Arguments for Atheism #2: Material Causation and Creation Ex Nihilo

A little while back I began a series examining different arguments for naturalism/atheism, using as a starting point this list of arguments compiled by the respected defender of naturalism Jeffery Jay Lowder. In the first post, we looked at the “Unimpressiveness of Humans” argument. I then responded in another post to Mr. Lowder’s own reply to my article. Next, I also examined the “Epicurean Cosmological Argument” posted by the ex-apologist, which argues for the necessity of matter. The present post concerns another argument from Mr. Lowder’s list, which is similar and related to the Epicurean argument in several ways.

As I read the argument, which is entitled the “Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo Argument”, there seem to be two parts or steps, the first being deductive and the second “F-inductive” (for an explanation on types of arguments, see the first post in this series linked to above). Here is the deductive step:

  1. Everything that had a beginning comes from pre-existing material.
  2. The universe had a beginning.
  3. Therefore, the universe came from pre-existing material [1].

As is obvious from its structure and content, this is meant as a counter to the famous Kalam cosmological argument, which goes:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause

It should be pointed out that Mr. Lowder (from what I can tell) does not actually think the Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo works, for the same reason (presumably) that he does not think the Kalam works, namely that premise two of each is somewhat uncertain (see his post for his explanation on this). Rather, he intends the Anti-Creation argument as a “naturalist counterpart” to the theistic conclusion of the Kalam, meaning that if one accepts that the universe began to exist, then one is forced to the conclusion that the universe came from pre-existence material.

Now, I’m no advocate for the Kalam, but I don’t think the Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo argument works as it is intended to. I think both are a bit metaphysically shallow and muddled. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at the second step of the argument, which is an F-Inducitve argument from the conclusion that the Universe cam from pre-existing material to naturalism. Lowder writes:

“But (3) entails the universe was not created ex nihilo, viz., created from (absolute) nothing. The falsity of creation ex nihilo is entailed by N (and physical reality’s existence is factually necessary and uncreated), but extremely unlikely (if not impossible) on T (and physical reality was either created ex nihilo or created ex deo [out of the being of God])” [2].

I’m not going to discuss this step of the argument too much, mostly because it depends upon the success of the first step, which I think fails. We could quickly point out that the two options presented here, Naturalism (along with the factual necessity and uncreatedness of physical reality) and Theism (along with physical reality being created ex nihilo or created ex Deo) are certainly not the only possible explanations. I will grant that Naturalism probably does entail the factual necessity of physical reality (contra many Christians who seem to think that all atheists believe the universe “popped” into existence out of nothing. Some may, but most of the philosophically serious atheists I’m aware of don’t. Rather, they think physical reality is eternal and uncreated), but, while the Classical Theism of the scholastics, to which I am an adherent, does hold to creatio ex nihilo, it doesn’t seem that Theism as such must. Creatio ex Deo is also logically possible (in which case the “matter” from which the universe was created would just be from/a part of God Himself), but so is creatio ex-materia (think of Plato’s Demiurge or “Divine Crafstman” in Timaeus shaping the physical universe by instantiating imitations of forms into pre-existing, chaotic, formless matter).

Now, the F-inductive argument here asserts that the universe coming from pre-existing material is more likely on Naturalism than Theism, but I don’t think that’s the case if we include a Theism-cum-creatio-ex-Deo or Theism-cum-creatio-ex-materia model. We could, I suppose, ask if either of these models themselves are likely on broad Theism in general, but I’m not sure exactly how we’d go about settling that.

Nevertheless, the main point of this present article is to examine the first step and its related implications. As I mentioned, I think both the Kalam and this Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo argument are metaphysically shallow. One interesting result of their metaphysical “muddledness” is that they actually aren’t mutually exclusive, i.e. the conclusions of both could be true.

The issue is that both arguments are using completely different conceptual frameworks. The most immediate  difference is that each refers to an entirely distinct notion of “beginning”. While the Kalam refers to an absolute beginning, the Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo (henceforth the ACEN) refers only to substantial change. A sort of implicit assumption to the first premise of the ACEN seems to be that the former sort of absolute beginning is metaphysically impossible. That may be true, but the ACEN certainly doesn’t establish it as so; it merely assumes it.

The next, and perhaps most significant, conceptual difference between the two is that the Kalam is based on efficient causation while the ACEN is based on material causation. This distinction is what allows that the conclusions of both could in principle be true.

For those unfamiliar, a material cause is that from which or out of which something is made/comes to be. Bricks are the material cause of a brick house. An efficient cause is the “agent”, or that by which something happens/comes to be. The builders are the efficient cause of the brick house. In technical terms, the efficient cause is that which actualizes the potency of something. Given this, let’s compare the first premises of the respective arguments.

Kalam: Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

ACEN: Everything that had a beginning comes from pre-existing material.

Both of these require qualification. The Kalam should be: Whatever begins to exist has an efficient cause. This meaning is already implicit within the original wording, but we’ll add it just to avoid confusion. The ACEN, however, ought to be: Everything material that had a beginning comes from pre-existing material. If not, the argument just begs the question against the existence of any immaterial reality. The Kalam does not require this same qualification, because potency and act as concepts are not inherently tied to physical reality in the same way that material causation is. So, theoretically, an angel, which by nature is an immaterial being of “pure form” with no matter, would not be created from any pre-existing material; even though it would require the actualization of the potency of its essence in order to come into existence.

