Creation ex nihilo vs. Gradualism: Is the former necessary to western religion?

Hi all, back for a short visit here again.

I’ve just reread my favourite book, Bertrand Russell’s “A History of Western Philosophy”. It’s a masterpiece of clarity and brilliance which I recommend to theists and atheists alike.

One of the abiding themes in the development of western religion, from Plato and Aristotle through Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas to the medieval Scholastics and beyond, is an apparent abhorrence of gradualism and infinite regress. In numerous instances, positions are rejected as absurd because they imply an infinite regress, without ever stating what the heck is wrong with such a concept in the first place. Hence we get, amongst many others, the doctrine of God as the First Cause or Prime Mover, because otherwise the causes or motions would stretch back to infinity. The obvious question, which appears never to have been asked in any seriousness, being so what?

Indeed, traditional western religion appears to positively require such black and white transitions despite the overwhelming consensus provided by modern science that gradualism is the way the world and the universe really work:
Modern cosmology and theoretical physics explore how what we call the universe (which may merely be a subset of a wider Universe) arose from certain fields, not from nothing. And the point is that those fields have never not been there. They are a “something” which gave rise to our “something”. As strange and counterintuitive as that process sounds, it is not a nothing-to-something transition.

If I said that there was nothing north of the north pole, would you imagine standing at the north pole, taking one step north, and finding yourself in a cold dark Land of Nothing? Of course not. You understand that I mean that there is no such thing as “north of the north pole”. Similarly, when theoretical physicists say that “there is nothing before the universe”, they don’t posit a dark vacuum in which the universe began, originated, came into existence, was created, Big-Banged, or any other verb that gets tossed around in careless popular science articles. They mean that there is no such thing as “before the universe”. It has always existed.

Now, as I alluded to with these Higgs/quantum/Kaluza-Klein fields and the like, there might be a “before the Big Bang”, perhaps even comprising “other universes” if cyclical models are correct. But no matter whether that “before” comprises fields, other universes or whatever, there was never nothing. There was never no Universe. (The capitalization serves to encompass fields and other “somethings” which we might not readily associate with this 13.7 Bn year-old, 78 Bn light-year-wide region we call “our” universe.)
[li] For those 13.7 Billion years, gravity pulled clouds of hydrogen together so tightly that they became giant hydrogen bombs called stars, producing most of the elements in the periodic table when they went supernova, with the resulting dust forming planets via a similar process. That so many people in western democracies still cling to a creation ex nihilo story in this respect is a damning indictment of how vulnerable modern education is to outright sabotage outside the school environment.[/li][li] Abiogenesis, the emergence of life from non-life, is traditionally held to require creation ex nihilo of a DNA-based organism capable of reproducing sufficiently reliably. However, while it still has a long long way to go, modern molecular biochemistry has shown that a few nucleotides and bases can combine to form a Spiegelman Monster in the presence of suitable catalysts: catalysts which themselves can be formed by short chains of RNA. I hope that this Explanatory Gap will be filled beyond reasonable doubt in my lifetime, but in my opinion it’s already too small to fit gods into.[/li][li] Over the following 3.5 billion years, those organisms bred and mutated, with said mutations being selected for by the environment. Species died out and were replaced by other species which weren’t there before, over vast timescales. Species were not created ex nihilo. See point #2 regarding the widespread denial of evolution in both fact and theory.[/li][li] This gradualist evolutionary path led to Toumai and Orrorin some 7 million years ago (7Mya), then Lucy 3Mya and Homo Erectus 1 million years ago. Modern humans, which crucially don’t look so different to old Erectus appeared around 0.2 million years ago. Again, while some details are sketchy, science considers creation of modern humans from nothing to be utterly unnecessary given the clear evidence of gradual mutation and selection.[/li][/ul]

Even today, it seems that even reasonable theists seek binary transitions where atheists see only gradual development, stamping “personhood” onto a newly combined DNA strand in a watery bubble and positing a brief journey from “brain” to “heaven” upon death, while atheists see only the gradual, thermodynamically inevitable breakdown of the gooey sponge in our skulls which was solely responsible for this immersive computer game called consciousness. What was so for the 13.7 Bn years (we know of) before my gradual development after birth will be so again for the trillions (and, indeed, infinity) of years after my death.

So, for debate, does rejection of gradualism in any of cosmology, astronomy, molecular biochemistry, paleontology or anthropology not make you a creationist, with all the deservedly negative connotations such a word implies?

Your post is way, way over my pay grade, but I’d like to note that according to the traditional Biblical creation story, the universe was *not *created from “nothing” - in the beginning there was chaos and God, and the Bible does not tell of any time in which there was no chaos or God. As far as the bible is concerned, God may have created the world (meaning this universe of matter and energy we’re familiar with), but the *something *had always existed.

Hi Alessan. It’s my understanding that the traditional interpretation you speak of is pre-Christian, and that the Greeks and all who came after strongly opposed it as heretical, perhaps because it is a rather less impressive trick for a supreme being to pull.

I suppose the text can be read either way. Still, even if God created the chaos before the world, God existed before it, and God is something. So you can’t say that according to the Bible, the universe was created out of nothing - it was created out of God.

