A silly song that one of my girl cousins used to sing has come to my mind lately:
I do nothing, nothing, nothing,
I do nothing all day long,
I do absolutely nothing!
How do you like my nothing song?
I'm thinking of it because Nothing seems to have undergone quite a transformation. Back in the days when people were accustomed to thinking metaphysically, say in the time of Plato, or later, in the time of Augustine, or even later, in the time of Aquinas, Nothing was a pretty paltry character. What were its characteristics? It didn't have any, because if it had, then it would lose its title, and perhaps its sinecure in the Bureau for Nonexistents, as Nothing At All. What could you predicate about Nothing? Well, nothing. Nothing could not, without embarrassing impropriety, appear as the subject of a sensible sentence, unless one really meant "Not any existent thing," which, as Nothing well knew, was not the same, semantically, as old bald Nothing. Nothing had no properties. But did it, oh did it have latent potencies? Could Nothing, given the right upbringing or environment, suddenly blossom into Something? No, sorry. For if Nothing had potencies, then, yes, it would be Something, and not Nothing.
A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an angry blogger who cried out, "Of course the universe came from Nothing! It had to!" And I had to say to myself, "Something fishy is going on here." The only Nothing I ever knew — or rather the only Nothing I didn't know, because there never was anything to know about it — was not only under no obligations to produce universes, but could not meet those obligations even if they were illogically expected of it. Being Nothing, you see, has its advantages. Nothing could, to use a metaphor that has no just application whatsoever, laze about on a sunny slope of nonexistence, a kind of non-Tuscany, sipping white wine — very white, in fact. But that was back in the good old days of straightforward materialism. "Nothing can come from nothing!" cried out Lucretius, and that is why, he said, we must accept the perpetuity of the universe, and, along with that perpetuity, the most distressing corollary that all of this about us, the Vietnam War, rap music, Hillary Clinton, pet rocks, will happen all over again. I would say that that was the prospect that drove Nietzsche mad, except that some good traveler had already brought him well on his way to that place.
In any case, that was when Nothing was Nothing, and, being Nothing, could bring about nothing. "What is so hard about that to understand?" I imagine the kindly old materialist saying. But Lucretius did not foresee these latter days, when Nothing would come outfitted with the Laws of Physics, and a sheaf of mathematical equations, and latent potencies and probabilities — basically, with the whole universe hidden in his hip pocket. "But you are not Nothing!" I shout. "Shh," says the Impostor. "If you blink, or look the other way, I can whip this Universe out of my pocket, and nobody will know the difference." Ah, very strange. Two thousand years ago I was told that Nothing can come from Nothing, and that was sensible enough; and now I am told not only that everything can come from Nothing, but that it absolutely has to, it being the incorrigible habit of Nothing to produce everything.
But maybe I am letting ol' Lucretius off the hook a little too easily. For he too smuggled in a Nothing that was strangely Not Nothing. He says that all the world is made up of atoms and void. The void, of course, is just empty space. But that's mysterious, that "space". What is it? It is at least location. Lucretius does say that the universe has to be infinite, because if there were an edge to it, and you stood there and cast a spear, well, where would the spear go to? It would have to go somewhere; hence there is no edge. But notice that that means there is some space, independent of the presence of matter. It is just there — literally, right over there, don't you see it? It is a Nothing that is Something, which is nothing if not a Contradiction. Of course, he was wrong about that, just as he was wrong about the backwards perpetuity of the world; for space and time are characteristics of the Something we live in, as Augustine would point out, and that Something was created, and, ontologically if not also spatially and temporally, is finite.
But can a Christian believe that nothing comes from nothing? Oh yes, without question. I believe it was one of the truths that Lactantius used to cast in the teeth of his pagan opponents. The Soviets, mind you, understood the problem, and, just to make sure that nobody got the idea that the universe had a beginning, posited the utterly unverified theory of the Steady State universe. The idea was that the universe would be minding its own business when — hey presto! — a particle would suddenly appear out of nothing, convenient for maintaining the universe in its Steady State. All this was just another way of saying that the universe was Self-Existent and Necessary. Now, with the fall of the Soviet Union, a fall devoutly wished by all right-thinking people, including even scientists slow on the moral uptake, we laugh and say that they had things wrong. Now, we say that the universe is Self-Existent and Necessary because it just had to be the product of something utterly random happening to Nothing, sort of like a cosmic burp. Which, the attentive reader will notice, is more than a Contradiction. It is a Contradiction within a Contradiction. For Nothing can happen to Nothing. That is nothing other than what it means to be Nothing.
The blogger in question, by the way, got in a real pother, and said, "If you say that God made the universe, then who made God?" And he went on to insist — probably angry because he had dropped his Bunsen burner — that only a five year old, and not a particularly bright one, would come up with the idea that some "anthropomorphic God" made the world. I'll leave that silly bit about anthropomorphism be; one mustn't be too tough on people who drop their Bunsen burners, or whose batch of genetically altered bacteria has by accident entered the water supply. I'll only note that those dull five year olds include people named Moses, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Aristotle — you get the idea. And it is the "Who made God?" question that is fit for a five year old. Of said toddler's intelligence I have nothing to say; it is possible he is just an inattentive brat. Attend: when we use the word "God," we mean that Being who possesses existence by his very essence; he is the necessary Being, upon whom all contingent beings depend, including such contingent beings as, for example, this here sheaf of equations that describe the behavior of that there bag of particles. I will not say that the rebuff, "Who made God?" is to argue in a circle, because circular motion implies departure from a point, and the rebuff does not depart from the point at all; it seems not to have understood the point in the first place.
When we say, "God created from nothing," or, more properly, "God creates from nothing," we do not at all mean to imply that there is a Something-Nothing out there, waiting for — ping! — creation. God does not use some fructifying Nothing to create Something from. What we mean is that God creates, and that there is nothing which He has not created; that all things owe their existence, which is contingent, to His existence, which He possesses by His Being; that there is nothing about us that, in its own right, exists necessarily, but all depend, including marigolds and differential equations and chihuahuas and the Horsehead Nebula, upon His creative and loving will.
It is a fine truth to contemplate, while sipping contingent but nevertheless real wine on a hillside in Tuscany, during this brief but blessed time when there is such a place as Tuscany. I, alas, am in Rhode Island — but then, I never said that our beatitude was here.