Sunday, January 18, 2009


On the possibility of creation ex nihilo

In a website called Why God Is Impossible, which is solely dedicated to a single argument that purports to prove (in under sixty seconds!) that it is impossible for God to exist, Lynne Yreva Atwater Ph.D argues as follows:

Start timing:

First question:

What is god’s most relevant attribute? In a word, what makes god, god?


“His ability to Create”

Ask your opponent to define creation.

Dictionary definition: The emergence of something where once there was nothing.


The concept of creation is self-contradictory.

The concept of creation is impossible. From “nothingness”, only “nothing” can emerge. Given that creation, as a reality, is self-contradictory, god’s existence is impossible.

Check your watch;

You have just demonstrated the impossibility of god’s existence.

Atwater's argument is unsound because it uses an incorrect definition of creation.

Let's tighten this up a bit for Atwater.

First, we can avoid the serious problems associated with the idea that God has a single attribute that makes him divine by simply noting that it is in fact part of the believer's idea of God that God is the creator of the cosmos.

Second, relying on dictionary definitions is not the best methodological approach in philosophy, where terms tend to receive more precise definition than they do in 'ordinary language'. For example, the definition of creation given above makes some assumptions about time that philosophers might question. Still, we might agree that there is a relevant sense of 'creation' which means the God is the cause of the existence of the cosmos, where 'the cosmos' is something that was not created 'out of' any pre-existing stuff - creatio ex nihilo as the Latin has it. Creatio ex nihilo doesn't mean the emergence of something out of complete nothingness, but the causing to be of the cosmos by someone (God) not using already existing stuff (since it is the arranging for there to be 'something' - besides God himself - in the first place, rather than the re-arranging of that stuff which is possible thereafter).

With these points in mind, Atwater's argument - which assumes the existence of the cosmos (an assumption I'm prepared to grant!) - is that:

Premise 1) The concept of God is in part the concept of 'that being that created the universe ex nihilo'
Premise 2) From nothingness, nothing comes. Hence creatio ex nihilo is an impossible, self-contradictory concept
3) Therefore, the concept of God is a self-contradictory concept, and as such 'God' is an impossible being who therefore cannot exist (and who therefore does not exist).

The problem with this argument is that the second premise is false. Hence this argument is unsound. Let me explain:

Of course 'from nothingness nothing comes' - this is a principle used by some cosmological arguments for theism. But God is not nothing! Atwater's argument has to treat the existence of God as the existence of nothingness in order to work!

In other words, Atwater equivocates between taking creatio ex nihilo to mean a) creation caused by an existing something (God) not using pre-existing things (i.e. not creating by transforming or re-arranging pre-existing components as humans do) - which is the relevant theistic concept of creation - and to mean b) creation not out of pre-existing things which is caused by nothingness! b) is indeed a self-contradictory proposition. But a) is not. And theists claim that a) is true, not that b) is true! By creatio ex nihilo the theist means creation by God - and God is not nothing!

Thanks to Joe for suggesting I blog on this one :-)

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