Sunday, 27 December 2020

Things and Nothing

 by Thomas Scarborough

As this year draws to a close, we soar beyond the turbulent things which have so exercised philosophical hearts and minds, to consider for a moment one of the very abstract and timeless questions of philosophy: ‘things’ and their opposites.

There are, in this world, ‘things’. Or so we suppose. These are also called objects, entities, items, existents, or beings—terms which, by and large, all mean the same thing. The philosopher William Rowe wrote that a ‘thing’ is any item whose existence is acknowledged by a system of ontology, whether that item be particular, universal, abstract, or concrete. The whole universe, even, may be called a ‘thing’. So far so good.

But what is the opposite of a thing? Or what is its contrast, or complement? Nothing, perhaps. But how could there be ‘nothing’? That would seem to be supreme philosophical nonsense. Or suppose that there is a thing which failed to exist? It never came into being. What should we say about that?

Somebody observed that all of our philosophical concepts may be grouped in pairs. Where we find ‘altruism’, we find ‘egoism’; where we find ‘theism’, ‘atheism’; where we find ‘realism’, ‘anti-realism’—and so on, from A to Z. Some do the same with ‘things’. Where there are things, we find nothing. The philosophers Bradley Rettler and Andrew Bailey comment,

‘It’s not clear whether anyone sincerely endorses the thesis that there is nothing, However, it has been defended several times over.’

One could contend that ‘things’ are things in space and time, while nothings are not—like numbers, for instance, or society, or force. Or one could say that things exist, but properties do not. Say, a house exists, but its karma does not. In that case, a great many things ‘do not exist’. Or one could say, as the existentialists do, that one may experience Nothing. But existentialists are afraid of Nothing, jokes the philosopher Simon Blackburn, where there is nothing to be afraid of.

There is one obvious way that we can try to solve the problem, and many have taken this course: namely, first define a ‘thing’. If what chiefly defines a ‘thing’ is that it is, then of course, its opposite must be a thing which is not—perhaps rather, nothing. But is that properly the way to define a thing?

I shall here accept the view, for the sake of argument, that all the things we call things are things: things which exist in space and time (objects), things which happen (events), and things which exist in the mind (concepts). Now suppose that, in order to create all of these things, we need to differentiate them from what the philosopher and psychologist William James called the ‘undifferentiated stream of experience’.

Things have contours. They have definition. But the opposite of things do not. When things lose their contours, they slip back into the undifferentiated stream. Another way of putting it is that, if nothing is not related to the rest of reality—not a word, not a motion, not an entity, not an event—then we artificially separate things when we call them ‘things’. Artificially, because we strip away from them their completeness.

To create a 'nut', we throw away the fruit, and the tree, and the soil, and the air, and the universe. If we included all these things which are essential to the nut's existence, we could never isolate a nut as a thing. Therefore it is simply 'an edible kernel', or something of the sort.  We strip away the interconnections or interdependencies, to create something which is self-contained.  

The philosopher of science Alan Chalmers describes our reality like this:

‘Many kinds of processes are at work in the world around us, and they are all superimposed on, and interact with, each other ...’

If this is true, then it stands to reason that any ‘thing’ which we cut out from this whole is not wholly itself. 'Nothing' is therefore that which gives birth to things. It is that which exists before we create the contours which create things. In his translation of Lao Tzu, Sam Hamill writes, ‘There was some undifferentiated something here, before heaven and earth.’

The opposite of things, therefore, is a world which is without them—because they have not emerged from it. Nothing was the plastic rattle, before the infant apprehended it. Nothing was the theory, before the scientist formulated it. Nothing was the environment, before it emerged in our minds and hearts. Nothing is all those things which could be, but are not, or are yet to come, because they have no contours.


Keith said...

You’ve explored here, Thomas, a perennially fascinating subject. I enjoyed your essay. Let me, out of curiosity, tinker around just one small aspect of the discussion . . .

By asking either ‘How could there be nothing?’ or ‘Suppose that there is a thing which failed to exist?’, do we syntactically, and even ontologically, end up consigning ‘nothing’ to be a ‘thing’? Is there any way out of this conundrum of unintentionally turning ‘nothing’ into ‘being’ — the very thing it’s not supposed to be — and in effect thereby contradictorily folding ‘nothing’ back onto itself? That is, to cause ‘nothing’ to cycle back around to ‘thing’ — the very thing it’s not supposed to be? When we say, ‘The opposite of things, therefore, is a world [aside: isn’t ‘a world’, then, not ‘a thing’?] which is without them’, isn’t that also an example of syntactically or ontologically consigning ‘nothing’ to be a ‘thing’? Is this conundrum or paradox the fault of the limits of our language, or the limits of our ontology?

