The Metaphysics of Nothing

Nâsato vidyate bhâvo, nâbhâvo vidyate satah.

There is no becoming of what did not already exist, there is no unbecoming of what does exist.

The Bhagavadgîtâ in the Mahâbhârata, translated by J.A.B. van Buitenen, 2:16 [University of Chicago Press, 1981, pp.74-75]

Nothing of nonbeing comes to be, nor does being cease to exist.

The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna's Counsel in Time of War, translated by Barbara Stoler Miller, 2:16 [Bantam Books, 1986, p.49]

The unreal never is: the Real never is not.

The Bhagavad Gita, translated by Juan Mascaró, 2:16 [Penguin Classics, 1962, p.49]

For [there] is the same [thing] to think and to be.

Parmenides of Elea, The Presocratic Philosophers [G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, Cambridge University Press, 1964, p.269, translation modified]

Heidegger says that the fundamental problem of metaphysics is "why there are beings rather than nothing." As it happens, and as Heidegger was certainly aware, there was an answer to this in the earliest days of Greek philosophy. Parmenides said, "For you could not know that which is not (that is impossible) nor utter it; for the same thing can be thought as can be [the same thing exists for thinking as for being]... That which can be spoken and thought must be; for it is possible for it, but not for nothing, to be; that is what I bid you ponder" [The Presocratic Philosophers, G.S. Kirk & J.E. Raven, Cambridge University Press, 1964, pp.269-270, original bracketed alternative; see more literal translation above]. The short answer is thus that beings exist rather than nothing because there cannot be nothing.

The argument that Parmenides offers is that for us to think about something or talk about something, there must be something. But nothing, by definition, is not something. Therefore, we cannot think about it or talk about it, and should not. In other words, we cannot properly use the concept; and when we don't, things like "coming into being" and "perishing." which require non-existence, cease to exist.

Now, there is a sense in which Parmenides must be quite wrong. There are impossible objects that we can conceive and talk about quite easily, like square circles or imaginary numbers. People believe many impossible things, such as that there are honest politicians. As Lewis Carroll has Alice say, "'There's no use trying... one ca'n't believe impossible things," to which the White Queen answers, "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

What is distinctive about impossible things is not that we cannot conceive them or think about them, but that they cannot exist. That is actually all that is needed for Parmenides' argument. He is not really trying (I hope) to get us to stop thinking about talking about "not being" -- he is doing that himself -- but he wants us to understand that the concept of "not being" is self-contradictory and so cannot represent anything in reality. We got something like this in 20th Century philosophy, when the Logical Positivists wanted to deny the existence of metaphysics and ethics with the argument that metaphysical and ethical statements were without meaning (a knock-off from Hume) -- even though they were making such statements themselves, apparently with the expectation that we would grasp the meaning of what they were talking about. What they were really denying was that there was a ground of verification for the existence of the objects of metaphysical or ethical concepts. They seem to have overlooked the requirement that, to verify or falsify anything, we must know, i.e. understand the meaning of, what we are talking about. The amount of confusion involved in such claims is remarkable for what should have been an advanced period in the history of philosophy.

Historically, people have wanted to say, starting with Plato, that Parmenides was simply confusing the existential with the predicative uses of "is," so that when we say something like, "Parmenides was not a Californian," we are not talking about not being, only asserting that a particular predicate (Californian) does not belong to a particular subject (Parmenides). However, this is not the way Parmenides talks. His examples are not of predication. His entire argument begins with the concept of "not being" and is a critique of that concept, that we think about it as though it refers to something, even though, by definition, it cannot.

We might also think that the whole business is rather silly. We sometimes talk about "nothing" in the sense of things that are not very important or memorable, but we rarely have literal discourse about Not Being. But the issue is far from silly, and the conclusions of Parmenides are today part of one of the fundamental principles of modern physics. Since Parmenides did not believe that not being could exist, then Being could not become Not Being and Not Being could not become Being. Ex nihilo, nihil fit, "Out of nothing comes nothing," was the way this would be expressed in Mediaeval Latin. In physics, the equivalent of this are "conservation" laws, beginning with the Conservation of Mass, that mass cannot be created or destroyed. Subsequently we got the "Conservation of Energy," and then Einstein combined them, so that mass can turn into energy, and energy mass, but neither can be lost absolutely. The Conservation of Mass (or Energy) was a scientific hypothesis to be tested over time. It has continually passed all tests, but we might also wonder about its origin. As Karl Popper would say, it began as a conjecture. But with Parmenides it was a little bit more than a conjecture. It was an argument and a critique of the concept of Not Being. Matter cannot become nothing, because something cannot become nothing, nor nothing something.

