Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Being is Nothingness

"Stoic absence of passion, Zen absence of will, Heideggerian gelassenheit and physics-as-the-absolute-conception-of-reality are… just so many variations on a single project - the project of escaping from time and chance." (Richard Rorty)

 It is our human nature to rage against the dying of the light, to fill the nothingness with somethingness, to give meaning where there is none, truth where there is none, knowledge where there is none, to make reason where none exists, to be rational where irrationality reigns. At least, this is my observation. I thought I should write something about this at this current time and lay out a more comprehensive article after my last few on being and consciousness. As you will know, these things mean something to me and I want to try and give a slightly more comprehensive account of them from my own understanding. It will at least help me to do this and, maybe, one or two others as well.

It is my intuition that the time has come to acknowledge the gaping hole that exists at the centre of Being, to acknowledge that our human powers and perceptions fail, to acknowledge that truth is insubstantial, knowledge is merely what is useful, that our seeing is partial and mostly blind, that we are contingent and merely fitted for a form of life, a very narrow form of life, evolved to live and die on an inconsequential speck in the vastness of space. I do not see that there is any Whole or Unity or Truth or amount of Knowledge or Privileged Insight or Enlightenment or Meaning that we can work our way towards or find. There is no Deity or Spirituality, no Body of Privileged Information or Holy Being which is going to allow us to see behind the veil of our limitations and glimpse the Holy of Holies of  "how-things-really-are" or "what-life-is-all-about". There is no "our-true-place-in-the-universe". These things are a mirage, and we are victims of their illusion.

It should be noted, then, that I am hardly the first person to diagnose nothingness at the centre of all that is. "Nihilism" has been a problem for European philosophy for 200-300 years. In other traditions, emptiness has been held as a value in itself. 2,300 years ago there was at least one Jewish teacher (a person named Qoheleth, the speaker in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes to which I will return below) teaching that life is "breath" and a chasing after the wind. And he was continually asking "What does it profit...?" So we can be sure that we are not the first to have the thought that at the centre of Being is…. nothing and that life itself is insubstantial. It may be, like the Ego, that certain illusory goals and beliefs (the aforementioned list of gods and pseudo-gods such as Meaning, Truth and Knowledge) were necessary and that evolution fitted us with them to best enable our survival. But we make a terrible mistake in taking them too seriously, petrifying them and making deities of them. But, then again, maybe we are only living out the life that we were meant to lead in doing so?

Nevertheless, I want to suggest today that the claim that something "is" (in any essentialist or foundational sense) is the most meaningless claim any human being could ever make, in my opinion. We have neither the insight nor the means to make any such claim. We live in a constant stream of existence, of consciousness, and randomly pluck things from the torrent as it rushes past and then make connections between one and another. If it has the utility of working or being, so it seems, repeatable, then we deify it as something that is…. but have no genuine right to do so. We can only ever speak properly of a constant becoming, a changing as one day turns into the next. We are part of a stream and we observe a small stretch of the journey before we blink… and cease to exist.

I think the key insight here, which I hope to flesh out below, is that it's not in spite of the nothingness that we make meaning, truth and knowledge: it's because of it. It might have been thought, pre-reflectively, that these things arise as we have an awareness of a greater thing that is out there, some god or truth or insight into being that is currently beyond us. And so we yearn to reach it guided by our belief that there is "a-way-things-are". But this is not so. Instead, we experience the void of nothing and experience the edge of chaos and cannot bear it. And so we become (or, in evolutionary terms, became) machines for the creation of meaning, truth and knowledge to give us something that can allow us to live. No one could survive the chaos, it would make our lives unlivable. Instead, we find a form of life through which we can survive, endure and prosper. Because at the heart of Being there is a void, we find things plastic to our touch and begin to create. This is to say that our "reality" is not nearly so fixed as some might have you believe. Or, at least, not nearly as restrictive.

It's worth noting at this point that I am not here making any claims to universal knowledge. That would be both arrogant and entirely contradictory to my point. I am simply emptying out onto the page my understanding such as it is at this current time as it has been educated by the thoughts, and the thought, that I have encountered on my journey down the stream. I regard "right and wrong" in this connection as to be strictly missing the point. I don't regard the journey as about right or wrong. I regard it as about the experience of the journey. I regard philosophy, which is nominally what I am doing here, as about utilization of the mind and as about, as it originally was, a love of wisdom and not as a means to some fabled special insight, much less some technical or hidden knowledge. As such, I believe that questions are more fundamental than answers and that thinking is the most important activity, one that can lead us to find the questions at the heart of our existence and our being. This, I see as I look back, is what I have really been doing throughout my life since I was 8 or 9 years old.

