Nothingness: From a childhood hallucination to the halls of theoretical physics

Alan Lightman writes: My most vivid encounter with Nothingness occurred in a remarkable experience I had as a child of 9 years old. It was a Sunday afternoon. I was standing alone in a bedroom of my home in Memphis Tennessee, gazing out the window at the empty street, listening to the faint sound of a train passing a great distance away, and suddenly I felt that I was looking at myself from outside my body. I was somewhere in the cosmos. For a brief few moments, I had the sensation of seeing my entire life, and indeed the life of the entire planet, as a brief flicker in a vast chasm of time, with an infinite span of time before my existence and an infinite span of time afterward. My fleeting sensation included infinite space. Without body or mind, I was somehow floating in the gargantuan stretch of space, far beyond the solar system and even the galaxy, space that stretched on and on and on. I felt myself to be a tiny speck, insignificant in a vast universe that cared nothing about me or any living beings and their little dots of existence, a universe that simply was. And I felt that everything I had experienced in my young life, the joy and the sadness, and everything that I would later experience, meant absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. It was a realization both liberating and terrifying at once. Then, the moment was over, and I was back in my body.

The strange hallucination lasted only a minute or so. I have never experienced it since. Although Nothingness would seem to exclude awareness along with the exclusion of everything else, awareness was part of that childhood experience, but not the usual awareness I would locate within the three pounds of gray matter in my head. It was a different kind of awareness. I am not religious, and I do not believe in the supernatural. I do not think for a minute that my mind actually left my body. But for a few moments I did experience a profound absence of the familiar surroundings and thoughts we create to anchor our lives. It was a kind of Nothingness.

To understand anything, as Aristotle argued, we must understand what it is not, and Nothingness is the ultimate opposition to any thing. To understand matter, said the ancient Greeks, we must understand the “void,” or the absence of matter. Indeed, in the fifth century B.C., Leucippus argued that without the void there could be no motion because there would be no empty spaces for matter to move into. According to Buddhism, to understand our ego we must understand the ego-free state of “emptiness,” called śūnyatā. To understand the civilizing effects of society, we must understand the behavior of human beings removed from society, as William Golding so powerfully explored in his novel Lord of the Flies.

Following Aristotle, let me say what Nothingness is not. It is not a unique and absolute condition. Nothingness means different things in different contexts. From the perspective of life, Nothingness might mean death. To a physicist, it might mean the complete absence of matter and energy (an impossibility, as we will see), or even the absence of time and space. To a lover, Nothingness might mean the absence of the beloved. To a parent, it might mean the absence of children. To a painter, the absence of color. To a reader, a world without books. To a person impassioned with empathy, emotional numbness. To a theologian or philosopher like Pascal, Nothingness meant the timeless and spaceless infinity known only by God. [Continue reading…]

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1 thought on “Nothingness: From a childhood hallucination to the halls of theoretical physics

  1. John Merryman

    I actually wrote a long comment to this, which was subsequently deleted. For a very basic reconsideration of physics, be the judge:
    I think the ‘no philosophy’ objectivity for which Feynman was famous does obscure as well as clarify. As physics focuses on the details of reality, philosophy does generalize, but grasping those broad relationships is necessary to seeing the big picture, even if it is not always crystal clear.
    What if we were to consider that relationship between fields and particles in terms of nodes and networks? In this day and age, we can well appreciate the particular dichotomy in which these concepts operate at different levels and layers. Networks give rise to and define the nodes as much as the nodes express the networks and neither is really foundational to the other, as both could be top down, bottom up, or beside one another. As individual nodes in the network of the larger society, we can all appreciate that network operating in a top down fashion on our lives, just as particular individuals exist in executive capacities within that network. The individual mind, as neurology finds, is as much a field effect of the network, as it is individual neurons interacting.
    So what if we were to try and understand, not just quantum mechanics in these terms, but all of physical reality? For instance, does a moving car have an exact location? Isn’t all of reality necessarily a little fuzzy? Does that means these ‘particles’ somehow exist in some indeterminate state, or that the dynamic in which they exist is equally real? The verb explains the noun as much as the noun locates the verb.
    Nature seems to be a dichotomy of energy and form. Energy manifests form and form defines energy. Evidence of the essential nature of this distinction and relation is that over the course of time, living mobile beings have evolved central nervous systems to process form/information and digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems to process energy. The tension is that energy is inherently dynamic, while form is necessarily static, so while energy compels change, form resists it.
    Physicists are not just highly intelligent people, but are deeply schooled in an environment constantly seeking to extract ever more subtle patterns, ie. form, from the general dynamic of life, to the point that now these forms are considered more fundamental than the energies manifesting them, as time, energy, space, matter, etc. are distilled to ever more discrete, quantized particles and mathematical patterns. Yet while these forms might be essential, that doesn’t make them foundational. They are more akin to the skeleton, than the seed. The hard, articulated components, than the processes from which it all arises. The measurement, not the measured. The map versus the territory.
    What if we were to step back and consider how reality would function as simply that relation between dynamic energy and static form? For one thing, the energy is conserved, so in order to create new forms and relations, old ones have to be dissolved. This creates the effect of time, as these forms come and go.
    As individual points of perception, we experience change as a particular sequence of events and so think of it as the point of the present moving from past to future, which physics formalizes by treating time as a measure from one such event to the next in the sequence. Yet given the physical process of these events being created and dissolved, it is they which are going from being in the future to being in the past and the present is that state which is all that is physically real. The earth isn’t traveling some fourth dimension from yesterday to tomorrow. Tomorrow becomes yesterday because the earth turns. This makes time an effect and measure of action, not some meta-dimensional basis for it.
    Time is similar to temperature, as the rate at which energy is expressed, compared to the amount expressed. So time is to frequency, what temperature is to amplitude. The reason there is no universal flow of time is that it is a cumulative effect of many actions, just as temperature is a cumulative effect of many actions. A faster clock burns/age quicker and so recedes into the past faster.
    Think of the relationship between nodes and networks in terms of a factory, in that as the unit goes from start to finish, the process is pointed the other way, consuming raw material and expelling finished product, while radiating out lots of waste/excess energy in the process. Just as individual organisms go from birth to death, while the species is constantly moving onto new individuals and shedding the old. So the concept of the node progresses along a timeline from beginning to end and thus falls into the past, while the creative process is constantly moving onto the next such entity and shedding old ones, thus moving into the future.
    Now consider galaxies in similar terms, as mass falls inward, becoming ever more dense and solid, while radiating energy outward and eventually even the densest material falls into the vortex at the center and is jetted out across the universe, eventually to fall into some other galaxy and start the process over again. So mass is form, going from start to finish, as it forms, solidifies and eventually dissolves, while energy is the dynamic process, constantly building up form, then moving onto the next.
    Keep in mind that Einstein’s theory of gravity very much constituted a direction of time, one of collapsing space, while Hawking observed the expansion of space amounted to a direction of time. That would be since space is being treated as a measure, the distance between mass points is contracting, while the distance between radiant points is expanding. Which is what redshift is, the expansion between waves of light. The question is whether this is due to the source receding, or is there some equivalence principle at work, as gravity is equivalent to an accelerating frame and pushing mass points together, could there be some property of light over the span of billions of lightyears, which causes it to stretch, as a counterbalance to gravity, a cosmological constant? Possibly gravity waves are invisible because they are inherent to the nature of light, in one giant feedback loop, in which this expansion is then reabsorbed by the gravitational effects of galaxies, such that they don’t actually move apart and the overall effect is of the flat space, where all such effects have balanced out, that we do actually measure?

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