Classical theists hold that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. This phrase carries a privative, not a positive, sense: it means not out of something as opposed to out of something called ‘nothing.’ This much is crystal clear. Less clear is how creation ex nihilo (CEN), comports, if it does comport, with the following hallowed principle:
ENN: Ex nihilo nihit fit. Nothing comes from nothing.
The latter principle seems intuitively obvious. It is not the case that something comes from nothing. Had there been nothing at all, there would not now be anything. (ENN) is not, however, a logical truth. A logical truth is one whose negation is a formal-logical contradiction. Negating (ENN) yields: something comes from nothing. This is logically possible in that no contradiction is involved in the notion that something come to be out of nothing. Logical possibility notwithstanding, that is hard to swallow. Rather than explain why -- a fit topic for yet another post -- I will assume for present purposes that (ENN) is a necessary truth of metaphysics. It is surely plausible. (And if true, then necessarily true.) Had there been nothing at all, there would have been nothing to 'precipitate' the arisal of anything. (But also nothing to prevent the arisal of something.)
You are not philosophizing until you have a problem. My present problem is this: If (ENN) is true, how can (CEN) be true? How can God create out of nothing if nothing can come from nothing? It would seem that our two principles form an inconsistent dyad. How solve it?
It would be unavailing to say that God, being omnipotent, can do anything, including making something come out of nothing. For omnipotence, rightly understood, does not imply that God can do anything, but that God can do anything that it is possible to do. But there are limits on what is possible. For one thing, logic limits possibility, and so limits divine power: not even God can make a contradiction true. There are also non-logical limits on divine power: God cannot restore a virgin. There are past events which possess a necessitas per accidens that puts them beyond the reach of the divine will. Nor can God violate (ENN), given that it is necessarily true. God's will is subject to necessary truths. Necessary truths, like all truths, are accusatives of the divine intellect and so cannot exist unless the divine intellect exists. The divine intellect limits the divine will.
Admittedly, what I just stated, though very plausible, is not obvious. Distinguished philosophers have held that the divine will is not limited in the way I have described. But to enter this can of worms would take us too far afield, to mix a couple of metaphors. So we add to our problem the plausible background assumption that there are logical and non-logical limits on divine power.
So the problem remains: How can God create the world out of nothing if nothing can come from nothing? How can we reconcile (CEN) with (ENN)?
One response to the problem is to say that (CEN), properly understood, states that God creates out of nothing distinct from himself. Thus he does not operate upon any pre-given matter, nor does he bestow existence on pre-given essences, nor create out of pre-given possibles. God does not create out of pre-given matter, essences, or mere possibilia. But if God creates out of nothing distinct from himself, this formulation allows that, in some sense, God creates ex Deo, out of himself. Creating the world out of himself, God creates the world out of nothing distinct from himself. In this way, (CEN) and (ENN) are rendered compatible.
In sum, ‘Creatio ex nihilo’ is ambiguous. It could mean that God creates out of nothing, period, in which case (CEN) collides with (ENN), or that God creates out of nothing ultimately distinct from himself. My proposal is that the Latin phrase be construed in the second of these ways. So construed, it has the sense of ‘creatio ex Deo.’
But what exactly does it mean to say that God creates out of God? A critic once rather uncharitably took me to mean precisely what I do not mean, namely, that God creates out of God in a way that implies that the product of the creative operation (creation in the sense of created entities) is identical to its operator (God) and its operand (God). That would amount to an absurd pantheism in which all distinctions are obliterated, a veritable "night in which all cows are black," to borrow a phrase from Hegel.
When I say that God creates ex Deo what I mean is that God operates on entities that are not external to God in the sense of having existence whether or not God exists. I build a rock cairn to mark the trail by piling up otherwise scattered rocks. These rocks exist whether or not I do. My creation of the cairn is therefore neither out of nothing nor out of me but out of materials external to me. If God created in that way he would not be God as classically conceived, but a Platonic demiurge.
So I say that God creates out of ‘materials’ internal to him in the sense that their existence depends on God’s existence and are therefore in this precise sense internal to him. (I hope it is self-evident that materials need not be made out of matter.) In this sense, God creates ex Deo rather than out of materials that are provided from without. It should be obvious that God, a candidate for the status of an absolute, cannot have anything ‘outside him.’