There is one area were predication becomes an issue in the theory of Parmenides. In the world, things seem to come into being and pass out of being. For a while, Prussia is there, and then it is gone. For a while, the Beatles are there; then they are gone. The parrot in the Monty Python skit has "ceased to be." Parmenides believes that this violates his principles, since Not Being does not exist for Prussia to become. He therefore says, "So coming into being is extinguished and perishing unimaginable" [Fragment 8], and this presumably must apply to every kind of thing.

Now, although it does not trouble Parmenides, this looks to be contradicted by experience and common sense. Thus, in Aristotle's metaphysics, substances are durable, but they do come into being and pass out of being. The element that survives from Parmenides is that in this generation and corruption, the substances do not become nothing, they always become something else. That happens because there is a durable underlying reality, the hypokeímenon, that persists through all changes. Aristotle identified that as matter, hýlê. Eventually, rather than Aristotle's substance as Form, we come to think of something like the matter, the underlying thing, as the substance, something that cannot be destroyed or created.

Today, however, matter has come to look rather more like Aristotle's substances. Electrons and protons can become neutrons. Electrons and positrons can become energy, etc. Many physicists may now think of the truly "underlying" thing as energy, but then energy itself always takes some particular form. Electrons and positrons do not just become "energy" in general. They mutually annihilate to become electromagnetic radiation, because the reaction is mediated by the electromagnetic force. That radiation can then hit something and excite an electron to higher energy level in an atom. I have argued that the thing that truly underlies all these transformations is just space itself, but we need not consider that now.

If there is coming into being and perishing, then what survives from Parmenides is the principle of the hypokeímenon, substrance, or conservation. One kind of thing can turn into another, but things cannot simply become nothing, or arise (permanently) out of nothing (there is some fudging on this in quantum mechanics -- only things with no real mass or energy can permanently arise out of the vaccuum).

Where this question becomes acute is with respect to our own existence. We face the possibility of becoming nothing at death. In one sense, we already know that this will not happen. We die, but our body remains. It may be preserved, decay, or be cremated, but its substance surives as a corpse, mummy, ash, etc. But this rather misses the point. The sort of existence that is to us our existence is not simply the body; it is our consciousness. We are conscious beings; and our existence, in so far as we are aware of our existence and enjoy it, is a conscious existence. We can conceive and imagine existing without this body, this kind of body, or indeed any body -- and Hume says, if it is conceivable, then it is possible. So, as Hamlet says, "Ay, there's the rub." Apples do not become nothing, but they cease to be apples. Human beings do not become nothing, but they cease to be human beings. We die and our body ceases to be that of a human being. Perhaps our consciousness goes with it.

If that is the case, however, then at death we will, in terms of any existence that is significant to us, truly and literally become nothing. Historically, this has consistently struck people as peculiar. It involves a metaphysical proposition that our "true" existence, and the true substance involved with our existence, is material. Matter survives, but consciousness does not. The elements of this were the most starkly stated by Descartes, who allowed that both matter and mind were separate substances. The difficulties this dualism created for him are well known. Indeed, consciousness actually does seem to disappear every day, as we sleep -- Socrates himself complacently considered the possibility that death was an endless deep sleep. We would not know this from Descrates, who never considers how a substance that essentially thinks, the soul, can cease thinking every night in deep sleep -- a problem discerned by John Locke. Most people do not fear sleep, however, because they expect to wake up. If the analogy holds, we would not fear death, because we would simply expect to wake up. The expression Socrates uses, that "...all eternity would then seem to be no more than a single night," leaves us with the impression that, should eternity, time itself, pass away, then we will again awaken.

