The Unheralded Virtues of Absence
It was a warm summer night on Salt Spring Island. The wine flowed freely as wasps flew reconnaissance missions over dessert dishes. Our host held up her glass and offered us a shot of Tao – a concept, not a drink. “The hollowness of the vessel is as important as the glass itself,” she said, explaining how Taoists appreciated the value of things absent.
When I got home, I plucked a dog-eared copy of the Tao Te Ching from a bookshelf, to sharpen my recollection of Lao Tzu’s original words. “The utility of the cart depends on the hollow centre in which the axle turns,” wrote the Chinese sage in sixth century BC. “Clay is moulded into a vessel; the utility of the vessel depends on its hollow interior. Doors and windows are cut out in order to make a house; the utility of the house depends on the empty spaces.
“Thus, while the existence of things may be good, it is the non-existent in them which makes them serviceable.”
This truism may make perfect sense to Taoists, but such notions fit uneasily in westernized brainpans. For most of us, the word “nothing” conjures up a void, an absence, a lack. Nothingness is shorthand for failure, meaninglessness or just plain nihilism. In the secular, scientific mindset, nonexistence is our final destination after a few decades of putzing around on Earth. The slim volume of one’s life is bracketed by twin eternities of nada, like monstrous bookends. To believe otherwise is supposedly superstitious, pseudoscientific or shame-facedly sentimental.
In this view, we make our ways from the crib to the coffin in an eyeblink of geological time, and that’s it. You get only one shot to make the best of it, although from the perspective of a 13 billion-year-old cosmos, you might as well have never existed at all. Good times.
“Nothing is an awe-inspiring yet essentially undigested concept, highly esteemed by writers of an existentialist tendency, but by most others regarded with anxiety, nausea, or panic,” wrote P.L. Heath for his tongue-in-cheek entry on Nothing for the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Nobody seems to know how to deal with it (he would, of course) and plain persons generally are reported to have little difficulty in saying, seeing, hearing, and doing nothing.”
The few positive interpretations of ‘nothing’ in western culture are more comic than cosmic. In an episode from the nineties-era comedy series Seinfeld, Jerry and George make a pitch to a television producer for a new series that sounds strangely familiar. “It’s about nothing!” George exclaims, in a meta-level comment on the world he and his friends are embedded in: a sitcom that leverages life’s minor potholes and into epic pitfalls.
“Emptiness” comes off even worse than “nothing” in western lingo. According to Wikipedia, it is “a human condition is a sense of generalized boredom, social alienation and apathy. Feelings of emptiness often accompany dysthymia, depression, loneliness, anhedonia, despair, or other mental/emotional disorders, including schizoid personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizotypal personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.” That’s a lot of baggage for one word to carry.
Not surprisingly, “emptiness” has different shades of meaning in Asian cultures, particularly Buddhism. The Sanskrit term Śūnyatā is commonly translated into English as emptiness, but the meanings branch out – depending on the doctrinal context – to voidness, openness, spaciousness and “thusness.” In Mahayana Buddhism, it commonly means that no person or object has an independent phenomenal existence. All things depend on other things and come into being through ‘mutual arising.’ This idea of mutual interdependence, in different language, is now a fixture in present-day ecology, social sciences and physics. The measurer and the measured are forever entangled, dancing an ontological tango that weaves the world into being.
Atoms are 99.9999999 percent empty space. In his 1928 book The Nature of the Physical World, Sir Arthur Eddington offered the “parable of the two writing desks.” The first one is the dependable, solid piece of furniture propping up his typewriter. The second was the desk, as imagined by a new generation of physicists, consisting almost entirely of nothingness, with inconceivably small atomic nuclei and electrons separated by empty space a hundred thousand times larger in scale.
“In the world of physics, we watch a shadowgraph performance of familiar life. The shadow of my elbow rests on the shadow-table as the shadow-ink flows over the shadow-paper… The frank realization that physical science is concerned with a world of shadows is one of the most significant of recent advances,” Eddington wrote.
He would have appreciated the mid-century discovery of a subatomic particle called the neutrino – a will-o’-the-wisp that is about as close to nothing as anyone can imagine. A single neutrino can pass through 1,000 light-years of lead without interacting. But how to detect such elusive particles? In a mid-sixties effort to capture neutrinos emitted from the sun, experimental physicists buried a huge tank of perchloroethylene thousands of feet underground in a gold mine in South Dakota, far from the effect of cosmic rays. The detectors installed with the tank didn’t catch the neutrinos themselves, but rather the argon isotope created after the extremely improbable collisions with the nuclei of chlorine atoms. It was like waiting for a passing ghost to topple a candlestick in an abandoned mansion, but the physicists’ patience won out, revealing the spooky neutrinos’ existence.
The elusive subatomic particle inspired the writer John Updike to pen his 1960 poem, Cosmic Gall:
Neutrinos, they are very small. / They have no charge and have no mass / And do not interact at all. / The earth is just a silly ball / To them, through which they simply pass, / Like dustmaids down a drafty hall / Or photons through a sheet of glass.
The first neutrino detectors were kludgy, steampunk-like contraptions compared to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which has been tasked to hunt for even stranger prey. The seven-story LHC is the plaything of thousands of scientists from across the world. They accelerate protons to speeds close to the speed of light and smash them together in the guts of the LHC. Because energy is equivalent to mass, the high energies of the collisions conjure up bizarre, heavy particles. It’s a bit like throwing two clocks against each other to discover new components that were never there to begin with.
Analyzing the results of the impacts, the big brains of the LHC believe they have found the footprints of the Higgs particle, one of the subatomic ancestors of the phenomenal world that is responsible for that convincing ‘something’ we call “mass.”
