Monday, July 16, 2012

The Horror of the Nothing that might have been

We’re just barely able to conceive of the absence of any particular thing, and this leads to the famous cosmological conundrum, to the Ultimate Question of why there’s anything at all rather than just nothing. This is the question of the ultimate cause of everything, of whether all that we think of as particular things, including atoms, stars, forces, dimensions, natural laws, or capacities for measurement, are brought into being by that which isn’t any such thing. But how could something come from nothing? 

Alternatively, how can we be philosophically satisfied by any rational explanation which holds that there’s only an infinite chain of particular things, so that the explanation of something always presupposes another thing which needs to be similarly explained? The ultimate explanation would presuppose only nothing, but would then need to perform the magic of trick of showing how nothing at all can become something. 

Indeed, such an explanation wouldn’t be rational, let alone scientific, since reason would turn the nothing into something, as it were, presupposing that the state of nothingness is actually some more familiar sort of specific being, like an empty container. This is just because reason evolved as a tool to be used by animals in the world of particular things, enabling us to cope with threats, for example, by drawing distinctions and devising plans of actions. 

However, reason is an accursed, self-destructive instrument, since one rational distinction is between a thing in general and nothing at all, and this forces us to yearn for the ultimate, complete explanation of everything which lacks any presupposition. Again, this explanation couldn’t be rational, and so the Ultimate Question’s actual meaning is that it indirectly gets at the scary possibility that our best, rational ways of thinking are limited compared to what there might be to know. Hence, the proper response to the Question is to feel holy terror, not to puff ourselves up, roll up our sleeves and pretend that we can transcend ourselves instead of treating nonbeing like any old familiar thing and applying standard rational methods to understanding how it works.

To ask why there’s anything at all is to ask whether our modes of thinking, which all presuppose something, are ultimately limited and futile. When we ask this, we stand at the very limit of our capabilities and wonder whether we’re only like children, after all. We fear that everything somehow rests on what we call nothing, but which is only that which transcends our rational comprehension, that which has no particular features that we can distinguish but which miraculously adds everything to itself, thus preventing a permanent absence of anything, an eternal void instead of the rich universe in which we find ourselves. 

To call this ultimate nothing "God" would be to miss the Question’s point with just as much embarrassing gusto as a rationalist exhibits when she posits not an ultimate person, but an ultimate mathematical or natural entity. No theistic or scientific answer to the Ultimate Question is remotely satisfying. The Question is therefore a cancer in the brain, a never-ending series of slaps in the face, calling for our humility in the face of the inadequacy of our best intellectual efforts to fully understand what’s going on. The so-called nothing that would be named in the Ultimate Answer and that’s positively inconceivable by us, since our reason always turns its subject matters into particular things, is still negatively understood as the possibility of that which is perfectly strange to human beings, that which is forever unknowable by us but which is ironically that which we most long to positively identify.


  1. I also agree with freud, we have a latent death wish as a result. Failing identification *of * the self-willing nuthin, we may wish to identify *with* the nothing that wants for nothing and fears nothing (and not for nothing, either). Instead of suffering the need/desire mechanism, for material reasons, not reasonable ones. we can be notthing and be that much more like everything else.

    1. The desire to be nothing sounds like Buddhism. I'm not sure exactly what Freud made of the death drive, but we should be wary of taking Freud's views to be more scientific than philosophical.