For myself, I see myself at a crossover of Philosophy and Spirituality, two things which can, indeed, be compatible. There have been many spiritual and philosophical thinkers. The belief in god is a logical outworking of one way of doing these things but not a necessary one and not one I have found myself coming to be convinced by in the end. Indeed, I think back 20 years to when I would have said I believed in a god and cringe at how naive I was at that time. However, I don't think that spirituality, in itself and in all its forms, is to be pilloried or violently attacked as some like Richard Dawkins do. Both Philosophy and Spirituality are searching for things to fill the nothingness at the heart of being (things like meaning, truth, knowledge or god) and, as such, are entirely understandable in that context. The attacks of those like Dawkins merely show an arrogant and boorish lack of humble understanding. Humility, we should remember, is perhaps the quality human beings need most in the face of the all-encompassing nothingness that surrounds us. Perhaps those who are least humble are the ones who are most desperately running away in a futile attempt to escape it? I would argue that where Dawkins sees "god" and rages he actually only sees "Truth" instead - which functions in much the same way for him as god does for his opponents. He is more like those he despises than he would ever want to admit.

My approach below in the rest of this blog will be based on a firm belief that all the connections human beings make in their thinking are fictions. They are merely either useful or not useful. (It is to be noted that fiction is not an opposite of truth. We habitually share fictions that, whilst not true in themselves, elucidate some truth or beliefs we would hold dear.) All syntheses are at least fictional and tell a story that works at a certain time and place. We know that nothing stands for all time and so in place of models of accuracy and truth, models which have their very failure inscribed within them from the start, I use models of honesty and authenticity which have a validity of time and place. What follows will be my attempt to describe the nothingness at the heart of not just human being, but all Being, and how I came to find it. I will do so in my own words (believing that this is the most authentic way I can do it in a blog for general readers) and I will also try to point up some issues this raises and some of the options before us. I take it that I don't need to point out again that this is merely my own partial account (in at least 2 senses).

So why would anyone think that at the heart of Being there is a gaping chasm of nothingness, a black hole at the centre of all that is? For me this realisation came by thinking and reading in addition to the lived experience of my life. I read philosophers like William James who said that "truth" was those things that were merely "good in the way of belief" and Richard Rorty who wrote papers and books extolling the idea that beliefs are not true or false in the sense of corresponding to an antecedent world, but only in the sense that they are useful beliefs and that it pays to believe them. Where James, a man of his philosophical time, talked about the world of experience, Rorty, in keeping with the linguistic turn and focus in more modern philosophy, talks about language. Indeed, Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher obsessed with thinking about Being, called language "the house of Being". But it is when thinking about language that we begin to realise that language is not a perspicuous tool for penetrating to the heart of Being but, instead, a collection of "tools for coping with objects rather than representations of objects, and as providing different sets of tools for different purposes" (Richard Rorty). Another very famous philosopher of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, described language as like a game in which we, as various different communities, need to know the rules of the game we are playing in order to take part in using the language. This makes language sound very much like a social practice as opposed to the innate logic of the universe, something that, at first, Wittgenstein himself had tried to find. But, on his later thinking, no language gets us closer to reality because that is not what language is for. Language is there to help us deal with things not represent them, correspond to them or describe them in their essence. All this is to say that language is in no way foundational to Being like a code for how things really are. Rather, it is descriptive of it in as many ways as there are human purposes.

