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Saturday, January 24, 2009


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1) Here is how the argument should be stated:
(a) If God created the universe, then God created something out of nothing.
(b) The universe is something (contains some things);
(c) There cannot be a state of nothing;
(c*) Nothing is not a possible state of affairs;
(d) It is not possible to create the universe (something) out of nothing, since nothing is not a possible state of affairs.
(e) It is not the case that God created something out of nothing;
(f) It is not the case that God created the universe.

2) The argument in this form is valid. Is it sound? Are all the premises acceptable as true?

3) A theist might deny the soundness of this argument in two ways:

(A) Premise (a) is false. God created the universe from material that was already in existence. The creation consists of establishing the laws that govern the universe as well as create the initial conditions by organizing material that previously was in chaos. This is the same as an artist that creates a painting from material such as a canvas, paint, brushes, etc., which are from an artistic point of view an arbitrary selection of things that do not make up a piece of art.

(B) Premise (c) or (c*) is false. There can be a state of nothing. And God’s omnipotence includes turning nothing into something.

4) Each of these responses leads to further discussion. But that is a different matter.


Concise.... I'm an amateur spectator only, but here goes:

The argument seems to treat "nothing" as if it were a kind of "something," that is, as a raw material from which the universe was fashioned. But this is like confusing a bank balance of zero with not having a bank account. The difference between zero and nothing.

The argument also seems to envision "creation" as a sort of transformation of this nothing into a something. But creation does not mean to fashion something or to make something. The creation relation is not one of a craftsman at the lathe, but of Atlas upholding the world. It is a priority of causation, not of temporal sequence.

M Frank's got it right I think.

I assume for argument's sake that the theist position is: "God created the universe out of nothing." Peikoff's argument does not interpret this position charitably, but in the way M Frank suggests: "God created the universe out of something--namely nothing." Peikoff correctly points out that nothing is not something, by apparently arguing that there is no x such that x does not exist (for that's a self-contradictory statement, or worse, a nonsensical statement that cannot even be formulated in classical logic).

The problem with this argument is that there is an interpretation of the theist position which is not self-contradictory, and can be stated in classical logic. Namely, "God created the universe, and there is no x such that God created the universe out of x". The problem with Peikoff's argument is that it is attacking a strawman.

Adding for clarity--the self-contradictory or nonsensical statement I had in mind is: "there is x such that x does not exist". I read Peikoff as negating this statement when he says "There is no nothing".


I'd say you haven't put your finger on the main problem with Peikoff's atrociously bad argument.

You are right that a theist could think of God as a Platonic demiurge who creates out of some preexistent stuff, but no sophisticated theist thinks of creation demiurgically. And no sophisticated theist will say that divine omnipotence extends unto turning absolute nothing into something. (Obviously, there cannot be absolute nothing if God exists, and God cannot create anything unless he exists.)

Peikoff's mistake consists in failing to understand that when a theist speaks of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), he does not mean that there is something called 'nothing' out of which God creates; what he means is that it is not the case that there is something out of which God creates.

'Nothing' is not a name for a thing or stuff. It disappears into the machinery of quantification. If I say that nothing is in the closet, I am not saying or implying that there is something in the closet called 'nothing.' I am saying that

1. It is not the case that there exists an x such that x is in the closet. ~(Ex)Cx.

Note that in (1) the word 'nothing' does not appear. Instead of the categorematical sign 'nothing' we find two syncategorematical signs, the sign for propositional negation (the tilde), and the sign for particular (existential) quantification. The sophisticated theist analyzes 'God creates out of nothing' like this:

~(Ex)Cgx (where 'C' abbreviates the 2-place predicate 'x creates out of y')

and not like this:

Cgn (where 'n' is a name).

Peikoff's sophism collapses once this is understood.

M Frank,

You are absolutely right when you say "The argument seems to treat "nothing" as if it were a kind of "something," that is, as a raw material from which the universe was fashioned."

But then you say "The creation relation is not one of a craftsman at the lathe, but of Atlas upholding the world. It is a priority of causation, not of temporal sequence."

You are right that divine creation is not like what a craftsman does, but it is also not like Atlas upholding the world (or rather the earth) since if x holds up or physically supports y, then y must exist apart from its being held up, whereas the totality of created entities does not exist apart from God's creative activity.

But I understand what you mean. You mean that if x holds up y, then at every moment at which y is held up, the supporter must be holding it up. Creation is like that: ongoing ontological support if you will. It is not like a craftsman who makes something out of wood, say, and then the thing (a table leg say) exists independently of the craftsman's activity.