If the paradoxes of Descartes' theory discredit it, that leaves our existence, in Descartes' own terms, as only a material existence, with a body that will become no more sentient than a brick. So, personally and individually, we are faced with the Void, with Not Being, with Nothingness at death. If you wonder what Not Being is like, well, buddy, you're going to find out. Yet this returns us to the precise thing, or non-thing, against which the original argument of Parmenides was directed. Not Being, the impossible object, is precisely what we will become and experience. It doesn't matter to us if others see some rotting corpse lying around, we in our proper internal selves will have been bundled off to permanent Oblivion.

There therefore seems to have been some kind of mistake. There then are, broadly speaking, two ways to fix this up: (1) First we can say that our conscious existence wasn't really existence in the first place. Behaviorists and similar reductionists go in that direction. Our conscious existence is some kind of illusion, misconception, or superstition. As the logician Benson Mates says, thoughts don't exist. This sort of thing has been popular with philosophers but incomprehensible to nearly everyone else. It's absurdity is well exposed by John Searle, who otherwise, however, remains a materialist. (2) Second we can question the truth of Materialism. Descartes' mistake was to allow the existence of material substance in the first place. Given the failure of his theory of the substantial soul, Materialism won by default.

Today, Materialism is the most popular metaphysical theory among those who don't believe in metaphysics, don't think they are ever doing it, and would be indignant if they were accused of making metaphysical assertions, just because of their naive and uncritical materialist views. Searle himself seems to fall into this camp. Their views, however, are indeed naive and uncritical. It is hard to know how any informed scholar in philosophy could subscribe to Materialism after going through the development of philosophy in Berkeley, Hume, and Kant. Indeed, the contemporary attitude began as a version of Hume, who was a Skeptic and so tried to suspend judgment in all genuinely metaphysical matters. This approach was continued by the Positivists, who refused to worry about even the simplest metaphysical doctrines, like Realism -- the proposition that scientific knowledge actually refers to an existing world. We still see an attempt to follow this approach in someone like the physicist Stephen Hawking.

In philosophy proper, however, a studied Skepticism or Positivism seems to have given way to a careless attitude that, as the alternatives are absurd (and probably only believed by contemptible religious fundamentalists), Materialism is simply true in some obvious and intuitive way. There have been no real breakthroughs in thought with this. It is simply fallout from the general nihilism and carelessness that has overtaken modern academia in general. Meanwhile, ironically, it is matter itself that has fallen apart in several very profound ways.

First of all, the materialist used to be comforted by the evident solidity, and hence reality, of matter. Dr. Johnson refutes Berkeley by kicking the table (or something). Yet now the physicists have delivered up atoms that, but for a few subatomic particles, are empty space. Indeed, although this is rarely stated openly and flatly, atoms are entirely empty place, since the fundamental subatomic particles (quarks and leptons) are "Dirac Point Particles" which have no extension. Popular "string theory" doesn't help this, since the strings are one dimensional objects which do not fill space any more than the point particles. This means that all that actually fills space are fields, and there is no agreement in physics about what a field is (with different versions in Relativity and Quantum Mechanics). So all the comforting solidity of matter has evaporated into thin, nebulous, and uncertain alternatives.

More seriously than this, we have the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. According to Niels Bohr, nothing exists until it is observed. This isn't exactly the suspended judgment of the Positivist, since Bohr does reference an empirical or phenomenal realism of the observed world. It is the unobserved world that dissolves into a "probability cloud," which reflects the nature of our knowledge rather than the nature of the external world. The result, consquently, is something that looks very much like the opposite of Materialism. Existence only occurs in consciousness. This is traditionally called "Idealism," and it stands Materialism completely on its head.

