November 4, 2012, by Stephen Mumford
Nothing Really Matters
Anyone can see that absence figures just as much in our lives as presence. A deceased loved one causes the greatest sorrow. You see that they are no longer there, in their regular place, doing their regular things. A hole is left in someone’s life.
Other absences impact on us. One might be saddened by the absence of a university degree or honour, long for the partner that life never delivered, and regret an ambition unfulfilled. One is frustrated when keys are lost, or money, and when something gets destroyed. And a good film, book or football match comes to an end. When they cease, we might wish we were still experiencing them.
But how can the absence of something really affect us? An absence would appear to be a nothingness: a lack of something rather than a thing itself. How could such a non-being affect us, or have any causal power on anything at all?
‘Nothing comes from nothing’, said Parmenides, which seems a plausible dictum. Material objects affect others. They have causal powers in virtue of their properties. But an absence of an object ought not to be able to perform any action. It couldn’t gravitationally attract anything, reflect light, smash a window, or pose a threat. Yet there are many cases where this looks to be wrong. Plants can die through absence of water, and so can humans, who would also perish quickly through lack of oxygen. But if we allow such absences to be potential causes of death, shouldn’t we also cite other absences as causes of health? I continue to live due to absence of poison in my body, for instance, and the lack of an angry tiger in the room. Once absences are taken seriously, what is to stop their proliferation?
Yet how could we not take them seriously? I am happy to say that I am not diabetic, I want my food to be meat-free, I define myself as an atheist, I’m pleased there is no war between the UK and Norway, and that I have no major physical impediments. I see also that absences are very important in counting. Zero is an important number. And when I count to any other number, nothingness always comes into the equation. To say that there are exactly ten people in the room seems to be to say that there are ten and no more. Whenever we ‘total’ a group of things, we are doing so by adding and no more. Perhaps we couldn’t get by without nothingness of some kind. And if anything is created, rather than matter just being perpetually redistributed into different formations, then something must have come from nothing in the first place, contrary to the Parmenidean thesis.
The relation of being to non-being remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of human thought. Our world’s landscape seems shaped by what is not as much as by what is. Can we account for what is not entirely in terms of what there is? It is noble to attempt such a solution but many have tried and failed. In that case, should we allow two kinds of reality: the positive and the negative? Many are suspicious of any such cleavage. Perhaps a first step is to decide just how seriously we should take absences. Every time I think I can dismiss them, however, I see new cases where nothing matters too much.
I have written a little on nothingnesses in my Metaphysics: a Very Short Introduction and a paper on negative truths. I am hoping to write a more serious study in A Book About Nothing, which I have been planning for over a decade. Nothing is stopping me writing it but other things always seem to get in the way.
More on nothingness here on YouTube
First off, I’ve been diabetic since I was 5 1/2, and although I am perfectly healthy (yay!) I too am glad that you aren’t diabetic. It makes one aware – for very good reason – of how impossibly contingent everything is, a fluke of hazard akin to grace. It is nice to have this awareness, to know how much the important things do matter, but nicer yet to have it in conjunction with a working pancreas. 🙂
I’m pretty sure that I think that there is a difference between absence considered against the backdrop of presence – absences of this or of that; any of the examples that you give suffice – and the kind of absence that would be the ontic equivalent of there being no time prior to the Big Bang.
I have no idea what to think about the latter case. Luckily, for me, it is (for me) the less interesting of the two kinds of phenomena. Maybe because I don’t take it to be happening now, at least not anywhere near me, maybe just because phenomenologically it is similar in structure to when I was a kid and I couldn’t get my mind around the concept of infinity. Naturally, I thought of it in spacial terms, and I couldn’t understand how there wasn’t an outside, bounding it. Absent the ability to conceptualize unbounded space, I had to just leave it alone. Do with the pun as you will.
When it comes to the more local sense of absence, I think it’s important to distinguish between the concept of absence and absence as a putative phenomenon or existent. [Yes, yes, I know; what would it be for an absence to be present qua absence?] Clearly, it seems to me, at the level of thought there is what we can refer to precisely and technically as a dialectical relationship between the concept of presence and the concept of absence. You don’t get either without the other.
This post is long, now. Tbc after I take my insulin. 🙂
… On the ontology of local absences, as we could call them, I think it’s very tricky. I’m glad to hear that you keep coming back to it. There are the obvious ways that they are determinate: the absence of this, not that. And not, as I’ve stipulated, the absence of everything. Plus there is the pesky problem of very existence of the phenomenon in question, if one thinks it might exist. These considerations I take to point to ontological equivalents to the conceptual interdependence between “present” and “absent.” Insofar as one articulates the ontological points in thought (& states them in language), the epistemological issues impinge. Still, the ontology and the epistemology are not coterminous.
I don’t think that absences, if there are such things, are efficient causes. It also seems to me that at all times there is some way that the world is. The way that the world is precludes the world also being such that absences obtain (if any do) that would render the world self-contradictory (self-contradictory in an uninteresting sense, I mean; i.e., a metaphysical equivalent of p and ~p). But that’s only a sub-set of all of the (putative) absences that are consistent with the way that the world is.
Of the (putative) absences that are consistent with the way that the world is, then, we want to know (1) if they are necessarily equivalent, ontologically, to some aspect (or all) of the way that the world is (and are just elliptical statements of those ways, a linguistic artifact only); (2) if they can cause anything, and if so how and in what sense. Obviously, answers to (2) will have implications for (1) [though a putative absence having unique or differentially expressed causal powers (if it did) from a positive to which it purportedly reduces might not be the only test for the irreducibility of such phenomena].
I don’t have a settled view on either question, though I think that some apparent absences are indeed just ways of talking about phenomena that are present. And I’d say (with the benefit of your views on negative truths) that I don’t I think that the truth-maker apparatus in analytic philosophy is adequate to the job of sorting out the ontology.
Everyone who is anyone is eager for more talk and thinking about this.
Is zero important? Reminds me that Robert Black wrote about that:
Nothing matters too much, or Wright is wrong