Spiritual, Material, Non-Material

A colleague wrote me,

> I am on a Quixotic quest for a definition of the non-material. Seems like consciousness itself, everyone seems to recognize it when they see it but have no clue what it is?<

I think some folks would find my response interesting…..

That makes consciousness just like pornography, yes?  What famous Supreme Court justice said he couldn’t really define pornography but he knew it when he saw it?   😉

So for some fun off the top of my head, without going to any authorities like the Oxford English Dictionary….

I like to look at what is implicit or assumed in questions and ideas, so let’s start with the assumption that we ought to be able to “define” the “non-material.”

At one extreme we can get into a rigid kind of arrogance, we humans are the smartest things in the universe and we can define everything!  We can make everything make sense in our human conceptual systems!  With the usually unvoiced corollary, that if we can’t satisfactorily define it, it doesn’t exist and/or isn’t important, so lets ignore or suppress it….

I’m all for assuming we’re that smart and giving things a good try – but also think it’s a good idea to practice a little humility and remember that we may not be smart enough to figure everything out.  And/or maybe we’re just temporarily stuck and a new approach will arise later, or a new tool be developed to work on the problem.  But I won’t be surprised if we run into some things we never make any progress in explaining properly.

At the opposite extreme, I have no interest in the ideas of those who claim a priori that we cannot know about X and must not try.  That’s an uninteresting recipe for failure.

So we may not be smart enough to ever “define” the “immaterial,” or maybe just not smart enough to do it now – but we’re pretty sure there’s something there of interest and importance.

Now “define.”  To me that means come up with a verbal (or special language, like math) formulation about a phenomenon X that makes “sense,” that makes it fit “logically” into the rest of our (valued) knowledge base.  As with the implicit aspects above, there’s an implicit assumption that we ought to be able to do this and that our current knowledge base is correct enough and expansible enough to handle X.  Same maybes as above.

I get a lot of headaches, e.g., and I’m also good at using language fairly precisely, but if you ask me to exactly define what or where my headaches are…..well, damn it, they move around, some qualities change, and lots of qualities I just can’t find satisfactory words for!  Yet I know it when I have a headache, it’s certainly real – and it’s not like pornography!

So if I say something is “non-material,:

– I am not making any absolute or final statement, I’m making a pragmatic one given what we/I know now or reasonable extensions of that knowledge.  That statement is subject to change if the right new data comes along.

As an example, I would say that psi is “immaterial” with respect to our knowledge of electricity, it just doesn’t show the kinds of qualities electricity does.  Translating that into pragmatic decisions, I would say, e.g., that if someone says they want to take all of what little money currently supports psi research and put it into buying more sensitive radio receivers to detect psi, “That’s a waste of time, you can’t have the money.”

– When I say psi is “immaterial” in the larger sense of the term “material,” I’m saying that what we currently know about the physical world and reasonable extensions of it does not offer any satisfactory explanations of psi.  My criteria of “satisfactory” would be both that the physical theory of psi make conceptual sense in terms of our physics data base AND allows someone to build a material gadget, working according to known physical principles, which would significantly amplify psi.  The old-fashioned prediction and control criteria for judging scientific theories.

At present we have some odd and occasional correlations of psi with physical variables (LST, e.g., geomagnetic weather, possible Faraday cage effect) but they don’t really make “sense” of it as far as I can see.

Note that I don’t buy into promissory materialism here either, I’m not much for untestable faith that someday they will explain psi in terms of physical principles.  Maybe, but that’s faith, not science.

Note too that by saying psi is “non-material” by present knowledge standards, I’m not saying it does not obey any laws or that we can’t figure out how it works or what it means someday.  That is I have no “supernatural” element of a non-understandable god meddling to change things sometimes – although I’m not arrogant enough to say that I’m so smart myself that I can declare there are no beings more intelligent or powerful than me….

The pragmatic bottom line for me is that I’m not saying don’t look for physical correlates or explanations of psi – I love those attempts, I’m a nerd! – but I am saying don’t sit back and fail to investigate what the actual characteristics of psi are because you assume “they” will explain it all someday in terms of physics.  To use my earlier example, investigate what electricity does and think about it, rather than assume Newtonian mechanics will eventually explain it.

This is exactly the same position I have about consciousness in general.  Yes, the brain is involved, but don’t ignore those characteristics of consciousness that don’t readily fit into a neurological model, get on with investigating them on their own terms.

So “immaterial” means real phenomena that do not follow known physical laws and which should be investigated in a variety of ways until we find some that make a new kind of sense out of them.

(Which might involve the development of state-specific sciences, but let’s not go off on that track now!)

And of course it’s more complicated than this, but enough!

See how you’ve overstimulated my brain/mind first thing in the morning?    😉

With best wishes,


Oh, and just to check in with Authority, the Shorter OED, the essence of each rather than the whole thing,


► A adjective.

1 Of or pertaining to matter or substance; formed or consisting of matter; corporeal.


► A adjective.

1 Not material; not consisting of matter; spiritual. LME.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *