George Walford: Against Nothing

Readers have written in, from time to time, criticising the proposition that Nothing Is Absolutely True. Personal correspondence with others suggests that they have reservations about it which they don’t express. Here we offer a passage which seems to us to formulate these objections, or at least some of the main ones, with power and clarity. Taken from the section On the Idea of ‘Nothing’, in Creative Evolution, by Henri Bergson, it suggests that if we take something rather than nothing to be absolutely true this will ease the philosophical task. The writer then tries to show the validity of this approach by demonstrating the impossibility of imagining or conceiving absolute nothing. (Anybody thinking seriously about the evolutionary process, especially in connection with consciousness and intellect, will find the book well worth attention in spite of its occasional verbosity. Whatever one may think about the main thesis, it provokes and stimulates).

Philosophers have paid little attention to the idea of the nought. And yet it is often the hidden spring, the invisible mover of philosophical thinking.

Going on to note, at some length, the difficulty of knowing why there is something rather than nothing, Bergson then continues:

Now, if we could prove that the idea of the nought, in the sense in which we take it when we oppose it to that of existence, is a pseudo-idea, the problems that are raised around it would become pseudo-problems. The hypothesis of an absolute that acts freely, that in an eminent sense endures, would no longer raise up intellectual prejudices. The road would be cleared for a philosophy more nearly approaching intuition, and which would no longer ask the same sacrifice of common sense.

Let us then see what we are thinking about when we speak of “Nothing.” To represent “Nothing,” we must either imagine it or conceive it. Let us examine what this image or this idea may be. First, the image.

I am going to close my eyes, stop my ears, extinguish one by one the sensations that come to me from the outer world. Now it is done; all my perceptions vanish, the material universe sinks into silence and the night. I subsist, however, and cannot help myself subsisting. I am still there, with the organic sensations which come to me from the surface and from the interior of my body, with the recollections which my past perceptions have left behind them – nay, with the impression, most positive and full, of the void I have just made about me. How can I suppress all this? How eliminate myself? I can even, it may be, blot out and forget my recollections up to my immediate past; but at least keep the consciousness of my present reduced to its extremest poverty, that is to say, of the actual state of my body. I will try, however, to do away even with this consciousness itself. I will reduce more and more the sensations my body sends in to me; now they are almost gone; now they are gone, they have disappeared in the night where all things else have already died away. But no! At the very instant that my consciousness is extinguished, another consciousness lights up – or rather, it was already alight: it had arisen the instant before, in order to witness the extinction of the first; for the first could disappear only for another and in the presence of another. I see myself annihilated only if have already resuscitated myself by an act which is positive, however involuntary and unconscious. So, do what I will, I am always perceiving something, either from without or from within. When I no longer know anything of external objects, it is because I have taken refuge in the consciousness that I have of myself. If I abolish this inner self, its very abolition becomes an object for a imaginary self which now perceives as an external object the self that is dying away. Be it external or internal, some object there always is that my imagination is representing. My imagination, it is true, can go from one to the other, I can by turns imagine a nought of external perception or a nought of internal perception, but not both at once, for the absence of the one consists, at bottom, in the exclusive presence of the other. But, from the fact that two relative noughts are imaginable in turn, we wrongly conclude that they are imaginable together: a conclusion the absurdity of which must be obvious, for we cannot imagine a nought without perceiving, at least confessedly, that we are imagining it, consequently that we are acting, that we are thinking, and therefore that something still subsists.

