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.

Sens Homines One Year Anniversary

Exactly one year ago today, on April 10, 2016, I posted my first actual blog post on Sens Homines: an introduction to Aquinas’ Argument from Motion or First Way. A lot has changed for me in this past year, but blogging here has been a great joy and source of growth. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has read or responded at all over these twelve months, and am excited to see where the blog can go in the future.

Writing about the Five Ways has kind of been the heart and soul of the whole blog, so it’ll feel a bit strange once I finish this last series on the Fifth Way. Of course I’ll come back to the arguments often, but I also want to move on to some new topics.

In particular, here are a few things I want to start writing about, probably this summer:

  1. Ethics
  2. Philosophy of Mind
  3. The Kalam (I’d like to take an in depth look at the argument, since as of now I’m not really sure where I stand on it; I lean towards thinking it doesn’t work).
  4. Fine Tuning (same as above)
  5. Moral Arguments

As always, if there are any recommendations for topics, I’d be happy to consider them.

Thanks again to everyone! Here’s hoping to many more years to come.



Reading Aristotle: Physics 1.9: Conclusion on the Principles

This is the final chapter in Book One of Aristotle’s Physics. In the previous chapter, Aristotle responded to the view of some earlier philosophers that change (generation and corruption) is impossible by making a distinction between what Aquinas would call “essential change” and “accidental change”. He begins this last chapter:

“Others, indeed, have apprehended the nature in question, but not adequately. In the first place they allow that a thing may come to be without qualification from not-being, accepting on this point the statement of Parmenides. Secondly, they think that if the substratum is one numerically, it must have also only a single potentiality–which is a very different thing” (Physics 1.9, 191b35-192a2) [1].

In chapter eight, Aristotle concluded that those philosophers who denied “coming to be and passing away and change generally” are mistaken because they did not grasp “this nature” of essential and accidental change. Here he seems to be saying that some other philosophers “apprehended” this nature, but “not adequately”. In particular, as Aquinas points out, these philosophers “touched upon” matter, or the potency of a thing. Continue reading

Reading Aristotle: Physics 1.8: Essential and Accidental Change

In Physics 1.7, Aristotle determined the “number and nature” of the principles of nature. In chapter eight, the penultimate chapter of book one, he discusses the “error” of previous thinkers in denying the reality of change.

“We will no proceed to show that the difficulty of the early thinkers, as well as our own, is solved in this way alone. The first of those who studied science were misled in their search for the truth and the nature of things by their inexperience, which as it were thrust them into another path. So they say that none of the things that are either comes to be or passes out of existence, because what comes to be must do so either from what is or from what is not, both of which are impossible. For what is cannot come to be (because it is already), and from what is not nothing could have come to be (because something must be present as a substratum). So too they exaggerated the consequence of this, and went so far as to deny even the existence of a plurality of things, maintaining that only Being itself is. Such then was their opinion, and such the reason for its adoption” (Physics 1.8, 191a23-33) [1]

I find the history of philosophical/intellectual development fascinating, almost as fascinating as the philosophical content on its own. The emergence of early Greek philosophy is quite unprecedented in history, and unsurpassable in its significance and influence. The early Greek philosophers were attempting to understand the natural world in which they found themselves, and they were doing so by searching for the “principles” of nature, the explanation of why things were/happened the way they did. This led some of them to adopt quite radical positions. Aristotle, throughout much of the Physics and the rest of his works, takes a sharp and definitive stand of disagreement against these prior philosophers, but here he at least admits a sympathetic understanding of how they went astray. They were, he suggests, “misled . . . by their inexperience”, which is not surprising, considering that they were literally the trail blazers of all western science and philosophy. But, whether or not their error is understandable or not, it still remains error, and it is to this that Aristotle offers his response. Continue reading

Reading Aristotle: Physics 1.7: The Principles of Nature

In Physics 1.6, Aristotle established that the number of fundamental principles of nature must be three. He begins 1.7:

“We will now give our own account, approaching the question first with reference to becoming in its widest sense: for we shall be following the natural order of inquiry if we speak first of common characteristics, and then investigate the characteristics of special cases” (Physics 1.7, 189b30-32) [1].

