Non-physical entity

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In ontology and the philosophy of mind, a non-physical entity is a spirit or being that exists outside physical reality. Their existence divides the philosophical school of physicalism from the schools of idealism and dualism; with the latter schools holding that they can exist and the former holding that they cannot. If one posits that non-physical entities can exist, there exist further debates as to their inherent natures and their position relative to physical entities. [1]

Ontology study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations

Ontology is the philosophical study of being. More broadly, it studies concepts that directly relate to being, in particular becoming, existence, reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology often deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be said to exist and how such entities may be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.

Philosophy of mind Branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of the mind

Philosophy of mind is a branch of philosophy that studies the ontology, nature, and relationship of the mind to the body. The mind–body problem is a paradigm issue in philosophy of mind, although other issues are addressed, such as the hard problem of consciousness, and the nature of particular mental states. Aspects of the mind that are studied include mental events, mental functions, mental properties, consciousness, the ontology of the mind, the nature of thought, and the relationship of the mind to the body.

In philosophy, physicalism is the metaphysical thesis that "everything is physical", that there is "nothing over and above" the physical, or that everything supervenes on the physical. Physicalism is a form of ontological monism—a "one substance" view of the nature of reality as opposed to a "two-substance" (dualism) or "many-substance" (pluralism) view. Both the definition of "physical" and the meaning of physicalism have been debated.


Abstract concepts

Philosophers generally do agree on the existence of abstract objects. These include concepts such as numbers, mathematical sets and functions, and philosophical relations and properties. Such entities are not physical inasmuch as they exist outside space and time. An abstract property such as redness also has no location in space-time. [2] [3] There are two concepts one being abstract and the other being concrete. The reason why these concepts are put into two separate categories is to make a distinction between metaphysics and epistemology. While older Cartesian dualists held the existence of non-physical minds, more limited forms of dualism propounded by 20th and 21st century philosophers (such as property dualism) hold merely the existence of non-physical properties. [4]

Number Mathematical object used to count, label, and measure

A number is a mathematical object used to count, measure, and label. The original examples are the natural numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and so forth. A written symbol like "5" that represents a number is called a numeral. A numeral system is an organized way to write and manipulate this type of symbol, for example the Hindu–Arabic numeral system allows combinations of numerical digits like "5" and "0" to represent larger numbers like 50. A numeral in linguistics can refer to a symbol like 5, the words or phrase that names a number, like "five hundred", or other words that mean a specific number, like "dozen". In addition to their use in counting and measuring, numerals are often used for labels, for ordering, and for codes. In common usage, number may refer to a symbol, a word or phrase, or the mathematical object.

Set (mathematics) Fundamental mathematical concept related to the notions of belonging or inclusion

In mathematics, a set is a collection of distinct objects, considered as an object in its own right. For example, the numbers 2, 4, and 6 are distinct objects when considered separately, but when they are considered collectively they form a single set of size three, written {2, 4, 6}. The concept of a set is one of the most fundamental in mathematics. Developed at the end of the 19th century, set theory is now a ubiquitous part of mathematics, and can be used as a foundation from which nearly all of mathematics can be derived. In mathematics education, elementary topics from set theory such as Venn diagrams are taught at a young age, while more advanced concepts are taught as part of a university degree.

Function (mathematics) Mapping that associates a single output value to each input

In mathematics, a function was originally the idealization of how a varying quantity depends on another quantity. For example, the position of a planet is a function of time. Historically, the concept was elaborated with the infinitesimal calculus at the end of the 17th century, and, until the 19th century, the functions that were considered were differentiable. The concept of function was formalized at the end of the 19th century in terms of set theory, and this greatly enlarged the domains of application of the concept.

Mind–body dualism

Dualism is the division of two contrasted or opposed aspects. The dualist school supposes the existence of non-physical entities, the most widely discussed one being the mind. But beyond that it runs into stumbling blocks. [5] Pierre Gassendi put one such problem directly to René Descartes in 1641, in response to Descartes's Meditations :

Pierre Gassendi French philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, priest, and scientist

Pierre Gassendi was a French philosopher, priest, astronomer, and mathematician. While he held a church position in south-east France, he also spent much time in Paris, where he was a leader of a group of free-thinking intellectuals. He was also an active observational scientist, publishing the first data on the transit of Mercury in 1631. The lunar crater Gassendi is named after him.