You could say the job of the largest machine ever built is to interrogate the void – the background to our day-to-day foreground. And as particle physicists plunge into smaller scales of the microworld, astronomers penetrate ever-greater distances into the macroworld. They have discovered that normal matter amounts to less that five percent of the mass-energy of the observable universe; the rest is tied up in something called “dark matter” and “dark energy.”
The world we see and interact with – including everything detected by the LHC – appears to be embedded in, or running parallel to, something literally otherworldly, which will most likely require a new physics to describe.
Science has not exorcised magic from the world – it has only succeeded in chasing things “that go bump in the night” to the furthest margins of empirical investigation. According to the most commonly accepted interpretation of quantum theory, subatomic particles don’t exist in the common sense of the word until a measurement is performed on them. Weirder yet, so-called “virtual particles” can emerge from a perfect vacuum – the so-called “zero-point field” – as long as they return to the vacuum in a precise amount of time, set within the constraints of a time/energy variant of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
“So the modern conception of the vacuum is one of a seething ferment of quantum field activity, with waves surging randomly this way and that,” observes Oxford-trained physicist Paul Davies in New Scientist. And surprise! Turns out you can get a sort of something from this sort of nothing, at least according to theoretical physicists, who put the birth of the universe – that is, our observable universe – down to a quantum hiccup in the zero-point field. In this view, the vacuum is a well of creative potential that birthed space, time, matter and energy like a stochastic Shiva. In other words, our everyday ideas of ‘nothing’ and ‘something’ don’t seem to quite work in the language of science.
Paging Lao Tzu: call on the LHC white courtesy telephone.
In his marvellous 2012 book Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, author Jim Holt points to a puzzling property of zilch. “Nothingness, in addition to being the simplest, the least arbitrary, and the most symmetrical of all possible realities, also has the nicest entropy profile,” the author observes. In other words, nothingness seems to represent a kind of perfection. Is nothing ‘sacred’? Perhaps not in the usual sense of the word, but physicists insist our cosmos exists in a state of “broken symmetry.” An archaic ‘defect’ in the perfectly symmetric void resulted in the Big Bang and its evolutionary after-effects, which includes our world of barking dogs, Bach fugues and baseball games.
The zero-point field is the Tao dressed up in a lab coat with a pocket protector and it’s as close to you as your next heartbeat. Our shadow world, like Eddington’s shadow desk, contains a creative emptiness at its heart. As Lao Tzu wrote,
The Tao is like a well: / used but never used up. / It is like the eternal void: / filled with infinite possibilities. / It is hidden but always present. / I don’t know who gave birth to it. / It is older than God.
At this point, the average person’s mind starts spinning like a George Costanza sales pitch. With a universe this balls-to-the-wall bizarre, talk of ghosts and poltergeists is hardly any more challenging than ‘squarks’ or ‘gluinos,’ just two of the many theoretical particles drawn up to explain dark matter.
In a seventies-era Pacifica radio broadcast, Zen philosopher Alan Watts mused on the primary strangeness of being a conscious self. “I know that you feel that you are I in just the same way that I feel that I am I. We all have the same background of nothing, we don’t remember having done it before, and yet it has been done before again and again and again, not only before in time but all around us everywhere else in space…
“What has happened once can very well happen again,” he said of our sense of singular, subjective being. “If it happened once it’s extraordinary, and it’s not really very much more extraordinary if it happened all over again…”
The Tao – which is not a ‘name’ for a ‘thing’ but rather the underlying dynamism of the universe – eludes final description. We are not separate from this dynamism so when we try to puzzle it out separately from our own consciousness, we get caught up in Möbius strips of logical paradox.
At the beginning of a new millennium, all our previous ideas about matter, energy and mind appear to be up for grabs. Perhaps scientists will come to realize that sentience runs deeper and wider in this cosmos than previously thought. As Watts observed, “The universe is a system which forgets itself and then again remembers anew so there’s always constant change and constant variety in the span of time. It also does it in the span of space by looking at itself through every different living organism, giving an all-around view.”
Is it possible our widely accepted, negative ideas of nothingness – particularly, the anticipation our personal extinction at death – underlies a great deal of the sickness infecting western culture? It’s likely far more people on Earth fear an eternity of nonexistence more than the fires of a putative Hell. Perhaps the depressive wageslave’s gobbling of SSRI drugs is as much a desperate effort to ward off the spectre of emptiness as the First World’s resource-grabbing crusades on poor nations, which drive the bread-and-circuses of hypercapitalism.
Drugs, sex, work, gambling, religious fundamentalism and all manner of distractions, analogue and digital, are thrown against the troubling idea of nonexistence. All in a frantic, temporary effort to forget our existential condition.
Emptiness isn’t the end of possibility; it’s the beginning. Consider the sculptor who sees the hole in a piece of driftwood not as an absence but the seed of an idea. Or the composer who starts with blank sheets of paper and ends with a symphony. Or the mother who sees the vacant corner lot not as a suburban eyesore, but an opportunity to reconnect her community with the dirt under their feet. Or even the teacher who instructs his students to trust the still, central point within themselves. There are millions and millions of people who bind the fractures in our world of broken symmetry with creativity, compassion and care – all of which are species of love. And that’s hardly ‘nothing.’
It seems to me our overworked, overscheduled, over stimulated culture is long overdue for a shot of Tao. But enough talk. I will leave the closing words to that shadowy figure from sixth century BC: Lao Tzu:
The Tao is like a bellows: / It is empty yet infinitely capable. / The more you use it, the more it produces; / The more you talk of it, the less you understand. / Hold on to the center.
Common Ground, December