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Immaterial vs Imaginary: can we tell the difference?

May 15, 2015

I was chatting with an atheist friend of mine yesterday and he posed a couple of very thought provoking questions. I thought they were very good, so I decided to share them on this blog and stimulate some discussion.

One of his questions was in relation to comprehending the ‘immaterial’. He asked, ‘how can you tell the difference between the imaginary and the immaterial?’

Now, at one level everything that is imaginary is also immaterial (otherwise it wouldn’t be imaginary). But the imaginary can’t be the sum total of the immaterial, for there are ‘real’ things things like consciousness, love, justice, memory, which are immaterial – we would never suggest that they are imaginary.

Yet this raises the broader problem for the materialist, who propose that all of ‘reality’ are the result of material interactions. I’ve touched on this topic in previous posts on this blog, particularly with respect to Sam Harris, Deepak Chopra and Michelle Tepper. The presence of the immaterial creates enormous challenges to the atheist materialist who proposes that humans are simply matter and DNA. Indeed the presence of the immaterial e.g. love, consciousness, memories, creates formidable difficulties for the ‘hard’ materialist (the materialist may propose that the immaterial is the result of material processes – although this at first glance appears somewhat contradictory. Yet no satisfactory process has been established to outline as how this actually happens).

So once the immaterial is acknowledged, the question is then rightly raised – how can we tell the difference between the immaterial and the imaginary? Are my memories fabricated? Have they recorded history correctly? Is love an illusion? And this also raises the ultimate question concerning the immaterial, ‘is there an immaterial god, or is this just imaginary?’

So it’s over to you. What tests, measures, principles or experiments could we use to discern the immaterial from the imaginary?

Image courtesy of Idea go at

  1. This sounds like it can be an interesting conversation, but can we first define what we mean by imaginary and immaterial?

    • Good question. Not really sure on an entirely robust definition. I suppose imaginary is ‘something that is made up and does not comport to reality’. Immaterial is something that is not material, but does comport to reality. Do you have any suggestions?

  2. Are the contents of a computer immaterial? Computer memory is physical, but its contents are transient arrangements of electrons that are lost if you remove power. You can’t directly inspect these arrangements without corrupting them. We can verify the contents because a computer is made to report its contents reliably, A human brain is like the computer, but the interfaces are far less fuzzy and so we can’t perfectly retrieve the information. But there are many experiments that point to memories being contained in the brain in a way analogous to how computer stores information. If you destroy parts of the brain, you destroy memories. Likewise, by application of various drugs you can affect some of the other intangibles you listed. The other day I was reading about how a rodent who had paired with a mate and would normally establish a long term bond was suddenly made to abandon its mate via the application of a drug. (Sorry, I don’t recall the specific animal or drug; I might be able to find it.) In essence, its love was destroyed with a simple injection. What I think this shows is that these things are actually material, but in a way that is not easily understood. After all, the brain is several orders of magnitude more complex than any machine we have made.

    To validate that something is or isn’t imaginary, you need a way to validate it outside of self reporting. Since no one has found such a way to validate God, we can infer him or her to be imaginary.

  3. At first glance this can appear an interesting question. However, it doesn’t really take a lot of consideration or analysis to see that we’re reflecting on here is just how we humans categorise and label various phenomena that happen to be a bit tricky to define in concrete terms.

    With the examples cited here of things that are immaterial (love, consciousness, justice, memories – both human/animal and computer), all of these things have a basis in the material world. For example, “love” (depending on the precise definition you want to use at any given time) is simply a label we apply, somewhat subjectively, to various emotional states of a person or people. It can’t be as precisely defined as, say, “a spoon”, but it is still just a description of a material state of affairs – even if that state of affairs is complex, subjective and transient.

    Similarly, “justice” is just a word we apply, again rather arbitrarily and subjectively, to describe a material state of affairs – in this case representing perceived circumstances concerning various interactions between people.

