Monday, June 22, 2009

Alister McGrath vs Stephen Law: Does The Natural World Point To God?


Debate - With CFI UK Provost Stephen Law and Alister McGrath, author of The Dawkins Delusion, Dawkins' God, and A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest For God In Science And Theology.

Thursday October 29th, 2009. 7pm.

Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, Holborn London WC1R 4RL - Main Hall. 7pm. £5 on the door (£3 Humanist organizations) Free to Friends of CFI.

46 comments:

Brian said...

Stephen, take your patience with you. All the videos I've seen of McGrath seem to be something like I was once and atheist and Well that's an interesting point, what I would like to say is followed by nothing. This repeated ad-nauseum.

Fine-tuning is God of the gaps in anycase isn't it?

Q. How do you explain a universe suited to us?
A. We evolved in it.
Q. Yes but how do you explain evolution?
A. Brute fact.
Q. But how do you explain?
A. Who cares...
Q. But if you can't explain it, fully, and sufficiently, then it must be God, mustn't it?
A. If it's not New Years day, then it must be Christmas day, mustn't it?

Ryan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ryan said...

I wish i could take a jump across the pond to watch you politely demolish Allister in october. It would probably be the highlight of the year for me!

The Atheist Missionary said...

Stephen, we have to get one of these debates set up for Toronto. Canadians deserve to see you skewer one of these jokers. Just planting the seed. Maybe we can set something up in 2010. I would be happy to take care of your travel expenses. Ticket proceeds would go to charity. All I would ask for is a front row seat. Well ... maybe you would let my daughter and I take you out for lunch.

Ryan said...

AM...I'm in sarnia, if this ever happens let me know! I'll pick up the lunch tab. We'd go to McDonald's, right? :)

The Atheist Missionary said...

Ryan, it would have to be either The Friendly Thai on Yonge or Giovanna's in Little Italy. Either one would be worth the trip across the pond. I had my crew out at Giovanna's yesterday for my Father's Day dinner and it was divine.

The Atheist Missionary said...

Oops ... please don't tell Giovanna I'm an atheist.

Ryan said...

You said the "D" word!!!!

The Atheist Missionary said...

As Italian food proves time and time again, "divine" doesn't have to emanate from God:

Divine
1. a. Having the nature of or being a deity.
b. Of, relating to, emanating from, or being the expression of a deity: sought divine guidance through meditation.
c. Being in the service or worship of a deity; sacred.

2. Superhuman; godlike.

3. a. Supremely good or beautiful; magnificent: a divine performance of the concerto.
b. Extremely pleasant; delightful: had a divine time at the ball.

4. Heavenly; perfect.

Steven Carr said...

Cholera, Ebola, HIV, rabies, malaria.

Tsunamis which kill 300,000 in a day.

Physical laws which are so fine-tuned that not even a god can tweak them without the universe collapsing on itself.

The natural world points to a god....

Not.

Geert A. said...

Is the universe finely tuned?

Or ar some Big Bang research models too much aligned to current observations/knowledge, such that they are too much tuned?

If I'd have to bet money, I'd really take the second option.

However, the only think I know for sure is that one can hardly claim that the universe is tuned to us if it is 100% (minus a speck) uninhabitable environment.

Steven Carr said...

Why does it matter any more if the natural world points to a god than if the natural world points to dharma or karma?

Will McGrath be arguing for a god that is not the god of deism?

Stephen Law said...

Thanks for encouragement to go to Canada - I'd be very happy to...

Chris said...

"Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well - it must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it - was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."

Douglas Adams

Greg O said...

Here's a 'fine-tuning' argument you never hear a theist come out with:

'Look at God. He's just *perfect*, isn't He? Everything about Him tends to promote the flourishing of life, and human life especially.'

'Think about it. He has the intelligence it takes to design a nurturing environment and beautiful, efficient physical forms for us to inhabit; the power to create and sustain those things (*plus* a realm of pure spirit within which our souls will experience an eternity of bliss after our physical deaths!); and the goodness and wisdom required to ensure that there's *just the perfect balance* of suffering and happiness, ugliness and beauty etc. in the world.'

'And it's not just that He has everything it takes to *enable* human life to flourish - He also *wants* it to flourish! He actually has the *specific* desire that human beings should exist, *just the way they are*!'

