Friday, June 22, 2012

The Primal Egg: Nothingness

From time to time I think of the following quandary: how can something come from nothing. It's a pleasant paradox that I usually put off to the side. It is unanswerable. I was up reading Carl Sagan the other night and the paradox crossed my mind once again. In the book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View on the Search For God, Sagan wrote:
But I stress that the universe is mainly made of nothing, that something is the exception. Nothing is the rule. That darkness is a commonplace; it is light that is the rarity. As between darkness and light, I am unhesitatingly on the side of light. But we must remember that the universe is an almost complete and impenetrable darkness and the sparse sources of light, the stars, are far beyond our present ability to create or control.
This got me thinking of a time in my life when I thought I was being particularly clever. It was my senior year of college and I was taking a course called The Nature of Science. I had, of course, waited until the last minute to write the final paper. There I was the night before the paper was due and I had nothing to write about. That's where my flash of brilliance came in. If I had nothing to write about, why not write about nothing? Surely I could pen ten pages about nothing.

So that's just what I did. I wrote out ten pages of something about nothing. The main thrust of the paper was a meditation on how something could have come from nothing--and if it did, how could nothing exist--and thus how could something.

I got an A on the paper. The professor encouraged me to look at some ancient Arabic literature that grappled with the concept of zero. I promptly put the paper, and the professors comments, out of my mind. It wasn't until years later that it occurred to me that I might actually like to read the literature that he suggested. The professor is dead and the paper is long since lost.

Perhaps someone else might point me in the direction of this literature he suggested? I really want to read it now.

So anyway, thanks to Carl, I'm back to my old tricks thinking and writing about nothing.

This business of thinking about nothing is a surprisingly complicated task. There are myriad creation stories. They all find some way to describe the creation of something out of nothing. Yet none of the creation stories really take a crack at nothing. The stories always start at first light: something appears from nothing.

In the Christian world, the most famous creation story of all comes from the Bible. Did you know there are over 21 versions of the Bible collected at just one website? I poked around and discovered scores more. This nearly sent me into a hermanuntic fit. I've quoted three versions that caught my eye.
  • In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was unformed and void, darkness was on the face of the deep and the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water. (Complete Jewish Bible)
  • First this: God created the Heavens and Earth--all you see, all you don't see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness and inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. (The Message)
  • In the beginning God made of nought heaven and earth. (In the beginning God made out of nothing the heavens and the earth.). Forsooth the earth was idle and void and darkness were on the face of (the) depth; and the Spirit of the Lord was borne on the waters [and the Spirit of God was borne upon the waters]. (Wycliffe Bible)
I'm interested here in the nought mentioned in the Wycliffe Bible. What is the nature of the nought? Where did it come from and how did it get there? Most importantly--how did nought get there? How did something spring from nothing?

Really. If I think about this too long I go a little crazy.

How about a peek at some other creation stories? They don't offer up any help in this contemplation of nothing. They are interesting--especially in how each of them echos the same basic narrative found in the first two lines of the story of Genesis. More accurately put, the story of Genesis echos the narratives of these other creation stories.

