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Nothing Is Everything

David Cowles

May 7, 2024

“We imagine that there was nothing and then there was something. Impossible!”

“Nothing is everything!” – this might be the most enigmatic sentence in the English language. But it’s also an advertising slogan for Skyrizi, a prescription medication; and in that context it makes perfect sense. When symptoms disappear (nothing), then the drug has accomplished its purpose (everything). Indeed, nothing is everything - in that context!

This word play is not just clever, it’s instructive. It points out that the meaning of a concept like nothing is incurably context dependent. Nothing is not a primary substance. There is no generic, naked Nothing. Literally, nothing is no-thing and no-thing is meaningful only in the context of some thing

We imagine that there was nothing and then there was something. Impossible! First, there cannot be nothing before there is something not to be. That does not mean that the cosmos has to be eternal; it can have an origin. What you can’t say (meaningfully) is that cosmos was preceded by nothing because (1) nothing is not a thing (it can’t precede anything) and (2) ‘precedence’ is a temporal concept and nothing can precede time itself.  

When we say ‘nothing’, most of us are thinking about void or vacuum. The very words, void and vacuum, betray the absent existence of some other. We only imagine we’re imagining non-entity. When we conceptualize nothing, we imagine ourselves standing at Finis Terra, gazing into the darkest of dark night skies; but this is no closer to nothing than Piccadilly Circus. 

Genesis tells us that God created the cosmos ex nihilo – out of nothing; Revelation tells us that it will return to nothing. Contemporary physicists agree: the universe sprang into being spontaneously, and it will ultimately vanish - ‘death by natural causes’. 

Some even say that the universe is already nothing, that it never was anything but nothing. According to this view, the energy of cosmic expansion is precisely balanced, and therefore canceled out, by the attractive force of gravity. Absent the notion of ‘God’, it is hard to see how anyone could avoid the conclusion that something is merely a manifestation of nothing

We’re facing a new Crise de Descartes. Where does my cogito fit if everything is nothing? How can I be if nothing is? If being is epiphenomenal, if it is a manifestation of nothingness, then presumably I must be virtual, epiphenomenal myself. Then where is the ergo connecting my cogito to my sum? “Where’s the beef?”

We imagine nothing as though it were Plato’s Receptacle, the womb of the world. Nope! It is sterility itself. So what? Who cares? Well, we might care. Love of nothing isn’t nothing; it can have real life consequences: suicide, for example. If everything amounts to nothing, then, in the words of Dostoevsky, “Everything is permitted,” no matter how undesirable. Nihilism places Adolph Hitler on a par with Mother Theresa.

Sidebar: It is important to distinguish Nihilism from Anarchism. Anarchists do not believe in enforced order, but they generally believe that order can emerge organically. Not so nihilists! 

Nothing is a defense-of-convenience against all forms of gnosis or ethosNo is an acceptable and often effective response to any positive proposition. Just ask a 2 year old. In fact, No!  constitutes the entire political platform of the Preschool Party that is gaining so much traction in recent UK polling. It seems that No! resonates with rapidly growing segments of the voting public, self-proclaimed Nihilists, Skeptics, and Solipsists. 

Of course, nothing has its bright side: “No more pencils, no more books…” Yes, nothing has a lot in common with the last day of school: “Free at last, free at last! OMG, we’re free?” Free to do what exactly? The euphoria of summer vacation fades quickly. It’s soon replaced by the repetitive chanting of Tibetan monks: “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! Cloud Cuckoo Land. Now I just have to come up with something to do and a reason why I, or anyone else for that matter, would ever want to do it. 

So nothing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! But it turns out, we can’t live without it either. Nothing is the ‘space’ that allows something to occur. We have shown that there is no nothing without something. It is equally true that there can be no something without nothing. 

Suppose, just suppose, that there was only something and no nothing. That something could never move, change, or relate because it requires a not-It to move relative to, to change into, or relate to. Without nothing, something would be imperceptible to us, and therefore, per Occam, non-existent.

Riffing on Gregory Bateson and Alfred North Whitehead, we say, “Being is a difference that makes a difference”. The naked-it falls short: it differs from nothing, and it makes nothing any different. Something and nothing do not exist independently of one another.  Something is the negation of nothing; nothing is the negation of something. Neither can exist independently. Something and nothing co-evolve.

But this is not some gnostic dualism! S + N > 0. S + N = S. Therefore, N = 0 and S > 0, so S > N. (John 1: 5) (Deut. 30: 19b) Algebra! I always knew it would come in handy someday.

Genesis (1: 3 – 5) has light to shed here. (Get it, ‘light’?) “Then God said, ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good. Then God separated the light from the darkness…Evening came and morning followed - the first day.”

The process of creating light was not complete until it had been separated from darkness. Genesis-time is measured in quanta  (‘days’). Light and darkness together constituted the ‘first day’. 

So, nothing is nothing, again; but now something is everything. And as for Descartes, we need to stand him on his head: Est ergo sum! 


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