What is the difference between existing in the mind and non-physical existence?



How could one detect the subtle difference, if any, between imagining a being and using the imagination to interact with a non-physical being?

To provide some context for this question, I will give a couple examples. I am thinking of an earlier question on this site about the ontological proof that God exists. A distinction is made in Anselm's proof between existence and existence in the mind. Also, I am thinking about dreaming and whether the dream world is contained in the mind or if the imaginative facilities of the mind allow us to enter the a real, though non-physical, dream world.

If non-physical beings exist, or if non-physical aspects of physical beings exist then the only way to interact with them and "see" them is through the mind since our sensory organs will be of no use. But then we may be tempted to say that the being exists ONLY in our minds. But, this line of thinking turns any non-physical thing into a mental concept.

Edit: For this question, by existence I mean existing independent of my mind. In particular, I am wondering about beings independent of my existence which I can only interact with beyond my 5 senses.

Another way of asking the question is: Is the imagination solely for creating objects or beings which don't actually exist except for in the mind, or is the imagination a communication tool to be used to interact with the non-physical world?

I'd be happy to hear your thoughts or a reference to where this has been discussed.

Erin K Carmody

Posted 2011-07-22T18:53:53.880

Reputation: 414

1Can you elaborate on or give examples of what you think 'non-physical existence' is? Do properties exist (like redness)? Do numbers exist? Do mythical creatures exist? Do figures that appear in fictional stories exist? What does 'exist' mean for you (there could be many answers)? – Mitch – 2011-07-22T20:52:54.893

@Mitch, thanks and I added what I mean by existence for this question. – Erin K Carmody – 2011-07-22T22:15:19.323

perhaps their is another existence one of imagination and understanding. Quantum non locality is as close to the non physical science has gotten. Since it takes great physical understanding for creatures to exist that rules out chance and chaos as our makers. – None – 2016-08-11T01:49:18.970



The difference is huge, as not all non-physical things exist in minds. For example, fictional characters have no physical existence, yet exist independently of minds, as they are written in books.

You have also such things as cultural memes, which exist in cultures. They are as such dependent on human minds, but does not necessarily exist in minds.

And the difference between imagining a being and imagining interaction with a non-physical being is that in one case you imagine only the being in the other case you imagine both the being and interacting with it.

If the being you interact with exist only in your mind or not depends on if you see your imagined Othello as the same or a different being in than the Othello of the book. I would be inclined to claim they are different. As such you can not interact with any being that are independent of your mind in a non-physical way, and you can not interact with the fictional characters of books and movies.

Lennart Regebro

Posted 2011-07-22T18:53:53.880

Reputation: 3 378

In the case of a fictional character, as you have shown, understanding the nature of existence of the being is mostly straightforward. What if I were to have a conversation with Othello in my imagination? Am I simply make-believing or am I actually communicating with the well-defined essense of Othello? What about recurring characters in dreams? – Erin K Carmody – 2011-07-23T20:02:14.447

1@Erin: Make believe. In some sense your imagine Othello and the recurring dream characters are a part of you, and hence you are conversing with an aspect of yourself. – Lennart Regebro – 2011-07-23T20:10:05.917


Existing in your mind is a physical existence, as your mind itself has a phyical existence (namely, your brain).

Non-physical existence is self-contradictory. To put it simply, you are a huge heap of atoms, behaving in a certain way. If the existence of some thing changes the behavior of your atoms (this includes causing your neurons to fire differently, i.e. causing thoughts in your mind), that is, causing physical changes in you, how can you claim it is not physical? If it does not (and thus you are not even aware of it and it has no influence at all on the world), what sense does it make to say that thing exists?


Posted 2011-07-22T18:53:53.880

Reputation: 159

Imagine a mermaid with long red hair and bright blue eyes. Her scales are colorful geometric shapes. She is reading a book which shines as bright as gold. Though she affects the atoms in your brain, she is not made of atoms. – Erin K Carmody – 2011-07-25T03:04:43.710

1She doesn't affect the atoms in my brain, she is the atoms in my brain. She cannot interact with the world in any other way than through chains of cause and effect which all start in my brain. (And of course "she" is not a mermaid; she is the mental image of a mermaid. Different thing altogether. Look in the mirror; while you do, a mental image of yourself exists in your visual cortex. Would you say that suddenly two of you exists? I don't think so.) – Tgr – 2011-07-25T16:39:53.353

@tgr:the mermaid is actually flow of electrons, though that still has physical existence. – apoorv020 – 2011-07-26T04:04:13.133

@apoorv20: there is no free flow of electrons in your brain, neurons change their voltage by transferring large quantities of sodium and potassium ions through their membranes. – Tgr – 2011-07-26T05:51:05.063

The collection of atoms in one's brain is part of the physical structures of one's brain. What about the behaviour of some of these atoms? Are some of the 'behaviours' of various conglomerations of atoms that have invariant properties ; are these part of the physical structure of the brain? – 201044 – 2016-02-21T08:13:40.730


Well for one a being could have a non-physical existance and yet not even be in your mind. Your knowledge of that being may have no effect on it at all. Indeed even you knowledge may have no impact.

Where a being that only exists in your mind relies on your mind for its existance. You have the power to completely shape and create its world. In a way you are its god. And if you do not retain a long term memory of it, or transfer that creature out of your mind in some way, then it is completely and utterly destroyed once you stop thinking about it.

To the being it does not matter wether you can tell that it is real or imagined. It will either persist when you cease to think of it or it will not. This will happen wether you can tell the difference or not. Your knowledge only matters to you.


Posted 2011-07-22T18:53:53.880

Reputation: 1 512

It may be very difficult to know whether the being actually exists if the only interaction between us happens in the mind. How do I know what the being is doing when I am not thinking of it? How do I know if the creature is destroyed once I have forgotten it? – Erin K Carmody – 2011-07-22T22:18:31.690

@Erin: It's a bit like asking what an animated character is doing when it's animator isn't animating it. Nothing. – Lennart Regebro – 2011-07-23T06:50:51.260

@Erin:Your knowledge matters only to you not to the creature. The question is if you knew would it matter to you? Would it change how you act or think? Or what is the question you really have? – Chad – 2011-07-25T13:37:25.100


How could one detect the subtle difference, if any, between imagining a being and using the imagination to interact with a non-physical being?

If a group of people were interacting with a conscious non-physical being who provided advice, wouldn’t a fair assumption be that (unless being was purposely trying to deceive those it was in communication with) there should be consistency of message? The inability to provide objective experience for an outside source seems to most clearly suggest that the being is imaginary.


Posted 2011-07-22T18:53:53.880

Reputation: 111

You could also delve deeper into the concept of 'what is the mind?', and 'do we even exist ? can we prove it ?' . To prove we exist even by our limited standards, would mean we would need to compare it with non-existence. Since non-existence is pure theory, this would prove that existing is also pure theory, thus the 'mind', and 'physical' or 'non-physical' are no different. To say we exist, is identical to saying we do not exist. We can prove neither. – Kraang Prime – 2016-02-05T09:17:04.107