Ancient Greeks:
  • In the beginning there was nothing but Chaos, which was a void of nothingness. A black winged bird named Nyx emerged from the void. She laid a golden egg and sat on it for a very long time. The egg hatched and from it came Eros, the god of love. One half of the shell rose upward and became the sky. The other half of the shell stayed put and become the earth.
The Hopi:
  • The world at first was endless space in which existed only the Creator, Taiowa. This world had no time, no shape, and no life, except in the mind of the Creator. Eventually the infinite creator created the finite in Sotuknang, whom he called his nephew and whom he created as his agent to establish nine universes. Sotuknang gathered together matter from the endless space to make the nine solid worlds. Then the Creator instructed him to gather together the waters from the endless space and place them on these worlds to make land and sea. When Sotuknang had done that, the Creator instructed him to gather together air to make winds and breezes on these worlds. (read more)
The Norse:
  • In the beginning of time, there was nothing: neither sand, nor sea, nor cool waves. Neither the heaven nor earth existed. Instead, long before the earth was made, Niflheim was made, and in it a spring gave rise to twelve rivers. To the south was Muspell, a region of heat and brightness guarded by Surt, a giant who carried a flaming sword. To the north was frigid Ginnungagap, where the rivers froze and all was ice. Where the sparks and warm winds of Muspell reached the south side of frigid Ginnungagap, the ice thawed and dripped, and from the drips thickened and formed the shape of a man. His name was Ymir, the first of and ancestor of the frost-giants. (read more)
The Maori:
  • All humans are descended from one pair of ancestors, Rangi and Papa, who are also called Heaven and Earth. In those days, Heaven and Earth clung closely together, and all was darkness. Rangi and Papa had six sons: Tane-mahuta, the father of the forests and their inhabitants; Tawhiri-ma-tea, the father of winds and storms; Tangaroa, the father of fish and reptiles; Tu-matauenga, the father of fierce human beings; Haumia-tikitiki, the father of food that grows without cultivation; and Rongo-ma-tane, the father of cultivated food. These six sons and all other beings lived in darkness for an extremely long time, able only to wonder what light and vision might be like. (read more)
The Jicarilla Apache:
  • In the beginning there was nothing - no earth, no living beings. There were only darkness, water, and Cyclone, the wind. There were no humans, but only the Hactcin, the Jicarilla supernatural beings. The Hactcin made the earth, the underworld beneath it, and the sky above it. The earth they made as a woman who faces upward, and the sky they made as a man who faces downward. The Hactcin lived in the underworld, where there was no light. There were mountains and plants in the underworld, and each had its own Hactcin. There were as yet no animals or humans, and everything in the underworld existed in a dream-like state and was spiritual and holy. (read more)
Ancient India:
  •  In the beginning there was absolutely nothing, and what existed was covered by death and hunger. He thought, "Let me have a self", and he created the mind. As he moved about in worship, water was generated. Froth formed on the water, and the froth eventually solidifed to become earth. He rested on the earth, and from his luminence came fire. After resting, he divided himself in three parts, and one is fire, one is the sun, and one is the air. (read more)
The Mossi People:
  • In the beginning there was no earth, no day or night, and not even time itself. All that existed was the Kingdom of Everlasting Truth, which was ruled by the Naba Zid-Wendé. The Naba Zid-Wendé made the earth, and then they made the day and the night. To make the day a time to be busy, they made the sun, and to make the night a time of rest, they made the moon. In doing so, they made time itself. (read more)
Ancient China:
  • Long, long ago, when heaven and earth were still one, the entire universe was contained in an egg-shaped cloud. All the matter of the universe swirled chaotically in that egg. Deep within the swirling matter was Pan Gu, a huge giant who grew in the chaos. For 18,000 years he developed and slept in the egg. Finally one day he awoke and stretched, and the egg broke to release the matter of the universe. The lighter purer elements drifted upwards to make the sky and heavens, and the heavier impure elements settled downwards to make the earth. (read more)
I could continue, but none of these creation stories are talking about nothingness. They are all concerned about the origin of things. They show us the birth of things--which in one way or another have sprung out of nothingness.

But what of nothing? That very well might be my point. Nothingness is the magic in our lives. There is nothing but what we make from the nothingness. So, as Alan Watts suggests, "Cheer up! This is the most incredible nothing. Nothingness is like the nothingness of space. It contains the universe. Out of this void comes everything and you're it."


  1. Nice exposition on 'nothing'. Summed up well with your closing comments and Video :)

    I think we are limited in our thinking by 'time'. Being created at some point (the beginning) and measuring our finite lives in days and years, we cannot comprehend 'nothing' or a time when there was no time. 'Nothing', by our time bound reasoning, must have had a beginning or have been created.

    “Our theories of the eternal are as valuable as are those which a chick which has not broken its way through its shell might form of the outside world.” (Buddha)

    1. Thanks for stopping in and commenting.

      What a great quote from Buddha. It reminds me of a passage in Carl Sagan's book where he talks of the desire (and importance) of pushing our ability to understand ourselves outside of of our own frame of reference. Easier said than done!