To flesh this out a bit, suppose properties are concepts in the divine mind. Then properties are necessary beings in that they exist in all metaphysically possible worlds just as God does. The difference, however, is that properties have their necessity from another, namely God, while God has his necessity from himself. (This distinction is in Aquinas.) In other words, properties, though they are necessary beings, depend for their existence on God. If, per impossibile, God were not to exist, then properties, and indeed the entire Platonic menagerie (as Plantinga calls it) would not exist.
Suppose that properties are the ‘materials’ or ontological constituents out of which concrete contingent individuals – thick particulars in Armstrong’s parlance – are constructed. (This diverges somewhat from what I say in A Paradigm Theory of Existence, but no matter: it is a simplification for didactic purposes.) We can then say that the existence of contingent individual C is just the unity or contingent togetherness of C’s ontological constituents. C exists iff C’s constituents are unified. Creating is then unifying. (We have a model for this unifying in our own unification of a sensory manifold in the unity of one consciousness.) Since the constituents are necessary beings, they are uncreated. But since their necessity derives from God, they are not independent of God.
In this sense, God creates out of himself: he creates out of materials that are internal to his own mental life. It is ANALOGOUS to the way we create objects of imagination. (I am not saying that God creates the world by imagining it.) When I construct an object in imagination, I operate upon materials that I myself provide. Thus I create a purple right triangle by combining the concept of being purple with the concept of being a right triangle. I can go on to create a purple cone by rotating the triangle though 360 degrees on the y-axis. The object imagined is wholly dependent on me the imaginer: if I leave off imagining it, it ceases to exist. I am the cause of its beginning to exist as well as the cause of its continuing to exist moment by moment. But the object imagined, as my intentional object, is other than me just as the creature is other than God. The creature is other than God while being wholly dependent on God just as the object imagined is other than me while being wholly dependent on me.
A critic thinks that "The notion of total dependence, dependence in every respect, entails identity, and therefore no dependence at all. If a is dependent on b in all respects, then a ‘collapses’ into b, taking dependency, and difference, with it." So if the creature is dependent on God both for its existence and for its nature, the creature collapses into God. And of course we can’t have that. It is obvious that the manifest plurality of the world, the difference of things from one another and from God, must be maintained. We cannot allow a pantheism according to which God just is the world, nor one on which God swallows up the plural world and its plurality with it.
The principle lately quoted is refuted by every intentional object qua intentional object. The object imagined is totally dependent in its existence on my acts of imagining. After all, I excogitated it: in plain Anglo-Saxon, I thought it up, or out. This excogitatum, to give it a name, is wholly dependent on my cogitationes and on the ego ‘behind’ these cogitationes if there is an ego ‘behind’ them. (Compare Sartre’s critique of Husserl on this score in the former’s Transcendence of the Ego.) But this dependence is entirely consistent with the excogitatum’s being distinct both from me qua ego, and from the intentional acts or cogitationes emanating from the ego and directed upon the excogitatum. To press some Husserlian jargon into service, the object imagined ist kein reeller Inhalt, it is not "really contained" in the act. The object imagined is neither immanent in the act, nor utterly transcendent of the act: it is a transcendence in immanence. It is ‘constituted’ as a transcendence in immanence.
The quoted principle may also be refuted by more mundane examples, examples that I would not use to explain the relation between creator and creature. Consider a wrinkle W in a carpet C. W is distinct from C. This is proven by the fact that they differ property-wise: the wrinkle is located in the Northeast corner of the carpet, but the carpet is not located in the Northeast corner of the carpet. (The principle here is the Indiscernibility of Identicals.) But W is wholly (totally) dependent on C. A wrinkle in a carpet cannot exist without a carpet; indeed, it cannot exist apart from the very carpet of which it is the wrinkle. Thus W cannot ‘migrate’ from carpet C to carpet D. Not only is W dependent for its existence on C, but W is dependent on C for its nature (whatness, quiddity). For W just is a certain modification of the carpet, and the whole truth about W can be told in C-terms. So W is totally dependent on C.
So dependence in both essence and existence does not entail identity.
Somehow the reality of the Many must be upheld. The plural world is no illusion. If Advaita Vedanta maintains that it is an illusion, then it is false. On the other hand, the plural world is continuously dependent for its existence on the One. Making sense of this relation is not easy, and I don't doubt that my analogy to the relation of finite mind and its intentional objects limps in various ways.
In any case, one thing seems clear: there is a problem with reconciling CEN with EEN. The reconciliation sketched here involves reading creatio ex nihilo as creatio ex Deo. The solution is not pantheistic, but panentheistic. It is not that all is God, but that all is in God.
I discuss and reject a different solution to the problem in On Reconciling Creatio Ex Nihilo with Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit.