Nothing on my mind.
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.
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
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 felicitouslyif more paradoxically"nothing:
something that does not exist.") Although the ancient Eleatic sage
Parmenides declared that it was impossible to speak of what is notviolating
his own rule in the processthe 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
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 beginningthe 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 somethingworlds
in which Henry Kissinger is a steeplejack, worlds in which every thing
is made of cream cheesethere 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
-- Responses Sought --
Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us by obligations,
not by rights.
|Jose Ortega y Gasset
The Revolt of the Masses, 1930