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.