Nothingness, Part 2: The Idea ‘Sleeping Rocks Dream Of’

Self-loathing: You might recall several months ago I wrote a column in praise of self-loathing in the work of Martin Amis, self-loathing as an unacknowledged virtue . In an age where the conventional wisdom is that we all suffer from a lack of self-esteem, it seemed to me that, considering the loathsome nature of human nature, the real problem most people suffer from is an excess of self-esteem. That a stiff dose of self-loathing is a salutary thing, a beneficial reality-check for many, not exempting myself.

Which brings me to my own current spell of self-loathing: Remind me never to end a column by promising to answer some ultimate metaphysical question of the kind that has baffled philosophers, theologians and scientists ever since human beings began to think. Talk about painting yourself into a corner! In my last column, I examined the notion of pre-creation Nothingness in two new translations of Genesis, finding within them a less-than-absolute Nothingness, a richly landscaped Nothingness, a Nothingness turbulent with formless chaos, but a chaos of formless somethingness .

The question of what that stuff was doing there, and whether God created it, or if not, how it got there, has an analogue in the big-bang “inflationary universe” theories of creation proposed by contemporary astrophysicists: What was that Nothing from which the big bang emerged? An Absolute Nothing, or a nothing which somehow contained the seeds, at least the physics, of the universe? Toward the close of the column, I alluded to an astonishing 1721 philosophical paper entitled “Of Being” I’d come upon in a collection of the works of the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, the American theologian whose metaphysical and epistemological speculations are gaining renewed respect from students of contemporary philosophy. In “Of Being,” Edwards tackled the question of Absolute Nothing by claiming to prove that such a Nothing does not, cannot , never did exist.

At the close of that column, I pronounced myself impressed by the power and novelty of Edwards’ argument, but confidently assured readers that in a subsequent column, I would “interrogate and poke holes” in Edwards’ Critique of Pure Nothingness. Implicitly, I proposed to prove that Nothing exists. Or at least existed. Which is where my current state of self-loathing comes in: For two weeks now, I’ve struggled through physical and metaphysical fevers, trying to contend with the tricky arguments Edwards was making against Nothing. And I haven’t found a way around them. If he hasn’t proven Absolute Nothing does not exist, he’s gone a long way toward proving that it’s literally inconceivable , beyond the power of the mind to imagine, principally because we cannot conceive of removing space itself from existence.

Here, you try to refute Edwards on the removal of space from existence: We can conceive, he says, of a universe from which all objects are removed. But, he insists, the man who tries to imagine removing space from existence “contradicts himself,” because we can’t remove space from itself : “When we go about to form an idea of perfect nothing, we must shut out … of our minds both space that has something in it, and space that has nothing in it. … When we go to expel body out of our thoughts, we must be sure not to leave empty space in the room of it; and when we go to expel emptiness from our thoughts, we must not think to squeeze it out … but we must think of the same that the sleeping rocks dream of, and not till then shall we get a complete idea of nothing.”

Not till then: in other words, never. The sudden resort to poetic absurdity, the idea “that the sleeping rocks dream of” is almost shocking in the context of such abstruse metaphysical speculation, and gives a dreamy spin to what might otherwise seem an exercise in cold logic. It almost seems to preserve the absurd possibility of a Nothing that exists in a noumenal dream realm beyond comprehension or conception, but not necessarily beyond existence.

But with no access to the putative dream world of sleeping rocks, an imaginary Nothingness is as self-contradictory and inaccessible to human conception as Stephen Hawking’s equally dubious concept of “imaginary time.” Edwards goes on to declare, “There is no other way, but only for there to be existence; there is no such thing as absolute nothing.”

Why this impassioned attack on the notion of absolute Nothingness? We know “nature abhors a vacuum,” but why does Jonathan Edwards? He gives the game away and discloses his hidden agenda when he returns to the impossibility of imagining removing space from existence. And here he pulls the divine rabbit out of his hat, the obscure object of his desire to disprove the possibility of Absolute Nothingness.

“That space,” he tells us, the space that can’t be removed from existence, from itself, that space that is the ground of being, “That space is God … indeed, it is clear to me that all the space there is not proper to body [i.e. not taken up by objects], all the space there is without the bounds of the creation [in other words, we might say, the space the expanding universe is expanding into ], all the space there was before the creation, is God himself.”

It’s a radical, even heretical idea of what God is, at least on the face of it. It’s seems like a remarkably disembodied, emptied-out, depersonalized deity, a surprising vision from the same impassioned preacher famous for graphically envisioning “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” If God is nothing but space, whence come those hands with which he dangles sinners over the flaming pit of Hell?

But, as Jonathan Edwards scholar Kenneth Minkema of Yale pointed out to me when I called to discuss the question, it could just as well be seen as a radically intimate notion of God, a God not separate from, but inextricable from, immanent in, the very fabric of our bodily being, not just the warp and the woof of the fabric, but the physics of space through which the tissue of flesh is woven.

Edwards’ conjecture might be a brilliant way of killing two birds with one stone, one metaphysical, one theological: He disproves the possibility of Absolute Nothingness which has tormented metaphysicians, and simultaneously comes up with the proof for the existence of God that has eluded theologians-by calling God, in effect, the Being of Nothingness.

