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"But First, Nothing": by Karmen MacKendrick (Keywords: Metaphysics; Theology; Ontology; Kabbalah)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 1 ("Nothing").

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Philosophers at least since Plato and Aristotle have liked to say that philosophy begins in wonder, approaching the world with a combination of curiosity and amazement. The first question posed by philosophical wonder, as Gottfried Leibniz famously said, regards the very existence of that world: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" This question retains its place as a philosophical foundation; Martin Heidegger will reiterate it in opening his own Introduction to Metaphysics three centuries later.

Leibniz was also a mathematician, and he liked things to make logical sense. So he argues that there must be a sufficient reason for anything that happens or exists, a reason that is enough to explain that thing. What could be a sufficient reason for there to be something – what, in other words, explains the fact that the world exists at all? The only possibility, he thinks, is God – a God who creates that world from nothing. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because an all-powerful creator made all the things, needing nothing else at all. It might not be irrelevant that both Leibniz and Heidegger are avowedly, if idiosyncratically, Christian. The question of why anything is belongs to theology as well as to philosophy.

What would become the orthodox version of Christianity seized on the idea of creation out of nothing, since it shows their God at maximum power.

By the time that Leibniz wrote, this version of creation, often called, even in English, creatio ex nihilo, was standard in the major monotheistic faiths, and was particularly central to Christianity. In such a creation story, "nothing" is an uncomplicated and not very interesting absence. Unimportant in its own right, nothing only sets off and emphasizes the creator's power. This interpretation of creation depends on an odd and rather forced reading of the book of Genesis, assimilated into Christianity from the Hebrew Bible. In the first chapter of Genesis, the creator "in (or during) the beginning" encounters both earth, which is formless and chaotic, and water, upon which wind blows. The task of creation is just to separate and form this great mess of stuff into recognizable things, into regions and objects. But early in the second century of the Common Era, Christian scholars began to emphasize the all-powerfulness of their God. Correspondingly, what would become the orthodox version of Christianity seized on the idea of creation out of nothing, since it shows their God at maximum power: not just reshaping unformed matter, but not even needing that matter at all to form the cosmos by its own power. Beyond theology, part of the appeal of this notion may have been that an all-powerful creator can have a very powerful church. Process, feminist, liberation, and ecological theologies have all found this kind of power, granted to a single divinity who passes it along to a single institution, problematic – the work of contemporary theologian Catherine Keller is especially clear in both summarizing and elaborating this point.

It is good, then, that there are other versions of creation, even among readers of Genesis. Probably the most common versions are more clearly true to that book, and involve a creator working on matter that already and independently exists. One of the most interesting alternatives, though, swaps creation from nothing for creation that begins with making nothing itself. Along with this shift in the understanding of creation, what we understand by both creator and world change, and with them the opening question of philosophy changes too. Nothing and something are no longer simply opposed; rather they enter into weirder and more complicated relations. Exploring these relations, we not only find different myths regarding the origin and structure of the universe (which are engaging in their own right), but also different versions of power, possibility, and the value of the transient, all feeding into the workings of something and nothing.

Cosmogonies that begin with making nothing tend to start in one of two fairly similar ways: The first is the limitation of the creative source. Here the source sets up some sort of boundary "around" itself, though in a non-spatial fashion that may be poetically metaphorical. The second is the contraction of the creative source. Here the source starts out by being everything and occupying all space (again, this may be poetic). It then creates by pulling itself in and leaving emptiness around it. Both options somehow constrain the source. After this constraint, which makes nothing (we'll see in more detail how this happens), the making of something is often described as an outflow or emanation. This gives us a very mobile sense of creation, with creator and world alike caught up in the process. By contrast, creation ex nihilo requires an unchanging and transcendent God who exists absolutely without transition, no matter what differences develop in creation. So, if we begin with the creation of nothing, nearly all parts of the Leibnizian question are changed. "Something" and "nothing" both become stranger than they appear in Leibniz's formulation, making the opposition of "rather" not so clear. Also less obvious is "is" insofar as it indicates a necessarily stable and unchanging existence. The "why", however, the stubborn philosophical devotion to inquiry, remains intact.

