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Some Thing or No Thing

David Cowles

Jun 1, 2024

“Whatever is, is self-aware, and what is self-aware, is!”

Why are there some things rather than no things? To be clear: no thing is not ‘nothing’. ‘No thing’ simply refers to the absence of things. (Likewise, ‘something’ doesn’t necessarily entail the existence of some things.) It is not a given that being be ‘thingy’, i.e. lumpy…it just is!

Riddle: How is the universe like salt water taffy? Answer: Undifferentiated taffy (something) is subject to a simple twist that separates some thing (one piece) from something (continuous taffy flow). Note: I learned this at The Goldenrod in York Beach, Maine, not at CERN.

On a cosmological scale, a similar ‘twisting’ is what makes ‘something’ some thing. A ‘twist’ occurs whenever a thing intersects itself, i.e. interacts with itself. We call such a twist, ‘recursion’. It is the dawn of self-awareness and the spark of identity. Twist is key; we’ll come back to ‘twist’ later in our tale.

When an entity acts upon itself, like when a baby touches its toes, it is, therefore and thereby, self-aware. Awareness is like a mirror. Recursion makes space reflective, but such recursion is enabled or prevented by the underlying topology of space itself.   

To be is to be self-aware. Self-awareness is a function of the recursive twist that defines a particular region of spacetime as some thing. Self-awareness is what culls some thing out of something – like a certain taffy-twisting machine I know.   

Humor me. Pretend for a moment that an electron is not self-aware. Does that mean it doesn’t exist? Of course it exists! But without self-awareness, it is not some thing. It is something but not some thing. Its being is undifferentiated, like the taffy flow. 

How could that be? Well, for example, such an electron could be thought of as a graduated undulation (you might call it a ‘wave’) in the electro-magnetic field – i.e. not a ‘thing’ in the sense of something with a distinct location in space and time: focus not locus

Cosmos ‘before’ creation: “formless…empty…darkness” (Genesis 1:1) It is nothing, but what is nothing? If ‘nothing’ was a sterile receptacle, that would be something, i.e. a limitation imposed on the creative process, an obstacle, a barrier. But nothing is not that; nothing does not preclude or hinder in any way the emergence of something. What we mistake as ‘nothing and something’ is really just ‘potentiality and actuality’. 

Prior to Creation, there was nothing, neither light nor dark…or same thing, there was both light and dark. Out of pure potentiality, the primal creative act gathered light and separated it from dark: “the first day” - the primal, prototypical distinction, i.e. distinction itself. 

Over the next 5 days, the Cosmos interacting with itself (evolution) triggered an avalanche of things (dry land, celestial bodies, living organisms, etc.). Our world is a colloidal conglomerate of things (light) differentiated from each other by…nothing (dark). The world we experience is ‘what’s gathered’ and not what’s not. We see ‘things’ directly; we can only infer the influence of the residual ‘nothing’ that makes those ‘things’ possible.  

A sterile receptacle would be something – a negative something but something nonetheless. It would restrict genesis, introduce friction into the creative process.  Empty space, on the other hand, is truly nothing; and therefore it is a compatible environment for the emergence of things

Western philosophy has been infected by the disease of Dualism. We have imagined that all awareness, including self-awareness, requires ‘one who is aware’ and one who is the object of such awareness. Call it mind/body, body/soul, ego/id… 

But once we say 1 = 2, it’s game over! We cannot make progress in these areas until we change the paradigm. 1 ≠ 2…but 2 = 1. (The commutative property never applies IRL. No two events are ever interchangeable.) 

Among others, Alfred North Whitehead demonstrated that what we perceive as two ‘states’ (observer/observed) is really just a single ‘process’. Instead of two related ‘entities’ we have one entity with two poles. Yes, the world is ‘bi-polar’…in the full psychiatric sense of the word.

Whatever is, is self-aware, and what is self-aware, is! No, I will not get sucked into a debate with you over what is or isn’t self-aware. Do you believe that you are the only self-aware entity in the universe? Cheers! Do you believe that only human beings can be self-aware? Bully! 

