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     Jul 24, 2012


Now for something about nothing ...
Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story
by Jim Holt.
Reviewed by Spengler

In the first pages of his new book, Jim Holt misquotes my old professor, Columbia University philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser:
"Professor Morgenbesser, why is there something rather than nothing?" a student asked him one day. To which Morgenbesser replied, "Oh, even if there was nothing, you still wouldn't be satisfied."


 
Morgenbesser actually said: "If there was nothing, you'd also complain." There's a world of difference, as we shall see, between "not being satisfied" and "complaining". Part of the difference, of course, is the unmistakably Jewish irony directed at the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a member of the Nazi party. Heidegger's famous question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" is the opening challenge of the German philosopher's famous essay "What is Metaphysics?" and the jumping-off point for Holt's peroration through the mysteries of Creation.

But there was a deeper point to Morgenbesser's quip. To brandish Nothingness against Being is not an analytical procedure, but a complaint - specifically, the Devil's complaint about Creation. Since the philosopher Parmenides taught a generation before Socrates, philosophers have confronted a paradox: We can neither think nor speak of "Nothing", for the moment we employ the term, we are speaking or thinking about a thing, namely "nothing". One can't get at "Nothing" directly; one can only sneak up upon it through such things as boredom, violence and perversion.

As Holt quotes Heidegger:
The question [of Nothing] looms in moments of great despair when things tend to lose all their weight and all meaning becomes obscured. It is present in moments of rejoicing, when all the things around us are transfigured and seem to be there for the first time ... The question is upon us in boredom, when we are equally removed from despair and joy, and everything about us seems to hopelessly commonplace that we no longer care whether anything is or is not.
Every German schoolboy (but few American writers) would recognize in Heidegger the voice of Goethe's Mephistopheles, who tells Faust:
I am the spirit that denies!
And justly so; for all that time creates,
He does well who annihilates!
Better, it ne'er had had beginning;
And so, then, all that you call sinning,
Destruction, - all you pronounce ill-meant, -
Is my original element.
Mephisto is a manifestation of the primal chaos which envies the light, and seeks in vain to restore this chaos:
That which at nothing the gauntlet has hurled,
This, what's its name? this clumsy world,
So far as I have undertaken,
I have to own, remains unshaken
By wave, storm, earthquake, fiery brand.
Calm, after all, remain both sea and land.
Faust observes that the Devil can do no harm in the large, and so engages in petty acts of destruction. "Go find something else to do, strange son of Chaos!" the philosopher scolds.

That is why Morgenbesser's actual joke - "If there was nothing, you would also complain" - is as insightful as Mr Holt's misquotation is misleading. Holt doesn't get the joke; he doesn't even understand that it is a joke to begin with. The question betrays the character of the questioner, both in the case of Heidegger and Holt. A predilection for Nothing is metaphysical nonsense, but it has an existential meaning: It is the complaint of the bored, the jaded, the jealous, the perverted against life. Goethe's act of genius was to personify the metaphysical impossibility of Nothingness as a spiritual craving for Nothingness, in the stage personage of the Devil.

As the leading Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod observes, Heidegger's predilection for Nothingness expressed itself in his membership in the Nazi Party - in perversion, destruction and hatred. "The embracing of nonbeing," he wrote, "is violence. In violence, being is turned against itself, toward its own destruction ... Killing is the purest form of deontology. And it is for this reason that Nazism is the deontology of Heidegger."

A brilliant mind, Heidegger tragically remained in the grip of a Satanic impulse similar to Hitler's - the disappointment of Germany after its defeat in World War I. The philosopher killed no Jews (and made no public anti-Semitic statements even while he praised Hitler). Eventually the Nazis had no use for him, but he never apologized for his Nazi Party membership or his open support for Hitler during his brief tenure as Rector of the University of Freiburg.

Holt's fascination with Heidegger's question betrays the same sort of existential angst. In a post-religious age, people will ask themselves why they exist in the first place, and why, if they are one day to become nothing, whether they really are something at the moment. As Holt explained to a newspaper interviewer:
The question "Why does the world exist?" rhymes with the question "Why do I exist?" Both cosmic and personal existence are precarious in the extreme. This was borne in upon me when, just as I was writing the last chapters of the book, about the self and death, my mother unexpectedly died. I was alone with her in the hospice room at the last moment. To see a self flicker into nothingness - the very self that engendered your own being, no less - is to feel the weirdness of existence anew.
Heidegger posed the question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?," in just the sense that Sidney Morgenbesser understood it, as a nod to Goethe's Mephistopheles. Wrong-footed from the outset, Holt chases the phantom of Nothingness down the rabbit holes of metaphysics and discovers - nothing.

Holt seems to think that he can evade the Parmenides paradox by speaking of "Nothingness" (the absence of existence) as opposed to "Nothing", literally "no thing." As he writes:
Once nothing and nothingness are distinguished, it is easy to resolve the supposed paradoxes about nothing that arise form conflating the two, like those the ancient Greek philosophers were so fond of. [Nothingness] designates and ontological option, a possible reality, a conceivable state of affairs: that in which nothing exists.
The obvious problem with this approach is that if we try to imagine a possible reality in which nothing exists, it is we who are doing the imagining, which implies that we exist. There can't be nothing if we are there. That is a variant of Descartes' proof of existence, "I think, therefore I am" (that is: If I don't exist, then who wants to know?).

Because he misunderstood Heidegger's point to begin with - that a sense of Nothingness arises from a complaint against life - Holt cannot quite get at the problem of existential despair. He writes:
Although my birth was contingent, my death is necessary. Of that I am reasonably sure. Yet I find my death difficult to imagine. And here I am in impressive company. Freud said he could not conceive of his own death. So did Goethe before him. It is entirely impossible for a thinking being to think of its own non-existence, of the termination of its thinking and life," Goethe said, adding that "to this extent, everybody carries within himself, and quite involuntarily at that, the proof of his own immortality."
That sounds very nice, and very spiritual. But it was the same Freud, who some time later pulled out of thin air the notion of a "Death Wish" to explain the mass suicide of European civilization during the First World War. What makes it hard to imagine our own non-existence? It is because our existence is a social fact.

Try to imagine your own funeral; even if you are in the coffin, you are present in the thoughts and feelings of your family and friends, and you feel yourself to be still present. Then imagine dying alone as the last speaker of your language. We exist through our ancestors and our children, and through the transmission of our culture. But individuals who foresee the extinction of their entire culture not only are quite able to imagine their own non-existence, but often desire it avidly. That is why, for example, some Muslim countries today produce so many volunteers for suicide attacks. Heidegger's contemporary, the religious existentialist Franz Rosenzweig, explains this clearly, but his name appears nowhere in this volume.

Holt's discussion of ontology misses the point. In Plato's eponymous dialogue, Parmenides explains to the young Socrates the absurdity of attempting to think about Nothing (or "Nothingness" - the verbal distinction is immaterial). The older philosopher asks a different question: "Why are there different things, and not just one Big Thing?"

If we cannot conceive of Non-Being, Parmenides tells Socrates, then we must think of Being as one big thing with no parts. It cannot change, for that would imply that some part of Being has become Non-Being, and we cannot conceive of Non-Being. Being cannot be differentiated into different kinds of Being, for that would that some part of Being contains Non-Being with respect to another part of Being, and so forth. Therefore the One exists, but not the Many.

I am still not quite sure how Plato intended this dialogue to be read - whether Parmenides is a Stand-up Philosopher in the sense of Mel Brooks' History of the World Part I, and his argument a classic version of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" routine - or whether it is a great statement of ontological paradox. The two readings are not mutually exclusive.

Two points should be underscored.

