Does the Immaterial Exist?

One of the most common arguments from atheists is that matter is all that there is, and that the immaterial (God, angels, the human soul, etc.) simply doesn’t exist. This position is generally called “philosophical materialism,” although that term encompasses a number of distinct positions. In any case, here’s one of the clearest presentations of this argument:

When we speak of immaterial things, we are speaking of something that has no physical substance. Now, if you think about this, everything we know to exist has physical properties. Your arm, leg, mind, blood, teeth, tongue, and everything else are physical. They are in the form of your physical body. Your brain can’t work without physical/material processes of chemistry and electricity. Electricity can’t work without the physical electrons. A windmill can’t work without the physical air that passes across its blades. Everything we know to exist is physical. [….] 

So, if God is not material, what is God? If there is no answer for what God is, all we can say is God doesn’t exist, or he exists nowhere and is comprised of nothing, which I don’t see how that isn’t the same exact thing. It is rather interesting how the theist description of what there God is actually puts their God out of existence.

Or, a shorter version of essentially the same argument:

If we are talking about immaterial existence, then there is nothing to differentiate an entity or “thing” which exists from one which does not exist.

Often (including in the second link provided), these discussions descend into debates over speculative science: whether or not dark energy or photons have mass, etc. But I think that this materialist argument can be answered easily, using agreed-upon evidence. In other words, the fact that the universe is made up of something other than matter is self-evident, and should be admitted by anyone, upon close reflection. In addition to matter, we also see immaterial forms that can dictate the nature and behavior of the matter itself.

We can observe forms in nature, and cannot account for them in purely material ways. This is true even of forms that cannot exist apart from matter.  Consider the following examples, from most to least technical:

The molecular structure of isopropyl alcohol.
(Black = carbon, white = hydrogen, red = oxygen).
  1. Isomers: This is my favorite example. When two or more (different) compounds share the same molecular formula, you have isomers. For example, there are three different compounds with the molecular formula C3H8O: methoxyethane (a colorless gas that is extremely flammable and reactive); propanol (a liquid solvent used in the pharmaceutical industry); and isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol).

    These are different substances, with different chemical properties. Yet these differences are not material. They’re formal. That is, each of the three substances is made up of the identical atoms: 3 carbon, 8 hydrogen, and one oxygen. It is the arrangement of those molecules that determines whether the substance will be methoxyethane, propanol, or rubbing alcohol. The same matter, in different forms, produces different substances.

  2. Phase Changes: A more obvious example of this would be the phase changes of water. Depending on its form (solid, liquid, or gaseous), it exhibits different properties, and is structured differently. Yet it maintains the same molecular and structural formula.
  3. Surfaces: The surface of a table is not the table itself. Surfaces are immaterial, and have no mass, and occupy no three-dimensional space. If you doubt this, try to imagine a surface that is 3 feet deep. Whatever you are visualizing is not a surface, but a substance with surfaces of its own. But we can still observe that surfaces exist.
  4. Shapes: Envision two different objects of equal mass, made of identical materials. The first is a wooden cube, and the second is a wooden sphere. The difference between the two objects wouldn’t be material, but formal.

In each of these cases, the form itself is immaterial. To test this, take your wooden objects, and remove the matter that they have in common (the wood). Likewise, take your isomers, and remove the matter that they have in common (the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen). The result will be the same: you will be left with nothing. But does that mean that the different objects were, in fact, the same? Of course not. It means only that, in each of these cases, differences exist between the substances, but these differences cannot be isolated by removing the material common to each. That’s because these differences are immaterial, rather than material.

Those cases are obvious enough. A less obvious, but dramatically more important, example of a perceivable form is life itself. Consider what philosopher Peter Kreeft fittingly named the “Dead Cow Argument”: you come across two cows — one that is alive, and one that has just died. What is the difference between these two cows? Craig Payne, quoting Kreeft, explains:

“There appears to be no material difference (e.g., in size or weight or color) between the two cows. Yet something is clearly missing. What is it?” The obvious answer is that the cow is “clearly missing” its life – its “soul” or anima, in other words, its animating principle or form, that which causes the cow to live and develop as a cow.

So the living and the dead cow, at this point, are still materially identical. Nevertheless, we can immediately observe that an immaterial difference exists, and a radically important one. As Kreeft notes, both cows have air in their lungs, but only one can breathe. This distinction is, as noted above, the “animating” principle of the matter: the form enabling a particular material substance to live. It is from this that we have the simplest understanding of what a soul is: the animating principle of a body.

Certainly, this is only the beginning of a discussion on the soul, not the end. We’re still left to determine what sort of a thing the immaterial soul is, whether a human soul is like a cow soul, and so on.  But this line of reasoning does dispel the absurd notion that the material is all that there is.