René Descartes 17th-century French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist

René Descartes was a French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. A native of the Kingdom of France, he spent about 20 years (1629–1649) of his life in the Dutch Republic after serving for a while in the Dutch States Army of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange and the Stadtholder of the United Provinces. One of the most notable intellectual figures of the Dutch Golden Age, Descartes is also widely regarded as one of the founders of modern philosophy.

<i>Meditations on First Philosophy</i> philosophy book by Descartes

Meditations on First Philosophy in which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated is a philosophical treatise by René Descartes first published in Latin in 1641. The French translation was published in 1647 as Méditations Métaphysiques. The title may contain a misreading by the printer, mistaking animae immortalitas for animae immaterialitas, as suspected by A. Baillet.

[It] still remains to be explained how that union and apparent intermingling [of mind and body ] can be found in you, if you are incorporeal, unextended and indivisible []. How, at least, can you be united with the brain, or some minute part in it, which (as has been said) must yet have some magnitude or extension, however small it be ? If you are wholly without parts how can you mix or appear to mix with its minute subdivisions ? For there is no mixture unless each of the things to be mixed has parts that can mix with one another.

Gassendi 1641 [5] [6]

Descartes' response to Gassendi, and to Princess Elizabeth who asked him similar questions in 1643, is generally considered nowadays to be lacking, because it did not address what is known in the philosophy of mind as the interaction problem. [5] [6] This is a problem for non-physical entities as posited by dualism: by what mechanism, exactly, do they interact with physical entities, and how can they do so? Interaction with physical systems requires physical properties which a non-physical entity does not possess. [7]

Dualists either, like Descartes, avoid the problem by considering it impossible for a non-physical mind to conceive the relationship that it has with the physical, and so impossible to explain philosophically, or assert that the questioner has made the fundamental mistake of thinking that the distinction between the physical and the non-physical is such that it prevents each from affecting the other.

Other questions about the non-physical which dualism has not answered include such questions as how many minds each person can have, which is not an issue for physicalism which can simply declare one-mind-per-person almost by definition; and whether non-physical entities such as minds and souls are simple or compound, and if the latter, what "stuff" the compounds are made from. [8]


Describing in philosophical terms what a non-physical entity actually is (or would be) can prove problematic. A convenient example of what constitutes a non-physical entity is a ghost. Gilbert Ryle once labelled Cartesian Dualism as positing the "ghost in the machine". [9] [10] However, it is hard to define in philosophical terms what it is, precisely, about a ghost that makes it a specifically non-physical, rather than a physical entity. Were the existence of ghosts ever demonstrated beyond doubt, it has been claimed that would actually place them in the category of physical entities. [10]

Ghost soul or spirit of a dead person or animal that can appear to the living (for ghosts from a work of fiction see Q30061299)

In folklore, a ghost is the soul or spirit of a dead person or animal that can appear to the living. In ghostlore, descriptions of ghosts vary widely from an invisible presence to translucent or barely visible wispy shapes, to realistic, lifelike visions. The deliberate attempt to contact the spirit of a deceased person is known as necromancy, or in spiritism as a séance.

Gilbert Ryle British philosopher

Gilbert Ryle was a British philosopher. He was a representative of the generation of British ordinary language philosophers who shared Ludwig Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical problems, and is principally known for his critique of Cartesian dualism, for which he coined the phrase "the ghost in the machine." Some of his ideas in the philosophy of mind have been referred to as "behaviourist". Ryle's best known book is The Concept of Mind (1949), in which he writes that the "general trend of this book will undoubtedly, and harmlessly, be stigmatised as 'behaviourist'." Ryle, having engaged in detailed study of the key works of Bernard Bolzano, Franz Brentano, Alexius Meinong, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger, himself suggested instead that the book "could be described as a sustained essay in phenomenology, if you are at home with that label."

The "ghost in the machine" is British philosopher Gilbert Ryle's description of René Descartes' mind-body dualism. Ryle introduced the phrase in The Concept of Mind (1949) to highlight the view of Descartes and others that mental and physical activity occur simultaneously but separately.

