In this article, philosopher Evan Fales argues that the laws of physics establish that disembodied minds (such as an immaterial God, for example) could not influence the physical world. Is it true?

(The article can be read in the book Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. The book can be downloaded for free on Z-library)

  • This is obviously not a settled question since causal closure principle cannot logically imply God's existence or nonexistence, though famous logician Godel had conceived a modal logic proof but it's not from empirical physics laws. And we do know the 2nd famous western Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza had a maxim there's nothing but God, and Leibniz visited him in 1676 for discussions/clarifications and got both impressed and dismayed by his philosophy... Jun 26 at 5:08
  • Your link doesn't have a copy of the paper. Do you have a source where people can read it? Jun 26 at 5:50
  • If you can't give us a link to the paper, can you characterize the argument in more detail? How does the author claim that science shows that unmaterial beings cannot influence the physical world? I assume it has to do with certain metaphysical assumptions about physical law. Jun 26 at 5:57
  • Whether or not God exists depends at least partly on how you define "god". Some people believe philosophy is all semantics. In this case, you say an immaterial being such as God, so you're only arguing against the existence of an immaterial God, not a God that has physical form. The strongest argument against that would randomness in quantum mechanics: there is no (known) force that makes a quantum particle follow a specific path, so it could be an immaterial being (at least in theory). Jun 26 at 13:58
  • @DavidGudeman The article can be read in the book Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. The book can be downloaded for free on Z-library. Jun 26 at 14:46

5 Answers 5


Since the laws of physics says nothing about minds, it can't say anything about embodied minds, never mind disembodied minds.

Physicalists, who view everything as physics as the ground of everything, including both matter and the mental argue that the mental is nothing other than some emergent epiphenomena from the play of energy and matter in spacetime. Yet whilst this follows from their position, they have yet to describe, in detail, how the mental arises - other than simply positing by fiat. Some proponents point to AI as being conscious, but this proves nothing as the imitation of something is not the thing itself. Turing himself was conscious of this when he devised the Turing Test, but simply avoided the question. Avoiding a question is not answering it ...

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    The laws of physics regulate the behavior of matter. If minds interact with matter, this interaction can only happen if the resulting behavior of matter does not depart from physical laws. Jun 29 at 16:56
  • It’s worthy of note that the Turing Test fell out of favour as soon as obviously non-salf-aware AIs started to pass it, and Turing’s perhaps unforeseen corollary became apparent that if we are to grant human-equivalent rights to AIs that can, in conversation, pass themselves off as human then we should deny those rights to humans that can’t.
    – Frog
    Jul 18 at 9:46
  • I like this answer against what I would call "mechanistic explanation". Would you agree, nevertheless, that a human mind embodied in a human body, is a law of nature (by the very definition of law of nature, not necessarily reduced to "mechanics")?
    – Nikos M.
    Jul 18 at 23:50

This sounds just like a person who is prefacing his beliefs by adding the sentence "Physics teaches that..." to give his beliefs more credence. There is the rather gaping issue of methodological naturalism that all hard science adheres to that this person so very conveniently forgets.

Science tells us nothing except that of which is. What exists in a reality beyond the physical is completely not in the magisterium (as Stephen Jay Gould would put it) that science operates.

It looks like there are so many people with a completely overlapping magisterium these days. They really should inform themselves over the article entitled Nonoverlapping Magisteria by Stephen Jay Gould. It was an incredibly important landmark article on the issue of how science and religion interact with each other.

I personally hold to a partially overlapping magisterium. Scientific discoveries have had a tremendous effect on religious thought in the last half of the 20th century.

The discovery of background radiation led to the belief that the first three words in the Bible was true after all. Funny how things turn out like that.