There were for me other philosophical indicators that traditional god substitutes such as Knowledge, Truth or Meaning had ideas above their station. About 16 years ago, as I prepared to start my PhD studies, I chanced upon a book by Friedrich Nietzsche. I knew next to nothing about him save that I knew his work had been co-opted (and corrupted) by the Nazis. I began to read the book (which, soon after, grew to become all his books) and found it very reader friendly but in no way simplistic. I have learned many things in those 16 years since by reading Nietzsche. One of those things is the "will to system" that human beings have. Another is that human beings are excellent at deceiving themselves. Nietzsche, at times, is a very astute and insightful observer of his kind and of their intellectual habits and failings. Thus, he describes truth as "a mobile army of metaphors" and says that "We believe when we speak of trees, colours, snow, and flowers, we have knowledge of the things themselves, and yet we possess only metaphors of things which in no way correspond to the original entities." In the same piece of writing he will argue that our concepts are a "making equivalent of that which is non-equivalent" and that "The thing-in-itself (which would be, precisely, pure truth, truth without consequences) is impossible even for the user of language to grasp". Perhaps my favourite Nietzschean thought, though, is this one:

Life as the product of life. However far man may extend himself with his knowledge, however objective he may appear to himself - ultimately he reaps nothing but his own biography.

I find in this perfectly crafted thought (and Nietzsche's books are full of hundreds of such thoughts as well as more lengthy arguments) a perfect summary of all of our lives. Life, so it says to me, is not about knowledge or truth or meaning. Language does not get to the heart of anything. We do not perceive past some intellectual or spiritual barrier to something that is more real than real. Life is just a time period and all we do when we live is create our history.

And so I took up and ran with this theme as I continued my studies. I entered the world of  French 20th century philosophy where Camus tells us that the only genuine philosophical question is to ask if life is worth living at all. In that same environment Sartre proclaims that we are all "condemned to be free", an expression of our individual existential freedom, Foucault delineates how our human knowledge is shaped by the operations of power and Jacques Derrida builds a whole philosophy around the idea that human language, and human meaning with it, corrupts and deconstructs itself even as it goes about its business. 

My final philosophical insights came not from a Frenchman, but from the very American literary and legal academic, Stanley Fish. His work on meaning as constructed, on human communities as always situated and contextualised and, thus, on just "anything" never having the possibility to be the case, ("anything that can be made to go, goes" is his insightful gloss on the more traditional "anything goes" that people who "don't believe in reality" are often accused of believing) convinced me that there can be no "real world" in the highly philosophical sense that some people often mean it. There is the world that is available to us, the world that we sense and describe and brush up against every day. It is a world that constricts and constrains us. But we cannot penetrate it in the way that some deceptive dualisms such as those like reality and appearance or intrinsic and extrinsic would have us believe. There is no inner reality to find. There is, for example, no inherent morality of the universe (there is merely prudent or considerate behaviour). Instead, all we have is a world of relations and descriptions, some more useful than others, a world that constrains but that is also material for the constructive and creative engines of our minds and language and purposes.

It is at this point that it would be reasonable to feel loss. We want to think that what we have in our hands is solid and, well, real. I say that the world I am describing, the one with nothingness at its heart, is and that I certainly have no problem believing that we live on an amazing planet in an amazing universe full of everything from planets, stars and galaxies to electrons and electro-magnetic radiation. It's just that there is no god figure for us to bow down before, nothing really real that we can feel appropriately supplicant before or in touch with, no divinity of any kind that we can share in, no "real-way-things-are" unconnected from some human purpose or description. There is only the world of experience and our means of describing it and making use of it. Perhaps, then, we might want to share in the conclusion of one of the biblical writers, Qoheleth (to give him his Jewish name), when he says "Sheer futility, sheer futility, everything is futile!" (Qoheleth 1:2). I myself often translate the Hebrew word "Hebel" that is behind the word "futile" there (I did study biblical Hebrew at university with some success and so feel able to make such comments) as "absurd". Everything is absurd. It is absurd not in the sense of funny or amusing but in the sense of being pitched into a game you must play but can't win or where, as Camus discusses in The Myth of Sisyphus, we must forever push a rock up a hill only to have it roll down. And thus the cycle begins again. 

Qoheleth looks out upon a world in which human beings die like beasts and the good suffer whilst the evil prosper. No path seems to lead to any meaningful conclusion. There seems to be no point, no target to aim for. In lieu of a better conclusion we might almost say that stuff just seems random, a matter of time and chance. "Why be wise when the wise and the fool both die?" he asks. "All is futility (or absurd) and chasing after the wind" (Qoheleth 1:17). In a later section, Qoheleth muses on that fact that we humans can grasp no overarching meaning or knowledge or truth about our existence or about existence in general. (Today we would call this the death of the metanarrative.)  His conclusion is that the only pleasure to be found is in "pleasure and enjoyment through life" (Qoheleth 3:12-13). And that sounds very like Nietzsche's biography comment to me. If you look for meaning in something greater than yourself, or something greater than you within, you will not find it. It's not there. All you have is the life you actually live - and to enjoy it. 

