Creation from nothing (part 1): What’s the big deal?

The next few posts in Science and Religion Friday will focus on why Christian Theology insists on a doctrine of creation out of nothing, what this means both philosophically and scientifically, and what it necessarily cannot mean theologically. Please note that the following posts are a little bit technical (though I’ve tried to ease out some of the technicality).

Why make it a big deal?

What does it matter if the world was created out of nothing or not? There are creation myths that do not require that the world was made from nothing. For instance, many of the ancient cultures more or less believed the the universe was the result of a great cosmic battle (or perhaps some sort of sexual encounter) and the world formed from the blood or as the offspring of a god or gods. Some of the early Greek philosophers argued that there was a divine craftsman who carved the earth out of already present stuff. In fact, the first unambiguous promotion of the idea of creation out of nothing (or Creatio ex nihilo in the Latin) in a religious text occurs in one of the Maccabees (those books rejected by Protestants as unauthoritative, and considered by Roman Catholics as only secondarily authoritative).  Clearly there is a way to talk about the universe as if it were not made out of nothing.

Well, in a way. Once one accepts monotheism as the best description of God (which, for these posts, we are assuming), the scope of possibilities becomes severely limited. Now one cannot speak of the physical universe as if it is the leftover bits of a god who lost or something along those lines. We are ultimately left with one of two options: either matter always existed, or at some point matter began to exist. Both are compatible with monotheism, but only the latter works with Christian monotheism.

Why contingency matters

Defining Terms (Contingency and Necessity)

Contingency, if you are unfamiliar with the term, does not apply solely to funds or plans. It is simply the opposite of necessity, closely related to determinism, but not the same. One must be careful here, because it does not mean “indeterminate.” Indeterminate means unpurposed. Similarly Undefined means not known or in a state of flux (or similar things). Contingent things do have a definite existence, and may actually be purposed or have a purpose (though not necessarily), but are nevertheless not fixed in the means to an end, or even on the exact particulars of an end. Often contingency is used in terms of free will or, in physics, to speak of sub atomic particles and their interactions (and often in physics contingency is used interchangeably with indeterminism, but the terms are distinct, and there is a small debate about whether particles are just contingent or also indeterminate when in superposition).

For the purposes of this post, then, the question is whether material stuff is contingent or necessary. If something is necessary, then it is eternal, that is it must always have existed. The reason for this is that if there was a time when it was not (or will not be), then it is not, by virtue of that, a necessary entity. For those who have had intro to philosophy, the ontological argument for God’s existence presented by Anselm essentially argues that God is a necessary being (and thus must always exist). To be clear, though, one can reject the ontological argument for the existence of God as valid while nevertheless affirming that God is necessary. In short, necessary things must always exist. The converse is also true: if something always exists (that is, it is eternal), then it must be necessary. I should make one further clarification that I am not using eternal in the technical philosophical sense and so it is (for this post) interchangeable with everlasting.

Contrast that with contingency, which means that something is necessarily dependent upon something else. If it were necessary, it would have always existed and thus it would not be dependent upon some other being. However, if it is contingent, then there must have been some time (or will be some time) when it will not exist. It is not eternal, and thus its existence is dependent (or we might say contingent, based upon the existence and/or causal interaction of) some other thing.

This leaves us with two options, then, if the physical/material universe is eternal (always existed) it is necessary. If, however, it is not necessary it must be contingent, which means it had to have come into being.

Picking contingency

If we are to say something was created, yet also claim that it is eternal, then it must be necessarily created. The problem with this kind of language in talking about God is that it suggests that God is somehow required to create the physical world. That is a genuine restriction upon God that we cannot have if we assume, as we are, that God is omnipotent. So may we affirm that the material universe just was, and wasn’t created?

Leaving aside the biblical argument (that is that the bible says God created), let’s examine this purely philosophically. If the universe is necessary, then that means it must always be. It cannot be destroyed (modern physics calls this the law of conservation of mass, matter cannot be created or destroyed). I’ll get to the scientific issues another day. For the moment, what would this mean with respect to our picture of God? Yet again, it would mean that something exists which a) is non-dependent upon God (which could compromise our view of sovereignty) and, perhaps more importantly at present, b) acts as another barrier to the power, omnipotence, of God. Unlike “square circles” and “rocks so big God can’t lift it” this would present a genuine problem. This is not a self-contradictory limitation (as the others are). However, there is no reason to assume that we are required to choose that.

Thus, for Christian theology, we cannot say that the physical universe is either necessary or eternal. This means that it is contingent, and it’s existence is based upon God’s action to create. Thus the universe had a beginning (and could, conceivably, have an end). In order for it to have a beginning, then, we say it was created. Since there was no prior material “stuff” for it to be created from, we say it was created from nothing (or ex nihilo). Next week I’ll go through some of the other implications of this.

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