Since he is searching for the underlying principles of nature, and since “nature” itself to Aristotle is the principle of motion of things–“a source or cause of being moved and of being at rest in that to which it belongs primarily” (2.1, 192b22-23) [2]–then to understand the underlying principles themselves we must examine the motion of things. And so here he states that he will consider “becoming in its widest sense”, as it applies to all things commonly, before then investigating individual cases. Continue reading

Reading Aristotle: Physics 1.6: The Number of Principles

In chapter 5 of his Physics, Aristotle established that the fundamental, underlying principles of natures must be “contraries”. In 1.6, he asks how many are the underlying principles.

“The next question is whether the principles are two or three or more in number. One they cannot be, for there cannot be one contrary. Nor can they be innumerable, because, if so, Being will not be knowable: and in any one genus there is only one contrariety, and substance is one genus: also a finite number is sufficient, and a finite number, such as the principles of Empedocles, is better than an infinite multitude; for Empedocles professes to obtain from his principles all that Anaxagoras obtains from his innumerable principles. Lastly, some contraries are more primary than others, and some arise from others–for example sweet and bitter, white and black–whereas the principles must always remain principles. This will suffice to show that the principles are neither one nor innumerable” (Physics 1.6, 189a11-21) [1].

So the Philosopher rules out from the start the possibility of the principles of nature being only one in number. This is because he has already shown that the principles must be contraries, but “there cannot be one contrary”. Obviously, a “contrary” must be of something. Hot and cold are contraries, but if just cold existed, then it could not be called a “contrary”, since it would not be contrary to anything. As Aquinas succinctly puts it in his commentary, “nothing is the contrary of itself” (Lectio 11.83) [2]. Aristotle also rules out the possibility of the principles being “innumerable” or infinite in number, giving four brief reasons for this conclusion: First “Because, if so, Being will not be knowable.” If the principles are innumerable, then by definition they cannot be known, and this would render being intelligible. Continue reading

50th Post: Thoughts on Blogging and Sens Homines

This present post marks the fiftieth on my blog, with the first real post having been published this past April. In all honesty, at that point I didn’t really expect to make this into something regular, and I hardly anticipated keeping it up for very long; but now I write around twice a week and doing so is one of my greatest pleasures. I love the reading, studying, and research involved, I love the process and struggle of writing, and, perhaps most of all, I love receiving responses from people, both complimentary and critical.

I think, in fact, that one of the main reasons I started blogging was to hear and consider the thoughts of people with very different view points from my own. My ideal in blogging is not just to have a platform for expressing myself, but rather to have a platform for conversing and engaging with others about things that are important to me. Reading, studying, and thinking pushes me and forces me to grow, but there is something about communicating with other people that adds a whole other dimension and depth to seeking truth.

A quick note: my posts are long. I know. At least relative to many blogs. My apologies to those who prefer shorter, quick posts, but I just cannot bring myself to sacrifice carefulness and thoroughness for brevity. One of the most frustrating things to me about popular apologetics work is its often media-like tendency to appeal to intellectual short-attention spans by taking short cuts and not adequately addressing or dealing with the material in an honest or complete way. I want to avoid that at all costs. I want to consider the best and most difficult objections to arguments for my own position; and I want to examine the best and most forceful presentations of arguments for positions other than mine. Anything less than this is intellectual dishonesty.

I have changed dramatically since I began blogging, and blogging itself has played a very large part in this. The goal was always to seek truth. I consider the journey of pursuing truth integral to what it means to be human. That, along with a few other, more personal reasons, is why I chose “Sens Homines”, Latin for “being human”, as the name for the blog. If you haven’t read the About page recently, I’d encourage doing so in order to get a fuller understanding of the meaning behind the name and its relation to the purpose of this blog. My understanding of what Being Human entails has evolved and grown since I started, much for the better.

So far, the range of topics of my posts has been fairly limited, and not without reason. I’ve written mainly on 1) the existence of God, 2) the person of Jesus, and 3) various related philosophical issues, often by way of a direct reading and analyzation of some of the great human thinkers. My own conception of this is that I’m building something, however slowly, and however long it takes. Writing paragraph by paragraph analyzations of each chapter of Aristotle’s Physics is tedious work. But without this foundational understanding of the ideas, everything else collapses.

I will, of course, be continuing to write about these things often, but I’d also like to expand. I especially want to begin (probably in a few months from now) writing about ethics and various ethical theories/systems, and perhaps philosophy of mind. If anyone has any suggestions for topics about which to write, I’d be more than happy to consider them.

Thank you to all those who read and respond. It truly means a lot!