Physicists either do not have the philosophical background to understand the implications of this, have determined not to worry about it (like Richard Feynman), since it doesn't really matter for the practice of their science, or, like Hawking, they retreat into Positivism. In philosophy, failure to address the implications of Copenhagen Quantum Mechanics now begins to amount to a kind of bad faith or professional incompetence. At first, there was enthusiasm (?!) that Quantum Mechanics violated causality and thus refuted both Aristotelian and Kantian views of causality. This went along with a grave misreading and misunderstanding of Hume's evaluation of causality. Since causality as the laws of nature (as Hume understood it) is not in the least undermined, but only reinforced, by Quantum Mechanics, this particular fashion has rather died out. Meanwhile, of course, most of Bohr's colleagues in physics, like Einstein, Schrödinger, and de Broglie, who, like Roger Penrose, viewed Realism as presupposed by all proper science, were horrified at this metaphysical implication of the Copenhagen Interpretation -- at a time when philosophers, like the Positivists, were busy eschewing metaphysics as beneath serious attention. The first reaction of the philosophers, then, was to pass over the whole business as of no concern. So, as I have noted elsewhere, while Einstein and Kurt Gödel were walking down to the Institute for Advanced Study arguing about Kant, Bertrand Russell found the whole business ridiculous. Philosophy has not done much better, or improved its attitude much, since then.

For, as it happens, there was already a system of metaphysics that precisely matched Bohr's physics without its anti-realist and idealistic implications. That was the system, indeed, of Immanuel Kant. Thus, in speaking of the empirical and phenomenal reality of Bohr's observed world, I have used Kant's own terminology, as Bohr himself (or Einstein) would have been quite aware. To Kant, reality exists a certain way because it is perceived by us and appears in our consciousness. On the other hand, objects do not exist because we observe them, and so Kant asserted that things in themselves exist apart from consciousness. This prevented Kant from being a genuine idealist in vein of Hegel or even the so-called "Neo-Kantians," all of whom rejected the idea of things in themselves. Yet it is only Kant who allows the dualism so evident in Quantum Mechanics (and well described by Penrose) -- Schrödinger's deterministic wave function, which once observed collapses into the random distribution of particles, according to Bohr and Heisenberg.

I have therefore described a system of "Kantian Quantum Mechanics." The implications for the metaphysics of nothingness, however, is the same whether we use the Copenhagen Interpretation or the Kantian:  Consciousness is fundamenal, indeed, foundational, to anything that we might want to call "matter." This puts death into a very different perspective. Consciousness is not some accidental or imaginary epiphenomenon of those real and sensible blocks of solid stuff lying around out there. They are the epiphenomena of, indeed, phenomenal reality, which is a function of consciousness. The balance of subject and object, whether the object exists independently in itself (Kant) or not (Bohr, Hegel), tips back toward the subject. If the underlying reality is essentially connected to consciousness, not to matter, then, if something cannot become nothing, it is more likely that the Big Sleep -- death -- must require its own awakening. We do exist, consciousnessly, in a substantial way; and we cannot become nothing.

Like all argument in philosophy, we are free to take this or leave it. But we are not justified in any complacency about the commonsense reality of matter, death, and nothingness. Between Parmenides, Kant, and Bohr, the legs are cut out from under Materialism, and its fall leaves questions about our personal existence far more open than most people in modern philosophy, let alone among the nihilism and atheism of trendy opinion in the intelligentsia, are willing to acknowledge. As I have considered elsewhere, John Searle's statement, "To my knowledge, there are no purely philosophical or scientific motivations for accepting the existence of immortal mental substances" [The Rediscovery of the Mind, the MIT Press, 1992, p. 27], is defective in both "philosophical" (Kant) and "scientific" (Bohr) motivations. Quantum Mechanics, to be sure, does not obviously require "immortal mental substances," but it definitely upsets the apple cart for anyone who is happy substituting material substances for mental ones, in a way that should not be surprising for anyone who has carefully and critically followed the history of philosophy.

The verse from the Bhagavad Gita (2:16) at the top of the page is part of the argument that Krishna makes to Arjuna for the immortality of the self. As with Parmenides, the point is that something cannot come from nothing or become nothing. We do not get any consideration, however, why a person does not disappear in the same way that wood can be burned into ash and smoke. For that, we need the background of the Upanishads and Vedânta, that the world itself is only a content of consciousness, the consciousness of the ultimate Self, Brahman. As the Chândogya Upanishad says, Tat tvam asi, , "Thou art that." In death, as in sleep, it is not the self that goes away into oblivion, it is the world.

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