Nothing, nothingness, and the world: a book review of Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt

I am reading about nothing.  Literally, about nothing.  I am reading about the concept of nothingness, and it’s a pretty difficult thing to get one’s head around.

Philosophers, theologians, mathematicians, and physicists have been puzzling the concept for a very long time, and it is quite a hot button in philosophical and scientific circles today.

In the West the concept of nothing is relatively new. 

In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-14th century that the idea of “zero” came to the West. And then, it came to us through accounting.  Something had to stand between asset and debit.

The East, however, had long dealt with nothingness not only in their mathematics but in their spirituality as well. For after all, attaining “nirvana” was equal to attaining nothingness, to achieving “emptiness.”

The Hindu word for this nothingness was sunya, which became in Arabic sefir, which came to Europe in the Middle Ages and is the root of our word “zero” and “cipher.”  And when it came to Europe, it came along with the rest of the Arabic numerals that we use today.

And yet what is nothing? There are many who say that no such thing exists.

The philosopher Henri Bergson tried to imagine nothingness. He simply kept subtracting all that he knew existed. However, when he reached the end he felt there was still something–his inner self which was doing all this subtracting. (An enlightened Buddhist would perhaps be able to extinguish that entity, but most of us cannot.) He concluded that imagining absolute nothingness is impossible.

Another philospher, Bede Rendell, saw that the failure in imagining nothingness is that after one had subtracted everything that was in the universe, one still had the space where those things once existed–a universe skin collapsed on itself.

The entire conversation is both intriguing and maddening, puzzling and wondrous.  (Sort of like in Alice in Wonderland when the Red King concludes that since nobody passed the messenger on the road, then nobody should have arrived first.)

I am having this “conversation” with myself because of the book Why Does the World Exist?–An Existential Deterctive Story by Jim Holt.  Holt’s book, which is somewhat addressed to the lay reader (I can only imagine what a technical book on this subject might be like), springs from the question “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” 

This question, I have learned, is one that has puzzled philosophers for aeons.

And when you get to the question of “something” and “nothing” you are led to the question of what “existed” in the universe before the “Big Bang” created the universe. The theologians have their answer. The scientists are not all that sure.  But they have their theories.

And both try to define or dismiss “nothing.”

All of which makes for fascinating reading.  Even the mathematical equations (which Holt has to explain to me or which I run to my resident philosopher/mathematician) are fascinating. For instance, his mathematical equation for absolute nothingness is

(X) ˜ (x=x)

and now seems to makes some sense to me. But it took a while for me to get to. (The equation means that X [the empty universe] is not where x = x [where something is something.]) He explains it much better and is  much more entertaining.

I am no philosopher or mathematician. My sense of the void, of nothingness–aside from my own existential angst and probings seeemingly hardwired in my soul–comes from Satre, Camus and Beckett.  And Holt brings these into the mix as well. (The cover of the book features a photograph of the Café de Flore, a favorite haunt of Sartre’s.) The book, in many ways,  is almost a primer of thinkers, ancient and new, and a wonderful introduction to the confluence of metaphysics, philosophy, literature and science.

And what  they ask is:  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Why is there a world?  A universe?

These are pretty big questions to roll around with and Holt’s book makes it a entertaining and informative  ride.

But to be truthful, I still don’t know the answer.

The difficulty of thinking…the ease of not.

Bertrand Russell once said that people would do almost anything to avoid having to think. And we do. Consider how we go through most of our days.  Rise, commute, work, commute, dine, sleep. Certainly there are vacillating degrees of how purposefully we interact with our own lives, but mostly, I would say, we do things by rote.  For the most part, the majority of us do not “live our lives deliberately” as Thoreau advised us to–we would make ourselves mad if we did–but what are we sacrificing?

Samuel Beckett wrote that the routine, the habit, the treadmill of our lives is a way of deadening the pain of existence (how wonderfully Beckettian!); breaking out of the routine, the habit, the treadmill is exciting and might mask the pain, but it is temporary and not without risks.  To think deliberately is indeed difficult. But it is what makes us who we are. Our thinking is what separates us from others, what individualizes us.  There is a second kind of truth in the Cartesian “I think therefore I am.”  It is not simply a statement of existence, but one of uniqueness as well, an emphasis on the “I.”  And if we choose not to think, are we waiving our individuality to become simply a part of the herd?

In politics, for example, do we think or do we react? Do we consider the world around us or do we merely accept what we have been trained to accept? Are we so entrenched in our “camps” that we allow their ideas to immediately become ours without the trouble of thinking? Do we even have a personal philosophy?  How many of us could state what it is?  What do we believe in?  When have we last THOUGHT about what we believe?

The avoidance of thinking is hardly a 21st-century phenomenon–it just seems easier to do these days.  The opportunities for distraction, the ease in which we can fill our lives with noise, makes it all too easy to avoid stopping to think.  And like most habits, once we have learned to “not think,” it becomes a very hard habit to break.

But again, what are we sacrificing?

I’m not sure, but I’ll think about it.