To draw out this strangeness, we may run through a short, incomplete, but representative sampling of these less standard creation narratives. Christian versions of the first option – creation by limitation – show up around the same time that the idea of creation from nothing really takes hold. The cosmogony of one early Christian group, the Valentinians, begins with an androgynous father who is both one (like the more orthodox Christian God) and two (not so much like that God, though there are echoes of the idea of a holy trinity). This father is both (and neither) everything – there is nothing else, and all that is will come from them – and nothing – because there is no distinction to set anything apart from the father, and apartness is a necessary condition of thing-ness. As the first step of creation, the father generates, in their own image, a personified Limit. The term is often capitalized by translators to capture this personal aspect, since, unlike "father," "limit" does not generally designate even the persona of something. This Limit divides the father from what then becomes not-father. Limit makes things possible: without it, any potential thing, even if it inexplicably did come to be, would simply be absorbed into the father. No power would hold things apart. The father might be in all things and the source of all things, but cannot be all things if those things are to come to be at all.

So when the divine source creates a boundary, the first "thing" it bounds is itself. Once that occurs, there is a sort of ontological room that it does not take up, where in fact nothing is, and so other things can come to be. Divine power might impose itself upon nothing and upon everything. In the first instance, it creates everything, not by making use of nothing, but in contrast to it. In the second, it shapes the amorphousness of all matter into all things. Both impose divine power. But in the more gnostic versions, divine power instead limits itself to make anything possible. Limitation itself is powerful, in a very different way from imposition. The primal father that is must, in its own image, make room where it is not, that anything else might be. Even if that father is the source of that anything, coming to be requires nothing, too.


This space-making cosmogony is influenced by readings of the Timaeus, one of Plato's strangest dialogues. In a speech there, Socrates says that the cosmos has a threefold source: a divine maker who forms things, the things that are formed by it, and a "third thing", khora, which he describes as a receptacle for all things that come to be. That is, there is matter, and something that makes it into things, but that can't work unless there is some place for those things to be. To be sure, the spaces made by limitation cannot be identical with khora, which is not made by anything else, not even by divine delimitation. The emphasis on the need for somewhere in which becoming can happen carries on into later cosmogonies, though, despite the fact that khora itself is not nothing and does not make nothing.

Plato, and a great many after him, held that becoming things must be less real than being things, because the former are so fleeting.

The contrast between being and becoming has been common among philosophers and theologians at least since Plato. Being is stable, even eternal: it is. (The pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides briskly declared, "Being is, nonbeing is not", by which he seems to have thought that matters were now cleared up.) Becoming is mobile and changing, shifting from one state to another. Plato, and a great many after him, held that becoming things must be less real than being things, because the former are so fleeting. It turns out that the ways in which khora makes other things possible also require movement. Heidegger, whom we saw joining in Leibniz's question, is also much intrigued by khora as what makes place for anything else – by, in his version, "withdrawing", though of course it is hard to say from what or into what this happens. Khora is not quite nothing enough to change his foundational question, but it does hint at other possibilities. Khora certainly cannot impose anything, but it can give. And the first thing given is a place for the rest of things, for every thing, even if that place is given by nothing other than itself.

Creative limitation shows up again, much later, in John Milton's Paradise Lost. There the "uncircumscribed" father God nonetheless does "my self retire" to make way for the creative action of the Word, which has been identified with Christ at least since the beginning of the second century. In Milton's version, that Word "took the golden Compasses, prepar'd/ In God's Eternal store, to circumscribe/ The Universe, and all created things…" Milton's Word delimits the previously unlimited God and allows creation to be, not by generating it from nothing, but by making way for it. Once more, the divine source must first make nothing, must make a space that nothing fills, where things might become.

Some scholars early in the twentieth century connected Milton's Word and his golden compass to the creator in medieval Jewish Kabbalah. It turns out that Milton himself probably was not familiar with Kabbalistic texts, and of course there were other versions of creation from which he could have drawn. Both, though, share the image of a creator who begins the creative process by making room. The creator in Kabbalah differs because it more clearly contracts rather than being bounded. In contraction, the creation of nothing is even clearer than it was in the case of limitation: the creator empties out what was filled with itself. And, Milton's likely unfamiliarity notwithstanding, Kabbalah, with all its levels and complexities, was popular in the seventeenth century – with other poets and with all sorts of mystics.

