First Conference Paper Presentation: The Metaphysical Possibility of Creation Ex Nihilo

This past weekend I had the opportunity to present a paper at the undergraduate Mid-Atlantic Philosophy Conference, hosted by Prometheus Journal (an undergraduate philosophy journal) at Johns Hopkins University. It was an incredible experience, and I am extremely grateful to have been able to attend and present. In addition to getting the valuable experience of presenting a paper, I was also able to listen to some great and thought provoking papers from fellow students.

My paper should be published on Prometheus’ online journal at some point in the near future. When it is, I’ll provide a link. Until then, I’ll post the abstract of my paper below, as well as an (admittedly low quality) video of my presentation and the commentary and question and answer session afterwards. The title of my paper was “The Metaphysical Possibility of Creation Ex Nihilo.” Here’s the abstract:

This paper seeks to examine two seemingly contradictory concepts, one a metaphysical principle, the other a theological doctrine, as well as their historio-philosophical backgrounds and contexts, and attempts to discover whether or not they are reconcilable, i.e. whether they can be held together. The concepts in question are that of ex nihilo nihil fit, and that of creatio ex nihilo, respectively. The former was a principle deeply embedded in the process of Greek natural philosophy, and it led nearly all Greek philosophers to conclude that matter could never have come into being from nothing. On the basis of this Greek understanding of the principle, the first half of this paper will formulate an argument that summarizes the metaphysical problem of creatio ex nihilo. The paper will then argue that Aquinas’ analysis of creation, set within his metaphysical framework, offers one possible solution to that problem. In particular, this paper will emphasize that Aquinas’ distinction between the causal powers of finite beings as opposed to that of infinite being is the key to defending the metaphysical possibility of creatio ex nihilo.

As some readers may notice, the thrust of my paper was very much directed against certain arguments for naturalism which I’ve written about briefly before on this blog (see the Epicurean Cosmological Argument or the argument for naturalism from Material Causation and Creation Ex Nihilo), but treat in much more depth in the paper.

Here’s the video (Commentary/Q&A begins at around 39:41):

I was extremely grateful for the commentator from Prometheus who was exceptionally kind and engaging with my paper, as well as the others who asked questions afterwards. I’d like to provide a few more responses here, after having had some time to think about the questions more in depth:

The commentator’s first point was to bring up Heraclitus as a possible counter example to a pretty strong claim I make at the beginning of my paper: that until the birth of the modern period, the “ex nihilo nihil fit” principle was unchallenged and universally accepted. The commentator admitted that this was a relatively minor issue, but I think he was right to bring it up, since my claim was pretty strong, so strong, in fact, that even just one example would suffice to falsify it. The commentator referenced a discussion between Heraclitus and Cratylus in Book 4 of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. He says that this discussion seems to indicate a “tension” between their view and the view which I take as firmly established in the Greek tradition, namely that something cannot come from nothing. Here’s the full passage from Aristotle:

“Because they [earlier Greek philosophers} saw that all this world of nature is in movement, and that about that which changes no true statement can be made, they said that of course, regarding that which everywhere in every respect is changing, nothing could be truly affirmed. It was this belief that blossomed into the most extreme views above mentioned, that of the professed Heracliteans, such as was held by Cratylus, who finally did not think it right to say anything but only moved his finger, and criticized Heraclitus for saying that it is impossible to step twice into the same river; for he thought one could not do it even once” [1].

I do not take this as an explicit denial of the ex nihilo nihil fit principle, nor do any commentators that I can find; nor, indeed, does Aristotle himself seem to. The broad context of the passage is in Aristotle’s extended defense of the principle of non-contradiction, which he associates with a refutation of the belief that all things are perpetually in motion. He understands Heraclitus to hold this latter view, and says that such a position forces Heraclitus to hold that something both is and is not at the same time, which is a denial of the principle of non contradiction. One might argue that Heraclitus’ position implies or requires an ultimate denial of ex nihilo nihil fit, but Heraclitus himself never asserts this–indeed we have writings from him in which he claims that the universe is eternal and uncreated (which I quote in my paper). Here the issue is not ex nihilo nihil fit, but rather the principle of non contradiction.

Next is a question about the relation between essence and form in Aquinas. The commentator understood essence as being “strictly form” within the context of Aquinas’s hylomorphic (matter-form composition) view of reality. From this, I think he derives two distinct questions. The first question is about my use of the phrase “limited essence”, which he asks me to clarify. I could be mistaken, but from what I can tell, I think his question is directed towards why an essence would be “limited” if what is actually limiting is matter. In other words, if a thing is composed of matter and form, then matter is what limits the form, not the other way around. Since he understood essence and form to be identical, I think his question was why I would call the essence limited, rather than the matter. As I’ll explain below (and touched on a bit in the video), Aquinas does not take form and essence to be identical. But even if he did, I think the phrase “limited essence” would still be appropriate, in the sense that the essence would be limited by matter, not that the essence itself “limits”.

But Aquinas distinguishes form and essence, which was the point of the last question. In my paper, I explain that Aquinas has a sort of dichotomy between act potency relationships. On the one hand is the form/matter composition, and on the other is the essence/existence composition. In my paper, I state that in the latter composition, form is the actuality to the potency of matter; and in the latter composition, existence is the actuality to the potency of essence. Since the commentator took essence and form to be interchangeable terms for the same thing, he rightly saw a tension arise: if essence and form are the same, how could it be potency in one sense and actuality in another?

Now, for Aquinas, form and essence are certainly related, but not exactly identical. The essence of a thing includes both its form and matter–since to know what a man is (and hence know its essence) involves knowing that man is a material being, and hence knowing that man has a form instantiated in matter. Aristotle does not quite make this distinction, but Aquinas, drawing from some earlier Islamic thinkers, extrapolates it. This is seen especially in the question of angels. Aquinas held angels to be pure forms, not instantiated in any matter. Since he takes matter to be potency, the question is how angels can actually exist not instantiated in matter. If form is actuality, and angels are pure form, would this not imply that angels are pure act? But only God is pure act. So Aquinas posits that the potency of angels comes not from matter, but from their essence, which is actualized by an act of existing.

The first audience question was how God, being Pure Act, could possibly cause change in the world. This is a substantial objection to the First Way, and I’ve actually written a post devoted exclusively to it, so I’ll just link to that here.

The final question was about interpretation of substance in Aristotelian substantial change. In particular, the question was about an example I used to illustrate substantial change. I think this is a relatively minor issue, however, since the questioner acknowledged that another example I used for substantial change does work, and hence my point on substantial change in general stands.

In all, it was a fantastic experience. Thanks to Prometheus and the philosophy department at Johns Hopkins for making it possible!


[1]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Print. Metaphysics 4.5, 1010a6-14.


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