We can now see that the ACEN in a way just reduces to the previously examined Epicurean Cosmological Argument. If this universe came into existence from pre-existing matter, then that pre-existing matter itself either existed eternally, or else it too began to exist. But, per the ACEN, if it began to exist, than it too must have come from some pre-pre-existing matter, and so on. So basically we’re left with an argument for the eternality of matter and the impossibility of creatio ex nihilo, which is just what the Epicurean argument was. And the problem with the latter was that it failed to establish naturalism over theism, precisely because even given the eternality of matter, we are still left with the need for efficient cause. This is especially true if the Kalam and ACEN are correct that the universe began to exist (which the Epicurean argument made no reference to), because for something to begin to exist in principle requires an efficient cause (the existence of the bricks on their own are insufficient to produce the house; the builders must arrange/form them).

And thus the Kalam and the ACEN would both be correct, and we would be left with eternally existing matter which some efficient cause just “crafted” into our current universe. This would be creatio ex materia (which probably seems a bit ridiculous to both modern theists, and modern naturalists. But in all fairness, this was sort of the standard view of the great ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. I’m loath to call anything they proposed “ridiculous”, even if I do think it’s false).

The crucial issue, again, is what one means by “matter”. If one means some material substance, then (on an Aristotelian, hylomorphic view) one would be correct in saying that for it to begin to exist it must have been made out of some material. And if that material itself consists of more fundamental material substances, then it too must be made from some material. But eventually we reach a point, at the most basic, fundamental level of physical reality, when we must ask, what is it made from? What is the “matter itself” out of which the entirety of material substances which make up the whole cosmos made from? This is the “prime” or primary matter of Aristotle and the scholastics, and it has no form of itself. Thus it doesn’t seem sensible to ask, “Well, what is that stuff made from?” because it just can’t be made out of anything else. Either it must exist eternally, or we must accept some principle of creatio ex nihilo or perhaps creatio ex Deo.

And at this point we are taken back to the Epicurean Cosmological Argument, which asserts that creation ex nihilo is impossible, based on the ancient doctrine of ex nihilo nihil fit, or out of nothing nothing comes. Something cannot come from nothing.

This, the naturalist will insist, is true even if God were to exist. In other words, if God did exist, He would be unable to create anything, for that would involve producing it out of nothing, out of no other already existing material. Since we know matter does exist, and we know it cannot have been created absolutely from nothing, then matter must be eternal; it must always have existed.

So the underlying question we are left with: Is creatio ex nihilo possible?

Keep in mind an important point: creatio ex nihilo does not necessarily require that the matter which is created from nothing had a beginning in time. As Aquinas maintained, the material world itself could be eternal, and yet could still be created ex nihilo by God, in the sense of being continuously “sustained” in being from nothingness. So we are not here arguing about the beginning or non-beginning of matter, but rather about its necessity. It seems likely that if creation ex nihilo is impossible, then matter is probably factually necessary (because it could not have come into existence). If creatio ex nihilo is in principle possible, then it still remains to be seen whether or not matter is actually created as such or not. In other words, creatio ex nihilo can be metaphysically possible and yet still factually false. But a resulting implication of these two things seems to be that if matter is not factually necessary, then creatio ex nihilo must be metaphysically possible (or perhaps one could just fall back on creatio ex Deo, but if, as I think, creatio ex Deo itself is impossible, given the indivisibility of God, then one is left with creatio ex nihilo).

So is creatio ex nihilo metaphysically impossible or not? The principle of ex nihilo nihil fit holds that absolute, metaphysical “nothingness”, which has no properties, no potentialities, no powers, no existence, no real being at all, cannot result in anything existing, anything having real being. But it seems from the very start that Theism-cum-creatio-ex-nihilo does not violate this metaphysical principle. For Classical Theism maintains that God just is Existence Itself, Subsistent Being Itself, Pure Actuality. The difficulty of ex nihilo nihil fit is how “non-being” could give “being” to something; but Theism insists exactly the opposite: Being Itself gives being to something.

The ex nihilo nihil fit problem does not just apply to physical reality. If creatio ex nihilo really were impossible, God would not be able to even create immaterial beings such as angels. The principle as it is implemented by the ACEN argument refers to material beings, raising the question of how God could create matter from nothing. But it is not the “matter” part that is the difficulty. The difficulty is whether God could give existence at all to anything which previously had only non-existence.

And from a Thomistic viewpoint, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for answering this question negatively. For it is not that God is somehow “turning” non-existence itself into existence. Rather, he is giving existence to some essence which previously lacked an act of existence as intrinsic to its nature. And, as Subsistent Being Itself, it doesn’t seem that this would be an impossibility. Admittedly, this is still metaphysically mysterious; but metaphysically mysterious is not equivalent to metaphysically impossible. We may not know how it works, but not knowing how something works is not equivalent to, or even indicative of, knowing that it cannot work (just look at quantum mechanics).

