Nothingness — a koan

Don’t you hate koans? Me, too! All that Zen mystification just chaps my tidy, Therevada soul. And yet…

A koan, I think, is a supremely well-designed teaching tool. It takes a problem and makes it stick in your mind like a burr, and yes, irritate your mind like a burr. After awhile, you’ll do just about anything to get rid of that pesky problem — even solve it!

Someday, I would like to write a book of koans for modern people, so let me try my hand at one right now. Here goes!

Q: Why is there something rather than nothing?
A. Because you can’t make the universe out of ice cream!

What do you think? I guess I should keep my day job, right?

Truth to tell, this question has never appealed to me. It doesn’t help that, every time I encounter it, it purports to be proof of the existence of God. These discussions never go that well for me; I can’t get past the fact that my discussion partner is offering proof of something they feel needs no proof, while I am being told that an extremely hinky question must be accepted as proof. I end up feeling I’m conversing with the Cheshire cat. What a frustrating kind of communication!

The nothingness question apparently goes back to Leibniz. He justifies the question by appealing to an argument from simplicity, as Jim Holt explains:

Nothingness is also, as Leibniz was the first to point out, the simplest of all possible realities. Simplicity is greatly prized in science. When rival scientific theories are equally supported by the evidence, it is the simplest of them — the one that postulates the fewest causally independent entities and properties, the one least susceptible to a trimming by Occam’s razor — that scientists favor. And this is not just because simpler theories are prettier, or easier to use. Simplicity is held to be a marker of intrinsic probability, of truth.

Scientists may prize simplicity, but it seems as if nature prizes it even more. Nearly all the atoms in the universe are hydrogen atoms, after all, and of the rest, nearly all are helium atoms. I don’t know if there is a power-law distribution, or if so, if it’s a smooth one (that is, that the number of atoms of a given type is inversely proportionate to the atomic weight), but surely we can conclude that simpler atoms are “prized” above complex ones.

If we narrow our focus from the universe to Earth’s biosphere, we find that by far the majority of living things on Earth are bacteria. In fact, Stephen Jay Gould writes that

Not only does the Earth contain more bacterial organisms than all others combined (scarcely surprising, given their minimal size and mass); not only do bacteria live in more places and work in a greater variety of metabolic ways; not only did bacteria alone constitute the first half of life’s history, with no slackening in diversity thereafter; but also, and most surprisingly, total bacterial biomass (even at such minimal weight per cell) may exceed all the rest of life combined, even forest trees, once we include the subterranean populations as well. 

So, it occurs to me that IF nothingness is simpler than something-ness, we ought to see quite a lot of it as we look around the universe. Yet it’s surprisingly hard to find.

We know that an empty bottle actually has air in it, but eventually we learned how to make a vacuum by pumping out the air. (You can do this experiment anytime you wish, and you can readily demonstrate that you have a vacuum by extinguishing a candle, or a small mammal, previously placed in the jar.) But those vacuums weren’t really nothing, because the pumps weren’t quite good enough.

Undaunted, we deduced and then proved that there was a much better vacuum between Earth and the stars, but for awhile, everyone thought it was filled with aether, a substance that would allow light waves to propogate as air allows sound waves. Then (fortunately for the quest for nothingness) it turned out that aether didn’t exist. Space was just a hard vacuum, waiting for a blues man to immortalize it. Leibniz seemed to be justified, hooray! The universe was mostly nothingness, which is what you’d expect if nothingness was a very simple state.

But then quantum mechanics reared its ugly head. Turns out all that “empty space” is actually teeming with quantum activity; it’s actually kind of a quantum-mechanical factory churning out particles. Curses! Nothingness foiled again!

If you can’t find nothingness anywhere in the universe, could it be that nothingness cannot exist anywhere in the universe?

The interesting thing about that question, at least to me, is the vehemence with which our mind rebels against it. Nothingness seems so real, so patently, obviously real! Now granted, we can imagine things that are not real — Cthulhu, for instance, or a modest Texan. But mostly, imaginary things are variations on real things, and if you examine them, they betray their hybrid origins. Nothingness, however, has a strange purity about it. It doesn’t seem imaginary.

At this point, I would like you to perform a small experiment. Look at anything in nature — a tree, perhaps, or a bird. Or look around your hopefully cluttered room and pick an object to look at. Now close your eyes and imagine the object. Go back and forth between the actual object and your mind’s-eye view, and ask yourself, what’s different?

The answer is: context. When I look at a tree outside my window, it is situated in the midst of other trees, and their branches impinge on the branches of “my” tree. Behind it (as I scan up) is a background of grass, then of bushes, then of other tree branches, then of sky. But when I close my eyes, I see — admittedly in somewhat diminished detail — only the single tree I choose to focus on. A magic air-brush removes all the messy context surrounding the real tree. 

Take it a step further, if you will. Close your eyes and imagine your object. Now erase the object. If another image comes up, erase that, too. If word-thoughts come up, turn down the volume until you cannot hear them. If you’re a patient hunter, you will catch a glimpse — or maybe a long, lingering view — of the negative space in which we isolate the objects of attention — which may very well be the only nothingness that exists, anywhere in the universe.

This is an extraordinary thing, this nothingness. It’s not cheap to produce: it requires a brain, which requires a body, which requires sources of energy, water, oxygen, etc., all supplied by an ecosphere, which is itself dependent on energy produced by nuclear fusion, as well as heavy atoms produced in the hearts of ancient supernovae. Yet this nothingness is so ubiquitous, so common a part of our thoughts that we seldom notice it. 

It’s likely that lots of brains other than human ones produce the negative space of attention. But it’s also likely that (on Earth) only humans are sophisticated enough to notice the negative space itself. And we do notice it; in fact, we are constantly trying to reproduce it in the world at large. What distinguishes a garden, for example, from a meadow? Only the spacing of the plants, the bare dirt between them, the care taken to limit the items in the field of vision of a human observer. Many of our most important inventions — the virgin whiteness of a sheet of paper, the dark cauldron waiting to be filled, the hole in the center of the wheel, even the rounded perfection of zero — are external forms of this fundamental nothingness within our minds. Is it any wonder that we see an “empty bottle” or “empty space” as examples of nothingness? Is it any wonder that the illusion persists, even when we are perfectly aware that it is an illusion?

This, then, is my answer to Leibniz and his admirers. There’s nothing simple about nothingness. It’s best conceived of as a manufactured good (all that star dust and DNA and sunlight and brains and minds, after all) that can be produced and enjoyed only within a quite narrow range of temperature and pressure. It is, in short, a bit like ice cream. 

And not even Leibniz would argue that the universe could be created out of ice cream!