'I mean, imagine if God was just the *tiniest* bit different. Say he didn't *quite* have the intelligence, or the power, or the goodness it takes to create and sustain a human-life-promoting universe; or say he happened to prefer a universe in which there was no *human* life, only plants and animals. I mean, if you changed *any one of those things*, even by a tiny amount - we wouldn't be here!'

'It's mind-boggling really. How can anyone who honestly considers those facts fail to see that God didn't just *happen* to be the way He is - it's not some wild coincidence that he's all-knowing, *and* all-powerful, *and* all-good, *and* has a particular interest in the flourishing of human life. The very idea! No - He was, He *must* have been *designed* that way! He must have been 'invented', or 'made up', if you will, by some sort of intelligent being or beings with... er... oh.'

Tony Lloyd said...

@ Brian

"Q. Yes but how do you explain evolution?
A. Brute fact."


Or even a combination of brute facts that are readily accepted and would hold true for many, many differently arranged universes:

1. Things cause other things to happen.
2. Some things cause the same type of thing to happen (chain reaction/replication)
3. Some of the 2s cause not the same thing but things that are like it: imperfect replication.
4. There are another class of things that effect the imperfect reproduction and prevent it contingent on the nature of the replication (ie they "choose" some chain reactions and "reject" other, imperfect, chain reactions).

The universe is not fine tuned for that: just about any universe would have 1 to 4. In fact it would be extremely difficult to describe a universe that had no slightly imperfect chain reactions that were influenced by other events. Chuck in 13.5 billion years of time and about 90 billion light years of size and should anyone be surprised that "life" occurs in 1/10^20 of it?


@ Greg O

Genius.

Kyle P. said...

Ugh. McGrath is one of those blovious, inane repeater controls you find lying about. His understanding of his own position seems to be so lightweight that it's insulting to hear him talk.

Conversely, Stephen, have you read any of the big atheist books? They have a lot of stuff in them that might help in a debate like this. For example, Atheism: The Case Against God by George Smith, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, and the Impossibility of God and Improbability of God anthologies (all written/edited/compiled by Ricki Monnier and Michael Martin) probably represent the four top books on atheism today, and I'm surprised to never hear them mentioned. Now obviously you don't have to have read them to make cogent arguments, but it helps.

I've also found the book C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion by John Beversluis to be amazingly useful when dismantling those who think that poetry or beautiful language make an argument true, or truer at least.

Kyle P. said...

@ Greg O, that's funny, but I have to wonder if a theist is going to take that logic and produce a different conclusion - that therefore "god" is perfect. That, "by the impossibility of the contrary", he must be all of those things you listed. Bah. Makes me sick thinking about it.

I've been thinking about theist arguments lately, to see how absurd they could go, and thought of this one. I've never heard anyone say it, nor do I expect any to repeat it, but hey, I wouldn't be terribly surprised if someone quote-mined this from me:

God created us and didn't need DNA. DNA doesn't exist. How do we know that? The 'A' in DNA stands for acid. If it was acid, wouldn't we all be burning to death? I mean come on, science! You can't seriously believe we have acid filling our bodies!

Greg O said...

Kyle P, if I understand you correctly, you're suggesting the theist will just say: 'OK, so God would have to have certain very specific attributes for the universe to be the way it is; all that proves, though - since the universe *is* the way it is - is that God really does have those attributes'.

But then surely he can't protest when the atheist says: 'OK, so the fundamental laws of nature would have to have certain very specific attributes for the universe to be the way it is; all that proves, though - since the universe *is* the way it is - is that the funadmental laws of nature really do have those attributes'.

This is really just the old business of 'so who created God?'. If the theist wants to claim that human-friendly natural laws cry out for explanation, fine - but he needs to explain why human-friendly divine attributes don't cry out for explanation in just the same way.

Dick said...

Stephen, I thought your blog was meant to be a forum for debate. Lately, it's becoming a support group for atheists, much of which is unnecessarily unpleasant, and therefore counterproductive.

A debate on whether the universe points to God is pretty much guaranteed to be a waste of time. Philosophical 'proofs' for the existence of God were never intended to be 'proofs', only to prove that God isn't *necessarily* an irrational hypothesis. The 'proof from design' was the weakest of the lot, and discredited within decades of Paley's death.