Or are you willing to extend self-awareness to primates and parrots, bees and barracuda, fungi and forests? How about the 30 trillion cells that make up our bodies? Bacteria? Mitochondria? Molecules, atoms, electrons, quarks, gluons? How about your favorite AI PA? 

I couldn’t care less. Enjoy yourself! But know this: Whatever you do call self-aware, you also call a ‘thing’ and whatever you call a ‘thing’, you also call self-aware

Sidebar: I saw the dentist today and we discussed the possibility of capping a couple of my teeth. One tooth might require a root canal. I asked for an explanation, but I hardly heard a word. I stopped listening as soon as the dentist said, “The nerve naturally pulls away from stress and irritation; that’s why, as we age, our dental roots tend to recede into our gums.”

So the nerves in my teeth are sufficiently self-aware to get the heck out of the way when I’m chomping down on them. Of course, you’re thinking, “A nerve doesn’t have to be self-aware to react to environmental stimuli; that could just be some biochemical reaction.”

Of course, it’s a biochemical reaction. But is that reaction facilitated in some way by the nerve’s self-awareness? The world of biochemistry is non-linear and non-linearity is close to the definition of self-awareness. 

Consider our root: It consists of 4 different types of cells and there are more than 1,000,000 such cells in every human dental root. We need to account, not just for a flight response to stress, but for the coordinated activity of over a million cells over a period of decades. 

We are not talking about a single reaction of a single cell to a single stimulus. We’re not even talking about the reactions of a million single cells. We’re talking about the coordinated action of a million cells. We’re talking about a process that requires some species of communication and coordination. It might not be the Charge of the Light Brigade, but it is something – something modeled better by self-awareness than by biochemistry alone.  

But why? Why is the cosmos like this? It has been suggested that what we experience as ‘self-awareness’ is really just the experience we have of God as God experiences the world. In one version, we are God’s eyes, in another God’s fingers. In yet another version, ‘we’ are just the passive and accidental by-products of God’s intentional activity.

Alternatively, it has been proposed that there is a yet unidentified field (X), like the EM or Higgs fields, that permeates the cosmos and interacts in various ways with various entities to generate the phenomenon of self-awareness. Want to be self-aware? Just tap into the X Field! Tired of watching yourself mess up? Just tamp down the tap…or turn it off altogether.  

Then there’s Leibniz (c. 1700). He kicked off a movement that understood ‘awareness’ as reflection. Leibniz himself proposed that ‘actual entities’ (i.e. Monads) might be ‘naturally reflective’. In his view, to reflect and be reflected is what it means to be. 

Another version of this reflection ontology borrows from topology; reflection is understood as a topological feature of the cosmos. One such model invokes non-orientable topology as follows: 

We are used to two sided pieces of paper, boxes with an inside and an out. We are surprised to learn in middle school that these distinctions can be made to go away with a single ‘quantum’ gesture (a simple twist).  A one-sided piece of paper? A box with no inside? What will God think of next? Now, every 7th grade girl or boy is Merlin…or Happy Potter – no wand required! What a time to be alive!

If I were a Klein Bottle, a 3 dimensional version of a non-orientable Mobius Ring (above), I would be inherently self-aware. With no inside or out, I’d suck at holding wine, but self-awareness would be part of my constitution. Now the mirror and its object are literally, physically one!  

A Mobius Ring is just a strip of paper, ‘twisted’ and then joined at its ends like Burger King’s crown. There’s that twist again! Now my two sided strip has only one side. But if I travel once around my ring, I end up back where I started…only upside down. 

Now I am the image of myself. I need to go around again if I want to regain my original ‘orientation’. I am self-aware because there’s only me. I no longer have two sides, two aspects. 2 = 1. Twisted!

I don’t require you, dear reader, to sign onto any one of these models. Pick one that suits you or hold out for something better down the road. I do hope we can agree, however, that it is time for you to say good night to the monsters under your bed and good-bye forever to the ghost in your machine. (Gilbert Ryle)  


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at


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