Objections to immaterial beings, part I.

I tend to hear two objections to the existence of immaterial things:

1.) Immaterial beings are unnecessary hypotheses

2.) Immaterial beings are unthinkable.

The first objection can’t be solved without some knowledge of the different methods of proof; and in light o this problem we most of all need to distinguish between a.) results that prove principles and b.) principles that prove results. The first kind of method begins with a hypothesis, theĀ second kind doesn’t- and can’t. So far as one tries to start with the hypothesis of an immaterial being, he is almost certainly doomed, because then he must also lay down material beings as a contrary hypothesis, and insofar as we take material beings as hypotheses, we are agnostic about he extent and reach of their powers- we just have to wait and see what they can do. The one who looks a material beings in a hypothetical light can always imagine some day when matter will explain intentions or morality or universals or purpose, etc, and so far as he sees matter hypothetically there is no reason for him not to imagine this.


  1. Holopupenko said,

    February 26, 2008 at 1:47 am

    Question for clarification: We can demonstrate (i.e., reason to certain knowledge) the existence of the human soul and the First Uncaused Cause (kudos to Aristotle and St. Thomas). But don’t we also reason to such concepts (universals) as, say, “the day after tomorrow” and “doginess” (which, it seems, must be immaterial) or don’t we formulate beings of reason such as the rules of chess? These must have some form (albeit tenuous) existence–whether existing in the mind or extra-mentally as universal intelligible aspects of real beings. Granted, these examples don’t *directly* address the “immaterial beings are unthinkable” criticism nor are they a formal demonstration (per Meno, they are simply examples). Nonetheless, it seems the second criticism is self-defeating: how else can the criticism *itself* exist except immaterially? Do my questions make any sense? Any clarification you could provide would be greately appreciated.

  2. a thomist said,

    February 27, 2008 at 3:24 am

    See if part II helps- and thanks for the comment, because it helped to steer the direction of the next post in the right way.

    (For those other would-be commenters or actual commenters, know that this reality of comment steering the next discussion happens quite a lot, even though I rarely draw attention to it.)

  3. Peter said,

    February 27, 2008 at 11:21 am

    Regarding the first objection you commonly hear — immaterial beings are an unnecessary hypotheses — I find that it generally boils down to a supposed fallacy. Those materialists in the general population that I hear from every now and again (usually atheists trolling around the internet waiting to pitch their 2 cents) bring their ready charge of ‘composition fallacy’ (!!) whenever the case is being made for the immateriality of the intellect. The fallacy in general is that you can’t infer something about the whole from the fact that it is true of a part (or the parts) and vice versa. I take them to mean that because all the inner workings of the material brain (‘parts’) are limited to material being (and thereby singulars), that doesn’t mean that the ‘whole’ (coordinated activity of the brain) can’t account for our knowledge universals.

    There are plenty of examples of the fallacy working: a machine, for instance, the parts of which (as parts) would not account for the activity of the whole; yet taken together they ‘rise above’ their limitations as individuals.
    However, there seem to be obvious examples when the fallacy doesn’t work. Consider a mathematical one: any number of points (inextended things) taken together will never be an extended thing…. A whole collection of them never causes them to ‘rise above’ their inextendedness to extendedness no matter how many you have nor how you arrange them.

    (I’m not sure if this is a good example since a collection of points might not constitute a ‘whole’.)

    Anyway, perhaps you could consider this issue in a future post.

  4. a thomist said,

    February 27, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    I honestly don’t get the objection. It falls apart every time I try to reconstruct what it is saying, still less when I try to see what actual argument it it objecting to. Who ever argued that the universal cannot be explained by a part of the brain, as part, and not as opposed to material? It sounds creative, though. Perhaps it has some particular argument in mind. Or perhaps it’s a response to some terrible argument for immateriality that proves nothing anyway.

  5. Peter said,

    February 27, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    I get what you mean. I have a very hard time trying to vaguley piece together what I think is meant….

    I have seen it mentioned at least half a dozen times in passing comments and figured it couldn’t be a conincidence; that someone somewhere is pushing such an argument or counterargument.

    > Perhaps it has some particular argument in mind

    Now that I think about it, I seem to remember it coming up when C. S. Lewis’s argument from his book Miracles was being discussed. Perhaps the fallacy was supposed to apply to his argument regarding rationality and being composed of atoms? You must be familiar with it?

    Off the top of my head I would say that in that rather superficial analysis the fallacy does hold. We can’t assume that because parts (atoms) don’t have X, that a collection of atoms in a particular arrangement (the whole) don’t have X. X just so happens to stand for rationality in the Lewis argument if I remember correctly. That seems about right.

    This, then, has little to do with immateriality but rather with a particular argument from Lewis about rationality not coming from arrangments of atoms. Does this make sense of it?

  6. a thomist said,

    February 27, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Well if someone argued that because one atom is not rational, many are not, that would certainly be invalid, and even unsound to sense- the atoms that make me are rational, at least by participation- but to be rational by participation is to be truly rational- this is exactly why virtues are according to reason. They are passions conforming, or making a single form.

    I’ve been bothered by C.S. lewis in all of this. He has the usual Protestant (modern) view of nature where it is all one big determined and irrational machine. This is not consistent in his thought, and there are certainly exceptions, but as soon as one concedes the modern scientific/ protestant/ Suarezian view of nature the whole universe is barely worth its existence.

%d bloggers like this: