A short focus on nothing

Financial markets await nervously – as is their modus vivendi – what will happen in the Ukraine. President Putin has some inside information about what he intends to do, and we may wonder whether he has used this inside information to take a position in Wall Street or London, via intermediates, to strike it rich when he comes into action. It is difficult to imagine that he and his inner circle will earn nothing.

A weblog like this can only watch but we can at least shortly focus on nothing.

Imagine Euclidean space: it is totally empty, it is the pure nothing. We don’t need a Big Bang to create Euclidean space. If we fill Euclidean space with objects then we can do so only with imaginary objects and hence it remains empty. We can imagine lines but the width of a line is zero so in a sense it doesn’t exist either. By contrast, physical space is filled with quantum fluctuations and gravity fields and so on. The seeming emptiness of the sky may inspire the idea of Euclidean space but there remains an important difference.

Most philosophers have had inadequate mathematical training and struggle with their concepts. For example figures like Hegel, Heidegger and Sartre got lost in language games about “nothing”. The word “nothing” means to express that something doesn’t exist but philosophers think “when a word exists then it can only have meaning if it refers to something”. Thus if there is nothing then there still is something, e.g. nothingness – and other curious constructions like that. The wikipedia page on “nothing” is quite amusing.

It were philosophers like Alfred Ayer and Ludwig Wittgenstein (not of the Tractatus but later of the Philosophical Investigations) who advised to deconstruct events and to analyse the language games played. The meaning of words is their use. Provided that the word “nothing” is used in a practical manner, to support the use of models for reality, then the philosophical nonsense collapses.

Kitaro Nishida wrote the book Logic of the Place of Nothingness and the Religious Worldview. See also the Kyoto School and the Stanford philosophical page by Bret Davis. I am afraid that Nishida fell in the trap of the syllogism: “Everything that exists has a place. Nothingness exists. Thus nothingness has a place.” This is my interpretation. His own words are a curious mixture of abstraction and empty language constructs.

It is mathematical parlance to say that “there is a point of intersection” but if the intersection occurs in Euclidean space then this existence is only a figure of speech. In the same way “nothingness” might perhaps have a place in some abstract way of expression. But with Euclidean space there are rather strict rules how to translate results to reality via engineering, while there are no such conventions with such philosophical texts.

It is said that Nishida was interested in ways to integrate Western and Eastern ways of thought, and then it is a pity that he started with Hegel and Heidegger, whose texts tend to absolve into nothing when deconstructed.

The article by Bret Davis is informative but also somewhat confusing. He holds that Buddhism is an Eastern philosophy. But its original texts are in Sanskrit and we know that this is Indo-European and thus there are common roots. Kristofer (Rik) Schipper has explained that Dao is the original Chinese philosophy while Buddhism was imported in China and Japan. Schipper also clarifies that Lao Tzu gave the original approach in Dao that is still relevant for the current majority of the population, while Kung Fu Tzu generated a version for the court of the emperor that is authoritarian and only popular in such circles. If you want to understand China, read Schipper.

Dao is inherently ironic. It has elements that remind of Ayer and Wittgenstein in terms of deconstructing language games to show the futility of claims of knowledge. Dao has rituals but those are primarily provided to give people a way to express that they understand that those are mere rituals and otherwise meaningless. A Dao master can be like a skeptic Socrates who may refuse to speak or then ask teasing questions, and who performs the rituals to teach the onwatchers that he has perfected a quite meaningless ceremony. You do, to show that you don’t.

In a key passage, Davis nicely states: “The latter sense of wu is expressed in chapter 40 of the Laozi (Daodejing) as follows: “The myriad things under heaven are generated from being. Being is generated from Nothingness (wu).” This unnam[e]able non-dualistic source of all being and relative non-being is also referred to as the Way (dao).” Relative is how yin and yang are required to create unity, but the whole should have come from a pure nothing.

Wikipedia distinguishes Dao from Shen Dao, where the latter would be the folk belief comparable to Japanese Shinto. If I understand Schipper correctly, this would not be proper. Dao wouldn’t really differ from Shen Dao, since the shen (heavenly spirits as opposed to those from the earth) would be present in both. It is a confusion amongst Western researchers on religion that they are looking for gods who are worshipped. It is nonsense to put such gods in center place since of relevance is the path. Original Chinese philosophy / religion / way of life can best be regarded as a soup, and whoever takes a spoon or sip, will taste something different.

Some mystics suggest that Lao Tzu already anticipated the Big Bang. There is a simpler explanation. Lao Tzu had two logical options: either an eternal existence of some substance(s) or a creation out of nothing. Clearly there is no way to know, in say 300 BC (and likely today too). Eternal existence comes with all kinds of questions of what has been happening and whether there really wasn’t some kind of beginning. Creation out of nothing has the nice property that it is quite ironic. The Dao master is the court jester: “Everyone will understand that I cannot know what happened but everyone will also understand that creation out of nothing has the nice property that the story starts somewhere. The children will be happy with this story and when the children are happy then everyone is happy.”

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