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“Everything depends on which ‘nothing’ you are talking about.”

I suppose it’s all, at bottom, a category error; but UD is enjoying following the Krauss/Albert fulminating dust-up about science and philosophy.

I’ll admit I’ve never gotten far beyond scaring myself when thinking with any depth about why there’s something rather than nothing…

Not really scaring myself… Feeling very sharply the impossibility of moving my mind to the cosmological back-of-beyond.

As a literary type, though, I’ve loved nothingness poems and prose all my life. I’ve loved writing that captures the conviction and the feeling all thoughtful people occasionally have, that – in the words of Leopold Bloom, struck down for a moment in a Dublin pub by absolute nihilism – no one is anything. Everything depends on the nothing you are talking about, and I’m not talking about the nothingness that a field without particles might represent; I’m talking about the “death in the soul” Albert Camus felt in Prague. What Don DeLillo in Libra imagines Lee Harvey Oswald feeling in Texas:

He walked through empty downtown Dallas, empty Sunday in the heat and light. He felt the loneliness he always hated to admit to, a vaster isolation than Russia, stranger dreams, a dead white glare burning down.

What James Agee, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, felt, also on a Sunday, in Alabama:

… the subdual of this sunday deathliness in whose power was held the whole of the south… nothing but the sun was left, faithfully blasting away upon the dead earth…

In my next Faculty Project Lecture, I’m talking about three great nothingness poems – Auden’s Brussels in Winter, and Larkin’s Absences, as well as his Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel. And of course there’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Cape Breton.

I find a curious reassurance in these evocations of … psychic vastation? What to call it without sounding pretentious, ponderous? Everyone laughs when people say things like If you remember the ‘sixties, you weren’t there. But, you know, the business of not being there… that sense of suspension from yourself, the world, everything… It feels like a serious business, one with insights in it that might compete with quantum field theory.

Margaret Soltan, May 2, 2012 4:21PM
Posted in: How We Learn

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One Response to ““Everything depends on which ‘nothing’ you are talking about.””

  1. MattF Says:

    Love this kind of back-and-forth– for what it’s worth I think Albert has the better argument.

    It’s interesting that neither one mentions Mach’s Principle:


    which was Einstein’s approach to the something-rather-than-nothing question. Einstein’s point (in my opinion) is that the existence of a ‘frame of reference’ is more fundamental than the existence or non-existence of ‘stuff’. So, in the Archimedean ‘Give me a place to stand and I will move the Earth’ the deep assumptions are in ‘place’ rather than ‘I’ or ‘Earth’. The connection is that, according to Mach’s principle, a local frame of reference is established by the existence of non-local ‘stuff’. So, at this point, one gets dizzy and then goes out for a head-clearing walk around the block.

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