tl;dr– "Nothing" is literally just
no thing, i.e. there not being a thing to refer to. However, it's been used colloquially, e.g. "Double nothing is still nothing.", creating common misunderstandings in which it's conflated with default-values, e.g. zero and empty-sets, leading to fallacious equivocation.
Historically, such confusion arose when the distinction wasn't properly recognized before being corrected. Such fallacious equivocations can make it difficult for folks to reason about the concept of "nothing".
"Nothing" denotes an absence of anything to refer to.
Tautologically, something can't come from nothing because nothing isn't a thing; by definition, nothing doesn't refer to a thing at all, even to a thing that doesn't exist.
However, something can come from nothing in the sense that there may not be a thing one would describe as being the thing that caused the something.
Analogy: Language confusion about
?: as "the ternary operator".
To draw an analogy, in programming, there's often a conditional-operator,
?:. It takes three arguments:
a conditional argument (true or false);
the result if the condition's true;
the result if the condition's false.
return (value1 > value2) ? value1 : value2;
basically just tests which of two values is larger, then
return's that larger value.
?: has three arguments (
arg1 ? arg2 : arg3), some folks call it "the ternary operator". However, more generally, a ternary operator is an operator with three arguments;
?: is the ternary operator only in limited contexts in which there aren't other ternary operators.
This sometimes causes confusion on sites like StackExchange as some folks may think that
?: is the ternary operator in a general context, whereas others would see it as only an example of one.
Language confusion about "nothing".
In colloquial exchanges, folks may say stuff like:
|What's in the box?
|What'd they say?
|What's the cost?
And like "the ternary operator", perhaps some folks may learn the word through inference from common usage rather than its fuller meaning, picking up some undue context-specific connotations.
If you ask "Can something come from nothing?", then someone might imagine various notions of "nothing" hoisted from colloquial contexts in more general models, leading to confusion.
For example, someone might think of:
a deposition process in which a solid object appears from "nothing";
an abiogenesis process in which life appears from "nothing";
virtual particles in which particles appear from "nothing";
empty strings, e.g.
"", requiring computer-memory usage and being distinct from
null despite being "nothing".
Ambiguity in "Nothing can come from nothing.".
Say that, one day, someone notices bricks of gold just appearing at a location without apparent cause. Scientists are called in to examine the phenomena; they try to alter local conditions to see what affects the process, but nothing does – the bricks of gold appear in a predictable pattern regardless of environmental modifications.
Folks might say that the bricks are "coming from nothing".
Incorrect interpretation: There's a metaphysical absence of a cause; the bricks are appearing in spite of causality.
Correct interpretation: There's no thing to reference as the cause of the bricks appearing.
Better interpretation: There's no thing that's satisfying to reference as the cause of the bricks appearing.
So can something come from nothing?
Yes, in the sense that a speaker may not have a thing to reference as the causal source of something else.
No, in the sense of there being a thing that is, itself, an objective absence that causes other things.