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Is ‘nothing’ relative? (IX): How Leibniz should have posed the ‘ultimate why-question’

Stefan Heßbrüggen-Walter

The previous posts of this series:

In the first post of this series I had quoted Leibniz’s question in the “Principes de la Nature et de la Grace fondés en Raison” (1714) “[…] pourquoi il y a plus tôt quelque chose que rien”, why there is something rather than nothing. The subsequent posts have explored how the concepts of ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ were used before Leibniz in philosophical and theological theories of the creation. Now it is time to ask how the different perspectives on ‘nothing’ in creation can be applied to Leibniz’s question itself. The basic idea of my approach is to reconstruct how an ‘ideal reader’ of Leibniz’s text may have understood the range of options in interpreting the question.

For this, it should be noted that Leibniz adds an explanation, why this question may make sense: “Car le rien est plus simple et plus facile, que quelque chose.” ‘Nothing’ is more simple and ‘easier’ than ‘something’. In this post I want to (1) briefly summarise the main candidates for interpreting ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ in the context of creation. I will then test (2), which of these options is compatible with asking the ‘ultimate why-question’ and (3) discuss, which of the remaining options fits with Leibniz’s explanation for why the ‘ultimate why-question’ is worth asking.

'Something' and 'nothing' in scholastic thought

For the Thomists, ‘nothing’ is just the starting point (terminus a quo) of creation, whereas ‘something’ refers to self-subsistent things (res secundum se tota). So there are no intermediary steps in creation. ‘Nothing’ is just a shorthand name for the fact that nothing existed before creation (nihil praeexistere ante productionem).

This view rests on the presupposition that everything that is neither God nor nothing has been created. This is true for first exemplars of natural kinds. Subsequent individuals of the same kind have been generated from these first exemplars. Then creatio ex nihilo is the only strategy to avoid an infinite ‘regress of generation’, since it allows to distinguish clearly between (natural) generation and (supernatural) creation.

However, the Thomist view neglects two alternative options: ‘Nothing’ in creation can itself be the result of an act of God. And there may be entities that have neither been created nor can they be identified with God, e. g. God’s mental or volitional states. The first option is explored by those thinkers who advance matter as a candidate for the ‘nothing’ before creation, the second option is taken up by Scotists.

Scotists hold that ‘nothing’ must be understood as the presence of the essence of created substances in the Divine mind (what they call esse cognitum or esse volitum of the respective substance). But then it is not obvious how to understand that the world is made ‘from’ (ex) this kind of ‘nothing’, i. e. how cognitional or volitional states of a Divine mind can be prior to created substances that are the object of such cognitive or volitional representations.

The Scotist argument for this is based on a distinction between God’s thought or will and His ‘creative potency’. This premiss leaves room for the following thought experiment: We can imagine a world in which God does not activate His creative potency: He chooses not to not operate ad extra. In such a world, there would be ‘non-being’, namely the being of possible substances in the Divine mind or will, but no ‘being’, i. e. the results of God’s creative potency making up a world independent of His thought.

The Scotist position is instructive for two reasons: (1) The same sort of reasoning can be applied to a world in which there is only matter and no form (because a world without form is a world without causality and vice versa, and such a world is not per se incoherent or logically impossible). (2) This ‘priority by nature’ allows for an atemporal, emanative understanding of creation. Both options were explored by ‘heterodox’ early modern theories of creation.

Matter as nothing

I concentrate on five thinkers from the late 16th and early 17th century who took a stance on the role of matter in creation and who were known to Leibniz, as a quick search in the Schriftenverzeichnis of the Leibniz-Forschungsstelle Münster shows.

Nicolaus Taurellus (1573) wants us to distinguish strictly between natural and supernatural aspects or explanations of the world. Supernatural agency in the world is no topic for natural philosophy. He uses the example of miraculous intervention after the world has been created: If God makes a mouse into an elephant, this miracle is no act of ‘supernatural generation’, relying on preexistent natural matter that is merely formed into a new individual. The additional matter required for ‘building’ an elephant out of a mouse must itself be created by God and did not exist before. It is created from ‘non-being’ in the ‘philosophical’ sense (Taurellus calls this the ‘nihil philosophicum’). The same distinction applies to the first stages of creation: Prime matter is itself created by God and then transformed into a world composed of self-subsistent substances.

