What Everything is Made of

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 10, 2009 in Reviews,Science

I’m blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier’s handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.) In my previous post, I discussed section III.4 The Fixed Universe and Freedom of the Will. Today I begin to discuss section III.5 What Everything is Made of.

Everything is a physical arrangement of matter and energy in spacetime.

So Carrier begins. This is the basic statement of naturalism, the subject of his book. As a worldview, naturalism is committed to this: that everything is a physical arrangement of matter and energy in spacetime. As such, naturalistic epistemology, morality, ontology, aesthetics, etc. must all refer to physical arrangements of matter and energy in spacetime.

Personally, I would say “Everything we know of so far is a physical arrangement of matter and energy in spacetime.” And I’m sure Carrier would agree. He wrote earlier that naturalism is not his basic presupposition – but a conclusion based on all the evidence around us. If we had good reason to believe a particular thing existed beyond matter and energy in spacetime, then we would happily abandon naturalism.


Spacetime includes the four known dimensions, as well as any others that may one day be discovered.

We are familiar with the three dimensions of space, but the fourth dimension – time – feels different to us. This, says Carrier, is because “we are in effect ‘using’ the dimension of time in order to exist, leaving us with room to move only in the three remaining dimensions of space, and this makes time seem and feel different to us.”

In 1916, Einstein showed that gravity is not a special law or force, but is derived directly from the nature of spacetime. Following that discovery, cutting-edge physics continues to suggest that perhaps all facts about the universe (matter, energy, physical laws) can be derived from the geometry of spacetime. This is far from proven, but some evidence is leaning that way.


Just as we discovered that space and time were not so different, we’ve also discovered that matter and energy are not separate things. Matter is just a special case of energy, bound up in a certain way. So, literally everything is made of energy.

So what the heck is energy made of? We don’t know. This is one of the biggest questions in physics. Right now, it appears it may be an oscillation of some kind. A ripple in spacetime: “Whenever there is space-time twisted up the right way, there will be matter and energy.”1

The fact that matter-energy cannot be created or destroyed also makes sense geometrically “since you can’t flatten any area of space-time without bunching up another…”

Physical laws

As every scientist knows, physical “laws” are not laws but extremely consistent observations about the way things behave. Because we’ve observed, for example, Newton’s second law of motion a bajillion times, and have observed no proven exceptions to it, we jot it down as a “law” – a description – of how the universe seems to work. If good evidence ever contradicts a scientific law, we abandon or revise it – as was the case with Descartes’ first law of nature.

If you count all of them, there are hundreds of “laws” of nature. But most of them are just inevitable outcomes of the lower, more fundamental laws. For example, the boiling point of water is no special “law.” It is exactly as it must be, given the most fundamental physical laws. Even the laws we now consider “fundamental” may turn out to be inevitable consequences of more fundamental laws about the geometry of spacetime. As Carrier writes:

So far, the steady progress of past science has continuously and without fail grounded more and more laws and constants in the geometrical relationships and properties of quantum particles. So it is probable that what remains unexplained… will likewise go the same path everything else has, and end up yet another inevitable fact of the geometrical structure of space-time.

The above facts and speculations are probably shared by most people who are familiar with the latest in physics research. Next, Carrier discusses a more controversial topic: III.5.4 Abstract Objects.

  1. Page 120. Carrier always adds an annoying dash: he writes “space-time” instead of “spacetime.” I don’t know why. []

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

cartesian July 17, 2009 at 6:17 am

Everything is a physical arrangement of matter and energy in spacetime. …This is the basic statement of naturalism

I don’t think that’s sufficient for naturalism. That just sounds like physicalism. Mormon theology is physicalistic. The think everything is physical. They think that our local god Elohim too is physical: he has a body of flesh and blood and lives on an actual planet (Kolob). But surely Mormonism doesn’t count as naturalistic, does it? Elohim has crazy supernatural powers, and he’s just one of an infinite number of such gods (some are even more powerful), on their view.
So there’s an example of physicalists who aren’t naturalists. So physicalism isn’t sufficient for naturalism.


lukeprog July 17, 2009 at 7:08 am


True, there are many flavors of naturalism. If Mormons don’t believe in the supernatural, I would call that a kind of naturalism.


Yair July 18, 2009 at 1:56 pm

I just think this definition misses the heart of what naturalism is. Elohim on Kobol is a fine example; in my rebuttal to Keith Augustine I used the example of spin-networks, that occupy no space but obviously are physical, naturalistic things.
I think the heart of naturalism is “no special pleading“. Neither man, nor God, nor anything else has a special place in the grand scheme of things. This presupposes that there is some scheme to things, which led me to the assertion of two twin principles for naturalism in more detail:
1) All things are public (or, equally, objective), i.e. all properties affect other properties in interactions, there are no isolated properties that are in-principle hidden from our view and inaccessible to science, no parts to Reality which are not a part of Nature. This is “physicalism”, as I understand it, and provides the overall scheme of things naturalism can be defined against.
2) Things are very simple (or, equally, uniform), so that there is no special particle but rather all particles exist in all places, there is no special place, there is no special being, something complex such as a mind is reducible to endemic, simple constituents, and so on. This Copernican assumption is the true heart of naturalism.
I’m not even sure these two form the best basis, perhaps just the basic principle of “no special pleading” is better.


lukeprog July 18, 2009 at 2:27 pm


That’s a very interesting way to think about naturalism, thanks.

Are spin networks physical things, or merely diagrams that help us understand how physical things work?


Yair July 18, 2009 at 10:33 pm

Spin networks are part of how reality is; not diagrams, partial representations. They are usually seen as reality abstracted to exclude spatial complications which are not important for the specific application. However, if you consider a “world” of spin networks, it seems perfectly naturalistic – there are just spins, obeying natural physical laws, with no gods or faeries or whatever. Secondly, in one quantum gravity scenario spin networks actually form the pre-geometric background that spacetime emerges from, so they are in a sense the only things that exists. I therefore think they form a good example for how a world can be naturalistic even though things in it are not in space-time.


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