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A Problem for Apologists: Is the Proposition “From Nothing, Nothing Comes” Analytic or Synthetic?

Most traditional theists claim that God has certain attributes. Typically, He is said to be omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent. It is that last alleged attribute that concerns us here.
We must begin by defining terms: what does the term “omnipotent” mean? Most theologians use the term to mean that God is able to do anything that it is not logically impossible to do. Thus God cannot make a necessarily true proposition false; he cannot square the circle; he cannot make 2+5=17. Theologians adhere to this definition of omnipotence to avoid the sort of paradox presented in such questions as: Can God create an object so heavy he cannot lift it? Either the affirmation or the denial of such a statement would imply a limit on God’s power. By simply ruling such propositions off limits by saying God cannot do the logically impossible, and by further asserting that that particular limitation does not imply a true limit to God’s omnipotence, theologians hope to avoid an intractable and embarrassing problem.

But what about the claim, again made by many if not most Christian theologians, that God created the world or the universe ex nihilo—out of nothing?

As it turns out, this claim presents a considerable difficulty for the theologian, though to my knowledge this problem has not been adequately addressed.

To understand the problem, we must turn to the great David Hume. Hume famously argued that any proposition that is neither analytic nor synthetic (though Hume himself did not use those terms) is nonsense. An analytic proposition is one that is true by definition. To say, for example, that all male parents are fathers is simply a truth of language. “Male parent” and “father” mean the same thing (some would suggest that this is not the case for “dad,” which has additional emotive connotations). A truth of mathematics, such as 2+1=3, is another example of an analytic statement: 2+1 is just another way of saying 3. Hume pointed out that analytic statements, which he also called “associations of ideas,” are mere tautologies, and thus offer no new knowledge of reality.

On the other hand, synthetic statements are not necessarily true— they are not true by definition. An example would be “the cat is on the mat.” In order to know if this is true, we must check to see if the cat is really on the mat. We may find that the cat is actually not on the mat at all, but instead, perhaps, is using its litter box. We may also find that on closer inspection, what we took as a cat is really a small and fluffy-haired dog. In other words, synthetic propositions are known through sense perception, and, because our senses deceive us, they can never be known with complete and utter certainty. With respect to some synthetic statements, we also run into the inherent weakness—if certainty is our standard—of inductive reasoning (this is, of course, distinct from Hume’s famous Problem of Induction, which deals with causation, a concept Hume claimed was neither analytic nor synthetic). For example, we may see one hundred thousand white swans, and thus conclude all swans are white. Yet, there is the possibility that the next swan we see will actually be black.
William Lane Craig is the best debater on the theist side of the God question. He is fond of saying: “from nothing,” nothing comes.” He uses this as an argument to the effect that there must have been an agent-creator, i.e., God. But what sort of proposition is the statement “from nothing, nothing comes?”

Perhaps it is synthetic. If so, what Craig is really saying is that he has never seen something come from nothing, and that is all he can say. It is like white swans. As of this time, he has never seen something come from nothing. But just as the swan-observer might plausibly come across a black swan at some point (unless he has some independent reason for believing there are no black swans), if Craig’s claim is synthetic, he cannot rule out the possibility that he might someday see something come from nothing.

If, on the other hand, Craig is treating the statement “from nothing, nothing comes” as an analytic statement—if he is asserting that it is true by definition—he is then making the much stronger claim that it is a logical impossibility for something to come from nothing. But if this is the case, then what of the definition of omnipotence? Craig would then have to claim that God can do even that which is logically impossible. But this brings us back to the sort of conundrum theologians are wont to avoid. Old questions such as whether God can make an object so heavy he cannot lift it must again be considered, because God is said to be able to do that which is logically impossible. And, it must be suggested, if this is the case, the rules of logic are out the window when it comes to God, and one wonders how the rules of logic have any relation at all to the Deity. At the very least, this appears to present a problem for Craig, who purports to use logical argumentation to prove that God exists.

But there is a far more significant problem for Craig and other apologists. The strongest argument against the existence of a theistic God is the well-known Problem of Evil. Craig tries to get around this problem by invoking a version of the Free Will Defense. In sum, he and others of similar persuasion want to argue that it is logically impossible for God to create a world in which no evil or suffering exist due to the fact that free creatures will sometimes opt for evil. But if it is indeed the case that God can violate the rules of logic by creating something out of literal nothing, then the free will defense also falls. Many, including myself, would argue that it is not logically inconceivable for God to create a world in which his creatures are moral free agents and yet opt for the good every time (isn’t this what heaven is supposed to be like?), but even if one is to concede that it is a logical impossibility, Craig is still cornered. He must either say that:

  1. God can do that which is logically impossible to do;
  2. Thus, since God is not constrained by the limits of logic, it is possible for God to create free creatures who will opt for his will in every instance;
  3. It is not logically possible for God to do so, but then,
  4. It is logically impossible for God to create the universe ex nihilo.

One other option open to Craig is to treat the statement “from nothing, nothing comes” as a synthetic statement. But then it can in no way be presented as a proof that something cannot come from nothing; instead, it is just an admission that Craig himself has never seen any such thing in his past experiences. But it is hard to imagine that this is all Craig is trying to achieve.
There is one more possibility. Remember, Hume identified one last category for those propositions that are neither analytic nor synthetic, and that category he called nonsense. One is tempted to conclude that when he repeats his mantra “from nothing, nothing comes,” Craig’s statement falls into the last of these categories. However, it is more likely that he means the statement in the analytic sense, but in doing so he undermines his own position.