For Taurellus, prime matter is a ‘theological nothing’ (nihil theologicum). Itis a theological nothing, because Theologians are interested in the creation of ‘visible and invisible things’ (visibilia et invisibilia). In other words, theologians, like Thomists, concentrate on the creation of self-subsistent, complete things. Prime matter does not fall into this category, it is neither visible nor invisible, so it is irrelevant in theological accounts of creation.

Prime matter is theologically speaking nothing, because it has ‘negative infinity’, i. e. it does not put up any resistance to being formed by God and it does not contribute causally to the creation of visible or invisible things. Even though it is ‘technically’ (i. e. philosophically) speaking not nothing, it can be regarded as such, because apparently the theologian is only concerned with causal efficacy in creation.

Einhard Lubinus (1599) agrees with the view that prime matter is nothing, but he refuses the distinction between philosophical and theological concepts of ‘nothingness’ and believes that prime matter is uncreated. This corresponds to his conviction that as such matter is evil which is the foundation of his theodicy.

Everything that is created by God is not perfectly self-subsistent: it retains ‘seeds of nothingness’ and must be conserved by God. So created beings are at the same time ‘something’ (because they are ‘more’ than prime matter) and ‘nothing’ (because they depend for their continued existence on Divine intervention and are by themselves ‘attracted to nothingness’). Absolute ‘nothingness’, i. e. prime matter, remains ‘active’ in finite beings, so they have an inherent tendency to be annihilated that must be balanced by conservation in God.

Clemens Timpler (1605) denies that creation is creatio ex nihilo. If the world has been created from pre-existent matter, it does not make sense to say that is has been created from nothing, because this would imply that, as we have seen in Taurellus’s example of the elephant and the mouse, some material things have no material cause. Nevertheless Timpler agrees with Taurellus that we must distinguish two steps in creation: ‘immediate’ and ‘mediate’ creation. For the question why God chose to create matter first, there cannot be an answer: this is what He wanted to do.

Bartholomäus Keckermann (1603) turns Timpler’s model upside down (both had been friends while studying in Heidelberg). He accepts that ‘mediate creation’ requires unformed matter. But unformed matter is just matter that is naturally unfit for the substance to be created. The prime example for ‘mediate creation’ is the clay Adam was made off. Other ‘run-of-the-mill’ substances are created ex nihilo.

Those who assume that prime matter plays a role in creation must face what one could call the ‘dough-objection’: God is no baker that is forced first to mix ingredients into an amorphous mass (dough) before making what He really wants (bread). God creates order, not confusion. Prime matter is created as a part of substances together with their form.

Athanasius Kircher (1660) seems to synthesise previous approaches to the problem of creation by describing it as a four-step process. He explicitly accepts Thomist radicalism about ‘nothing’, although he seems to think that it is compatible with the Scotist assumption that the world before creation does exist in the Divine mind. At a definite point of time God creates heaven and earth, presumably as mind-independent entities. Creation of the heavens is equivalent to the creation of empty space (spacium imaginarium). Creation of the earth is equivalent to the creation of chaos, prime matter. Earth contains everything that will come into existence in the further development of the world: Forms exist as seeds in matter that is endowed with a spiritual, but material ‘seminal power’ (virtus seminalis, panspermia) or principle. Chaos is (paradoxically) a rather structured affair.

Kircher agrees with Lubinus that matter is a ‘shadow’ (I read that as ‘representation’) of ‘nothingness’. So the complete void before creation, the existence of the world in the Divine mind, space, and prime matter all count in the eyes of Kircher’s contemporaries as ‘nothing’. However, this creatio nihili evolves gradually into states that are ‘less nothing’ than their respective predecessor: Space is ‘more being’ than the existence of the world in the Divine mind, ‘matter’ is ‘more being’ than empty space, ‘matter endowed with powers to evolve naturally’ is ‘more being’ than empty space.

'Emanative' creation

Emanative theories of creation can be found e. g. in the Kabbala denudata, a collection of translations from and commentary on the so-called ‘Lurianic Kabbala’, edited between 1677 and 1684 by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth. The texts in this collection provides two models of ‘emanative creation’, one that seems to presuppose the spatial extension of God (Knorr), the other denying creatio ex nihilo alltogether (van Helmont). So either God creates a vacuous space in order to emanate creatures into this space, or emanation is non-spatial, leaving no room for creatio ex nihilo. Both views are criticised by Henry More.

