Can we imagine the universe spontaneously emerging from nothing? I would have thought that the answer would obviously and logically be no—as long as nothing is understood as it was in classical philosophy and theology: the absence of any thing and therefore the absence of potentiality—no energy, no stuff, no matter, no bodies, no physical particles, no electro-magnetic fields, no radiation, no quantum fluctuations, no quantum gravity, no vacuum states, no empty space, no laws of nature; naught, nada, absolute non-being. In other words, nothing that a physicist can study, measure, conceptualize, or theorize about. In the words of Parmenides: “For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it.” Nothing in this metaphysical sense is literally indefinable, inconceivable; it points to a boundary beyond which thought cannot go, for there is no where for it to go, no reality to apprehend. Hence the ancient dictum: ex nihilo nihil fit, “from nothing nothing comes.” The dictum is rightly understood as a self-evident truth of reason. Its obverse is contradictory and therefore meaningless. As the Epicurean poet Lucretius sings:
Nothing can be made from nothing—once we see that’s so,
Already we are on the way to what we want to know.
Beings cannot emerge from nothingness. This is why ancient philosophers insisted that, in one form or another, the cosmos is eternal. We can imagine a demiurgic deity giving form to the cosmos from pre-existent matter; but we cannot imagine an absolute beginning for the cosmos. We cannot think of the universe as not existing. And this is why the Christian assertion of creatio ex nihilo was rejected by pagan philosophers as nonsense.
But apparently some physicists believe that they can conceive of something coming forth from nothing. Lawrence M. Krauss advances this proposal in his book A Universe from Nothing. I have not read the book (alas, it’s way above my pay grade), but I have read several interviews with Krauss, as well as his article “The Consolation of Philosophy.” One point seems clear. When Krauss speaks of the nothing of physics, he is not speaking of the nothing of the philosophers. Regarding the latter, Krauss has no interest and dismisses it as a distraction. In his above-cited article, he writes:
Instead, sticking firm to the classical ontological definition of nothing as “the absence of anything”—whatever this means—so essential to theological, and some subset of philosophical intransigence, strikes me as essentially sterile, backward, useless and annoying. If “something” is a physical quantity, to be determined by experiment, then so is ‘nothing.’
Hence when Krauss hears the existential question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” he immediately transposes it into a physics question:
As a scientist, the fascination normally associated with the classically phrased question “why is there something rather than nothing?”, is really contained in a specific operational question. That question can be phrased as follows: How can a universe full of galaxies and stars, and planets and people, including philosophers, arise naturally from an initial condition in which none of these objects—no particles, no space, and perhaps no time—may have existed? Put more succinctly perhaps: Why is there ‘stuff’, instead of empty space? Why is there space at all?
In an NPR interview, Krauss states:
And I guess most importantly that the question why is there something rather than nothing is really a scientific question, not a religious or philosophical question, because both nothing and something are scientific concepts, and our discoveries over the past 30 years have completely changed what we mean by nothing. In particular, nothing is unstable. Nothing can create something all the time due to the laws of quantum mechanics, and it’s—it’s fascinatingly interesting.
“Nothing,” Krauss remarked in the 2013 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, “is the most important part of the universe.”1
Yet as interesting as all of this is, Krauss’ nothing has nothing to do with the metaphysical notion of nothing. As David Bentley Hart observes, all cosmological theories are irrelevant to the fundamental query, Why something rather than nothing?
