Of course, for this question the physical itself needs to be defined; I'll define it simply as the popular use of it today in physics - either an actual, material substance, or a physical concept such as gravity, force, kinetic energy, planck size etc.

Now non-physical entities/concepts may be (but not necessarily exclusive to) mental substances/concepts (I'm using it merely because it's the best [and perhaps the only] example for non-physicality).

And for the question - can a physician talk, within the academic scope of physics, about those non-physical concepts and use it in relation to the physical concepts? Or is that in a different department?

I'm asking both theoretically on the meaning of physics and practically in the published papers. If some physician did such thing (put non-physical in his research) I'd be happy to get a reference.

  • If "the physical [is] simply what's being used today in physics", by your definition a physician does not talk, within the academic scope of physics, about non-physical concepts. Mar 12, 2018 at 8:15
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA I'm asking for the possibility. Mar 12, 2018 at 8:56
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    I feel a better definition of 'physical' would be required for an answer. When you define space-time as physical you pre-empt the discussion. According to my dictionary space-time is studied by metaphysics, not physics.
    – user20253
    Mar 12, 2018 at 9:12
  • @PeterJ correct, I definitely should rid of space and time from physics, but I meant a physical interpretation of them (like Einstein's). I'll try to put a better definition. Mar 12, 2018 at 10:07
  • You may have heard of this super-niche field called neuroscience.
    – Veedrac
    Mar 12, 2018 at 11:10

2 Answers 2


See Erwin Schrodinger’s “Mind and Matter” for a discussion of “objectivization”. The “Subject of Cognizance” is excluded from the domain of nature during this simplification resulting in the “hypothesis of the real world”. By this account what physics studies is an abstraction. It is convenient to study reality this way but if we forget that this is an abstraction we risk what Whitehead calls the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”. The concrete fact includes the Subject of Cognizance.

Given Schrodinger’s account physics is not able to study non-physical entities or concepts directly because what is non-physical goes through the abstraction of objectivization first. The non-physical is lost in the process.

See the physicist Shimon Malin’s “Nature Loves to Hide” for a way for physics, with the help of philosophy, to approach the non-physical indirectly. The indirectness comes from attempting to make sense out of the limitations of objectivization when it is confronted with the collapse of a quantum event. Prior to the observation there are only potentialities. These potentialities could be viewed as “non-physical”. The physical begins with the collapse. One cannot observe these potentialities without collapsing them, but one is aware of the multiple possibilities. The awareness of the possibilities is an indirect look at the non-physical.

  • You keep mentioning "Nature Loves to Hide" which makes me wanna grab that book already :) Mar 12, 2018 at 17:23
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    @YechiamWeiss It is an excellent survey of quantum events and how they relate to philosophy especially that of Whitehead and Plotinus. Mar 12, 2018 at 17:27
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    Schrodinger is excellent. He describes the view of the writers of the Upanishads which would be that our usual idea of physicality is not correct. For me this is what complicates the question.
    – user20253
    Mar 13, 2018 at 11:23

In physics, "nonphysical" objects are dealt with routinely. For example, a field is not a physical object, but an excitation of that field behaves just like a physical object. The practitioner is allowed to switch back and forth between fields and excitations based on mathematical convenience.

In philosophy, on the other hand, you can write your own definitions with impunity.

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