Nothing comes from nothing

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Nothing comes from nothing (Latin: ex nihilo nihil fit) is a philosophical expression of a thesis first argued by Parmenides. It is associated with ancient Greek cosmology, such as is presented not just in the works of Homer and Hesiod, but also in virtually every internal system—there is no break in-between a world that did not exist and one that did, since it could not be created ex nihilo in the first place.

Eleatic Physics[edit]

The idea that "nothing comes from nothing", as articulated by Parmenides, first appears in his Physics:

τί δ᾽ ἄν μιν καὶ χρέος ὦρσεν ὕστερον ἢ πρόσθεν, τοῦ μηδενὸς ἀρξάμενον, φῦν; οὕτως ἢ πάμπαν πελέναι χρεών ἐστιν ἢ οὐχί.

The above, in a translation based on the John Burnet translation,[2] appears as follows:

 Yet why would it be created later rather than sooner, if it came from nothing; so, it must either be created altogether or not [created at all].

De Rerum Natura[edit]

The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius expressed this principle in his first book of De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)

But by observing Nature and her laws. And this will lay
The warp out for us—her first principle: that nothing's brought
Forth by any supernatural power out of naught.
For certainly all men are in the clutches of a dread—
Beholding many things take place in heaven overhead
Or here on earth whose causes they can't fathom, they assign
The explanation for these happenings to powers divine.
Nothing can be made from nothing—once we see that's so,
Already we are on the way to what we want to know.[3]

He then continues on discussing how matter is required to make matter and that objects cannot spring forth without reasonable cause.

For if things were created out of nothing, any breed
Could be born from any other; nothing would require a seed.
People could pop out of the sea, the scaly tribes arise
Out of the earth, and winged birds could hatch right from the skies.
Born willy-nilly, every animal, both wild and tame,
Would inhabit cultivated land and wilderness the same.
The same tree would not always grow the same fruit—what might bear
An apple one time, might, the next, produce a quince or pear.
Since there would be no generating particles, then neither
Would certain things arise from only a certain kind of mother.
But since in fact each species rises from specific seeds,
Each thing springs from the source that has the matter that it needs,
The primary particles, and comes into the boundaries
Of light, and that's the reason every thing cannot give rise
To every other thing, because there is a separate power
In distinct things.[4]

English translation of ex nihilo nihil fit[edit]

Literally translated, this Latin phrase means "out of nothing, nothing [be]comes". The Latin preposition "ex", which the reader may recognize from many English derivatives such as "exit", means "out of". "Nihilo" is the ablative form of the Latin noun "nihilum" meaning "nothing". "Fit" is the present indicative form of the Latin verb "fio" meaning "to become". Note that the original (or, rather, the Lucretian) locution is "nil posse creari de nilo,"[5] which means "nothing can be created of nothing".

Modern physics[edit]

The law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system cannot change. The zero-energy universe states that the amount of energy in the universe minus the amount of gravity is exactly zero. That is the only kind of universe that could come from nothing, assuming such a zero-energy universe already is nothing.[6] Such a universe would need to be flat, a state which does not contradict current observations that the universe is flat with a 0.5% margin of error.[7]

Some physicists—such as Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawking, and Michio Kaku—define 'nothing' as an unstable quantum vacuum that contains no particles.[8][9][10] This is different from the philosophical conception of nothing, which has no inherent properties and is not governed by physical laws.

References in works of fiction[edit]

In William Shakespeare's King Lear, the king's daughter Cordelia is unable to put her love for him into words, saying, "my love's / More ponderous than my tongue" (Act 1.1). The king says, "Nothing will come of nothing", meaning that as long as she says nothing to flatter him, she will receive nothing from him.[11] Later, Lear nearly repeats the line, saying, "Nothing can be made out of nothing" (Acts 1.1 and 1.4 respectively).

In the 1965 film version of The Sound of Music, Maria and Captain von Trapp confess their love to each other in the song "Something Good", which contains the lyrics: "Nothing comes from nothing / nothing ever could". Although the song is devoid of intentional metaphysical connotations, Maria's time in Nonnberg Abbey would have familiarized her with the phrase, which is used in Catholic philosophy to explain God's gratuitous act of creatio ex nihilo. Earlier in the film, in the well-known song "Maria", Maria's fellow nuns lament that there is "many a thing she ought to understand" and that she is "not an asset to the abbey". Maria's theological acumen, revealed in her accidental inversion of the Catholic doctrine, is perhaps one of the many unstated reasons for her departure from the abbey.

In the web television series 13 Reasons Why, Ryan Shaver uses this Latin phrase to show Hannah Baker, the main character, that her attempts to write poetry will be useless if she's not willing to put her soul on them, as she is afraid of expressing her most intimate thoughts with strangers.

The phrase also appears in H.P. Lovecraft's tale, The Whisperer in Darkness.

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Lucretius. (2007). The Nature of Things. Trans. A. E. Stallings. New York: Penguin Classics.

External links[edit]

  • [1] Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, translated by William Ellery at the Internet Classics Archive.