Knorr argues for the doctrine of zimzum: In creation, God does not expand Himself, but retreats from his own center, leaving a spherical vacuum that is the location of all further creative or emanative processes. More’s main objection against this view is that it makes God an impenetrable (and not merely extended) entity, because it presupposes that a place where God is present cannot be at the same time filled with matter. This suggests that God is material, too.

Van Helmont endorses Spiritualism. Everything that is directly ‘created’ by God is a spirit, whereas matter is an aggregate of spirits in a state of ‘sleep’ (sopor). Spirits, however, do not have themselves a material cause. Hence it is misguided to assume that they are created ‘out of’ (ex) something, because the preposition ‘ex' refers to material causation.

For More, van Helmont’s spiritualism is self-contradictory, because it presupposes the ‘discerptibility’ of the Divine substance. Since spirits cannot have a material cause, they must be parts of the Divine substance. Since spirits can be in different places, this means that the Divine substance itself can be divided into pieces that occupy a place in the world. Van Helmont counters this objection by pointing out that spirits are ‘states’ of the Divine substance and therefore separable, but not fully separate.

If creation has no material substrate and if spirits are states of the Divine substance, emanation cannot be a succession of events in the temporal order: Both the process and its results are coeternal with God. Although God cannot be prior in time, He can be prior ordine naturae (whether this is to be read in the Scotist sense, remains, however, unclear).

The question whether there is an ‘absolute nothing’ in creation is highly controversial. The Thomists and Keckermann answer in the affirmative. For them, the result of creation (‘something’) consists in (an aggregate of) self-subsistent substances. Scotists disagree: the ‘nothing’ in creation denotes states of the Divine mind. A ‘something’ is the result of God’s creative potency that involves more than being present to the Divine mind.

Another candidate for ‘nothing’ in creation is matter. It is taken either to be created (Taurellus, Timpler, Kircher) or uncreated (Lubinus). It if is uncreated, this leads into paradoxes, because, as Taurellus points out, it must then undergo a change in creation. But a being that is both eternal and mutable is self-contradictory. If matter is itself creeated, we must accept that God is capable of creating ‘nothing’.

This conclusion is willingly accepted by Knorr: The first ‘nothing’ in creation is empty space. For van Helmont, ‘nothing’ is an empty concept. He denies that the world originates in creatio ex nihilo. Superficially, Timpler seems to agree, but this is a purely linguistic point: Timpler reserves ‘creation’ for processes leading to self-subsistent substances. But he accepts that matter is ‘created’ ex nihilo. Van Helmont takes the more radical position that there are only ‘somethings’ in the world.

Something, nothing, and the ‘ultimate why-question

Since we know now the range of options for understanding the dichotomy between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ in creation, we are now in a position to clarify their relation to Leibniz’s formulation. The first interesting result is that is not possible to pose the question in terms of Kircher, Knorr or van Helmont.

In the case of Kircher, there are too many versions of the question why there is something rather than nothing and none of them is privileged. It could be asked why there is structured matter rather than empty space, why there are ‘real things’ rather than structured matter, why there is empty space rather than God’s representation of the world etc. So Kircher’s attempt to bridge the gap between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ prevents him from asking a question that opposes them without any intermediaries.

Knorr cannot ask why there is something rather than nothing, because the first creative act of God consists precisely in the creation of nothing, so the question should be reversed: Why is there (first) nothing rather than something? For van Helmont, ‘nothing’ is an empty concept. There never was ‘nothing’ at all. It is simply impossible that there ever should have been nothing, if creatio ex nihilo is denied and creation or emanation is understood as an eternal process that coexists with God.

This leaves six possible readings of the ‘ultimate why-question’ that we have to evaluate further. The Thomists have to ask, why self-subsistent substances exist rather than absolute non-being. Scotists must wonder why substances do not only exist in God’s mind or will, but as results of His creative potency. Taurellus, the philosopher, is required to wonder either why there is unformed matter rather than absolute non-being (the contrast between nihil philosophicum and aliquid philosophicum). Taurellus, the theologian, must ask why there are causally efficient substances (visibilia et invisibilia) rather than unformed matter (the nihil theologicum). For Timpler, the question is why there is unformed matter rather than absolute non-being. And Lubinus faces the question why being is more powerful than matter.

'Plus simple, plus facile'

This leads us to the second stage of our test which readings of the dichotomy are compatible with Leibniz’s formulation of the ‘ultimate why-question’, namely whether they are compatible with the argument Leibniz gives for a conceivable ‘universe of nothing’: Nothing is more simple and done more easily.