Of course, the charge may be raised that there are, indeed, many people who do find meaning and truth and knowledge in things greater than themselves. The world does not lack for believers in gods of many kinds - from the little old lady who goes to church to the evolutionary biologist who worships at the altar of "truth" (the aforementioned Dawkins). "So what is going on here?" you may rightly ask. One answer to this, I think, might lie in the thought of French postmodern thinker, Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard is famous for saying that things like the first Gulf War "never happened". He did not mean to suggest that there was no war. He means to suggest that the war we saw through newspaper headlines and 24 hour rolling news coverage was empty and devoid of referent. It was an act of creation in which the reporting came to replace and represent as true something that wasn't really there. This rolling news then became "The Truth" but had no actual referent behind it. Baudrillard's most famous work, Simulacra and Simulation, fleshes out this idea more fully. A simulacra is, for Baudrillard, "never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true". As Baudrillard notes in a section dealing with the media in this book:

We live in a world where there is more and more information and less and less meaning.

So what am I saying here? I'm saying that people can be deceived. I'm saying that much "information" today is shallow and useless and refers to nothing beyond itself in a very reflexive way but, nevertheless, becomes the truth that conceals there is no truth. I'm saying that people can believe anything for the purposes that they have that the world of our experience allows. This may, for some, include gods whilst, for others, it won't. I would remind readers here of the quote I used as the heading to this blog and it's focus on human beings wanting to escape the "time and chance" that they have, with complete disregard for their will, been pitched into. It has, to date, been a project of some, if not all, humans to try and escape the stream of consciousness, the time and chance which is all they have, to find a solid, firm foundation on which to stand. I doubt that this purpose will go away anytime soon. But given a wider perspective, we have every right to doubt the privileged access or insight some people claim. Better, then, to see it as just one more human attempt to shoot at the moon, one more self-referential news report about gods and rumours of gods with nothing behind it, one more go at the oldest human project of all - finding solid ground when, as Nietzsche says, all we have now is the vicissitudes of "the infinite sea".

But if at the heart of all Being there is merely nothingness, a reaching for something forever out of reach, as I claim, then what are we to do? I can think immediately of two things but I think that we are already doing both of them. The first thing we can do is hope. We can hope for a better life in a better world full of better people - whatever we take better in these cases to mean. We can hope to have a better life personally and we can work towards it. We can hope and so allow the seeds of imagination to flourish within us and make use of the opportunity that time and chance has afforded us in our being born. Of course, you can sit in a corner and wait to die too. It's up to you. You might even muse that in the end it doesn't make much difference and I couldn't really argue against you. Not in the end, at least. But there is always the here and now for the living to concern themselves with even if eternity is forever and life is short.

The second thing we can do in the nothingness is create. This certainly applies in the personal area. I was reminded by a friend's tweet the other day that there is no "inner self". Sometimes various kinds of guru try to claim there is an inner self and that you need to find it. But there is no inner self. Just like all the other attempts at grasping something really real, it has an imaginary target. But, in the absence of an inner self, there is just you in all your particularity with all your history, thoughts and feelings. And there is no one version of you for you are always becoming, always changing. You don't even know yourself better than other people. You just have your own thoughts about you, your own descriptions and your own reasons for preferring one over another, albeit that you have more information to go on because you have always been there! 

This world of experience that we live in yields to our descriptions. It is plastic to our touch. We can make use of it and manipulate it and make it useful for our many purposes. And we can do that with ourselves too. We have the opportunity to create something beautiful, if that's not too naively poetic. It may not be that it lasts for a long time for we know that meaning is as temporary as human beings and their projects but, as Nietzsche and Qoheleth both saw, all we have is the lives we are creating day by day. That is where we will find our being and the world of our possibilities: in our world of Nothingness.

I thank you for reading if you got this far!


A Nihilist.

You can find a whole catalog of music which flows from my existentialist and nihilist frame of mind by going to my Bandcamp including a series on Human/Being and another called Elektronische Existenz. Thank you for any listening that you do as I try to create and infuse with hope my own existence in this world.

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