Boram Lee,

You got it. A minor quibble, though. You write, "Adding for clarity--the self-contradictory or nonsensical statement I had in mind is: "there is x such that x does not exist". I read Peikoff as negating this statement when he says "There is no nothing".

We will agree that 'There exists an x such that x does not exist' is a formal contradiction. But 'There is an x such that x does not exist' is not a formal contradiction. A philosopher might distinguish between being and existence and say, e.g., that Pegasus is but does not exist. But if Pegasus is, then there is an x such that x does not exist. I am not suggesting that this view is tenable, only that it is noncontradictory.

If we charitably interpret Peikoff's "There is no nothing," what it means is that there is no state of affairs which is the state of affairs of there being nothing at all. That's true. Indeed, I would say that something stronger is true: There is no possible state of affairs in which there is nothing at all. It is impossible that there be just nothing at all. I have an argument for this thesis, but it doesn't belong here.

Thanks for your comment.

~(Ex)Cgx (where 'C' abbreviates the 2-place predicate 'x creates out of y')

and not like this:

Cgn (where 'n' is a name).

Peikoff's sophism collapses once this is understood.

I don't know, suppose Peikoff were making the point that creating out of nothing is something like creating a material object out of fictional material. Just as you cannot create a material being from the fictional matter composing Anna Karenina, you cannot create a universe from nothing. Anna is a fictional being, though we speak about her as though she were a human being who went through trials and committed suicide. There is really nothing that composes the fictional being Anna, and no material being could be created out of, or composed from, that fictional material. Now I take it we all agree that a material being cannot be created from the fictional matter that composes Anna. It is not unreasonable to urge that, similarly, no material being could be created from nothing. But the created part of the universe--the contingent beings--include at least the material objects (probably uncountably many of them). Since God cannot create these from nothing, he cannot create the universe from nothing.

Bill, I agree with your point that a philosopher might distinguish between being and existence, as Meinong did. Which is why I restricted my claims to classical logic, where existential quantification handles both being and existence. I also had in mind those like Quine and van Inwagen who defend classical logic and refuse to distinguish between being and existence.

As for your thesis... sounds interesting and I look forward to the argument.

Leonard Peikoff is not a particularly good historian of ideas, as many (including myself) have noted:


Didn't it occurr to Peikoff to crack open a book on theology? For example:

"The expression ex nihilo or 'out of nothing' has sometimes given rise to misunderstanding. 'Nothing' has come to be regarded by some thinkers as virtually a something out of which everything has been made, a kind of substance . . . . When we speak of creation out of nothing, however, we are not thinking of nothing as something out of which everything was made. Nothing, rather, is the absence of reality. Thus, the expression 'without the use of preexisting materials' is preferable." Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, p. 396.


1) I was well aware of the problems with Peikoff's use of the word 'Nothing' that was pointed out by several commentators as well as yourself. (The same criticism was launched by Carnap against certain formulations in Heidegger's "Being and Nothingness"). However, I was after a more charitable interpretation of the argument.

2) While Peikoff's formulation appears to use 'nothing' as a name (or a general term), it is easy to recast the argument without employing 'nothing' in this way. Simply think of the universe as having three possible states:

State A: the universe contains nothing; i.e., it is not the case that there is an x such that x belongs to the universe (where the possible values of 'x' are objects as well as just formless matter; the later is a bit trickier because here we talk about mass terms);
Note: In free logic where you have a special existence predicate the formulation is more intuitive because then you can rephrase matters so that the existence predicate has an empty extension.

State B: The universe contains various entities such as formless matter as well as more organized objects such as galaxies, planets, etc.

State C: The universe contains only formless matter and it features no laws that bring form into chaos. Here we must adjust matters so that that we can express the idea in terms of mass-predicates.

3) Now, the problem with 'nothing' can be recast as follows: When Peikoff claims that God cannot create the universe because "there is no nothing" he means that God cannot create the universe because that would mean that God converted the universe from State A into State B; however, since State A is not a possible state of the universe, such a feat is impossible.

4) The argument form I have given in my initial post can be easily reformulated in these terms.

