Reconciling Nothingness in the Universe and the Soul


Nothingness is fashionable again. When we last heard from the notion, Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist philosopher, was writing that "nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being" in his decidedly something-sized tome "Being and Nothingness" (first published in 1943).

Now the notion has cropped up outside of philosophical tracts, as physicists have identified nothingness to be the central mystery of the origin and structure of the universe. This development has added fuel to a battle of words raging with remarkable intensity over the last several years. The question is whether concepts in physics, biology and the other hard sciences can shed any light on similar-sounding concepts in the humanities.

Admittedly, physicists are talking about a rather specific kind of nothingness. They want to know why the vast tracts of apparently empty space between the galaxies emerged with a strange sort of weight from the Big Bang that gave birth to the universe. Recent astronomical measurements have suggested that this "weight," which has a negative gravitational effect, is pushing the galaxies apart and accelerating the expansion of the universe.

But since the intergalactic vacuum is, in effect, the deepest hole that nature can dig in material existence, it counts as nothingness if anything does.

Those observations beg a question: Does a philosopher's zilch have anything to do with a physicist's? And what of other words that turn up in both forms of discourse?

Much of the fire in this debate has been drawn by a group of French postmodern thinkers, including Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, who have a penchant for using the language of the hard sciences in ways that prominent physicists have said is mostly nonsense.

For example, Derrida, referring to Einstein's theory of relativity, wrote in a 1970 scholarly article:

"The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability. In other words, it is not the concept of something -- of a center starting from which an observer could master the field -- but the very concept of the game."

Dr. Steven Weinberg, the physics Nobelist, cited the passage in an essay in The New York Review of Books several years ago, saying, "I have no idea what this is intended to mean."

Another passage by two different philosophers, cited in a parody of postmodernist writing by Dr. Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, defines the highly mathematical concept of chaos as "a void that is not a nothingness but a virtual, containing all possible particles and drawing out all possible forms, which spring up only to disappear immediately, without consistency or reference, without consequence."

Writing in the October issue of the journal Physics Today, Dr. Jonathan Katz, a physicist at Washington University, declared, "The only reasonable conclusion is that postmodernism is nothing more than a scheme to obtain cushy university jobs for its practitioners."

As clear as those arguments seem to many scientists, they lost some of their force recently when Dr. Mara Beller, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pointed out that many hallowed figures of 20th-century physics, like Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli, published their own apparent gibberish on politics and philosophy using the terminology of physics.

"Yet physicists relate to Derrida's and Bohr's obscurities in fundamentally different ways," Dr. Beller wrote in Physics Today: "to Derrida's with contempt, to Bohr's with awe."

In fact, said Dr. Ullica Segerstrale, a social scientist at the Illinois Institute of Technology who has a background in physical chemistry, scientists constantly turn philosophical with their own language when they are seeking inspiration or trying to explain the meaning of their often abstract findings.

"I have never met more metaphysical people than physicists," she said.

And the unhappiness over linguistic borrowings cuts both ways, said Dr. Segerstrale, whose new book, "Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond," will be published by Oxford University Press in March.

During interviews conducted for the book, Dr. Segerstrale said, she discovered that some moral philosophers were outraged by sociobiology's adoption of the word "altruism" as a technical term. In that usage, it refers to an organism's sacrifice of itself to ensure that elements of its genome will be propagated by relatives -- hardly the version of Good Samaritanism that the word evokes for most people.

The origin of all these conflicts may simply be the assumption that different areas of human culture can be sealed off from one another, since "nobody can be policing these terms," Dr. Segerstrale said.

Nothingness is certainly a case in point. And an acceptance that abstract ideas cross boundaries can lead to some startling possibilities, perhaps disproving King Lear's dark prediction that "nothing will come of nothing."

Einstein first noticed that according to his theory of relativity, any weight of nothingness in space could push galaxies apart from one another, the effect that astronomers have recently observed.

Could this have been what Ira Gershwin had in mind when he wrote "I've got plenty o' nuttin" in the 1930's, just as Einstein was struggling to unify relativity with the rest of physics? Was "Seinfeld," a show about nothing, really a sly allegory dealing with four theoretical physicists in New York?

And what of the depths of nihilistic meditation of Ernest Hemingway's character in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place": "Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada"?

From this point of view, humanistic writers sometimes seem eerily close to interpreting the results of science before they are found, as the poet W. S. Merwin did in 1967, long before astronomers saw those galaxies being pushed apart by emptiness:

Of course there is nothing the matter with the stars
It is my emptiness among them
While they drift farther away in the invisible morning.

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

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