St. Thomas himself actually considers this very question in his De Potentia Dei (On the Power of God):

“We must observe that every agent acts forasmuch as it is in act: wherefore action must needs be attributed to an agent according to the measure of its actuality. Now a particular thing is actual in a particular manner, and this in two ways. First by comparison with itself, because its substance is not wholly act, since such things are composed of matter and form: for which reason a natural thing acts not in respect of its totality, but in respect of its form whereby it is in act. Secondly, in comparison with things that are in act: because no natural thing comprises the acts and perfections of all the things that are in act: but each one has an act confined to one genus and one species, so that none has an activity extending to being as such, but only to this or that being as such, and confined to this or that species: for an agent produces its like. Wherefore a natural agent produces a being not simply, but determines a pre-existent being to this or that species, of fire, for example, or of whiteness and so forth. Wherefore the natural agent acts by moving something, and consequently requires matter as a subject of change or movement, and thus it cannot make a thing out of nothing.

On the other hand God is all act,—both in comparison with himself, since he is pure act without any admixture of potentiality,—and in comparison with the things that are in act, because in him is the source of all things, wherefore by his action he produces the whole subsistent being, without anything having existed before (since he is the source of all being), and in respect of his totality. For this reason he can make a thing from nothing, and this action of his is called creation” (DPD Q. 3, Art. 1) [3].

In the same article, Aquinas actually responds to seventeen philosophically rigorous objections to creatio ex nihilo, and concludes that “We must hold firmly that God can and does make things from nothing” [4]. As he says here, “an agent produces its like”, and God is Existence Itself, so what God is able to produce is existence.

This is a positive reason for thinking that God could create beings ex nihilo, but even besides this, there don’t appear to be any negative reasons for thinking that He could not, as we’ve said.

The other approach, mentioned above, is that if we could show matter to be factually unnecessary, then creatio ex nihilo must be metaphysically possible (given, as the argument asserts, the beginning of the universe). So can we show that matter is not factually necessary?

Absolutely, an Aristotelian-Thomist such as myself would say. For if we mean by matter primary matter, which is pure potentiality, then it can have no actual existence of its own at all until instantiated with form by some efficient cause. If we mean by matter material substances which make up our cosmos, then still arguably yes. Arguments such as the First, Second, and Third Ways, if successful, would establish that. But even beyond these arguments, just a general Aristotelian-Thomistic framework on its own would automatically lead to the conclusion that the material universe cannot be factually necessary, as philosopher W. Norris Clarke, S.J here explains:

“If there does exist a self-sufficient being . . . it would have to be (1) uncaused; (2) eternal–no beginning and no end; (3) unchanging, in the sense of not being able to rise to some new higher level of perfection that it did not possess before . . . (4) simple, uncomposed, in the sense of possessing no inner metaphysical compositions, even of essence/existence; (5) not a part of, or dependent on any system of mutually interdependent beings; (6) qualitatively infinite in perfection, the infinite plenitude of all perfection” [5].

But these conditions are all just the exact opposite of what our material cosmos is; and so matter cannot be factually necessary.

In summary of my total response to the Anti-Creation Ex Nihilo argument:

  1. The overall F-inductive argument for naturalism depends on the first step, which is a deductive argument for a material cause of the universe.
  2. This deductive step in itself does not eliminate the need of some distinct efficient cause; in fact it requires it.
  3. The deductive step may show that the material universe requires some pre-existing material cause, but it fails to show that matter itself must have a material cause
  4. Furthermore, it implicitly assumes the impossibility of creatio ex nihilo based on the principle of ex nihilo nihil fit, but we’ve argued that the former does not contradict the latter, and that the former is not obviously metaphysically impossible in itself, given the existence of God.
  5. In addition, we contended that, given God’s existence, creatio ex nihilo seems to be possible, using an (admittedly un-fleshed-out/fully explained) argument from Aquinas.
  6. Finally, we briefly argued that the factual necessity of matter might itself be impossible, with the corollary that creatio ex nihilo would be metaphysically possible

Again, much of my response here just assumes an Aristotelian-Thomistic framework, but it is not the purpose of this article to defend such a framework. That has been/will be done elsewhere.

But, as a reminder, the ACEN argument depends upon the actual beginning of the universe, which neither Mr. Lowder nor myself think has been conclusively demonstrated. But if one were to hold to the absolute beginning of all physical reality, one would not, contra the ACEN, be committed to also holding to the eternality or factual necessity of matter. Quite the contrary.



[1]. Lowder, Jeffery Jay. “25 Lines of Evidence Against Theism.” The Secular Outpost. Patheos, 26 Jun. 2016. Web. 27 Oct. 2016. <>.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Thomas Aquinas. Quaestiones Disputatae De Potentia Dei: On the Power of God. Translated by the English Dominican Fathers, Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1952, reprint of 1932. Html edition by Joseph Kenny, O.P. <;.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Clarke, W. Norris. The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001, 187.


2 thoughts on “Arguments for Atheism #2: Material Causation and Creation Ex Nihilo

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