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David Cowles

Jun 4, 2024

“Nothing is the ‘space’ that allows something to occur. If it weren’t for nothing, there’d be nothing at all!”

We are in love with the idea of nothing; and why not? Something requires explanation: What is it? What’s it made of? Where did it come from…and when? How did it get here…and why? It’s an exhausting piece of work and at the end of day, we can’t be sure we’re any further along than we were when we started.

Nothing on the other hand requires nothing, and we love everything that requires nothing. We love weekends, we love vacations, we love snow days…because those are the times when nothing is required of us.

Genesis tells us that God created the world ex nihilo – out of nothing. Contemporary physicists agree: the universe sprang into being spontaneously, and it will return to nothing (at ‘Heat Death’ aka ‘Big Freeze’). Theologians might say that the spatiotemporal world must become nothing so that the eternal world can be all-in-all

Others say that the universe is already nothing, the energy of expansion being precisely balanced and therefore canceled by the force of gravity.

We imagine nothing as though it were Plato’s Receptacle, the womb of the world. We imagine it as a vast empty space – a night sky without stars. When we think about nothing, we see ourselves standing on our back porch, drawing in a deep breath of pre-industrial air on a chilly, starless night. Nice!

Nope! Nothing could be further from the truth. Astronaut-poet Michael Collins has attempted to disabuse us of our space camp fantasies. His description of a vacuum, free even of light itself, is terrifying. Imagine you are encased, alive, in a medium that is both infinitely dense and infinitely permeable. No forlorn gazes, there’s nothing to see; no deep breaths, there’s nothing to breathe; and, of course, no back porch. Tell me now, what’s to love about that?

So what? Who cares? Well, we might care. Love of nothing isn’t nothing; it can have real life consequences. For example, if we love nothing, we may at some point wish to be nothing. Suicidal ideation may follow.

Also, nothing is a defense-of-convenience against all forms of gnosis or ethosNothing is an acceptable response to any positive proposition. It offers a conceptual foundation for Nihilism, Skepticism and even Solipsism. 

Of course, nothing has its bright side: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks.” Yes, nothing has a lot in common with the last day of school: “Free at last, free at last! OMG, we’re free at last?” Free to do what exactly? The euphoria of summer vacation fades quickly. It is soon replaced by the steady chant of a Tibetan monk: “I’m bored…I’m bored.”

Still, nothing frees me to do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it. Cool beans! No rules! Now I just need to come up with something I want to do, not to mention a reason why I, or anyone else, would ever want to do it. 

So nothing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! Yet, we can’t live without it!  Nothing is the ‘space’ that allows something to occur. If it weren’t for nothing, there’d be nothing at all! ‘Something’ is a one word oxymoron; something can only exist in the context of nothing. Nothing and something are the ultimate dialectical pair.

Nothing is what something isn’t. Literally. Therefore, whatever comes to be comes to be out of nothing. What comes to be comes to be out of what is not. 

Suppose there was something, just something, no nothing. It is, but it reveals no origin, no destiny, no composition, no trajectory, and no relations. Naked something is a degenerate case of Heisenberg Uncertainty. We’d know everything about its position (where it is) and therefore we’d know nothing about its momentum (where it came from, where it’s going).

IRL, we know a bit about the position of things (something), things as they are, and a bit about the trajectory of things (nothing), things as they are not, but we can never know everything about both. Like quarks in a proton, something and nothing do not exist independently of one another.  Something is the negation of nothing; nothing is the negation of something. You can’t have one without the other. They are dialectic and symbiotic.

Christian cosmology anticipated this state of affairs with its Trinitarian theology. According to Christian doctrine, God is process. God is the relationship between the Father (God) and the Son (God); that relationship is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is God.

Jean-Paul Sartre talked about entities that are not what they are and are what they are not. It is generally thought that he was talking exclusively about human beings. But in the cosmology outlined in this post, Sartre’s meme would apply equally to everything that is. To be is not to be what you are and to be what you are not! Being is the process of Becoming.

Being is inherently restless. In an earlier TWS, we pointed out that every being includes its own negation. But that negation does not annul what is, it preserves it in a subsequent synthesis. Negation is the foundation of faith, not fear, hope, not despair. 

Thanks to nothing, the Universe is a perpetual process of self-preservation and improvement. When ‘my reach exceeds my grasp’ (Burns), I am reaching into nothing. Nothing creates the space for something to happen. 

As Being hurtles toward the Kingdom of God, spatiotemporal imperfection must give way to eternal perfection. The progression of Being from ‘spatiotemporal and imperfect’ to ‘perfect and eternal’ requires nothing, i.e. space…for growth and change.

As kids in the 1950’s, whenever we were disappointed or disgusted, we would say, “Thanks for nothing!” Now, I repeat that every night in my prayers: “Thanks for nothing, God!” No, really, thanks!


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