5) I am reluctant to think of the theist's notion of creation in the terms you propose. Here is what you say in response to to one commentator:
"Creation is like that: ongoing ontological support if you will. It is not like a craftsman who makes something out of wood, say, and then the thing (a table leg say) exists independently of the craftsman's activity."
There is a difference between creation and maintenance. The former is indeed like a craftsman or artist creating something new (a whole) out of elements not already put together in that way. The later (maintenance) is safeguarding something in order to preserve it in the form already given to it.
Now, you appear to endorse here a theory of God's creation that restricts it merely to "ontological maintenance" rather than to actually creating organized mass and objects out of disorganization. While such a view may be defensible, it is so far as I can see not the more received view of creation.

6) I think it is possible to formulate a more robust interpretation of creation whereby God converts State-C above into State-B by introducing specific laws that in time organize the formless matter into specific forms (galaxies, planets, and so on). The question is the status of these laws and how did God came up with them and how God made formless matter obey such laws. These are extremely difficult questions even outside a theist context because they touch upon the nature of physical laws and the nature of their presence in the universe.
As for the ontological maintenance role of God. God could be conceived as intervening whenever he sees fit in order to maximally obtain a certain outcome.

7) One question that might arise in all of this is whether mathematical objects and propositions exist independently from the physical universe and how we factor their existence into each of the states A, B, and C. These are going to be very difficult questions.

8) So the argument form I have given in the previous post is in my opinion the most charitable interpretation of Peikoff's argument (which I am sure resonates with many atheists) and the problem of 'nothing' is easily resolved along the lines suggested here. I suspect that we then get a valid argument; the issue then becomes whether it is sound.


This presumes as a hidden premise that creation ex nihilo uses nothingness as a "real" material principle. However, creation ex nihilo does not indicate that nothingness is that from which, literally, things are made, but only that nothing (except the efficent cause, God) preexisted their creation. As a consequence, the premise is faulty and the inference invalid.

1. God creates out of nothing
[1a. Creation entails manipulating a pre-existing material cause]
2. Nothing does not exist (tautology)
3. [1a&2] There is no material cause in existence for creation ex nihilo
4. [1 & 3] Therefore, creation ex nihilo is an impossibility.

1a is in dispute.
Creation is applied in a super-eminent fashion to God. In ordinary creative action, material causes are present, but not so with God. This is what "ex nihilo" intends to convey.

A few additional comments:

1) Most of the commentators here criticized Peikoff's argument on the grounds that he appears to construe 'nothing' as if it were a name or a general term. Bill explicitly argued that 'nothing' is not a name or general term but a syncategorematical expression to be translated into the notation of standard first-order quantification theory (SQT) along the lines of the existential quantifier, variables, and negation (see Bill's construal above). As I said in my previous post, I was aware of this problem. However, recasting matters in a way that is charitable and reasonable is not an easy matter.

2) For instance, I wish to remind everyone of a technical difficulty about this proposal. The following is a logical truth in SQT:

(i) (Ex)(x=x)

Hence, SQT appears to be committed to the existence of at least one object (i.e., standard models of SQT must contain at least one object). A translation of Peikoff's argument into SQT and 'nothing' into the notation of SQT will result in forcing the debate into a system where it is a logical truth that something exists (rather than it being a substantive matter).

3) We can remove the existential assumption (i) if we use instead free logic where we have a special existential predicate and names need not have referents. Free logic does admit of models that are empty (no objects exist in such models) and then we can translate the argument within such a system and review the results.

4) Bill suggests that the proper way of analyzing the theist's claim that 'God creates out of nothing' as follows:

"~(Ex)Cgx (where 'C' abbreviates the 2-place predicate 'x creates out of y')"

I think the complete formulation (which I think Bill intended, if I am not mistaken) is going to have to construe 'C' as a 3-place predicate such as 'g creates y out of z' (where 'g' is a constant standing for the name 'God'; and 'y' and 'z' are variables). Then we can translate 'God creates out of nothing' roughly as follows:

But, now, (a) is equivalent in SQT to
(a*) (y)(z)~Cgyz.

But now (a*) says that God did not create anything at all out of something else; not even a sand heap out of sand. I think this is too strong a result unacceptable to most theists. It will raise significant problems such as for instance how do we reconcile this result with the creation of Adam and Eve, for instance.


Honestly, the most concise response is probably no response. His argument is, I think, obviously resting upon linguistic acrobatics. So, in turn, if he chooses to say that God can't create out of nothing because there is no nothing, then I say that He already did. That is why there is no nothing.

You are right that divine creation is not like what a craftsman does, but it is also not like Atlas upholding the world

But a man's reach must exceed his grasp, else what's a meta phor?