For one thing, there is no difference as far as we are concerned between Parmenides' undifferentiated One and nothing. It is impossible to imagine a world in which there was only an undifferentiated One because we could not distinguish it from nothing. If everything were the same, it would be the indistinguishable from nothing. One cannot so easily dismiss Parmenides' paradox of the One and Many, for it terms up again and again in philosophy, notoriously in Spinoza. For just that reason it seems pointless to argue whether the Creation story in the Bible implies creation ex nihilo, or creation from a primal chaos ("without form and void"). We could not distinguish absolute disorder from nothing.

The second and far more important point is that no system of philosophy ever has emerged that can explain the differentiation of reality without reference to a God who creates different things. I reviewed these issues in a 2010 essay for First Things, entitled "The God of the Mathematicians", and summarize the key points here.

In Genesis, Creation occurs through a series of separations: light from darkness, heaven from earth, water from dry land, and so forth. The philosopher and would-be Bible debunker Benedict Spinoza's great (if unintentional) accomplishment was to prove that a God who is identical to nature will transform all of nature into a single blob of undifferentiated goo.

Spinoza wrote:
As God is a being absolutely infinite ... and he necessarily exists; if any substance besides God were granted it would have to be explained by some attribute of God, and thus two substances with the same attribute would exist, which is absurd; therefore, besides God no substance can be granted, or consequently, be conceived.
In other words: If we actually can conceive of God as existing within the natural world, then we can conceive of nothing else at all. A century and a half later, G W F Hegel joked that the cause of Spinoza's death "was consumption, from which he had long been a sufferer; this was in harmony with his system of philosophy, according to which all particularity and individuality pass away in the one substance." That was cruel, but quite accurate.

Spinoza has the reputation of a rationalist who rejected religious superstition, but his immanent God, conceived of as natura naturens ("Nature naturing") gives us the absurd results that Hegel noted. More "realistic," in my view, is the rabbinical concept of Tzimzum, (Hebrew, "contraction"): God shrinks his presence in the world by an act of divine will in order to make room for the abundance of creation.

The rabbinic concept of a voluntaristic God upsets not only atheists but followers of natural theology. Nonetheless, it can be argued quite credibly that the Kabbalah of Rabbi Isaac Luria not only understood Spinoza's way of looking of things a century before Spinoza, but also proposed a solution to the problem of differentiation on which his system founders. One may not like the Bible and its rabbinic interpretation, but this tradition does offer a clear answer to the problem.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the philosopher and mathematician who (along with Isaac Newton) invented the calculus, offered an antidote to Spinoza's consumption that is not too distant from the rabbinic solution. Instead of a single "infinite substance", Leibniz proposed a "pre-established harmony" that governed an infinite number of independent "monads", or atom-like entities each as unique as a snowflake. Leibniz added a purely theistic premise: By the law of sufficient reason, he argued, God does not do anything superfluous and therefore does not create anything twice.

The systems of Spinoza and Leibniz seem to be mirror images: Spinoza's single substance cannot explain individuality, while Leibniz' individual monads cannot communicate with each other. We have a "pre-established harmony" instead of "infinite self-generating substance". Undergraduate courses misleadingly lump the two together under the rubric of "rationalism". But there is a fundamental difference: By turning Spinoza's inside out, Leibniz makes room for God to return from his Babylonian captivity in natura naturans, to lordship over being.

The last part of the book is taken up by a long interview with the novelist John Updike conducted shortly before his death in 2009. Updike wrestled with death and faith throughout work, and his voice is more interesting than Holt's. It is a shame that the interview can't be purchased separately as an e-book.

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, by Jim Holt (Liveright, 2012). ISBN-10: 0871404095. Price US$27.95, 320 pages.

Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. His book How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is Dying, Too) was published by Regnery Press in September 2011. A volume of his essays on culture, religion and economics, It's Not the End of the World - It's Just the End of You, also appeared this fall, from Van Praag Press.

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