Thomas Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. I am saying that yes, nothing exists, but it is the nothing of an undefined reality. Call it a tabula rasa.

I'll try to put it in different terms. Suppose we develop a theory that A causes B. We refine the theory, to show that A + B causes C. We refine it some more. A + B + C + ... causes Z. Driven to its logical conclusion, all things cause all things. But this now means that we cannot isolate A as a cause. Nor B nor C ... We are left with no causal entity at all. This is 'nothing' to cause anything. But it is not truly nothing. Like the Tao, 'its form is formless, its image is invisible’.

The next question is, what lies behind the opposites of this something-nothing pair? This we cannot tell, because it is impossible to speak about causal effects in the realm of 'nothing'. Everything dissolves there.

I hope that makes sense!

Keith said...

It seems to me, Thomas, perhaps we’re not so much talking about ‘something’ emerging from ‘nothing’, as nothingness by definition would preclude the ‘initial conditions’ critically required for the emergence of a universe, to include all the lumpy and not-so-lumpy things that compose it. Also, to my mind, ‘nothingness’ is not the mere absence (or opposite) of ‘something’. Rather, perhaps it is possible to regard ‘nothingness’ as theoretically having been just as possible as ‘something’. As a further handicap, however, I’m unconvinced that the human mind can even begin to conceptualise true ‘nothingness’, given that the mind is itself embedded within ‘something’.

Instead, I believe that there has only ever been ‘something’ — where notions of beginning (with an implied ‘before’) and end (with an implied ‘after’) are arguably rendered meaningless. And accordingly, with ‘something’ as the default, ‘nothingness’ never has been or could have been. In this simple model, the explanation for ‘something’ always to have existed and will exist is fundamentally, non-contingently rooted within itself: that is, the non-conditional primacy of our cosmic ‘something’ is what I’d label along the lines of ‘self-essence’ or ‘self-being’.

Thomas Scarborough said...

At the moment, theories of the universe seem to be greatly unsettled, which was not the case a few years ago.

So I am saying, to put it too simply, that 'nothing' is something which does exist, yet lies beyond human reason.

It all depends on how one defines 'something'. If a thing is something that IS, then its opposite is what IS NOT. I am saying that a thing is something with CONTOURS, so that its opposite is something WITHOUT CONTOURS.

Martin Cohen said...

Yes, nothing is something, and something is nothing. Not by chance do you quote those riddlers the Taoists!

I'm not very persuaded b y this argumentative tactic, Thomas:

"I am saying that a thing is something with CONTOURS, so that its opposite is something WITHOUT CONTOURS."

I'm not sure why we should accept that "nothing is something" - whatever extra properties you wish to contour up!

Seems to me that nothing is "nothing" and this nothing is indeed without "contours", a social security number, food for supper... anything you like! There's nothing that nothing lacks.

Thomas Scarborough said...

William James wrote about an 'undifferentiated stream of experience', Ferdinand de Saussure of a 'swirling cloud without determinate shape', Benjamin Whorf of a 'kaleidoscopic flux of impressions'. These thinkers, and many more, assumed that we begin with an undifferentiated reality, and that ideas emerge from this ex nihilo as it were. Lao Tzu, rather than being quoted as an authority, is put forward as a possibility that he is saying the same. For instance, 'The unnameable is the origin of heaven and earth.' The existence-non-existence distinction is thus reinterpreted as a named-unnamed distinction. This seems to put the question of non-existence out of bounds, since that which is unnamed cannot be spoken about.

Keith said...

Those two words, ‘ex nihilo’, open up to a whole host of debatable ideas. It’s a deceptively tiny expression, yet one deserving an essay unto itself. As just one case in point, a supposed vacuum (the ‘nihilo’ bit?) is considered chock-a-block with virtual particles — quantum fluctuations, one might say — that instantaneously dart in and out. Yet such fluxes are not true ‘nothingness’, of course. Nor are they the science equivalent of the so-called noncontingent ‘prime mover’ that some philosophers have referred to over the centuries. In short, no matter how darting and insubstantial, even virtual particles are surely still ‘something’. Therefore their presence, or their ‘somethingness’, still requires a case to be built to explain their origin — as is equally true for any sort of necessary ‘initial conditions’ from which something like the universe might have emerged. And so it goes — until noncontingent infinity begins to look increasingly attractive.

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