The first requirement is met by all theories, because creation involves for all of them an increase in complexity (being is less simple than non-being, real substances are less simple than mere matter, being a result of God’s creative potency is less simple than being in a state of the Divine mind or will). The second requirement is more difficult: The only way for me to make sense of it is to read it as ‘facile à faire’, ‘easy to achieve’. This would imply that, for Leibniz, a state in which there is nothing requires less ‘Divine effort’ than a state in which something exists. So ‘nothing’ as well as ‘something’ must be a result of Divine agency.

On this reading, the dichotomy between ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ cannot be understood in the Thomist sense, because, for the Thomist, ‘nothing’ is not the result of something God wants or does. For the Scotist, this seems to be different, if we accept that God may want to have certain representations or volitional attitudes towards objects. But some doubts remain: What are we to make of God’s omnipotence, if to activate his ‘creative potency’ is ‘less easy’ than merely thinking of substances? A reading of the ‘ultimate why-question’ on Scotist terms reduces it to a problem of natural theology, namely the question why God chose to create things and was not content with merely representing them. If this is what Leibniz wanted to ask, it is what he should have asked rather than clouding his question in a dichotomy that is prima facie unrelated to the question.

Three versions of the dichotomy remain that allow to ask the ‘ultimate why-question’ in a meaningful way, namely the view of Taurellus, the philosopher, according to which God created first unformed matter out of absolute nothing, the view of Taurellus, the theologian, according to which causally efficient substances are created out of unformed matter, Timpler’s theory that God properly created only unformed matter, and the view expressed by Lubinus that both ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are present in finite beings. This leads to the following three valid versions of the ‘ultimate why-question’:

  1. Why is there unformed matter rather than absolute non-being?

  2. Why is there a world consisting of causally efficient substances rather than unformed matter?

  3. Why is ‘being’ more powerful in finite substances than ‘non-being’, i. e. uncreated matter?

Versions 1 and 2 look at the world taken as a whole, as it has been created by God. ‘Something’ in this reading is the totality of matter or a world composed of real substances. Version 3 focuses on individual finite substances, asking about the proportion between two opposite principles that allows them to exist. Versions 1 and 2 are ‘historical’: They ask for the reasons or causes of a determinate event in time, namely creation. Version 3 is ‘metaphysical’, wondering about the reasons for there being something here and now. Versions 1 and 2 are closely related, since they both rely on a distinction between properly philosophical and theological interpretations of creation. Version 1 is the philosophical view, proposed by Taurellus as philosopher and Timpler. Version 2 is the theological view, focusing on the creation of the world around us. The main difference between version 1 and 2 on one side and version 3 on the other side concerns the reading of “plus tôt”. Version 1 and 2 are close to the traditional way to render this phrase in English, ‘rather than’ (‘why there is smoething rather than nothing’). Version 3 relies on a literal understanding, ‘more’ (‘why there is more something than nothing’).

So if we read Leibniz’s version of the ‘ultimate why-question’ on the background of his contemporaries, it is vague in two respects: it does not clarify which meaning is to be given to the terms ‘something’ and ‘nothing’. And his way of putting the question hides an ambiguity related to this dichotomy, whether it is absolute, as the ‘rather than’ reading implies, or whether this contrast is in fact a matter of degree as the ‘more’ reading suggests.

Finally, two short remarks that are slightly off-topic: All theories I have discussed in this series agree in one point that is fairly alien to contemporary thought on the ‘ultimate why-question’. The fact that the world owes its existence to God is given. Early modern philosophers faced the task to find a way how to make philosophy of nature (expressed in the principle ‘ex nihilo nihil fit’) compatible with this central tenet of revealed religion. Today, this order seems to be reversed. The question is used as the ‘philosopher’s stone’ of theism. If it can be shown to be compatible with contemporary science, this is taken as a rational argument for theism. If it can be shown to be meaningless, theism seems to be refuted. I have a ‘gut feeling’ that both camps are misguided - but neither side can enlist Leibniz and his contemporaries as precursors to their own debate.

Another question is more pressing for the early modernist: If the early modern analysis of creation provides the conceptual ressources for asking the ‘ultimate why-question’, why was Leibniz, as far as we can know, the first post-mediaeval thinker to ask it explicitly? An adequate answer to this question might be almost as hard to find as an answer to the ‘ultimate why-question’ itself.

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