Purported non-mental non-physical entities include things such as gods, angels, demons, and ghosts. Lacking demonstrations of their existence, their existences and natures are widely debated, independently of the philosophy of mind. [11] [12]

Related Research Articles

In analytic philosophy, anti-realism is an epistemological position first articulated by British philosopher Michael Dummett. The term was coined as an argument against a form of realism Dummett saw as 'colorless reductionism'.

<i>Cogito, ergo sum</i> philosophical proposition by René Descartes

Cogito, ergo sum is a Latin philosophical proposition by René Descartes usually translated into English as "I think, therefore I am". The phrase originally appeared in French as je pense, donc je suis in his Discourse on the Method, so as to reach a wider audience than Latin would have allowed. It appeared in Latin in his later Principles of Philosophy. As Descartes explained, "we cannot doubt of our existence while we doubt...." A fuller version, articulated by Antoine Léonard Thomas, aptly captures Descartes's intent: dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum. The concept is also sometimes known as the cogito.

Metaphysics Branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality. The word "metaphysics" comes from two Greek words that, together, literally mean "after or behind or among [the study of] the natural". It has been suggested that the term might have been coined by a first century CE editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle’s works into the treatise we now know by the name Metaphysics.

Monism view that attributes oneness or singleness to a concept

Monism attributes oneness or singleness to a concept e.g., existence. Various kinds of monism can be distinguished:

In metaphysics, a universal is what particular things have in common, namely characteristics or qualities. In other words, universals are repeatable or recurrent entities that can be instantiated or exemplified by many particular things. For example, suppose there are two chairs in a room, each of which is green. These two chairs both share the quality of "chairness", as well as greenness or the quality of being green; in other words, they share a "universal". There are three major kinds of qualities or characteristics: types or kinds, properties, and relations. These are all different types of universals.

Solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one's own mind is sure to exist. As an epistemological position, solipsism holds that knowledge of anything outside one's own mind is unsure; the external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist outside the mind. As a metaphysical position, solipsism goes further to the conclusion that the world and other minds do not exist. This extreme position is claimed to be irrefutable, as the solipsist believes himself to be the only true authority, all others being creations of their own mind.

Mind–body dualism Philosophical theory that mental phenomena are non-physical and that matter exists independently of mind

Mind–body dualism, or mind–body duality, is a view in the philosophy of mind that mental phenomena are, in some respects, non-physical, or that the mind and body are distinct and separable. Thus, it encompasses a set of views about the relationship between mind and matter, and between subject and object, and is contrasted with other positions, such as physicalism and enactivism, in the mind–body problem.

Simulated reality is the hypothesis that reality could be simulated—for example by quantum computer simulation—to a degree indistinguishable from "true" reality. It could contain conscious minds which may or may not be fully aware that they are living inside a simulation. This is quite different from the current, technologically achievable concept of virtual reality. Virtual reality is easily distinguished from the experience of actuality; participants are never in doubt about the nature of what they experience. Simulated reality, by contrast, would be hard or impossible to separate from "true" reality. There has been much debate over this topic, ranging from philosophical discourse to practical applications in computing.

In the philosophy of mind, emergentmaterialism is a theory which asserts that the mind is an irreducible existent in some sense, albeit not in the sense of being an ontological simple, and that the study of mental phenomena is independent of other sciences. It primarily maintains that the human mind's evolution is a product of material nature and that it cannot exist without material basis.


In philosophy, panpsychism is the view that mind or a mind-like aspect is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of reality. It has taken on a wide variety of forms. Contemporary academic proponents hold that sentience or subjective experience is ubiquitous, while distancing these qualities from complex human mental attributes; they ascribe a primitive form of mentality to entities at the fundamental level of physics but do not ascribe it to most aggregates, such as rocks or buildings. On the other hand, some historical theorists ascribed attributes like life or spirits to all entities.

<i>The Concept of Mind</i> book by Gilbert Ryle

The Concept of Mind is a 1949 book by philosopher Gilbert Ryle, in which the author argues that "mind" is "a philosophical illusion hailing chiefly from René Descartes and sustained by logical errors and 'category mistakes' which have become habitual." The work has been cited as having "put the final nail in the coffin of Cartesian dualism" and has been seen as a founding document in the philosophy of mind, which received professional recognition as a distinct and important branch of philosophy only after 1950.