The fundamental thing that theology addresses is not *how* the universe came to exist, how it works etc. It puzzles over the fact that it exists at all. For some people this is a pointless question - it just does, and that's all that needs to be said. Bertrand Russell asserted this in a famous debate in the 50s, I seem to recall. That the universe exists at all is not a question science is interested in - the point is to understand what we've got. Evolutionary theory, cosmological theory are fascinating and can add to a sense of wonder at the universe's ordered complexity, but ultimately they are irrelevant to the deeper wonder that there is anything at all.

Some of us think that the question is not pointless. I would go so far as to say that wonder and reflection that anything exists at all is probably the most fundamental human experience, and we would do well to construct all our thinking from that starting point. That is because the existence of this universe is a 'miracle' (i.e. it necessarily comes 'before' the physical laws of nature, which are intrinsic to the universe). If this universe (with its laws) is possible 'ex nihilo' what *else* is possible? The fact that this universe is rationally understandable by science makes it more miraculous rather than less. This is not to argue that 'God exists' - a god that existed would be by definition a created thing. When theologians talk about 'mystery' they're not talking about 'the God of the gaps' as a way of avoiding good scientific enquiry, they're talking about something that science simply cannot address because it is necessarily outside the physical laws of science.

Theology is not an argument for the existence of deities - there are plenty of 'deities' around (money, sex/Aphrodite, power/Ares, Dionysus etc) and there's nothing remarkable about that - theology is an attempt to respond to the fact that there is anything (including 'gods') at all. Some people don't see any point in doing that. Fine, up to a point. The danger in that is that it limits truth to measurable existence, and since the physical universe is morally neutral that ultimately anchors all truth and morality in human mind (Kant - Stephen's baseline). But we are beginning to realise that our anthropocentric models are not serving us well. Theology is starting to make a serious comeback in philosophy, political science and several of the Humanities. It is - always has been - 'queen of the sciences', but (as Mr Spock might say) "not science as we know it, Captain."

Pavel said...

To Dick: Theologians may be interested in why something exists at all, but they go one too many steps further to believe quite a number of silly things. Everyone occasionally wonders why there is something at all, but not everyone never confuses it with virgins births and other similar stories. That's the problem.

Greg O said...

Dick - you said:

'the existence of this universe is a 'miracle' (i.e. it necessarily comes 'before' the physical laws of nature, which are intrinsic to the universe)"

I think you're expressing the intuition that if the universe didn't exist, there couldn't be natural laws governing it (so the existence of the universe 'comes first'). But surely that's no more correct than the contrary view that if natural laws didn't exist, there couldn't be a universe governed by them (so the existence of natural laws 'comes first')?

I don't see how your claim makes any more sense than the claim that the existence of a square comes 'before' its shape, or that of a 16-ton weight 'before' its mass. Surely if X is intrinsic to Y, they come along as a package deal - there's no question of one coming 'before' the other.

You also said:

"The fundamental thing that theology addresses is not *how* the universe came to exist, how it works etc. It puzzles over the fact that it exists at all."

and

"theology is an attempt to respond to the fact that there is anything (including 'gods') at all"

I know all the atheists in this little self-help group have had to get used to people telling us we've completely misunderstood what theology/religion/God-talk is all about, but this seems a bit of a stretch. The question of why there is anything at all is a *philosophical* question, surely, not a distinctively theological one? Distinctively theological questions - the questions theologians spend their time thinking and writing about - tend to have to do with things like the divine attributes, the problem of evil, the Trinity, the atonement etc. - i.e. they have to do with God. Don't they?

Brian said...

Dick - but ultimately they are irrelevant to the deeper wonder that there is anything at all. Uhm tell that to scientists studying that stuff. You can't cordon off a part of nature from study because you think it's a mistery.
I think the real question is why isn't there nothing at all? The answer so far seems to be that nothing is unstable. All those quantum vacuum fluctuations arising from nothing and going back to nothing. No gods required.

The rest of your points seem to be trying to give theology what belongs to philosophy.

Eric said...

"The answer so far seems to be that nothing is unstable."

Isn't this claim easily refuted both philosophically and scientifically? Philosophically: instability is a property;
'nothing' lacks all properties; hence, 'nothing' cannot be unstable. Scientifically: vacuum fluctuations take place in space-time; space-time is something, not nothing; hence vacuum fluctuations don't involve nothing.

