Nothing Bothers Me
No, Really. Nothingness Keeps Me Up At Night.
Stanley Rosen, Friedrick Nietzsche, and I have something in common. We’re all concerned with squirrels, or rather, a world without squirrels. Ok, to be more specific, a world without context (squirrels being the context here).
When I was a kid I came to the conclusion that the biggest philosophical gap in the universe could be found in the relationship between the numbers zero and one.
I was in my back yard in a lower-middle income suburb of Dallas when I noticed how many freaking squirrels we had running around. One or two squirrels are fun, but close to a dozen and you might as well call it pestilence. A really cute, sometimes funny, pestilence. A cute, funny pestilence that dodged every rock I threw at it. I wanted there to be zero squirrels in my back yard.
As I am wont to do, as we who are haunted by philosophical whispers are wont to do, I was caught off guard by an insane dilemma.
What stopped me in my tracks was this idea that zero squirrels isn’t really close to anything. Zero was something, but also nothing. No objects, no scents, no textures, no sounds, no…things. Even when you think of complete blackness you are thinking of a color or, at least, a thing. One squirrel is closer to a billion squirrels than one squirrel is to no squirrels.
Decades before I ever heard of the man, I accidentally stumbled something that Nietzsche had illuminated (note the sarcasm) a century earlier in his book, The Gay Science: We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us—indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the walls of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick for the land as if it had offered more freedom—and there is no longer any “land.”
I was like that poor bird who, when contemplating how I wish there were no squirrels, focussed more on the “no” than on the “squirrels” part of that thought. I yearned for a land that was now long since gone. Just as you can’t unsee certain things, you also can’t unthink certain thoughts. I was contemplating the infinitude and freedom of nothingness and desired the land that limited my freedom and served as my anchor.
“You were aware of the number zero” you may softly remark from your Starbucks sofa. Yes, of course. What I came to realize was that the word zero was itself, ironically, a something.
Zero or “nothing” are terms that point to an impossibly empty void. So we cover up this void with a something and then pretend like that something that points to a nothing is an adequate stand in for the void. We cover over the Fear and Trembling that awaits us in the the void of nothingness with a something. We don’t want to peer at the nothingness and fully contemplate it, so our manhole cover is a word that shields us from the pit. The shield makes us feel better because we’re good at pointing at things.
After all, God spends six days essentially dividing things and naming them. Later on in the Book of Genesis, Adam is allowed to name all of the animals. Naming is a way to divide one thing from another and, in a sense, conquer it. Using a much less exalted example, when we call people names or label them, we’re making an attempt to have some sort of power over them. Its the same with the void. We call it zero, nothingness, a void, etc. in an attempt to pretend that we understand it.
Like Wittgenstein suggests, we like to cover over the chaos that is reality with words that anchor the instability.
When you take away the facade of zero, there is no horizon or context to that emptiness. For example, when you say that you have zero cans of soda your context is “cans of soda”. You aren’t saying you have nothingness in your fridge. You’re only saying that within this context of things, there are none. So the context anchors down the meaning and your sanity to allow you to move on to the next event in your day.
Take away the horizon or context and contemplate zero and you get an infinity of barely tangible zero-ness. It’s truly frustrating!
Even as I write about “zero-ness” I seem to be covering over the thing I’m trying to reveal. It seems that the emptiness also empties whatever tries to fill it.
Socrates says something similar in the Phaedo when he considers that a short stick gets its “shortness” from being compared to a longer stick. Place that same short stick to an even shorter stick and it becomes long. Its shortness and longness are found within its existence…its very being. But what if the “short stick” was the only stick in the universe. Without the context of other sicks, that stick would lose many of its characteristics including its shortness (at least as it related to other sticks).
Now take away sticks altogether. When a stick loses its “stickness” you can begin to see my insanity. A non-stick is much like zero. Its a something that points to a nothing. It’s a covering up of the chaotic foam that is the foundation of all thought and being. It is Heidegger’s Being (capital B) because it is everything and nothing. It is what the painter tries to both paint over and point to by painting over the blank canvas. That blank canvas, when left blank, embodies all possible paintings, but it is also blank. The second we commit ourselves to painting, we limit the message but also make it more “real”.
We seem to need parentheses over every inch of our lives because they allow us to focus on what might be. But when we’re confronted with a thing without a horizon and without a subject (like zero) the mind begins to reel.
It really bothers me and when I go to my favorite philosophers, they don’t seem to help. They just seem to substantiate my cluelessness. Since all language seems to be self-referential, a (non)concept like “nothingness” pokes a hole in that system and the string begins to unravel.
…which reminds me of how much I hate those squirrels that got me on this train of thought to begin with so many years ago.