+ + +

As I understand the physics, in the context of general relativity, there cannot be space or time without the existence of matter. To Einstein, space and time were metaphysical intrusions into empirical physics and, in his paper on the nodes of Mercury, he said that GR abolished from space and time the last vestiges of objective reality. Space and time cannot be supposed prior to actual physics and expounded independently of mechanics and gravitation.

Thus, as far as physics is presently concerned, there cannot be a "before" creation, since time did not exist. In particular there cannot be "elements not already put together in that way," for if there were, then matter would exist and if matter exists then space and time exist. But creation has to do with the existence of existence, not especially of this or that knick-knack within it.

Creatio continuo (if I understand it) is not simply "maintenance" any more than creatio ab nihilo is simply craftsman at the lathe. To imagine these as distinct is to imagine creation as bound by the very time continuum being created. Perhaps there is no first moment of creation, but rather a creation of a first moment. (But there is a difference between the interval (0,1) and the interval [0,1], no?)

I agree that Peikoff ought to have opened a theology book. A key word to understand in the formula "creatio ex nihilo" is "ex".

It might be worth noting that in the thirteenth century there was a dispute about this. St Thomas Aquinas argued, as Dr Vallicella does here, that "ex nihilo" is equivalent to "non de aliquid," "not out of something," taking it to mean that there was no pre-existent matter (Like in the Timaeus) from which the universe was fashioned.

St Bonaventure, on the other hand, argued that "ex" and "de" do not give equivalent senses of "some", and that "ex" should be interpreted "after". Creation "ex nihilo" would then mean that the world was created at a given temporal point, before which there was nothing (including previous times). The doctrine is, then, about both the contingency (creation) and the temporal finitude (from nothing) of the world. This is in contrast to Aquinas, who held that it was possible, though false, for the world to have an infinitely long past.

In any case, I'm not aware of a single classical Christian theologian who has ever defended "from nothing" to mean "out of nothing as out of a quasi-material (non-)principle".

But Randians are better at making straw men than anyone I've ever seen.

Michael Sullivan,

Thanks for the very helpful and intriguing comment. Let me see if I understand the Bonaventuran doctrine. Using 'world' to refer to the totality of created entities, are you saying that Bonaventura held that the world is temporally finite (metrically temporally finite) in the past direction, and that this is part of what creatio ex nihilo conveys? If I understood you, you are saying that for Bonaventura, 'creatio ex nihilo' conveys two notions, the notion that the world is metrically temporally finite in the past direction and the notion that the world is dependent for its existence on divine creative activity; but that for Aquinas the Latin phrase conveys only the second of these notions.

Your comment taught me something. I agree with you that when it comes to the fabrication of straw men, Rand and her followers are nonpareil.

Dr Vallicella,

yes, I think you have the Bonaventurean notion right. Bonaventure was concerned to show that an infinite past was not only contrary to fact but also impossible on philosophical grounds, and he gives several very interesting arguments for it. For Aquinas, always wanting to concede to Aristotle if possible, it is enough to show that the world is completely dependent on God, and to rely on revelation for the knowledge that it is also temporally finite.

Thanks for your generous response!

I find myself in accordance with M_Frank's last (so far) post: from a Physics perspective, there cannot be a 'before' in which there was 'nothing' - so I suppose, "there is [and was] no nothing" is indeed correct. And, more importantly (?), 'creation out of' implies a temporal form of that creation, and the pre-existence of something, which is meaningless, or at least incorrect.

I prefer to think that if there is a fixed start date to the Universe (whether created by God's hand (as some believe), or the Big Bang (as some others believe), or some other force), and given that it is meaningless to speak of 'before' that time, there is no logical issue with that creation having happened. There seems no real difference between that state of affairs and an eternally-existing Universe (as yet others believe...), or the "expand-contract-expand" cosmological model (as yet...etc).

However, even if we accept that something from nothing is either (a) not a fair reflection of 'creation' or (b) not a valid statement (given the lack of 'time' in which creation can be temporal), how do we explain that the Universe is here, and has a defined start date (whenever that may be), without falling into either trap?

For now I shall ponder more (I'm returning to Philosphy via this site, via The Times after 12 years post-University), but find it at least amusing that cosmology / physics finds it harder to do its work the closer to the 'Big Bang' they get. Perhaps there is a logical singularity as much as a physical one where the rules no longer apply?

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