Brian said...

Philosophically: instability is a property;
'nothing' lacks all properties; hence, 'nothing' cannot be unstable.
This would put the kibosh on creation ex-nihilo. From nothing, nothing could come into existence and as there is no stability or instability, no change. Everything must've existed forever in some form. I don't mind that theory.

Brian said...

Scientifically: vacuum fluctuations take place in space-time; space-time is something, not nothing; hence vacuum fluctuations don't involve nothing.

This bit from Wiki, seems to be pertinent
Due to quantum uncertainty energy fluctuations such as electron and its anti-particle a positron can arise spontaneously out of nothing but must disappear rapidly. The lower the energy of the bubble is the longer it can exist. A gravitational field has negative energy. Matter has positive energy. The 2 figures cancel out provided the universe is completely flat. In that case the universe has zero energy and can theoretically last forever.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaotic_inflation

Brian said...

Stephen, another point I got from Victor Stenger's book is that fine-tuning is a red herring regarding God. If god is powerful enough to create the universe, and all that entails, he could easily have made humans that could survive in interstellar space or any conceivable location.

Finely Tuned Rock said...

Recent studies in physics by Fred Adams indicate that the existence of life may not even require fine tuning at all, and that there are actually a range of values star formation could occur in allowing life to be supported:

http://www.nature.com/news/2008/
080728/full/news.2008.985.html

It's also worth pointing out that even if the universe were fine tuned, it doesn't necessarily mean it was fine tuned for us, any more than it was to allow for dogs, elephants beatles or rocks to exist. As JBS Haldane supposedly once said:

"If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles."

Greg O said...

Here's a question I'd like to put to the advocate of 'fine-tuning' arguments that appeal to the sheer improbability of a life-supporting universe, rather than one of trillions of non-life-supporting alternatives, just happening to pop into existence:

What's the probability than two dice thrown at random will land with two 6s facing upwards?

If you answer 1 in 36 - you're taking rather a lot for granted, aren't you? After all, the dice could have been weighted so that they always land 2-up, or they could have had a billion sides, or they could have had pictures of animals on their sides instead of dots or numbers. In fact, considering all the possible ways those dice could have been, the chances of them landing with two 6s facing upwards must be ridiculously low.

This is absolute bollocks of course, and the reason it's absolute bollocks is that we *have* to take things for granted if we're going to talk about probability at all. When we ask about the probability of B, we're really asking: *given that A*, what's the probability that B?

Assertions made about the probability that B on the basis that *everything* is up in the air - that there's no 'A' given, no set of starting conditions - are therefore just so much hot air.

So far as I can see, though, the only 'starting conditions' the advocates of fine-tuning arguments tend to recognise are these: of all the many, many possible (or conceivable?) ways the universe could have been, just a few (or just one) could have supported human life. Well, OK, but now you need to tell us the process by which universes come to be one way rather than another; *then* maybe we can take a view on how probable it is that a universe should come to be life-supporting. You can't just assume there's some sort of cosmic lottery, with every possible universe holding a single ticket.

By the way, Finely Tuned Rock: I quite like your suggestion that the universe was created for Beatles to exist. Maybe there's something in that.

Karl said...

Greg O,

"Here's a 'fine-tuning' argument you never hear a theist come out with:"

To me this argument is the final nail in the coffin for the fine-tuning argument for a god. I'd like to think that I came up with it independently about two years ago, but I had probably seen it somewhere before that, although I don't remember where. I know philosopher Keith Parsons has made this argument, though.

M. Tully said...

"Does The Natural World Point To God?"

Absolutely not!

Next question.

Brian said...

Back to nothing being unstable. Eric tried to define uncaused events out of existence. I think he did anyway. But there's nothing philosophically or scientifically wrong with an uncaused event. Thus, nothing is unstable from the point of view that something may eventuate without a cause.

M. Tully said...

Dick,

When you wrote, “The fundamental thing that theology addresses is not *how* the universe came to exist, how it works etc. It puzzles over the fact that it exists at all.” Is that really the fundamental question? You’re not pulling my leg, right? That is THE fundamental question of theology?