The image, then, properly so called, of a suppression of everything is never formed by thought. The effort by which we strive to create this image simply ends in making us swing to and fro between the vision of an outer and that of an inner reality. In this coming and going of our mind between the without and the within, there is a point, at equal distance from both, in which it seems to us that we no longer perceive the one, and that we do not yet perceive the other: it is there that the image of “Nothing” is formed. In reality, we then perceive both, having reached the point where the two terms come together, and the image of Nothing, so defined, is an image full of things, an image that includes at once that of the subject and that of the object and, besides, a perpetual leaping from one to the other and the refusal ever to come to rest finally on either. Evidently this is not the nothing that we can oppose to being, and put before or beneath being, for it already includes existence in general. ‘But we shall be told that, if the representation of Nothing, visible or latent, enters into the reasonings of philosophers, it is not as an image, but as an idea. It may be agreed that we do not imagine the annihilation of everything, but it will be claimed that we can conceive it. We conceive a polygon with a thousand sides, said Descartes, although we do not see it in imagination: it is enough that we can clearly represent the possibility of constructing it. So with the idea of the annihilation of everything. Nothing simpler, it will be said, than the procedure by which we construct the idea of it. There is, in fact, not a single object of our experience that we cannot suppose annihilated. Extend this annihilation of a first object to a second, then to a third, and so on as long as you please: the nought is the limit toward which the operation tends. And the nought so defined is the annihilation of everything. That is the theory. We need. only consider it in this form to see the absurdity it involves.

An idea constructed by the mind is an idea only if its pieces are capable of coexisting; it is reduced to a mere word if the elements that we bring together to compose it are driven away as fast , as we assemble them. When I have defined the circle, I easily represent a black or a white circle, a circle in cardboard, iron, or brass, a transparent or an opaque circle -but not a square circle, because the law of the generation of the circle excludes the possibility of defining this figure with straight lines. So my mind can represent any existing thing whatever as annihilated; but if the annihilation of anything by the mind is an operation whose mechanism implies that it works on a part of the whole, and not on the whole itself, then the extension of such an operation to the totality of things becomes self-contradictory and absurd, and the idea of an annihilation of everything presents the same character as that of a square circle: it is not an idea, it is only a word. So let us examine more closely the mechanism of the operation.

In fact, the object suppressed is either external or internal: it is a thing or it is a state of consciousness. Let us consider the first case. I annihilate in thought an external object: in the place where it was, there is no longer anything. No longer anything of that object, of course, but another object has taken its place: there is no absolute void in nature. But admit that an absolute void is possible: it is not of that void that I am thinking when I say that the object, once annihilated, leaves its place unoccupied; for by the hypothesis it is a place, that is a void limited by precise outlines, or, in other words, a kind of thing. The void of which I speak, therefore, is, at bottom, only the absence of some definite object, which was here at first, is now elsewhere and, in so far as it is no longer in its former place, leaves behind it, so to speak, the void of itself. A being unendowed with memory or prevision would not use the words “void” or “nought”; he would express only what is and what is perceived; now, what is, and what is perceived, is the presence of one thing or of another, never the absence of anything. There is absence only for a being capable of remembering and expecting. He remembered an object, and perhaps expected to encounter it again; he finds another, and he expresses the disappointment of his expectation (an expectation sprung from recollection) by saying that he no longer finds anything, that he encounters “Nothing.” Even if he did not expect to encounter the object, it is a possible expectation of it, it is still the falsification of his eventual expectation, that he expresses by saying that the object is no longer where it was. What he perceives in reality, what he will succeed in effectively thinking of, is the presence of the old object in a new place or that of a new object in the old place; the rest, all that is expressed negatively by such words as “nought” or the “void,” is not so much thought as feeling, or, to speak more exactly, it is the tinge that feeling gives to thought. The idea of annihilation or of partial nothingness is therefore formed here in the course of the substitution of one thing for another, whenever this substitution is thought by a .mind that would prefer to keep the old thing in the place of the new, or at least conceives this preference as possible. The idea implies on the subjective side a preference, on the objective side a substitution, and is nothing else but a combination of, or rather an interference between, this feeling of preference and this idea of substitution.

