It’s Turtles All The Way Down

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“It’s turtles all the way down!”, according to legend, is what an old lady said to a physicist after hearing him lecture on cosmology, refusing to give up her traditional belief that the world rested on a turtle, which rested on another turtle, which rested on another.  The expression has come to stand for an infinite regress.  If something relies on another thing, which relies on another thing, at what point is there a final turtle that relies on nothing?  Here we have the opposite problem: In order to halt an infinite regress, we must engage in circular reasoning and declare a final thing to be self-supported.

Wittgenstein BlackboardIn his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein poses the problem of the child at the blackboard.  If a child does not understand how to do arithmetic, we can teach the child rules to show them how arithmetic is done.  However, what if the child does not understand the rules?  We could teach the child rules for understanding the rules, but this leads to an infinite regress, to a series of turtles that seems to recede from sight.  At what point does the child understand rules of the rules?  What rules require no rules to teach the child our interpretation of arithmetic, such that the child can practice it the way that we do?  The mysterious answer, Wittgenstein suggests, is that our practices do not rest on rules.  It is not language that is at the bottom of our behavior, such that we learn rules to engage in practices.  Rather, we learn practices by imitation, largely without need for words or explicit rules.  We only need rules to guide the child, who is already engaged in practice, as signposts to guide the child into correct practices rather than incorrect ones.  Language, like the turtle, is only one element in the situation, as are human judgements.  The world in which we live goes beyond the limits of language and rules.  Experience cannot be fully fleshed out in language, nor can practices be fully articulated by rules.

The Use of Nothing in Particular

We use the term nothing to mean nothing in particular, when we don’t want someone to judge a thing either this way or that way, similar to the way we say something is meaningless or nonsense.

Zen Circle Caligraphy Painting

Just as every space and absence is not perfectly empty, every thing we declare to be ‘nothing’ could be judged, but we say it is nothing when we don’t want others to judge or nothing will come from the judgement.

We use the word both genuinely and as a cover, when we think there is nothing worth judging, or when we do not want others to judge when we know they well would.  Sometimes we genuinely think a thing is unimportant, and other times we hope that others will not think that it is important, afraid that they will, like a child, asked what they are doing, who hollers back, “NOTHING!”, terrified.

zen screen lakeWhen things are unimportant, when they are “nothing”, they are neither good nor bad much at all.  When things are important, we have to judge whether they are good or bad, or both in various ways.  Most of the time we say things are nothing, we mean or hope they are unimportant.  At other times, when thinking about death or the future, the nothing that lies just beyond the horizon is important and imposing, but we cannot judge it, even if we want to.  In both cases, when nothing is important or unimportant, it is that which cannot or should not be judged, that which judgement cannot or will not grasp.

Nonbeing and Nothing

I have been having incredible discussions with my friend and coworker Justin Lipscomb about nothingness, and the role that it plays in Buddhism, Daoism and Heidegger.

Yin Yang simpleNothing is not nonbeing.  Nothing is nothing at all, unlike anything and unconditioned, while nonbeing is a particular sort of not-being.  For example, a possibility is something that as yet is not, but it is that not-yet in a particular, understandable way.  Nothing, in contrast, is not understandable, as it is nothing in particular.  Similarly, freedom is different from chaos, as freedom means one has choices which can be distinguished from each other, while no clear choices can be distinguished in chaos.  Freedom means we can make wise or foolish choices.  Chaos, like nothingness, removes all clarity and thus all choice.

Buddha Statue Japanese Tea Garden San FranciscoMuch as Buddhists argue that the self we think about when we are self-conscious and self-critical is not our actual self, but rather a self-concept, our concept of nothingness is not nothing itself, as it is a particular sort of thing, a concept we can name and share.  Nothingness cannot be conceived of apart from anything else, nor can it truly be named.  Our concept of nothing is actually a particular type of nonbeing, like a possibility or potential, as we can name it and distinguish it from other concepts.  We often conceive of nothing as dark and empty, much like a child in a dark room, but nothing is neither dark nor empty, as it isn’t anything in particular.  Nothing is neither dark, nor light, nor a shade of grey in between.

e6346-heidegger2For Heidegger, we can live authentically insofar as we can face change, death and the horizon of time, because nothing is just over the horizon.  We do not know what change, the future or death will bring, for ourselves or our world with all of its meaning, and so nothing looms as the indistinguishable.  When our routines are interrupted, we are faced with anxiety as our possibilities and choices disappear and cannot be distinguished.

If we embrace change, anxiety becomes enthusiasm, and all sorts of new possibilities open up before us, but this requires that we accept change, death and the passage of time rather than run from them.  One cannot run from the horizon, as it always remains with us.  If we accept the presence of nothing and the indistinguishable into our lives, all sorts of nonbeing, possibility and change open to us, such that we can choose how we want to live and we know we are making a choice.  The chaos of anxiety becomes the freedom of authenticity.  What at first seems like the end of all possibility is itself what makes possibility possible.

Justin Lipscomb's Diagram of Nothingness and Heidegger

Justin’s Diagram of Heidegger, Time, Being and Nothing