Well, then theologians everywhere feel free to retire. Your fundamental question is one that will never have an answer, no matter what truths are discovered either philosophically or scientifically. Please, allow me to explain:

You see, there was a time that that question was asked when what we knew about the natural universe was really very little. And the question went kind of like this, “Look at our Sun, it is special to us, it keeps us warm. Look at our stars they give us wonder. Why should such a place exist?”

Well, then it was discovered that our “Sun” is the same thing as the stars. There appear to be a lot of stars in the night sky, so it’s really not so “special” that one should be here.

Then the question became, “Yes, but we are at the center of these stars, why should that be?” Then we discovered, that we are not really at the center (turned out there were a lot more stars than what we originally thought), but toward one end of a single arm in a great spiral of stars.

So, then the argument became, “ OK, there are a lot of them, but still it must be a small number compared to the number of stars there could be?”

Well, since then science has discovered that there are billions of stars in our galaxy and not only that but, there are billions of other galaxies with billions of their own stars. And still the theologians ask, “Yes, but why then does this universe even exist instead of nothing, even though I know that there are billions x billions of “special” Suns in it?”

Well hell, I guess if science finally discovers that our universe is only one bubble out of billions of billions of other bubbles in a foam of universes, the question will be, “Yes, but why do billions of billions of universes, containing billions of billions of galaxies, containing billions of billions of stars exist instead of nothing?”

So, the answer to theology’s “fundamental thing” is, you will never get an answer because the question as stated leads to an infinite regress.

Now I personally, being a reason based human, look at it a little differently. Knowing what I know now about the vastness of the universe, I would say that something existed is rather the default position so if I encountered a great deal of nothing somewhere, that I would consider miraculous. Or to put it another way, if I had the knowledge I had today and found myself in the world the ancients’ thought they were in (i.e. they were the only planet, with the only Sun, with pretty stars existing for their enjoyment) I would say that they had a powerful argument for a miraculous existence.

However, living on earth today with what I know about the universe, I would say something seems to be the way things naturally happen. If I ever encounter a vast amount of nothing somewhere, that I will find strange. And then I will ask, “Look at what is here, why is there nothing instead of something?”

M. Tully said...

Brian,

I understand your argument about nothing being unstable. I think the reason that you and Eric can't come to an agreement (even if it is an agreement to disagree) is that "nothing" has not been defined.

If "nothing" is defined the way that I would define it, you have a volume of particles and take all the particles out of it, nothing is what is left in that volume. Then your argument is fairly solid.

If you use what I take Eric's definition of "nothing" is, that from which something cannot arise. Then no argument can argue for ex-post nihilo (of course that would include a supernatural creation so I guess even Descartes thinks ergo he isn't).

So I think you guys should first agree on a definition of "nothing" and then proceed from there (just to avoid any possible equivocations that might happen).

I also highly encourage Stephen to carefully agree on definitions with his opponent at the outset of the debate so as there are no, and I'm sure they would be accidental, equivocations happening there.

Brian said...

M. Tully, your post seems very wise and reasonable. I was sort of alluding to that in my last post. If nothing is defined as

Brian said...

damn comment.....in any case, it's all about definitions or whatnot....

Lee said...

I hope this debate in October is being recorded - it's a long walk from Melboure. The taxi will cost a fair penny.

Oh, and Hello Brian

I will leave you too your nothing :-)

Just a question though, if you could define nothing, would it be something?

Kyle P. said...

@Lee, I think Alfred North Whitehead would call "Nothing is really something" the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Many, many platonists fall victim to that thinking. It's really quite amazing how many people think that way, too, subconsciously. I say that only from personal experience with people - I have no good science to back it up.

Eric said...

If you want to talk about 'nothing' in the sense of a relationship -- e.g. I have nothing in my checking account -- then I have no problem. However, when you want to talk about nothing as such (as you did: "I think the real question is why isn't there nothing at all?"), which is to say as the absence of anything, but insist on talking about it in relational terms -- e.g. the sum of negative and positive energy -- then it seems to me to be incoherent. After all, energy is something. (It's not the case that if my debits cancel out my credits exactly that my checking account ceases to exist. I know, that's more of a 'fun' example than it is decent analogy, but I couldn't resist!) So, if the answer to your question is 'nothing is unstable,' then we can say that what you really mean is, 'there never was nothing.'

"This would put the kibosh on creation ex-nihilo."

