Australia :: June 1994 - March 1995

Subject: Nothing on my mind.
Date: December 4, 1994 15:01

13:47 Vancouver, BC-Canada :: 03 DEC 94

A physicist I know claims that things make much more sense if you assume the world was created not by an all-good and all-powerful being but by one that is 100 percent malevolent but only 90 percent effective.
Jim Holt
"Nothing Ventured,"
Harper's Magazine, Nov., 1994

The ontological excursion in "Nothing Ventured" begins with the following sentences.

Most people spend a good deal of time thinking about nothing. Few, though, take the next obvious step and wonder: why is there something rather than nothing?

Holt loads his essay with double meanings representing nothing. The "nothing" of the first sentence has little in common with the "nothing" in the second; they're not the same thing. Those people "thinking about nothing" are thinking of insignificant some thing's, "nothing important."

While postulating on the one hand that there can be only one kind of nothing his language wanders through a myriad of possible nothings:

What is Nothing? Macbeth answered this question with admirable concinnity: Nothing is but what is not. (Or as my dictionary puts it, somewhat less felicitously—if more paradoxically—"nothing: something that does not exist.") Although the ancient Eleatic sage Parmenides declared that it was impossible to speak of what is not—violating his own rule in the process—the plain man knows better. Nothing is, for example, popularly held to be better than a dry martini but worse than sand in the bedsheets. On occasion, nothing could be further from the truth, but it is not clear how much further. Nothing is impossible for God yet a breeze for rankest incompetent. In fact, no matter what pair of contradictory properties you choose, nothing seems capable of embodying them.

These "nothing"s have nothing in common with the nothing of the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" And Holt should dispose of that dictionary with extreme prejudice.

The problem is one of language. He spouts "sweet nothings" of seeming profundity that are instead irrelevancies. Holt acknowledges Wittgenstein's warning: "If I say, 'I wonder at the existence of the world,' I am misusing language." Yet he plods on offering no cure or salve for the gaping wound. "Nothing" is a word with many applications and Holt weights each one equally in his pursuit of the "nothing" in question. He is misdirected in his exploration of nothing and is lead to the plethora of nothings cited above. Wittgenstein would say that until Holt recognizes the fallacy inherent in his efforts he is doomed to such poor results.

Like his dictionary, Holt uses the word "nothing" as if it refers to a substantive. This is an ironic, grand-daddy exemplification of the Fallacy of Reference. The statement, "Nothing is something that does not exist" isn't paradoxical, it's meaningless. Usage of such a meaning within philosophical discourse is plain dangerous. It allows him to make such statements as,

For we now know that . . . the cosmos is not eternal. Rather it sprang into being some 15 billion years ago with the explosion of an infinitesimal speck of infinitely concentrated energy.

An infinitesimal speck of infinitely concentrated energy is most certainly not nothing. Our current language apparently treats the Big Bang as Time Zero of Existence. Why need this be so? Few seem to be as interested in what that infinitesimal speck was doing before the fuse burned down; how did it come to be? Culturally, perhaps consciously, we need a beginning, a middle and an end to all stories, even that of something. Thus every culture of human kind has a Genesis, and a Revelations while they live out the middle time of existence. Ironically, it is as hard for us to think of a world without a beginning as it is for us to conceive of what could have been going on before this beginning—the author of a story always develops the 'back story,' the events that unfolded to create the characters and circumstances required for the story could begin. Before Genesis, there was God. Before the Big Bang, an infinitesimal speck of infinitely concentrated energy. The back story is another story ready to be told.

The bigger question for me: Why is 'our' Big Bang the only one? Because our limited vision sees only its effects? We lock ourselves in a room, putting reality in a handy little box. Existence extends only so far as our experience of it. Because once we saw only the surface of the Earth we thought our world was flat. Once we began to understand the sky, we saw the earth anew, as a sphere around which all other objects revolved. Now that we see all celestial objects in the sky as moving from a single point in space, we believe that all possible celestial bodies are tied to this single Big Bang.

. . . while there are many possible ways for there to be something—worlds in which Henry Kissinger is a steeplejack, worlds in which every thing is made of cream cheese—there is only one way for there to be nothing; and that uniqueness would seem to elevate nullity from the crowd.

The walls of the room crowd us in. Is there really only one way for there to be nothing? Is it indeed possible at all that there can be nothingness? Is there more than one way for there to be anything? Is a world made entirely of cream cheese possible or is such a statement merely a language game? Is this the only possible world?

Since we're playing so loosely with reality, there are at least two ways for there to be nothing: a state in which nothing exists; a state in which no consciousness exists to experience whatever does exist. As far as language is concerned, these states are equivalent since language itself does not exist under either condition. But that is no less a language game than the postulation of a curdled milk existence.

Existence is axiomatic. It's all we know. Thinking of nothing is like not thinking of a pink elephant. That pink elephant, or something, keeps coming to mind. Asking, "Why is there something?" is like asking "Why, in logic, is it true that 'A is A'?" Goedel showed that the truth of the logical proposition 'A is A' cannot be proved using logic. This is true of the axioms in all self-consistent systems. We take them to be self-evident on a mixture of experience and faith and sometimes by applying the laws of a system external to the self-consistent one. If the axiom of Existence is taken to be the central axiom of understanding, and that there is no larger system external to the one containing that axiom, then the question "Why is there something rather than nothing" is nothing but another language game. We have no experience or faith in nothing.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --


Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us— by obligations, not by rights.

  graphical element Jose Ortega y Gasset
The Revolt of the Masses, 1930