? and "Mind and Matter" by Erwin Schroedinger

  • Just a heads up, I don't reject the possibility of anything being true. The question for me is what is there that gives me reason to believe that something is in fact true.
    – Casey
    Apr 12, 2014 at 18:43

The standard way people think about a law of physics is that to explain some event you start with the initial state of some physical system and use a law of motion to predict what it will do: if the event occurs you have explained it. However, there are some problems for which this way of thinking about explanation does not fit very well.

For example, if I am reading a book, I expect a paperback copy and a digital copy to have the same content. I could construct some mapping between the two copies such that I could find any given part of one copy in the other. If I knew what happened in chapter 2 of one copy I would know what happened in chapter 2 of the other copy. So there are properties of the two copies that I can refer to without referring to what material of which they happen to be composed. There are lots of explanations that refer to properties of physical objects in the same way such as the theory of information, the theory of computation, epistemology and the theory of evolution. For example, the theory of evolution is about replicators: it explains biological complexity in terms of physical objects that make copies of information contained in genes, the conditions under which this happens, the ways in which these pieces of information interact with one another and so on.

This does not imply that there is something that exists that isn't a physical object, just that there are physical laws that don't directly refer to the material of which an object is composed. Various attempts are made to doge this like saying that explanations of non-physical stuff have to do with the way the human brain works or something like that in an attempt to drag us back to thinking about everything in terms of laws of motion and initial conditions. But this is piffle: evolution happened long before the human brain came along. The vast bulk of information and knowledge is not stored in anybody's brain: we invented books, computers and so on so that we didn't have to instantiate and enact certain pieces of knowledge.

Some attempts are being made to understand the laws of physics that deal with information in terms of laws that just distinguish between whether it is possible or impossible to perform certain kinds of physical transformations. Laws of motion would then be a special case of the set of possible set of transformations but would be incorporated into a larger set of laws of physics, see




I suspect that the notion ‘non-physical’ is a piece of hokum- par excellence. Some believe that the reason why science can’t pin down consciousness (for example) is due to its non-physical underpinnings. So if there is a disadvantage in treating it as physical, what advantage is there in treating it as non-physical? Should we assume cancer- or anything else science has a hard time accounting for- has a non-physical essence? Can you think of a solitary routine (activity) that is in anyway leveraged by invoking the notion of non-physicality, apart from mere language routines? No, neither can I.

  • Re first answer: Could you write this using paragraphs? And preferably with less of a rhetorical style (question marks are for questions).
    – virmaior
    Jul 5, 2014 at 11:26
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    Re content: Also, there's a lot of historical reasons why consciousness might be thought to be "non-physical" in ways say ... cancer would not. See for instance Aristotle and Plato's accounts of how thought works.
    – virmaior
    Jul 5, 2014 at 11:27
  • "Can you think of a solitary routine (activity) that is in anyway leveraged by invoking the notion of non-physicality, apart from mere language routines? No, neither can I." - This is an argumentum ad ignorantiam. You should avoid arguing this way because even when the point you make is right, it is unconvincing. Jul 7, 2014 at 21:21
  • "Some believe..." Who? Jul 7, 2014 at 21:22

Casey (i believe you referred to yourself as Casey) i will keep my explanation and answer very simple and short. You are partially correct. however we must come to understand that the first and complete category that exists is that of order. everything is about order. simply speaking there are two categories of order, the physical and the non-physical. the physical is obvious which includes physics, chemistry, biology and so forth. the non-physical includes mathematics, language, human made rules, the moral law, music, art. When we accept the fact that everything is categorized under the grouping called order, and there is One order provider, it all makes sense.

  • Is there any chance you could spell this out a little further? Why is this a persuasive answer to the question for you?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Jun 10, 2015 at 20:31

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