Can a Non-Physical Being Interact with the Physical World?

Posted: May 19, 2011 by Amy Hall in God is Real

In our post a few weeks ago asking for your questions, Kyle asked, “How can a God who is spirit interact with the physical world?” So in answer to that, here’s a re-post of my thoughts on this question:

To accept the existence of miracles, one would have to accept the idea that a being without material properties (i.e., God) could move about, change, and otherwise affect objects in the physical world. Is this, in itself, an absurd proposition? I don’t think so. I can’t show you how the affecting of the physical by the non-physical is possible — such explanations are beyond my capability, but I can certainly demonstrate that this is not only possible, but commonplace.

Imagine you’re sitting on a park bench and spot a good friend approaching. You raise your arm and wave.

Why did you wave? There was nothing in the physical world that compelled you through the laws of physics or chemistry or anything else to raise your arm. Your action did not begin with a physical process; your action began with your will. Your will to raise your arm was not a physical part of your body. Your thought was non-physical — it couldn’t have been measured because it had no mass and took up no space. Try describing your thoughts and your will in physical terms — what color are they? How big are they? How much do they weigh? These questions are meaningless because our wills are not in the same category as objects in the physical world which can be described in such terms.

Our wills are non-physical, and yet somehow our non-physical wills are connected to, and have power over, a part of the material world. Somehow our non-physical thoughts and wills are able to move physical objects — our own bodies.

Our limited minds are only able to move our own bodies, but is it so outrageous to think that it’s possible for there to be a greater mind out there who would have access to all physical objects? It’s difficult to rule out the possibility on principle when we see the same thing taking place on a smaller scale everyday, every time we make a move.

  1. Sam Harper says:

    Hey, that’s the same argument C.S. Lewis gave in “Miracles”!

    I don’t know if many philosophers would find that argument persuasive, though. I remember when I was in college, and we were talking about the mind/body problem, the teacher was saying that’s the main objection philosophers have had to substance dualism–the difficulty of accounting for how something non-material can have causal influence over the material world. People were raising that objection even in Descartes’ days.

    I don’t think it’s possible for something non-physical to have causal influence over the physical world without creating energy. Whenever something physical causes something else physical, energy gets converted from one form to another, but it’s always conserved. Energy is a physical thing, so nothing that’s non-physical can be made or energy or have any energy. Now imagine something non-physical wants to cause a ball to start rolling. A rolling ball will have some kenetic energy that it didn’t have when it was sitting still, so to get a ball rolling, that energy has to come from somewhere. If I pushed a ball, the chemical energy in my body, through a series of energy conversions (mechanical energy, etc.), is transferred to the ball as I push it or kicked it. But if something non-physical wanted to cause the ball to move, it would have to create energy since it has non of its own.

    I think that’s a pretty interesting thing to think about because you’d think only God has creative powers. Only God can create matter/energy out of nothing. But if our souls/minds are constantly having causal influence over our brains, then we are constantly creating matter/energy. Matter is, after all, just a condensed form of energy, and mass/energy conversions happen all the time. The difference between us and God would be that we can’t create quite as much energy/mass as he can, and we can’t do it with the same kind of specificity.

    But you know, given enough time, ordinary finite souls like ourselves could create as much energy as there is in the whole universe right now.

    • Amy Hall says:

      Lewis? Really? Cool. I’ve never read Miracles, but I guess I must have picked up the idea somewhere along the way!

  2. I wonder how one of those Christian physicalists like Lynne Rudder Baker or Nancey Murphy would respond to the question.