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    I think Gould's "NOMA" is nonsense. On a daily basis, religious people claim that magical beings interact with the physical world, and these claims are surely vulnerable to scientific objections. Besides, there's no scientific discovery that supports theism. In contemporary cosmology, some models predict a beginning of time and others don't. Most cosmologists agree that it is unknown whether there was time before the big bang. Jun 27 at 2:34
  • However, even if one of the models that predict a beginning is correct, it would provide no evidence for god. As physicist Sean Carrol observes, saying that the universe had a beginning is not the same as saying it popped into existence. It's not as if these models have a moment in which nature doesn't exist. Jun 27 at 2:34
  • @JustAnotherInquirer -- I agree that NOMA is incorrect. God hypotheses are testable. Note, however, your author's position, when taken to its inferred consequences, says they cannot be tested, because he insists that Gods must be epiphenomenal.
    – Dcleve
    Jun 27 at 8:45
  • @JustAnotherInquirer -- to make my point above explicit, your author is arguing a POV that leads to NOMA. This is further implied in his quote: "That is arguably not something that science alone can settle", which implies separate, or at least only partially overlapping, magisterium.
    – Dcleve
    Jun 28 at 16:55

The very short answer is "no". Neither the article, nor physics, rule out the existence or agency of Gods.

Somewhat Longer Answer:

The author is trying to stake out a very peculiar position. Most Anti-spiritualists assert ONTOLOGICAL naturalism -- IE that there is no such thing as non-material. They generally concede that the methodologies of science and reasoning, which combine to form methodological naturalism, could be used to investigate whether spirits influence our world.

This author seems to have put himself in a box, however. He WANTS to assert Ontological naturalism, but admits that the test cases of abstract objects -- Poppers World 3 -- exist. He also admits that minds exist, and that he cannot rule out that they are world 2 rather than world 1 objects.

This leaves him searching for a justification for his belief in an effective ontological naturalism, and this effort to redefine methodological naturalism to exclude certain categories of hypotheses, is a very blatant kluge/rationalization. Note how he describes it:

it would be a mistake, I think, in the present context, to bind naturalism to a commitment that minds are material. That is arguably not something that science alone can settle, but however it is settled, we should not hold psychology and the social sciences hostage to the outcome. Thus I propose that the right sort of gerrymander here, to give us what matters, is one that rules out disembodied minds. Naturalism, then, is committed to there being none of those.

Note he admits up front, that he is "gerrymandering" the normal usage of methodological naturalism, to try to prevent study of subjects he wishes were not the case. The methodology of naturalism is not committed to excluding acceptance of certain answers of "what is our world like". His admission that whether minds are material or not is an open subject, but that he is ALSO excluding trying to answer this open question from any kind of scientific inquiry, shows exactly what this sort of ideological effort to constrain science leads to. In prior centuries, the Church, or the Commissars, banned study of certain subjects because they contradicted their ideologies' dogma. Evan Fales is trying to do the same today.

Even More In Depth Answer

Fales makes an implicit assumption about science, and physics laws -- that science laws are ABSOLUTE LAWS, not regularities. This is clear in his discussion of conservation principles. But this is not how laws work in science. Laws are regularities. They do not always hold. A good discussion of how all science laws break naturally is in this paper: https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.93.25.14256

Not only are conservation laws not absolute, but causal closure for the physical is not a valid assumption either. First, it is simply inconsistent with science as an active and open field of inquiry. So long as we are still doing science, current science cannot be closed, and future science cannot exclude any logically possible causal paths. Further, physicists do not treat causal closure as absolute, and cannot. It is not difficult to find examples of this. First, it is not possible to have any isolated system within the universe, as fields (gravitational, E-M) from outside will always cross any boundary. Hence one cannot have causal closure even within physics for any minimal physical system, other than our entire universe.

And for our universe as a whole, cosmologists basically have rejected causal closure. Whether it is the continuous matter generation of the Steady State Model, the spontaneous oscillatory excursion of "the equations don't exclude this" of low odds finally creating a universe from a void, the bouncing interaction of two adjacent brane-world universes, or the spontaneous spawning of baby universes in a multiverse universe -- cosmologists don't restrict themselves to conservation laws OR universes being causally closed. Fales would have to say that cosmologists are not doing science, and banish them from the AAAS...