It is probably my intellectual density, but the title of your thread deals with religion, while the question you ask deals with creationism. I’ll try to answer both, and in doing so, perhaps I’ll drive a nail into the appropriate stud. For me, it doesn’t matter whether God created the universe at all. It serves His purpose all the same. That should cover the creationism bit. As to ex nihilo vs. gradualism, I see no reason why God (Who is, after all, eternal) would be unable or unwilling to “wait” until a species evolved with whom He could make contact through some cognative organ. This would be true even if He had to endure the formation of billions or trillions of universes until at least one evolved such a creature. So, as an evolutionist, I see no problem with God’s opportunism with respect to natural events and processes.

(Welcome back, SentientMeat! I know I said that already, but as my physical brain is not an eternal organ, the wait has seemed long indeed.)

Wouldn’t any explanation of creation eventually get back to a point where there was nothing?

Well, again, I’d suggest that that position would also be considered gravely heretical any time before the 19th Century since it suggests that God and physical matter are the same kind of thing. It also skirts extremely close to simply calling the universe “God” and dusting off our hands at a job well done: philosophy, sorted.

Creation ex nihilo has been a central tenet of westen religion since the Greeks - just look at what atocities befell any who dared to question it. I’m asking whether religion can jettison it and still reasonably be called “religion”. Personally, equating the universe with God merely strikes me as unhelpful linguistic legerdemain.

Yes, a bit of oily ambiguity helps these things start smoothly :). I guess I’m asking whether a theist can throw out any requirement for creation and still retain something worth calling ‘religion’. And you my friend may be one of the few who can …

Yep, that’s as interesting and as logically consistent a position as I’d expect you to take - no argument from me there. As an interesting aside, when do you guess God broke his 13.7 Billion year (or longer) silence in this respect? Say, a million years ago to Eric Erectus or later still to Sally Sapiens? Would you posit a First Contactee whose parents and grandparents were pretty much indistinguishable but still not ‘evolved’ enough in God’s eyes? (Note that this, again, would constitute a dramatic transition rather than a gradual development.)

No. Why say you so? Why could “nothing” not be a mere figment of human imagination (or lack of it)?

As I’ve said in other threads, human kind has never experienced nothing. A vacuum still has time. An empty room still has air. Before the existence of iPods there was still aluminum and glass and copper and all the other things required to manufacture one. And when we destroy something, it’s all still there. We can’t render something back into nothing–though we can render it into an unusable state.

We can only hypothesize the existence of nothingness, but in a sense that’s quite a leap of faith.

Are a Higgs Field and matter the same kind of thing?

And an addendum to Paul: Theoetical physics does not propose an explantion for creation. It explores alternatives to creation.

Insofar as they are physical entities, yes: what we call “matter” emerges when the symmetry of the Higgs field is broken during expansion. (Theoretical physicists, please bear any of my schoolboy howlers with good grace.)

I’m not sure that it’s possible to say with any certainty, but since you’re asking me to guess, that’s fair enough. I would assume (as my Aesthetical Jesus series might give away) that God first contacted man (not necessarily just one man, but mankind) when man began to build edifices which “less evolved” (forgive the controversial terminology — I mean no harm, but do not know the current PC phrase) creatures were unable to build. As I spell out, pretty much, in my series and in my thesis to come, God is all about edification.

This is a thread I will follow with some interest. Not just because it is yours (although that would be reason enough), but because the points of view interest me. My wonder is: will there be other renegades, who do not put God in the box of needing man’s rationale to go about His business? I have about a week to put together my proof that Jesus brought a message about aesthetics rather than one about morality, and so that is the only reason my participation will be so limited. Just wanted you to know that I’m not shunning you. When you see those “view” numbers piling up, one of them will be I.


I assume you don’t mean feats of engineering here, but perhaps something like complexities in relationships made possible by more advanced linguistic capabilities? This would dovetail well with a related position I assumed (if you’ll forgive me) that you might take, with respect to the development of individual humans: God cannot ‘speak’ to the blastocyst, foetus or neonate, but the child can ‘receive’ God’s ‘signal’ ever more clearly as their cognitive abilities develop - yes? (I recall you once spoke of some kind of ‘ablation’ whereby “you” existed before your conception - do I recall correctly at all? What, may I ask, is the status of your soul/consciousness for those 13.7 BY or more before your birth?)

Quite. I’m hoping that this thread will act as “reasonableness litmus paper” for both theists and atheists.

Without endorsing your descriptions of the current states of the art in biology and cosmology; and without endorsing your glowing review of AHOWP, whose reputation is vastly more sterling outside of academic philosophy departments than within it; I put it to you that there is a phenomenon that you would arises ex nihilo, or that as you conduct your everyday life, you treat as arising ex nihilo.

That phenomenon is free will. A materialist account of the world–including the human brain, the materialist substrate of mind and will–must produce a strict determinist account of human agency. Such an account is inconsistent with free will and moral responsibility. Yet both of these philosophical stances, materialism and moral desert, are favored on this message board. As an aside, I’ll also note that this tension between the existence of uncaused causes and their impossibility is the subject matter of Kant’s Third Antinomy, and the free will/determinism debate has a welter of literature associated with it, continuing to this day, including famous exponents as P.F. Strawson and Harry Frankfurt.