Kabbalah had been around for a few centuries by that point, but the work of Isaac Luria, a sixteenth century Spanish Kabbalist and teacher, had greatly expanded scholarly interest in it. In Luria's version, the pre-creation God (this is the closest term for the unnamable divinity) fills all existence. That God develops a desire to create by flowing outward and making worlds out of itself. This is impossible, since there is no room for those worlds. Where could they be put? The first creative move, therefore, is a divine contraction. Contraction creates a void, into which the worlds can then be formed. Anyone at all familiar with Kabbalah will notice that there are a great many further steps from this point, and even some complications to the first contraction. I've simplified in order to emphasize the aspect of emptying out a space for creation, but not, I hope, in such a way as to mischaracterize the cosmogony.

Before anything can be, there must be made nothing; prior to this contraction, nothing is not – where, after all, would it be?

Like the father in Milton and the Valentinians, who creates by limiting itself, Luria's God makes the space for other things by removing itself from that space and leaving nothing. Such an absence is a much more interesting version than we found in the simple opposition between something and nothing in the Leibnizian question. Before anything can be, there must be made nothing; prior to this contraction, nothing is not – where, after all, would it be? Without this nothing, there could be no things, just undifferentiated God. The creator ex nihilo imposes being onto nothing. It can do so because the creator purely is. The creator who contracts, like the creator who limits, allows the spacing that can only be made possible by making nothing into which beings can in turn emerge. "Is" won't work for this paradoxical tangle of presence and absence, of emptiness and fullness.

A great deal of secondary literature is inspired by Luria, in both Jewish and Christianized versions, where it is often synthesized with the work of other thinkers in Kabbalah. Some of that literature made its way to the seventeenth century Protestant mystic Jacob Böhme, who will be the last in this brief and incomplete review of cosmic nothing-thinkers. Like the Kabbalists, Böhme offers a creation story that begins with a divine contraction in order to make way for the cosmos. His terminology emphasizes the conceptual difficulty: he calls this created nothing the Ungrund, or "unground", of creation. That is, the very ground of all that is is this ungrounding; underlying all things is the necessary nothing. Matters do not become less complex from there! Like many other apophatic thinkers, Böhme describes God through a list of contradictory attributes – darkness and light, love and wrath, fire and light. (Aphophatic thinking acknowledges that some things elude all description. It may work simply by negation: God is not in one place or another, neither a part nor the whole of a thing, and so on. Or it may work by affirming opposites, as Böhme's version does.) He is just orthodox enough to insist on associating the God-ness of God with the positive term of each pair. If God is to be All, though, as Böhme also argues, then these oppositional negative terms must be included.

It is not altogether helpful, perhaps, that he clarifies these propositions by explaining that each attribute is "in the other as a nothing". The strange phrasing does, though, tell us that nothing and something are mutually inherent or implicated; there is not something rather than nothing, nor nothing rather than something. No quality is without its opposite – and no thing without its nothing. Though this inherence of opposites suggests that contraction (by which the divinity gathers and constrains itself) and emanation (by which it flows out to create things) are not exactly sequential, the description of their interaction flows most clearly when it starts by ungrounding, by nothing-making. In the space-making of nothing and the emanation of things, contraction is as much a making as expansion is. Contraction once more makes the space of the possibility of things coming to be.


The sense of movement and the emphasis on the creation of possibility sharpen the theological distinctions between the omnipotent creator ex nihilo and the creator of all and nothing. No small part of this distinction depends on the readings of power and possibility that become central to philosophy and theology both in late medieval thought. That is, one reading will see power as something that belongs to God, who uses it on other things. That God, as we shall see in a moment, is actual (to revert to our earlier language, it is entirely being as opposed to becoming). Conversely, what becomes can always become something else, giving it a greater sense of possibility than of actuality. Its power is that of potential. Once more, it may be useful to look at (a last pair of) representative samples.