17 Comments

  1. But all your examples still boil down to differences in physical properties. The molecules differ from one another in terms of position, which is a physical property. The dead cow can be spotted by inspection of visible. therefore physical, properties. Some of those properties are related to motion or other processeswhich involve change over time, but that hardly means they are immaterial. Just like the difference between a moving tennis ball and a stationary one can only be observed over time; that doesn’t mean that the two balls are different in some immaterial way.

    I think a stronger argument would be for the existence of metaphysical principles, which are truly immaterial. “Only material things exist” is a metaphysical principle. If that principle exists, then it refutes itself. if that principle does not exist, then it cannot be true.

    I’m not quite connecting all the dots here, but you get the jist I’m sure. 🙂

    1. Dave,

      See my response to De Maria below: I think we need to show that the immaterial is more than simply conceptual. That said, I agree with you: the very existence of concepts (e.g., the idea of a triangle) disproves materialism.

      And you’re right that these differences are observable by looking at the physical properties. For example, there is no matter that is “life” or “animation” (just as there is none that is “sphericalness,” etc.). But we can (imperfectly) observe the presence or absence of animation by its effects on the material. So the animating principle, the soul, isn’t material, but impacts the material.

      That’s exactly the sort of thing that the above atheists deny exists, so these examples are deliberately chosen for that reason. (It’s much harder to prove the existence of an immaterial substance or being with no observable impact on the material world).

      I.X.,

      Joe

    2. Joe, thank you for linking to my post, and giving it some fight. I would say that you rather hit the nail on the head to a degree with this comment though.

      When people talk about God being immaterial, they are not speaking of God being a concept in the mind. I have dealt with that idea elsewhere on my blog, but I can understand that you would not necessarily have known to search for it, or what search terms you should have used, especially since I’m not even sure what I should search for.

      Suffice it to say, I am totally fine with you saying that concepts exist that aren’t necessarily represented in the physical universe, but even those concepts have a physical component. The idea that God exists requires a physical mind to think about it. Without those neurons firing in brains, I see no place an immaterial thing can exist.

      So, if you want to be more clear about what I am saying, explain how something immaterial exists without minds to think of them.

      This is a rather difficult thing to do, as we need to have some way to discuss it, and our concepts often get confused with things existing in our hypothetical non-mind world. It can be done though, and I think that is getting much more to the point I was making with my post.

      So, to summarize, without physical minds to think about immaterial things, can they even exist?

    3. Godlessons,

      (1) You’ve raised a sharp point, and one upon which I believe we agree. Without a mind, immaterial concepts could not exist.* So if the universe contained shapes, colors, numbers, etc. prior to our existence, this proves the existence of a pre-existing Mind. Where we differ is that you’re thinking of God as an object, a Something we discover; I’m thinking of Him as subject, a Someone who has (or is) a Mind.

      (2) Msgr. Knox raised a similar argument in a lecture he gave to Catholic undergrads at Cambridge (which you can find in the book In Softer Garments). Knox began by explaining that “in the exchanges of everyday life, I think it will always be found that when we say, ‘It doesn’t matter,’ we always mean, ‘I shan’t mind,’ or ‘Somebody or other won’t mind.’” From this he asked a question similar to your own: “can anything matter, unless there is Somebody who minds?”

      (3) This applies in the moral order in an obvious way. If you come across a missing hiker, long presumed dead, and you murder him in his sleep, does it matter? And if it does, to whom / Whom?

      (4) But as Knox explained, “the difficulty is not really confined to the moral order. How can there be any absolute Truth, unless it be the Truth which is in God?” To take a simple example, if “2 plus 2 = 4” is absolutely true, and not just true for you or for me, this truth must be grounded in something higher than contingent creation.

      God bless!

      Joe

      *The only area that we would disagree is on the need for these minds to be “physical.” I see no reason for that, especially since “mind,” properly understood, is never physical. The brain is physical, and serves as a storage unit of sorts, with grooves and electrical impulses and the rest. But the mind is distinct from the brain, as we can see from the fact that the mind can think about the brain (and even think about the mind). But the idea that thinking and consciousness is merely physical – merely electrical impulses firing, e.g. – is a self-refuting proposition, as Robert Ritchie explains in the next post on this site (“The Single Best Argument Against Philosophical Materialism?”)

    4. I’m sorry, but how do you say that the mind thinking about the brain illustrates that it is not the brain, while simultaneously saying that the mind can think about the mind, but not say that the mind is not the mind?

      I have a very good argument against Robert’s post actually, because in order to take his approach, you have to first assume materialism is true in order to conclude it is false, which is absurd. As it is a rather lengthy refutation, and I would hate to just repeat it multiple times, I will save it for a blog post, but suffice it to say, I didn’t create the argument. It also applies to what you are saying in paragraph 4, and 3 to a lesser extent, so I will link to it here when I have finished it.

  2. As a former chemistry major that picture of the molecule excited me. And the image of the cow made me feel comforted, serene, peaceful. Naturally, these are simply chemical responses to imagery. Nothing more?