At the very least, it’s a concept that’s difficult to disprove: It’s hard to answer an argument that calls that which appears to be Absolutely Nothing in fact Absolute Being. And yet I had promised, at the close of my last column, to do just that. In a state of despair and self-loathing, I tracked down someone I thought might be able to help me out of the corner I’d painted myself into, my favorite writer on arcane questions of metaphysics and science, Jim Holt. His brilliant essays (in Lingua Franca , Harper’s and The Wall Street Journal ) on the realms of thought where philosophy, physics and metaphysics converge have validated for me my own untutored passion for such questions. Mr. Holt was in fact the author of a memorable Harper’s essay (“Nothing Ventured,” November 1994), in which he defended the validity of the “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” question first posed by Leibniz and explored the efforts of the physicists known as “nothing theorists” to provide an answer.

When I reached him, I was delighted to learn Mr. Holt was taking his pursuit of Nothingness the next logical step up the ladder to Being: He was contemplating writing a book on what he feels is the remarkable, overlooked cultural and political influence of the concept of “the infinitesimal”-the notion of that which is precisely next to Nothing.

And while he wasn’t familiar with Edwards’ refutation of Absolute Nothingness in “Of Being,” he was some consolation to me in my self-loathing despair over refuting its premise. No one, Mr. Holt said, no philosopher, no physicist, not even the ablest of the “nothing theorists,” had been able to conjure up a vision of what Absolute Nothingness would be. Even the nothing theorist he admired most, a physicist named Alex Vilenkin, postulated an idea of absolute nothingness in which the laws of quantum physics would somehow exist and obtain. (Exist where? In whose mind? In what sense of “existence”?) It was a nothingness in which a profusion of laws governing somethingness were somehow present, but that sounds like something rather than nothing to me.

I had long had a sneaking suspicion that some recent partisans of “something from nothing” among astrophysicists were talking through their hats. Mr. Holt is conversant with the mathematical physics of the sort Stephen Hawking and Alan Guth (author of the inflationary universe, something-from-nothing theory) use to cloak their metaphysical speculations. And so I ventured to ask him the emperor’s-new-clothes question about Mr. Guth in particular: “Guth’s inflationary universe theory, where he argues that the universe bubbles into being from ‘fluctuations in a vacuum,’ doesn’t really explain how something came from nothing, does it? Because those fluctuations in a vacuum-he admits it’s not a real vacuum but a ‘false vacuum’-those fluctuations are something generated by the presence of quantum phenomena, right? It’s sophistry, isn’t it-he doesn’t explain where quantum phenomena came from.”

To my surprise and relief, Mr. Holt agreed. He spoke highly of the physicist Edward Tryon, the first of the nothing theorists, whose “fluctuations in a vacuum” idea was adopted by Mr. Guth, but he conceded that, by assuming quantum fluctuations, as Mr. Tryon does, you’re not getting something from nothing, you’re starting with something .

But listen to the way Mr. Guth, in his celebration of his self-proclaimed discovery of the secrets of the universe, The Inflationary Universe , claims to have solved the something-from-nothing question. Listen to the hubris of his boast that he has refuted the dictum of the great Roman poet-philosopher Lucretius who said nothing can come from nothing : “After two thousand years of scientific research,” Mr. Guth grandly announces, “it now seems that Lucretius was wrong. Conceivably, everything can be created from nothing … In the context of inflationary cosmology, it is fair to say that the universe is the ultimate free lunch.”

I don’t think so. It’s only in the context of inflationary self-esteem that Mr. Guth can claim to have refuted Lucretius, a far greater visionary. Because Mr. Guth relies for his “refutation” on the pitifully inadequate notion of “vacuum fluctuations” that precede the big bang, quantum flutterings in the void which refute the notion that the void is a void.

“The inflationary theory can explain how the universe might have evolved from an initial seed as small as Tryon’s vacuum fluctuations,” Mr. Guth says.

Hello, Mr. Guth? You’re not describing how something came from nothing. You’re describing how something came from a very small seed , a far less impressive achievement. An achievement that amounts to just about nothing-any third-grader can explain how really big things can come from really tiny seeds, but that’s not the same as explaining how something came from nothing. It’s amazing how Mr. Guth can get away with such guff, another symptom of America’s knee-jerk reverence for the high priests of science.

It’s another instance of the fact that the real problem in American culture is not too little self-esteem, but rather too much. A little self-loathing, otherwise known as humility, might have prompted Mr. Guth to question whether he’d inflated his inflationary universe concept beyond its capacity to challenge truly great thinkers like Lucretius and Leibniz.

But fortunately, I’m not alone in believing in the virtue of self-loathing. American culture is privileged to have in its midst one the all-time great self-loathers, a veritable Zen master of self-loathing. I’m speaking of R. Crumb, author most recently (with his wife Aline Kominsky) of two brilliant issues of Self-Loathing Comics , the hilarious product of a true genius, rather than a self-inflated one. An artist whose work has grown ever deeper and darker over the years. (A catalogue of R. Crumb’s works is available from Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way N.E., Seattle, Wash., 98815.) R. Crumb gives us a self-lacerating self-loathing, the profound, searching self-loathing that persists regardless of worldly success-self-loathing raised to the height of a spiritual discipline. I urge you to get your hands on an issue of Self-Loathing Comics ; it’ll make you feel good about feeling bad about yourself.

Nothingness, Part 2: The Idea ‘Sleeping Rocks Dream Of’