Herein lies the annoyingly persistent logical error of those physicists (like Alexander Vilenkin, Victor Stenger, or Lawrence Krauss) who claim that physics has now discovered how the universe can have spontaneously arisen from “nothingness,” without divine assistance. It does not really matter whether the theoretical models they propose may one day prove to be correct. Without exception, what they are actually talking about is merely the formation of our universe by way of a transition from one physical state to another, one manner of existence to another, but certainly not the spontaneous arising of existence from nonexistence (which is logically impossible). They often produce perfectly delightful books on the subject, I hasten to add, considered simply as tours of the latest developments in speculative cosmology; but as interventions in philosophical debates those books are quite simply irrelevant. As a matter of purely intellectual interest, it would be wonderful some day to know whether the universe was generated out of quantum fluctuation, belongs either to an infinite “ekpyrotic” succession of universes caused by colliding branes or to a “conformally cyclic” succession of bounded aeons, is the result of inflationary quantum tunneling out of a much smaller universe, arose locally out of a multiverse in either limited constant or eternal chaotic inflation, or what have you. As a matter strictly of ontology, however, none of these theories is of any consequence, because no purely physical cosmology has any bearing whatsoever upon the question of existence (though one or two such cosmologies might point in its direction). Again, the “distance” between being and nonbeing is qualitatively infinite, and so it is immaterial here how small, simple, vacuous, or impalpably indeterminate a physical state or event is: it is still infinitely removed from nonbeing and infinitely incapable of having created itself out of nothing.2
As close to nothingness as the scientific notion of nothing may get, it still ain’t nothing if it can generate something. Ex nihilo nihil fit.
Six years ago a blogger who goes by the alias Rubati provocatively suggested that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is just an expression of atheism:
Now that I think about it, I think Milton has a good point when he rejected creation ex nihilo and argued that the creation must necessarily have come out of God’s infinite life and being and not “from nothing”. Theists often point out that the idea that the universes simply popped into existence out of nothing, or that something can come out of nothing, is senseless and irrational, but the (classical) theist says exactly the same thing, that God created the world “ex nihilo” or out of nothing. Thus, the atheist and the “classical” theist are basically saying the exact same thing: that the world came out of nothing. The only difference is that the atheist merely removes the completely superfluous God out of the process. (“A Question About Ex Nihilo Creation“)
Mr Rubati has misunderstood the creatio ex nihilo doctrine. When classical theists assert that God has created the cosmos from out of nothing, they are making three interconnected claims:
- The cosmos is not God.
- The cosmos need not have been.
- The cosmos depends completely on its Creator for its existence.
The principal purpose of the creatio ex nihilo is not to explain but to dogmatically exclude theological understandings deemed incompatible with classical theistic belief—pantheism, deism, polytheism, emanationism, creation from pre-existent matter. Divinity donates being to the universe, but the universe is not divine. It’s not as if God takes a part of himself and shapes it into a finite something. He bestows upon creatures an ontological integrity and nature of their own yet not their own, for their existence is dependent totally on the continuous gifting of being.
But Mr Rubati does have a point: when the God of classical theism is distinguished from the world he has freely brought into being, and thus apprehended in his radical transcendence, the line between theism and atheism becomes harder to draw. That’s because the infinite Creator is not a some-thing with determinate boundaries. He is not other as created beings are other to each other. He is not simply different but transcends the difference. God is the ontological source and ground of all that exists. He is Being and beyond being, pure actuality and absolute plenitude—ipsum esse subsistens.
If God is not a something, then perhaps he is nothing. Consider this passage from John Scottus Eriugena:
We believe that he made all things out of nothing, unless perhaps this nothing is he himself, who—since he is extolled as super-essential above all things and is glorified above everything that is said of understood—is not unreasonably said to be “nothing” through excellence, since he can in no way be placed among the number of all things that are. For if he himself is at once all things that are and that are not, who would say that he is or is not something, since he is the being and more than being of all things? Or, if he is not something, by excellence and not by privation, it follows that he is nothing, by infinity.3
Suddenly the creatio ex nihilo takes on surprising and illuminating meaning: ex nihilo nonnihil fit. Parmenides is turning over in his grave.4
 The Experience of God, pp. 96-97.
 Commentary on the Dionysian Celestial Harmony 4.73-82.
 This article is a revision of three articles published in 2013 and 2014, now combined.