Sunday, December 26, 2010

What is nothing?

In order to have a positive relationship with "nothing," it's key to understand what "nothing" means. As the classical philosophers were fond of saying, "nothing" doesn't exist. That is, we should not reify "nothing." To say that an empty set contains nothing is not to say that it has a population of 1-- if that were the case, it would not be an empty set. There is no such thing out in the world that we rightly call "nothing."

"Nothing" is useful to me primarily as a placeholder word, to point at my experience of emptiness, lacking, absence. None of these words-- nothing, emptiness, lacking, absence-- refer to actual existing things. They always point to the space in which I might have otherwise expected or hoped for something. These words stand in that space and represent it without filling it; they represent the very emptiness of that space. To feel an emptiness is to feel oneself defined (and some might add, tormented) by absences. I consider the word "nothing" important because it expresses the presence of absence as a recurring aspect of human experience.

"The presence of absence"-- I can make you understand this first of all as a sad phrase, although I hope later to also show you the positivity and power in it. But for now-- "the presence of absence" is surely understood by anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a treasured possession, or the inability to know the right words or actions in a difficult moment. Absence can be palpable in our experienecs, even if "absence" is not an actual, palpable thing.

My examples in the paragraph above show up in every life, and so I believe that anyone can understand why I make such a big deal out of "nothing." Humans, as beings of both limit and potential, are greatly defined by what is not. And so "nothing" (and its family-- emptiness, lack, absence) is a word/concept that each individual would do well to face directly and ponder intimately.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Spirituality of Utter Silence

Atheists like me need to have a positive relationship with the concept of "nothingness." The Humanist movement intelligently turns attention away from the fantastical 'other-world' of God and heaven, and towards the very real 'this-world' where life actually happens. Meaning and redemption have to happen in this life, because everything beyond this life is "nothingness." (Ecclesiastes 9:10) But I think that this nothingness still deserves our attention.

As someone who loves words, I often equate human life with speech. When I imagine the world before humans evolved, I always imagine it as 'silent'-- anyone who's spent any time in nature knows I do not mean this literally. But still-- can you imagine the world without its current cacophony of inner monologues, all that thinking and feeling and scheming-- doesn't it seem quieter? An ego-less world-- seems quiet. Outside the realm of human thoughts, a deafening silence.

These thoughts about silence come to me when I think of the expanse of time in which my very short life occurs. There is a noise that's been going on for the last 27 years, and hopefully for another 100, and I call that noise "me"-- in fact "me" is the sound it usually makes. But before and after my life, there's a silence where this "me" will be and will once have been. I emerge from and return to nothingness, in between briefly participating in physical and conscious life. But, in either direction in time, a vast nothingness surrounds me.

I attempt to find peace in this experience of silence. It takes some of the burden off my existence, as I remember once again that non-existence is my more common state. I find it sobering and strengthening-- sobering because all of my cares and concerns are seen in its light (or rather, darkness), and strengthening because my time, and the ideals I might promote in that time, becomes that much more precious. In little silences during my day, and in the middle of the night, I am reminded of that greater silence, and I take comfort in its constancy. I am here for now, and that is enough, because it must be enough.

The Empty Throne

Atheists like me need to have a positive relationship with the concept of "nothingness." The rising Humanist movement bemoans mere atheist identity as one formed around a lack, an absence-- but, while I appreciate the core values of reason and dignity offered by the humanists, I am still inspired to say that there are positive lessons and values to be gleaned from the "nothing" at the core of atheism.

My previous religious commitments were always hierarchical. As a young boy, I found security and direction in a generally pyramidal structure of reality-- God at the top, my ancestors and their experience of miracles and revelation in the middle, and me and all my fellow humans at the bottom. Within this structure, the chain of command was established and clear.

My loss of faith, beginning with an introduction to biblical criticism (which troubled the middle layer), ultimately removed the top of my reality pyramid. As a former believer, I cannot simply 'get over' the fact that there is no One presiding over reality. Apropos to Nietszche's madman prophesy, the "breath of empty space" is a daily experience, reminding me that humans as conscious/conscientious beings are alone in the world.

But the potential hubris in humanism lies in the name itself-- human-ism, as if to say that we worship humans. I think there can be an assumption, in a purely secular world, that humans are "in charge." And perhaps we are more "in charge" than anything else around, but I think it's vital to realize that the lesson of atheism is that no one is absolutely "in charge." Removing God from the top of the pyramid should not be the precursor to placing humanity at the top. Dethroning God, only to enthrone ourselves-- that is the idolatrous temptation lingering in the shadows of atheism. I won't say that atheists need to cultivate "humility"-- that word hits too many people as the beating stick of sanctimonious, abusive power. How about "modesty"? For me, "modesty" speaks to our smallness, our recognition of natural limitations. "Modesty" is the virtue of someone who knows they are neither the lowest nor the highest.

Let's leave the throne empty. The image of the empty throne should inspire modesty. There is a holiness to this empty space at the top-- a position of great power and privilege, from which no one should feel capable of speaking. A reminder of our finitude, regardless of the presence or absence of an infinite being. We don't need to make "absolute" claims in order to claim dignity. The power of reason in science is the ability to test our claims, and reject disproven ideas. Thus, dignity and reason already include the notion of modesty. But let's keep listing modesty next to dignity and reason-- in order to deflate the apparent hubris in humanism.