Proponents of creation ex nihilo see their God as entirely actual – Thomas Aquinas, as an exemplary instance, relies on Aristotle's Physics rather than the weirdness of Plato's Timaeus to view the creator as pure, undiluted actuality. For Aristotle, and correspondingly for Thomas, the actual always proceeds the possible, so this God who comes before and makes the rest has to be actuality itself. Free of possibility, it must be unchanging. The contrary notion of a God in change and movement is captured in the work of Thomas' fellow Dominican, Nicholas of Cusa, for whom God unfolds into creation, which infolds into God – a God he sometimes calls the actual-possible, and at other times, more dramatically, the possible itself. Though Nicholas does not focus on the creation of nothing, folding in is as important for him as opening out. Potentia,the Latin rendering of the dynamis of Aristotle's physics, names a possibility that is not only potential, but potent.

Nothing, as a lack of somethingness, is always inferior to whatever degree of being the pure actual existent God might grant. The immutable is always better than the changeable.

Thomas thinks of possibility chiefly in terms of its contingency, its lack of necessity, the fact that it might-not-be. Nothing, as a lack of somethingness, is always inferior to whatever degree of being the pure actual existent God might grant. The immutable is always better than the changeable. Nicholas' use of posse ipsum emphasizes a different aspect of the possible. What is impossible (what lacks possibility) will never come to be. What is in-actual still might. So power belongs to the possible. Thomas is interested in what stays and is. Nicholas is interested in the dynamic – in what moves; that is, what comes to be. And we can see, too, why those visions of a creator who is caught up in the possible are also visions of creators and of creation where opposites cannot be neatly distinguished – the one and two of the Valentinian father, the uncircumscribed encompassed Miltonic God, the all and none of the Kabbalah's creator who contracts to a point; the nothing in something of Böhme's divinely creative unground. When something is actual, its contrary is not. But something and its opposite, even something and nothing, can both be possible, both inherent in the power of potential.

Both versions of creation depend on some version of divine generosity. Being is the gift of the creator ex nihilo, and becoming is its inferior and diminished version. Possibility is the gift of the contracting divine, and becoming is its expression. The creator ex nihilo overcomes nothingness. The answer to "why is there something rather than nothing?" is "Because God made everything". In cosmogonies of limitation or contraction, on the other hand, nothing becomes not a simple negation to be fixed or overcome, but an inviting absence that is the space of possibility. For a theology based in pure actuality, like Thomas', only what is actual comes from divinity. In our world, what is actual is mixed with the merely possible to form inferior transient beings. For the theologies of a space-making divinity, both things and their spaces come from the divine. Where the possible is a power, even an all-powerful God is caught up in the changes of the world, changes that space-making makes possible. This suggests, of course, that the very notion of the all-powerful doesn't quite work without creation from nothing.

It is here that we might return to those process, feminist, liberation, and ecological theologians. Process theology (indebted to the work of Alfred North Whitehead) may be a bit technical for us here, but briefly, it holds that god develops in and as the world, so that the care we do or do not give to that world has theological or even spiritual resonance. Liberation theology emerges especially out of contemporary Latin America, and emphasizes social justice. Correspondingly, it tends not to be friendly toward deities who impose without consequence from a position of absolute and unchanging power. Feminist theology has had a similar interest in the kind of power that is both distributed (rather than centralized) and changing. In recent decades, driven in part by the climate crisis, all of these approaches have taken up ecological concerns, as in Keller's work, or that of the Brazilian nun and professor Ivone Gebara, whose grounding in liberation theology leads her to an "urban ecofeminism". Highly abstract queries turn out to have rather worldly consequences.


And so we are returned, at last, to philosophy's foundational query. Leibniz's opening question for philosophy is a question that presumes ex nihilo by opposing something to nothing: why, it asks, is there something rather than nothing? A different cosmogony does not get any further in answering the question, but might change it to one with more mobile and worldly answers: why might there mutually become something in nothing? The answers to this one continue to unfold.

Karmen MacKendrick is a professor of philosophy at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. She is the author of several books, chiefly in philosophical theology. The newest, Material Mystery: The Flesh of the World in Three Mythic Bodies, is published by Fordham University Press.


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 1 ("Nothing").

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