I can't see how this is the case. The theist doesn't say that everything came from nothing as such, but that god created the universe ex nihilo. Hence, while you may take the theist to be saying that the universe came from nothing in the sense that it lacked a material cause, you can't take him to be saying it came from nothing as such (indeed, for theists, god is 'more real' -- if I may use that phrase -- than the universe he created). So, as Tully said, the sense in which the term nothing is used is important.

M. Tully said...

Brian and Eric,

I had a thought tonight, I'm curious about what both of you might think about it.

If an omnigod supernaturalist wants to put forth the claim that, something can't from nothing, ergo omnigod. It is self defeating.

The omnigod supernaturalist argument is that something can't arise from nothing, nothing is the default state of affairs, ergo it requires omnigod to explain why something exists instead of nothing.

Well, OK. Then my question is, "Is omnigod consistent with nothing?"

As generally accepted, omnigod is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good?

If nothing is what currently exists, what is there to know?

If there are no forces, what does it mean to have power?

If there are no entities to do good or bad to, what does it mean to be good?

If there truly ever existed an absolute state of nothing, omnigod could not have, by definition, existed to create it.

Ergo, if nothing ever existed, omnigod never existed.

Oh my goodness, I just made a philosophical argument (no empirical data included), I need a shower.

Still, I can't find a way the omnigod proponent can justify the first cause argument when facing the above.

Refutations out there I missed?

wombat said...

"If nothing is what currently exists, what is there to know?[...],to have power?
[...],does it mean to be good?"

Maybe its one of those mathematical limiting cases. If the Universe is smaller then you there isnt so much to know so its easy to remember, if the universe is a little place you don't need so much power to be top dog and if there is no one else to harm, then you can't help but be good. When the universe shrinks to nothing then the limiting case is finally reached - omni anything you like.

M. Tully said...

wombat,

As always a well thought out point. But as Newton and Leibniz have shown, even an infinitesimal is something. If a naturally occurring bend in space-time can be considered "something," then certainly a mathematically proven infinitesimal must be given the same standing.

wombat said...

FWIW I tend to agree with you. Just having kick at the tyres...

"If nothing is what currently exists, what is there to know?"

Well if you are a Platonist then presumably there is all the stuff in the realm of pure thought - you can learn or deduce all the theoretical geometry you want.

This seem to be an aspect that (as far as I know) all Western theistic cosmologies sweep under the carpet. OK suppose we accept the bit about light, heaven and earth, birds of the air, creeping things etc. What day did He create triangles then?

M. Tully said...

"Well if you are a Platonist then presumably there is all the stuff in the realm of pure thought "

Ehn, ehn, ehnaah...

If there is nothing, that would include pure thought, pure thought must be something, otherwise how does one argue it exists?

wombat, I think we got them on this one. And we do it without any empirical evidence (which is amazing, because if the positions were reversed, a good response would be, "Nice sophism, now where is the evidence?")

No, I think we have them with this one. Philosophically, either nihilo is or it isn't. If it is, then nihilo is what it is and it precludes omnigod. If it isn't, then a scientific discussion of the origins of the universe is warranted. Complete with mathematical and evidential arguments.

The only argument they have left is, "Let me tell you why epistemological hypocrisy is the way to go."

M. Tully said...

"FWIW I tend to agree with you. Just having kick at the tyres..."

I appreciate the kick. Goodness knows, having other intelligent people examine your arguments is the fastest way to dump what doesn't work and move on to a better way of looking at the problem.

wombat said...

M. Tully - When I said "..realm of pure thought.." I was being imprecise I suppose. "Realm of Ideal Forms" would have been closer I expect.

Kyles point that "nothing is not a something" seems to cut through most of the confusion. It does not seem to make sense to talk of creation from "nothing" in the same way as say the emergence of a chicken from an egg, or something appearing in an empty room.

Historically we have tended to treat "nothing" like the empty room and to a large extent most people still think this way (at least in everyday life) then someone pointed out that the room isn't really empty it's full of air so we refine our idea of nothing to mean a vacuum. Now of course we accept the idea (with some empirical support) that even our vacuum contains spacetime.
What if we could somehow get rid of the spacetime? Would we then have a room that truly contained "nothing". No. We would simply have a distorted region of spacetime bounded by something than looked externally as if it were a room.

So much for physical "nothing".