Mind–body problem open question in philosophy of how abstract minds interact with physical bodies

The mind–body problem is a philosophical problem concerning the relationship between thought and consciousness in the human mind, and the brain as part of the physical body. It is distinct from the question of how mind and body function chemically and physiologically since that question presupposes an interactionist account of mind-body relations. This question arises when mind and body are considered as distinct, based on the premise that the mind and the body are fundamentally different in nature.

Cartesianism philosophical and scientific system of René Descartes

The Cartesian Method is the philosophical and scientific system of René Descartes and its subsequent development by other seventeenth century thinkers, most notably François Poullain de la Barre, Nicolas Malebranche and Baruch Spinoza. Descartes is often regarded as the first thinker to emphasize the use of reason to develop the natural sciences. For him, the philosophy was a thinking system that embodied all knowledge, and expressed it in this way:

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to metaphysics:

Interactionism or interactionist dualism is the theory in the philosophy of mind which holds that matter and mind are two distinct and independent substances that exert causal effects on one another. It is one type of dualism, traditionally a type of substance dualism though more recently also sometimes a form of property dualism.

Dualism in Indian philosophy refers to the belief held by certain schools of Indian philosophy that reality is fundamentally composed of two parts. This mainly takes the form of either mind-matter dualism in Buddhist philosophy or consciousness-matter dualism in the Samkhya and Yoga schools of Hindu philosophy. These can be contrasted with mind-body dualism in Western philosophy of mind, but also have similarities with it.


  1. Campbell 2005, p. 910.
  2. Jubien 2003, p. 3638.
  3. Moreland & Craig 2003, p. 184185.
  4. Balog 2009, p. 293.
  5. 1 2 3 Bechtel 1988, p. 82.
  6. 1 2 Richardson 1982, p. 21.
  7. Jaworski 2011, p. 7980.
  8. Smith & Jones 1986, p. 4849.
  9. Brown 2001, p. 13.
  10. 1 2 Montero 2009, p. 110111.
  11. Gracia 1996, p. 18.
  12. Malikow 2009, p. 2931.

Further reading

  • Balog, Katalin (2009). "Phenomenal Concepts". In McLaughlin, Brian P.; Beckermann, Ansgar; Walter, Sven (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Mind. Oxford Handbooks. ISBN   9780199262618.
  • Bechtel, William (1988). Philosophy of Mind: An Overview for Cognitive Science. Tutorial Essays in Cognitive Science. Routledge. ISBN   9780805802344.
  • Brown, Stuart C. (2001). "Disembodied existence". Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction With Readings. Philosophy and the Human Situation Series. Routledge. ISBN   9780415212373.
  • Campbell, Neil (2005). A Brief Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. Broadview Guides to Philosophy. Broadview Press. ISBN   9781551116174.
  • Gracia, Jorge J. E. (1996). Texts: Ontological Status, Identity, Author, Audience. Suny Series in Philosophy. SUNY Press. ISBN   9780791429020.
  • Jaworski, William (2011). Philosophy of Mind: A Comprehensive Introduction. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN   9781444333688.
  • Jubien, Michael (2003). "Metaphysics". In Shand, John (ed.). Fundamentals of Philosophy. Routledge. ISBN   9780415227100.
  • Malikow, Max (2009). Philosophy 101: A Primer for the Apathetic Or Struggling Student. University Press of America. ISBN   9780761844167.
  • Montero, Barbara (2009). "The 'body' side of the mind-body problem". On the Philosophy of Mind. Cengage Learning philosophical topics. Cengage Learning. ISBN   9780495005025.
  • Moreland, James Porter; Craig, William Lane (2003). "What is metaphysics?". Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. InterVarsity Press. ISBN   9780830826940.
  • Smith, Peter; Jones, O. R. (1986). "Dualism: For and Against". The Philosophy of Mind: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN   9780521312509.
  • Richardson, R. C. (January 1982). "The 'Scandal' of Cartesian Interactionism". Mind. Oxford University Press. 91 (361): 20–37. doi:10.1093/mind/xci.361.20. JSTOR   2253196.
  • Rosenberg, Alex; McShea, Daniel W. (2008). Philosophy of Biology: A Contemporary Introduction. Routledge. ISBN   9781134375387.