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Thomas International Center
April 2008


Ralph McInerny


On Nothing



When I was a young philosopher we spent a lot of time, prompted by Bertrand Russell, pondering such sentences as "The present king of France is bald." There not being a present king of France, - claimants don't count - how could  you say anything about him, true or false? It isn't just that when the Bourbons were on the rocks they lost a good deal more than their hair. Nothing does seem an elusive subject of conversation and yet we do say things about nothing.  I just did. My enemies would say that is my default mode.

Such conundra may seem to characterize philosophy in its decadent phase, and of course we might simply settle for puzzles, wanting to fool our friends and dazzle the impressionable - philosophizing as mental sleight of hand - but Plato and Aristotle would have been happy to discuss the non-existent king of France. Such seemingly fatuous problems can lead on to weightier discussions. Although he never posed the question of all those the angels on the point of a pin, Thomas Aquinas would have found it a very fruitful one. So too with balding non-existent kings.

There is an old adage, ex nihilo nihil fit: you can't get something from nothing. Just everything. After all, the whole of creation came ex nihilo. Of course the nothing that preceded the world was not something, some amorphous mass, perhaps, that God shaped into the cosmos. The only being before creation was God Himself, the fullness of being. Nothing is an absence, not a presence. Nothing is always conceptually dependent on the being it is not.

This is just meant to suggest that apparently silly little problems have a way of leading on to tremendously important ones. Still, philosophers run the occupational hazard of sticking to the trivial. Or of inventing problems, like whether there is a world out there. That problem has produced any number of ingenious theories that your grandmother would know are bogus, whether she could pinpoint their flaw. There is a sense in which nothing is simply in the mind. I am not reporting on my recent brain scan. Only the mind can negate some something and thereby generate the idea of nothing. Thus Thomas, in discussing an eternal world argued that nonetheless it is created ex nihilo. How? Take away the divine causality and all that is left is nothing, so whether or not the world had always been, it is still created ex nihilo.

Thus it turns out that the baldness of the present king of France is not necessarily an idle issue. After all, Louis XIV wore a powdered wig.


Ralph McInerny