Why Materialism is Unscientific

by Eric Steinhart

You’ve probably heard the old question: Why is there something rather than nothing?  It’s unfortunate when theists screw this up.  They say: Because God created the universe!  Of course, since God is something, you can’t use God to answer the question.  The universe coming from God is just something from something.

And it’s doubly unfortunate when scientific atheists screw this up.  As a precautionary tale, here’s a recent example. Over at Starts With A Bang, Ethan Siegel wonders whether you can get something for nothing.   He writes:

In physics, can you get something for nothing? And if so, what can you and can’t you get? In many ways, yes, you can.  In fact, in many ways, getting something when you have nothing is unavoidable! (Although you can’t necessarily get anything you want.)  For example, take a box and empty it, so that all you’ve got is some totally empty space, like above. An ideal, perfect, empty vacuum.  Now, what’s in that box?  Did you guess nothing? Well, it turns out that empty space isn’t so empty.

Huh?  Apparently, if you guess that nothing is in the box, then you’re wrong – there really is something in the box.  Of course, there are no material things in the box.  But there is a “force due to empty space itself”.  More generally, the box is filled with all sorts of energy.  He continues:

And if you start with enough energy, you can take all of the real matter and antimatter pairs that exist, and create more matter than antimatter, giving us a Universe where we have something, today, rather than nothing. Now, that’s what we know we can get, even from nothing.

That’s absurd.  Here’s what we’ve been told so far: (1) space is filled with energy; (2) space has the power of exerting a force.  And surely anyone with a bit of physics education could continue: (3) space has at least three dimensions.  How then, could it possibly be nothing?  If it were nothing, it wouldn’t exist.  So it wouldn’t have any dimensions, it wouldn’t have any powers to exert any forces, and it wouldn’t be filled with energy.

If you want to do a bit more physics, and move from space to space-time, you’ll of course acknowledge that space-time exists and that it has lots and lots of properties, powers, and contents.  It has intrinsic curvature, it supports gravitational and electromagnetic fields, it perhaps supports various scalar fields, it has many dimensions, etcetera.

Surely Siegel agrees that space-time exists.  And if it exists, then it isn’t nothing – it’s something.  A few commentators picked up this point – good for them.

I think the real problem here is an assumed materialism: the only things that exist are material things (particles, atoms, molecules, etc.).  If something isn’t material, then it doesn’t exist.  That’s just silly.  Our best current physical theories involve all sorts of non-material objects – space-time being just one of many examples.   So, if you think our best physical theories are correct, then you can’t be a materialist.

This much can indeed be done by logic alone: Why is there something rather than nothing?  Because some things exist necessarily.  They can’t not exist – it’s not possible for them to not be.  So why are there some contingent things rather than no contingent things?  Contingent things are things that might be or might not be.  The answer to that question is:  Because the necessary things somehow entail the existence of the contingent things.

As expected, theists want to say that God is a necessary being and that the essential nature of God entails the existence of contingent things.  Atheist want to deny this.  And they might be right: there might be all sorts of necessary beings that aren’t gods.

Guest Contributor Eric Steinhart is an associate professor of philosophy at William Paterson University and the author ofMore Precisely: The Math You Need To Do Philosophy, On Nietzsche (Wadsworth Philosophers Series), and The Logic of Metaphor – Analogous Parts of Possible Worlds (Synthese Library, Volume 299). Professor Steinhart has explained many of his views on metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and Richard Dawkins in an audio interview with The Pale Blue Dot. Abstracts to his papers on the philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, the metaphysics of persons, Nietzsche, and analogy and metaphor can all be found here (in some cases with links to the papers themselves).

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Before I Deconverted: I Saw My First “Secular Humanist” On TV
Comparing Humanism and Religion and Exploring Their Relationships to Each Other
Alix Jules On Being An African American Humanist
About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://geoffarnold.com Geoff Arnold

    Hmm. Arguing against a scientifically illiterate piece with an equally scientifically illiterate rant. Massive equivocation around words like “exist” and “material”. I’d expect better based on credentials. Move along, nothing to see here, I guess….

  • Zachary Aletheia

    My understanding of the standard model is that forces are due to the exchange of particles and that energy can be converted into matter using e=mc^2 and therefore materialism still holds.

  • mikespeir

    I’m no scientist, but I’ve never understood materialism to imply that only “mass” exists.

  • bb

    It’s like asking who invented the wheel. No one knows. Sumerians? Maybe. Did God invent the universe? Regardless of theories, can’t prove anything. Perhaps in the beginning, there was some kind of spark between two random particles. Did that basic electrical charge create drive, and purpose propelling the creation of atoms and more complex structures, ultimately evolving into some larger consciousness? Is life itself constructed from undectable ethers? Japanese believe soul is in everything, even in the humanoids they’re creating.

  • CalebTheGnome

    I don’t think the equivocation going on here is worse than the equivocation going on in the quotes from Siegel. While Steinhart may give an inaccurate view of materialism (though the word has such a sordid history that I’m sure it probably applies to someone’s view), Siegel performs a much more drastic equivocation of the word “nothing.” While “nothing” may get used carelessly in everyday speech to mean “nothing visible,” it’s quite obviously inaccurate to characterize a box as containing “nothing” when there remains energy present (or, perhaps, forces acting upon space to create “virtual particles” or “vacuum fluctuations”).

    The lesson here, I think, is not that our physics is inaccurate, but simply that “nothing” is not a proper term to use to describe “empty” space (perhaps even “empty” is not an appropriate term). As Sorenson writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “To say that vacuums have energy and energy is convertible into mass, is to deny that vacuums are empty,” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nothingness/#TheAnyNot). “Nothing,” is simply a concept that does not correspond to reality, at least in what might be called the strict sense of the word.

  • Heuristics

    Theist here.

    Why is there something rather then nothing? This is because God is a necessary being, he could not fail to exist. As such he is the ground of being, that which everything else that exists derives their beingnes from. The universe, being such a thing is thus derived from Gods being (which is the first being and the necessarily existing being).

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet
  • Larry Clapp

    What necessitated God, and does *it* exist?