Aside -- Hoyle tried to find away to tweak the definition of conservation of energy to fit his model inside of it, and some Big Bang cosmologists have tried to do the same to say the spontaneous appearance of our universe in an instant did not violate COE. For a discussion of these efforts, and what they mean for COE and spiritual interaction, see this question and answer https://physics.stackexchange.com/questions/494408/the-zero-energy-hypothesis-and-its-consequences-for-particle-creation-and-dualis Note that expanding the "system" (to include consciousness, or Gods) and asserting a new term that is still conserved in the larger system, is a typical strategy that has been used in many of these past speculations.

And second, "matter" is only about 5% of the known energy of the physical part of the universe, with the rest in poorly or non-understood dark matter and dark energy. And finally, unless one is claiming that all subjects reduce to physics, and Fales explicitly rejects that, then real events and phenomena are characterized in disciplines OUTSIDE physics, and therefore physics CANNOT be closed to non-physics phenomena.

As a further challenge to fixed laws -- the current understanding of the Cosmological Constant is that its value is set by the energy of virtual particles, and the energy of these particles comes from the "laws" and constants of the standard model of quantum mechanics. But our Cosmological Constant was very large in the first instants of the big Band, and it is changing today. So -- these "laws" have and are continuing to change.

Referring to the title of your reference -- Karl Popper defined pseudoscience as the act of claiming to be doing science, while rejecting the possibility of refutation. Naturalism is, per the author here, the belief that consciousness, or any world 2 object like a God, cannot causally affect the physical world. Your author is trying to redefine science, so that any examination of the possibility of spirit causation is not allowed as a scientific inquiry. IE that his view of naturalism cannot be refuted by science. Popper would label your author an advocate of Pseudoscience.

  • In the first place, there are many flavours of dualism in philosophy and the author is just arguing against interactionist dualism. It's likely that the reason why he thinks science cannot judge alone whether minds are material is that some aspects of the question are philosophical rather than empirical, and I see nothing wrong with that. He's just saying that philosophy will be necessary to solve the problem. Check out this article in which philosopher stephen law discusses the limits of science. Jun 29 at 16:30
  • Moreover, the author doesn't rule out the appeal to disembodied minds to explain phenomena in the physical world for dogmatic reasons, but because he thinks physics already established, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they don't influence the physical world. A perpetual motion machine, for example, is not a logical impossibility, but it is extremely likely that no one will ever create a machine like that. Jun 29 at 16:30
  • There is more than one way to state the law of conservation of energy. For discussions in philosophy of mind, what matters is just that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form. It is the local conservation of energy. An isolated system is not necessary for this principle to work. Jun 29 at 16:31
  • While energy may not be conserved or even defined in regions where space-time is not flat, this is not the case for the human body (or just the brain, if you prefer), where energy is well defined and locally conserved. Of course, if you apply a law beyond its domain of applicability, it will be violated. But so what? The fact that Newton's laws can't be applied to black holes doesn't stop engineers from relying on them for things on Earth. Jun 29 at 16:31
  • @JustAnotherInquirer -- I think you are looking for a dialog on interactive dualism and physics. Comments are supposed to be focused on ways an answer may be improved, or may have erroneous points, and most of these comments are well beyond that. I have created a chat forum for further dialog instead: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/137434/… We can discuss further there.
    – Dcleve
    Jun 30 at 15:51

We can say as Sean Carroll does that God Is Not A Good Theory.

There are two sources of issues that I think will prevent any final, totalising resolution here though.

(1) On the religious side, the fundamental flexibility and ambiguity in how god/s are defined. This has led to the framing God of the Gaps, a deus ex machina to reconcile any plot holes in the scientific narrative, whether abiogenesis or the source of the Big Bang. Whatever source of doubt, like asking if we can somehow conclude there must be a Creator, how did they arise, just gets contorted around by those determined to believe.

The diversity of views within modern Christianity, even the diversity held just among modern Catholics, would have triggered Inquisitions and heresy charges as little as two centuries ago. Iterations of the fine points of doctrine were powerful political tools in the past, but after being forced to accept secular governance by the expansion of religious wars following the arrival of the printing press, religion has become largely a private recreation.