Such is the mechanism of the operation by which our mind annihilates an object and succeeds in representing in the external world a partial nought. Let us now see .how it represents it within itself. We find in ourselves phenomena that are produced, and not phenomena that are not produced. I experience a sensation or an emotion, I conceive an idea, I form a resolution: my consciousness perceives these facts, which are so many presences, and there is no moment in which facts of this kind are not present to me. I can, no doubt, interrupt by thought the course of my inner life; I may suppose that I sleep without dreaming or that I have ceased to exist; but at the very instant when I make this supposition, I conceive myself, I imagine myself watching over my slumber or surviving my annihilation, and I give up perceiving myself from within only by taking refuge in the perception of myself from without. That is to say that here again the full always succeeds the full, and that an intelligence that was only the full always succeeds the full, and that an intelligence that was only intelligence, that had neither regret nor desire, whose movement was governed by the movement of its object, could not even conceive an absence or a void. The conception of a void arises here when consciousness, lagging behind itself, remains attached to the recollection of an old state when another state is already present. It is only a comparison between what is and what could or ought to be, between the full and the full. In a word, whether it be a void of matter or a void of consciousness, the representation of the void is always a representation which is full and which resolves itself on analysis into two positive elements: the idea, distinct or confused of a substitution, and the feeling, experienced or imagined of a desire or a regret.

It follows from this double analysis that the idea of the absolute nought, in the sense of the annihilation of everything, is a self-destructive idea, a pseudo-idea, a mere word. If suppressing a thing consists in replacing it by another, if thinking the absence of one thing is only possible by the more or less explicit representation of the presence of some other thing, if, in short, annihilation signifies before anything else substitution, the idea of an “annihilation of everything” is as absurd as that of a square circle. The absurdity is not obvious, because there exists no particular object that cannot be supposed annihilated; then, from the fact that there is nothing to prevent each thing in turn being suppressed in thought, we conclude that it is possible to suppose them suppressed altogether. We do not see that suppressing each thing in turn consist precisely in replacing it in proportion and degree by another, and therefore that the suppression of absolutely everything implies a downright contradiction in terms, since the operation consists in destroying the very condition that makes the operation possible.

Throughout this passage (with one exception that we shall come to) Bergson speaks not of nothing but of something. The idea of the nought; the image of nothing; the void; the extinction of consciousness; a nought of internal perception; a nought of external perception; the image of a suppression of everything; the image of “Nothing”; the nothing that already includes existence in general; the representation of Nothing; the annihilation of everything; the nought defined as a limit toward which a certain operation tends; an absolute void, limited by precise outlines, that is a kind of thing; the “void”; a combination of a feeling and an idea; the idea of the absolute nought; the suppression of absolutely everything; the nothing that already includes existence in general. All these are doubtless very good things to speak of, but the subject of discussion does not appear among them; not one of them is nothing. Even when he speaks of ‘the nothing that we can oppose to being,’ it is only to assure us this is not the nothing he is talking about.

He does in fact recognise nothing when he says, near the end of the passage quoted: ‘there is nothing to prevent each thing in turn being suppressed in thought’, but this is a mere aside, not part of his argument; he does not seem to know he has said it.

Bergson demonstrates the impossibility of forming either an image or a concept of nothing, and he makes his point. Undoubtedly so, for an image of nothing is not an image, and a concept of nothing not a concept. Yet nothing overhangs all our mental activity. We cannot think without implying it, for whenever we think we think of something, and the totality of these somethings (not merely of material things but also of concepts, categories and denials, of all that in any sense is), can only be complete if it excludes nothing. Nothing defines being. Everything is related to nothing.

Paradox? Certainly. But with every attempt since the Greeks (if not earlier) having failed to eliminate paradox, it is time we accepted it as a feature of the enduring and universal basis of existence, with every simple, straightforward truth relative, transient and localised. This does not solve our fundamental problems, but it explains why we always have them.

Bergson H. 1922 Creaiive Evolution, Authorised Translation by Arthur Mitchell. London: MacMillan & Co. 293-299. Reproduced with the kind permission of the publishers.