  3. Joe said:
    Shapes: Envision two different objects of equal mass, made of identical materials. The first is a wooden cube, and the second is a wooden sphere. The difference between the two objects wouldn’t be material, but formal.
    In each of these cases, the form itself is immaterial.

    First, I want to point out that I’m not disagreeing with you.
    Next, I think that shape and form are immaterial because they fall under the category of “ideas”. Ideas and thoughts are immaterial. Dreams are immaterial. Whether they are generated by the movement of physical things as some suggest, they are still phantom events which have no physical properties.

    Teomatteo says they are feelings generated by chemical responses. So what? they are still immaterial and having said that some immaterial things (feelings) are generated by chemical responses simply proves the existence of the immaterial.

    Here’s one for you, this person said:
    If we are talking about immaterial existence, then there is nothing to differentiate an entity or “thing” which exists from one which does not exist.

    Really? What is this thing called “nothing”? It is an immaterial concept. If it is not immaterial, it can be reproduced in the physical world. But even a vacuum is filled with something, even if we can’t see it. So, the concept of absolute emptiness, absolute nothingness, does not exist and could never exist.

    Nothing is something after all.

    Sincerely,

    De Maria

    1. Or to phrase another way: numbers exist even if there isn’t anything to count and no one to count them. The ‘form’ is out there in the ‘ether’ (that is to say out there in the immaterial) corresponding to our ‘tokens’ on earth (the things we count, and what we use to count them “1” “2” “3” and so on).

    2. De Maria,

      I think it’s important to distinguish the immaterial from the conceptual. Certainly, concepts are immaterial, and exist as “mental objects.” But atheists (other than igtheists) will concede that God, the soul, etc., exist as ideas. If we don’t think that God exists in any way other than as a concept, then we’re atheists. So the challenge is proving the existence of the immaterial in a way that goes beyond simply the conceptual.

      Shapes are conceptual (we can abstract the idea of “sphere” from the set of all spherical things), but they’re also real. That is, even someone unaccustomed to the distinction between a cube and a sphere can observe that a cube and a sphere are actually distinct. So it’s not simply a conceptual difference: we have an objective and observable basis for differentiation, but one that is immaterial.

      I.X.,

      Joe

    3. I get what you’re saying Joe. Let me try to summarize.

      Distinguish the immaterial from the conceptual. The conceptual being something which does not really exist but only in our minds. Like an idea. For example, a chimera. A mythological beast which exists neither in the real world nor in the spiritual but only in our minds.

      Here’s what I’m saying. The conceptual is not an argument against the immaterial. The conceptual exists in our minds and is quantifiable. We can draw a chimera which we see in our minds. It might not exist anywhere else but in our minds, but no one can deny that it exists. The conceptual is immaterial and if the immaterial can exist in our minds even for an instant, then we have proven the existence of the immaterial. We have not disproven it by saying it is a product of our body chemistry. We have not disproven it by saying it is a product of our nervous energy (another immaterial substance, I might add). We have not disproven it by calling it an idea. All those things prove the existence of the immaterial.

      1. So, we have proven the existence of the immaterial in our minds. Now the next step is proving the existence of the immaterial in the real world.

      Now, since no one can rule out the existence of the immaterial in our minds. How can they, a priori, rule out the existence of the immaterial in the real world. Our minds exist in the real world and therefore, the immaterial exists in the real world.

      2. Now, can we prove the existence of the immaterial outside of our minds? At this point, I think we need the assistance of Supernatural Revelation and the witness of the Apostles. But we have a firm foundation upon which to proceed.

      Sincerely,

      De Maria

  4. My heart screams for order in this universe. Must be by chance that I, and billions of others, have such feelings. 🙂

    Morality is merely preference in the world of athetists and I wish they would have the courage to admit such fact. Rarely will one admit that morality is merely preference becaus if man himself is the creator of morality, he can change it.

  5. It is and you may… With the death of the old blog, this is in the public domain as far as I’m concerned. So feel free to change/modify/edit/steal-from/etc. however you wish!

  6. My own mind is an example of the immaterial. Although its function has a relation to matter, the mind itself has a simple, but limited, unity in its self-reflexive self that transcends its material interfaces with the rest of the universe. A mind cannot be localized to single point within the material universe, yet it is a single thing that is connected to everything else to the farthest ends of the material universe in both space and time. The fact the universe itself has this connectedness in all of its parts implies a single transcendent principle that is not itself constrained by material limitations, but responsible for all it. Such a principle is well described in the Bible as “I am, Who am” and would necessarily possess all the attributes ascribed to God. Any attempt to describe this essence of existence would fall so infinitesimally short of its reality as to be wrong, and it is often described better in terms of what it is not. It would be fair to say that immaterialness within our own natures is a distant reflection of God’s nature.

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