Substance {Gk. ουσια [ousia]; Lat. substantia}

"What a thing is made of; hence, the underlying being that supports, exists independently of, and persists through time despite changes in, its accidental features."

Can we say that there is any substance or reality in material elements in the universe?

Matter and energy constantly change. They are mutable. They could exist as well as not exist. They could have been what they are now as well as they could have been different. It seems there is no substance in matter and energy. There is nothing that exists and persists despite changes in them as the underlying being which sustains their existence.

A Christian could claim that God is exactly this underlying substance who supports, exists independently of, and persists through time changes in material nature. But if there is no God, could we say that there is any substance at all?


5 Answers 5


I'd argue that matter and energy are substances in the category of empirical scientific knowledge. In fact they can change without changing. That is accidental features can change. For example the arrangement of matter or energy. Of course one can now consider materiality to be contingent and accident - so energy then becomes the only substance. From this angle the conservation laws of energy and matter are intuitively obvious. In fact they characterise matter and energy as substances. Historically of course they were induced from examples & partial theories of energy and matter.

If one includes in the idea of substance that it is self-dependent then one may ascend (or descend) to a theological argument. I believe that it is one of the classical arguments (I do not say proof deliberately as proof is so tied up with mathematical argument) for the existence of God - or knowledge of his nature; Spinoza alludes to this in his Ethics. He admits two substances are known to us - extension and mental - amongst an infinite number of them.

Al-Ghazali, Islamic theologian, even given the world, posited that God intervened at every moment to make everything happen. One can say he polices and enacts the laws of the world. This theory is knows as Occasionalism. Here it isn't enough that there are substances, God is neccessary to make it work.


But if there is no God, could we say that there is Substance at all?

Yes, we could: Take the universe itself as substance. The universe satisfies your definition as "the underlying being that supports, exists independently of, and persists through time despite changes in its accidental features".

If you accept the hypothesis of a Big Bang, then there was no time before the existence of the universe. Spacetime is a feature of the universe.


Note that your definition permits a substance to persist despite changes in its accidental features. If you count among a material thing's accidental features its state, as energy or matter, then it is still a substance even through these changes. After all, we say that the matter does not get destroyed but that IT changes into energy--it would be a bit of a paradox to think that the matter changed into energy without also thinking that there is some underlying, conserved substance which endured the change. A "change" without an underlying conserved substance is not a change, but an annihilation followed by a spontaneous creation.

Now, exactly what is permissible to call "accidental" is a complicated topic, but I think nearly anyone would agree that it is a function of the level of description of the object in question. Certainly it is not accidental feature of a person's body that it is material and not pure energy. A change at this level of description would constitute a change in the nature of the object, and so at this level of description a person's body cannot change from matter to energy without destroying the body as a human body. Similarly being material is an essential feature of matter, trivially, and therefore changing from matter to energy violates or destroys the object's identity as matter. But if we refer to that substance which is continuous from the change from matter to energy or vice versa, it is not an essential feature of that thing to be matter or energy, so I would argue. It is at this level of description that we find a way in which it is at least plausible to suppose that there is an accidental feature (material state) of a thing that exists and persists through the change into energy or vice versa.


(I am not sure if you are asking if the existence of 'substance' proves the existence of God, or if according to Christian theology your assertion is correct.)

According to the theology of all the 'religions of the Book', and also Hinduism, certainly without God there can be no substance. God provides the 'platform' for the persistence of all substance. Only God can say "I am because I AM" - everything else is relatively 'accidental'.

But it is not necessary to postulate God in order to explain substance. Information theory, for example, seems to contend that 'information' is the only true 'substance'. Does the persistence of information mandate the existence of God? Professor Hawking seems to think not, others, notably Sir Roger Penrose, apparently disagree.

  • Information is a relatively new paradigm that allows a new way to look at old things. Personally I think that there is a theological correlate: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". Can one think of word as information? certainly it has been thought of as logos, that is reason. Amusingly a word is a name of a certain amount of information in software. Commented May 26, 2013 at 23:00
  • @MoziburUllah : "Can one think of word as information?" I have certainly thought along those lines. There is plenty of theological/mystical material out there that can be interpreted that way very nicely. "Amusingly a word..." - true. But it's not the smallest unit. :-)
    – Vector
    Commented May 26, 2013 at 23:21
  • It was when that analogy occured to me that I realised there was more to theology than is admitted t by the athiest brigade. No, it isn't. But I don't see that as being important - of course it is from the computer science angle as smallest is an optimum point :). Commented May 27, 2013 at 0:07
  • @MoziburUllah-"there was more to theology..." Certainly there is much more: When you probe deeply into the underpinnings of sophisticated theologies, you ran straight into concepts that are akin to those found in 'cutting edge' cosmology and physics. The difficulty is in the language, which is always metaphoric and relies on symbolism that is at worst meaningless/offensive and at best childish, to the uninitiated. Also, the methodology theologians use to reach their conclusions is very different than that of scientists, so it is easy to deem such conclusions 'myth', 'superstition', etc.
    – Vector
    Commented May 27, 2013 at 1:10

"God is exactly this Substance underlying who supports, exist independently of, and persist through time changes in material nature. But if there is no God, could we say that there is Substance at all?"

It seems monism and/or pantheism. Pantheism (All-is-God) is often associated with monism (All-is-One). The line between monism and pantheism can be blurred depending on varying definitions of God. Is God substantially omnipresent in the physical universe but also exists "apart from" or "beyond" it as its Creator and Sustainer? Is everything composed of an all-encompassing, immanent God? Is there one great reality, eternal and infinite, and everything finite and temporal is but some part of God? If yes, all forms of reality may then be considered either modes of that Being, or identical with it, there is nothing separate or distinct from God, for God is the universe.

Pantheists do not believe in a personal or anthropomorphic god, and Christians generally like a personal God. God incarnation in Jesus requires both that God become human and that God remain wholly other. God incarnation in Jesus requires “Credo quia absurdum”, “I believe because it is absurd”: “the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsuitable. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible.” (Tertullian).

The "everything theory" of fundamental physics, to tie all the known forces into a unity does not yet exist, monism is a hope.

Why is there something, a God or the Universe, rather than nothing? This question imposes an illogical nonsense explanatory demand, deduce the existence of something without using any existential premises.

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