The Catholic Thing
— On Nothingness Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 08 July 2014

The classic statement reads: Ex nihilo, nihil fit – “from nothing, nothing happens.” This affirmation cannot be “proved.” It is a “first” thing, a first “principle.” Nothing is clearer that could make it even clearer. A “proof” would require something more evident than this principle itself. We cannot deny it without, at the same time, implicitly affirming it. If I say, “something comes from nothing,” or “ nothing from something,” I indicate that I have not understood what “nothing” means.

We do not encounter “nothing” walking down the streets. We only encounter “somethings,” this thing or that thing. The very notion of “nothing” requires that we already know that something exists. To understand the meaning of “nothing,” we must mentally deny an existing thing its “is-ness.” The resulting concept enables us to have some notion of “nothing.” We never actually encounter a “nothing” – a “nobody” perhaps, but that implies something else.

So we ask: “Why is there something and not just nothing?” We cannot not ask this question and remain rationally whole. If “nothing” is what it says it is, namely, no-thing, we figure that something must come from something. This “something” that it comes from must itself come from something or else it must be something that simply “is” by itself. A self-contained “is-ness” would be the source of all that is. It would be at the heart of anything that appears out of nothingness.

It is possible that nothing might “exist” except this “self-contained, uncaused is-ness.” The world as we know it need not exist. Neither the world itself nor we in it seeking to understand it need to exist. If we do exist, as we do, we already are what we are through some origin not our own. Our thinking about our existence does not in fact lead us to “nothingness.”

We live in a culture that, without contradicting itself, would like to deny what is implied here. Many would prefer, as they think, a world that came from “nothing.” That origin, it is assumed, would simplify things. We would only have to be responsible to ourselves. We would be “free” of any “claims” on us to be something we do not “want” to be. This alternative means that we need to affirm that nothing can be found in what is that requires a “cause,” an “outside” explanation.

Nothing it isn't

Behind such reflection is the nagging suspicion that we still want our origin in “nothingness” to be “true.” But if it is “true,” why are we around thinking that we must “prove,” at least to ourselves, that we do not originate from what is existence itself? We want it both ways. We do exist. That is clear to us. If we face “nothing,” it is definitely we “not nothings” who face it.

In the last book of the Republic, Plato spoke of the immortality of the soul. The reason he did this was to answer the question of whether the world was created in injustice. Since many sins and crimes went unpunished in this life and many good deeds unrewarded, it was clear that, without a final judgment, the world was created in injustice.

If this abiding injustice were so, it did not make any difference what we did. Both the just and the unjust, if there could be such, would eventually end in nothingness. Nothing we did really made any difference or even made sense.  But if we really existed and if our actions made an ultimate difference, then nothingness is not our end.

“Nothingness” is but a desperate attempt to escape our acknowledging what we are. Why should we want to deny the kind of existence we have been given? Human existence includes a freedom that can reject what man is. But the trajectory of this rejection does not lead to “nothingness.” It leads to abiding existence in a permanent state of self-enclosure.

What is said of Judas can be said of all who follow his path: “It would be better had he not been born.” (Mark 14:8) Once born, “nothingness” is no longer an alternative except in an imagination that prefers it to what is. But the one who chooses this “nothingness” is not ultimately returned to “nothing.” Once we are conceived and born, our destiny is never “nothingness.” It is either eternal life or eternal doom. 

Chesterton quoted his grandfather to say: “He would thank God for his existence even if he knew he was a lost soul.” Hell is not “nothingness.” It is rather “somethingness” that preferred “nothingness” to that glory which, like existence itself, was freely offered to it. God, in the beginning, was free not to create. But once free beings were in existence, though He tried, He was not able to prevent all of them from choosing “nothingness.” He could not make them, at the same time, free and not free, immortal and “nothing.”

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is CatholicThe Modern AgePolitical Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Readingand Reasonable Pleasures.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Howard Kainz, July 07, 2014
I like the way St. Anselm sums up the issue: "Everything that is, is either through something or through nothing. But nothing comes from nothing. For it is altogether inconceivable that anything should be unless through something. Whatever is, then, is not except through something."
written by John McCarthy, July 08, 2014
Thank you, Fr. Schall. You took me back to Apologetics 101 that I took back at Notre Dame (Fr. Reith) in 1955. Happy memories.

John McCarthy
written by Jon S., July 08, 2014
Thank you, Father Schall. I can only wish that every Jesuit school--every Catholic school--asked your counsel on how to strengthen Catholic identity, find God in all things including all academic disciplines, and be for the greater glory of God.
written by schm0e, July 08, 2014
This sort of thing is always a good morning mental calisthenic routine.

It seems that nothingness isn't merely the postulate of those who prefer to be unaccountable. There might be people who, understanding by experience that justice is not always observable in time -- at least not necessarily from any one person's point of view -- conclude that Love is wholly incompatible with reality and therefore the claims of religious people to the contrary are credulous. It would take nothing short of Grace and some catechesis to conclude otherwise for one who lacks them.
written by AGS, July 08, 2014
But why didn't God only create those that he knew would freely choose something and not nothing?
written by Paul, July 08, 2014
"It is either eternal life or eternal doom"

Fr. Schall,

I realize you do not agree with the interpretation that hell fire destroy the body and the soul, but I was wondering what you thought of the evidence put forth by those like myself who support this interpretation?

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