The modal problem of creatio ex nihilo


I first provide an interpretation of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo based on the Fourth Lateran Council, according to which God creates from nothing if and only if God creates everything except God Himself. I then show that this doctrine entails the modal problem that it is both possible and not possible that there is nothing at all except God, or alternatively, that it is both necessary and not necessary that there is something else besides God. I proceed to examine several proposals to solve the problem, and find them all inadequate. Therefore, I conclude that creatio ex nihilo violates modal logic and is necessarily false.

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  1. 1.

    Aquinas (1947) I, q.44, a.2, co., my italics.

  2. 2.

    Ibid. I, q.45, a.1, co., my italics. .

  3. 3.

    For more detailed discussion concerning the strength of God, see Leftow (2009).

  4. 4.

    Aquinas (1947) I, q.19, a.6, co.

  5. 5.

    I’m grateful to an anonymous referee for reminding me of the importance of this issue.

  6. 6.

    I assume that conceivability is a guide to possibility.

  7. 7.

    Ibid. I, q.19, a.8, obj. 2. The Leonine editors of Corpus Thomisticus identify Avicenna as one of these authors. .

  8. 8.

    Ibid. I, q.19, a.8, co. My italics.

  9. 9.

    For a detailed discussion of Aquinas’s view on the real distinction between creaturely existence and essence, see Wippel (2000), pp 13–176.

  10. 10.

    See for example the collected essays in Widerker and McKenna (2003).

  11. 11.

    I thank Andrew Loke for this suggestion.

  12. 12.

    For discussions of the Subtraction Argument and the related issue of metaphysical nihilism, see Coggins (2010) and Rodriguez-Pereyra (2013).

  13. 13.

    I thank Winfried Löffler for this proposal. Historically, the sceptical attitude via divine simplicity is often attributed to Thomas Aquinas.

  14. 14.

    See for example the essays in Dougherty and McBrayer (2014).

  15. 15.

    This view is developed and defended in different ways in McDaniel (2009) and Turner (2010).

  16. 16.

    See respectively Wolter (1946), 128-161 and Sider (2009).

  17. 17.

    McDaniel (2009) raises an objection to Sider (2009) in this vein.


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Ho, PS. The modal problem of creatio ex nihilo. Int J Philos Relig 88, 197–213 (2020).

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  • Creatio ex nihilo
  • Modality
  • Divine freedom
  • Divine omnipotence