In Islam and Judaism it is made very explicit that God is beyond our ability to imagine or define, a difference that I think has kept those traditions more vital, but also seen them generate less philosophy (still plenty, but less).

(2) On the scientific side, the source of issues is that experimental knowledge is necessarily tentative, and relational, contextual, and subject to revision. Proof belongs in mathematics, not physics.

Even in a causally closed universe where an immaterial being can't directly tracably impact causality, there can be indirect influences involved, retroactive narratives made about divine purposes come good in the end. But conversely, you might be surprised to find there are scientifically compatible framings of a deity, like the idea of an Omega Point (obviously, debatably, but Tipler's picture satisfied David Deutsch as possible even if not actual).

A physics-plausible deity would face limitations. An outside-physics deity would be undetectable, even if with theological tools like immanence and inspiration through faith they can be meaningful to theists.

I see the reduction of how we understand religions to them being sets of statements about reality and cosmology as a fundamental mistake, though. Following Durkheim, we can see religious behaviour as fundamentally about social cohesion, the system of finding group cohesion through enactment of values held sacred or put (at least for now) beyond question. In this framing we can understand 'religious entrepreneurialism', and Scientism.

We should shift the debate from, what is true, to what do beliefs do for us, and are their consequences good?

Holding habeus corpus, or universal human rights, to be sacred has unfolding complex impacts. I go into detail about how we need to reform rather than sever cultural traditions here: What are some philosophical works that explore constructing meaning in life from an agnostic or atheist view?

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    This answer is more a standard anti-Christian diatribe than an answer to the question. It goes off on several tangents unrelated to the question--all typical atheist hobby horses, it makes several controversial claims as if they were matters of fact, and ultimately, it does not address the question. Jun 26 at 5:54
  • Define God in a way that a collective group of randomly selected top level experts across fields will agree to, can be measured to rule out all other explanationa, get rid of confirmation bais, is repeatable and reproducible, is absolutely open to scrutiny regarding work and process, and then we will talk. That is no diatribe, just effort to get off the couch, head out of the book, and get to work.
    – Aaron
    Jun 26 at 11:27
  • @DavidGudeman: The answer is a clear 'No.'..?
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 26 at 11:38
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    @Aaron: 'Top level experts' - of which sect?? You might get Catholic leadership & theologians to broadly agree, but their picture of the trinity is, unclear at best. Their beliefs do different things for different Christians, so they aren't going to agree. Consider Gould's picture, that religion is in the discourse of values & morality, not facts: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-overlapping_magisteria
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 26 at 11:45
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    I agree with DavidGudeman. @CriglCragl doesn't directly address the article, so his answer isn't very helpful. Jun 27 at 14:32

My first doubt regarding this questions is whether physics rule in embodied minds. I think you will have to add other subjects for doing so. If this is true I can't find any significance to this question.

Evan Fales argues that the laws of physics establish that disembodied minds (such as an immaterial God, for example) could not influence the physical world.

When physics proves embodied mind emerges from disembodied mind this argument will fail. We cannot confirm whether this will never happen.

This article might give some ideas about mind: Is the Mind Immaterial or Material?

Does the mind effect the physical world?

Physics deals with only a few areas of our physical / ephemeral world. It cannot explain clearly anything immaterial. In other words, it cannot confirm or prove anything immaterial.

If physics has developed from something completely physicals, that limitation will always be there. Nobody can blow it off. The limitations of our senses and instruments also prevent us from doing so. If an ‘immaterial being’ such as God cannot influence the material world, we can say that the material world is influenced by an unnamed 'something' that is beyond the laws of physics and it must be something material. Even then physics cannot rule out that 'something' though it has not yet been proved to be material or immaterial. So the laws of physics cannot rule out (an immaterial) God

Different ideas related to the concept of God do not suit here.

  • If you're not going to directly address the article, your answer isn't very helpful.... Jun 27 at 14:32

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