    Technically, the things mentioned here as “immaterial” are still actually material. To be more precise, they are just labels that we use to describe (subjectively) various arrangements and interactions of, ultimately, matter.

    “…The presence of the immaterial creates enormous challenges to the atheist materialist who proposes that humans are simply matter and DNA…”
    No, it doesn’t at all. At least, not any philosophical challenges.
    (I could also address problems with the language used in this statement, but that is trivial side-issue that would distract from the main argument!)

    The various questions that follow (eg., about distinguishing what is imaginary, etc.) are interesting to an extent, but they don’t pose any kind of intellectual or philosophical problem to the “materialist”.

  4. If you go to the theatre and see a dancer perform you will also see a dance. Dancers exist and dances exist but the dance is an entirely different category of thing from the dancer. You will not see the dance come on stage to take its bow at the end of the performance, nor will it have its own dressing room backstage. The dance is an immaterial thing which was an emergent property of the physical actions of the physical dancer.
    Similarly, if you go to court, you can see where the opposing counsel sit, you can see where the judge sits and where the jury sit but you will never see where justice sits. Justice is the (hoped for) emergent property of the process carried out by these people.
    Remembering, thinking, hoping, loving: these are all emergent properties of the brain in higher animals. It’s what brains do. I don’t see the “formidable difficulty” here that you appear to see.

    I realise that this doesn’t address your question about distinguishing the immaterial from the imaginary. That can be done – I think psychologists spend a fair amount of their time devising tests to ensure that immaterial properties (e.g. racial prejudice) are correctly identified using objective criteria. I don’t think it’s too much of a philosophical problem though.

    • Ed Atkinson permalink

      fjanusz2 – I always find that your posts here say what I’d want to express, but so much better stated than I could manage.

      This is not just flattery I promise. I think you made connection with us at the Henley (UK) discussion group for believers and skeptics, but you live too far away. I have just had the blessing of Justin Brierley to set up one in central London under his Unbelievable brand. I hope that would be in range. If that is the case, please look out for a new Meetup group being announced in the next week or so.

      I am looking for a group of people on both sides to head it up once I back off back to Henley – so if anyone here is interested please message me on facebook – Ed Atkinson of Henley on Thames, UK. The idea is to have people who get the need for respectful discussion as Rob achieves here. Obviously I think you’d be ideal fjanusz2!

  5. Well, I don’t agree here. The things you referred to(, consciousness, memories…) cannot be honestly be referred as immaterial. The position is ”we don’t know” whether they are immaterial or not, although some of them are likely to be material, like love and memories, which are clearly the results of chemical reactions in our neural pathways. But the term ‘consciousness’ is scientifically unfounded, so saying that it is immaterial is as dishonest as saying that we know that it is material. Ultimately it does nothing but raises some paradoxes if we try to know about them just by thinking, it needs to be scientifically or at least logically founded completely.

    When it comes to distinguishing immaterial from imaginary, the distinction is clear. All imaginary things are immaterial, but all immaterial things ‘may’ not be imaginary. Personally I am sceptical about the supernatural claims, but I am open to new data.

    • Thanks for the comments. Why can’t love, consciousness, memories be referred to as ‘immaterial’? I’m intrigued, where are they? Where can I measure them?

      • You first have to define ‘immaterial’, if the definition is ‘the unmeasurable’ things, then you are saying that black hole singularities are immaterial too.

  6. Philip Wraight permalink

    The dinosaurs ruled planet earth for approximately 170 million years +/- I was just wondering if they managed this without knowing about the immaterial v imaginary?. I tend to think without, it’s only our big brains that has given us the capability of asking such irrelevant questions, also given us the capability of destroying ourselves along with most of other life forms on earth, and that seems to be coming along nicely!. I wonder if theists think this is “Gods plan” it would be really sad if they did!!.

  7. Philip Wraight permalink

    OH!, I also do believe that we have no chance of emulating the dinosaurs length of reign as a species!!. Just my humble opinion you understand!!.

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