Now, there is a hypothesis called compatibilism that seeks to reconcile these two stances: determinism and free will. It is definitely an open question as to how well it does so. And so, to those who might very reasonably reject compatibilist accounts, free will is just as much an uncaused phenomenon as any of those other you mention. Nevertheless, the position has never been considered as having the effect of classifying its holder as a “creationist” or otherwise obtuse.

Heh heh, yes I have heard as much. I would defend old Bertie only by pointing out that he probably chose “A History …” rather than “The …” to leave him scope for stamping his personality on the work as strongly as he liked, for which I am thankful.

OK, let’s just explore this phrase “strict determinist”. Is the outcome of a dice roll strictly determinist? How about the QM uncertain location of an electron? I’d suggest that if there are random (or even merely pseudo-random) elements at play in human cognition, then “determinism” becomes a difficult word to play around with. I’d say that human cognition is deterministic, but not determinable.


Not agreed. A deterministic computer can be moral: it can treat others with kindness (unless wronged itself perhaps, as in the tit for tat strategies of John Maynard Smith’s evolution games) and make decisions based on past histories and future expectations, just like me.

But I’d say the illusion of free will does have a cause: if a biological robot evolved which had the ability to make decisions based on past histories, future expectations and random inputs, evolution could be said to have “caused” that phenomenon, and even those who do not embrace physicalism like me don’t need to posit creation ex nihilo for it, do they?

What does Russell say about the Pre-Socratics who’d been around just before Plato? IIRC, Empedocles was fine with the sort of “cyclical model” you mention – “as I alluded to with these Higgs/quantum/Kaluza-Klein fields and the like, there might be a “before the Big Bang”, perhaps even comprising “other universes” if cyclical models are correct.”

As far as he was concerned, there’s only ever just been a bunch of particles that mingle and separate according to assorted forces – and, yeah, okay, it used to be that all of 'em were combined for a moment, but they promptly scattered apart to form this here planet that’s got people and trees and got clouds and oceans and et cetera, and given enough time everything will eventually recombine in that perfect mixture before once again splitting up to form a new sun and new stars and so on: it’s all just a never-ending cycle, which involved explicit philosophical and religious implications for the guy who propounded it.

So: “Creation ex nihilo vs. Gradualism: Is the former necessary to western religion?” I’d have to say no; it wasn’t for Empedocles.

Clarification: even those who do not embrace physicalism as I do

Spot on Waldo, he does of course have short chapters on the pre-Socratics. But my point was that western religion from Plato onwards seems to require C.e.n. as a central doctrine, perhaps because it makes God’s magic all the more impressive.

Actually, I really did mean the building of edifices — those that wow us today, as we contemplate various means by which they might be achieved. That is because I, of course, believe that belief (based upon experience) and reason go hand in hand. I think the ability to reason abstractly, as would be demonstrated by the geometric and/or trigonometric knowledge needed to conceive, design, engineer, and build monuments, tombs, or what-have-you, would be necessary. God Himself instructs us through one of His prophets, “Come, let us reason together.” I think that when man became capable of reasoning abstractly, God took the opportunity to breathe His spirit into man.

Now, this obviously raises the question of what some would call “primitive man”, like aboriginal tribes that do little more than hunt and gather, even to this day. But note carefully that I have not said (and am not saying) that it was necessary that every man know the Pythagorean Theorem or know how to write out cosine tables. I simply mean that man became abstractly rational.

Let me give you an example. In a documentary I saw about just such a primitive tribe, which had never built anything more impressive than a hut. And there was a fellow sent out by the tribal leader to find a new source of water. What the fellow did, rather than search and search for water, was to feed a monkey some salt. He waited until the monkey became thirsty, and then followed the monkey to its source of water, which the man then used for his tribe. It was a brilliant solution to the problem, despite the fact that the man’s language might not even have a numerical vocabulary beyond “one”, “two”, and “many” (which is true of some languages.) He reasoned as abstractly as whowever engineered the Sphynx.

So I hope that helps to clear up what I mean. I have no doubt that, given the motivation, these tribal “savages” could construct the same sort of edifices that wow us now. And by motivation, I mean something like a civic or political order (such as the Egyptians had) in which the governing power would employ means like war and enslavement to achieve its self-aggrandizing projects.

Your threads always do.


I neglected to address this question:

Eternal. The “stuff” that is within you is identical to the “stuff” that we identify as God. It can be conceived as God sort of breaking off a piece of Himself and placing it in you. (Though that analogy bothers me a bit, since spirit doesn’t “break” in the sense of breaking a stick, but it will do to get the point across.)

And by the way, since I used the word “stuff” to describe spirit, I’m reminded of a quote by Raymond Hall, of Fermilab, who said, “Stuff is made of atoms. Therefore, atoms can’t be made of stuff.” Just tossing that out there because I know that you appreciate some of the quotes that I have used in the past. Plus, he’s right, you know.