(reposted from IntegralLife @ Balder's invitation)
"We believe in nothing, Lebowski, nothing!"
-- The Nihilist Gang from The Big Lebowski.


Prostitutes, in the more civilized and advanced countries, are now generally called "sex-workers". This is apparently a less exlusionary and more multifaceted designation for that occasionally disreputable profession. Okay, fine. What should we call those equally disreputable philosophers? Concept-workers? Distinction-workers? It cannot be denied that at least one job of a philosopher is to try to act as a policeman-of-words. Even a spiritual philosopher or an integral philosopher makes some effort to clarify, codify, affirm and deny different forms of phrasing. I am about to embark on this dubious project myself and I hope you will send me all your good intentions to help speed me upon my way. Please bear in mind that a philosophical attack is not an attempt tosuppress. I am in no sense saying that you must conform your speech habits to mine, or that the words you have fallen in love with as expression of your deepest insights and experiences are somehow unworthy of that love. Rather my attack is formal, structural, provocative...

Integralites of all stripes have noticed that Ken Wilber is easy with the term "emptiness". No doubt this is in large part because of his personal fidelity to Eastern practices and his great friendship with many living operatives of the religious traditions that employ this term. Wilber is always meta-traditional, always trying to affirm the old words in the new contexts. So I have no bone of contention with any of that -- but nonetheless we should seriously consider jettisoning our misleading spiritual slang terms, "emptiness," "nothingness," "void", et al.


The French evolutionary philosopher Henri Bergson wrote, in his book Creative Evolution, that the human mind cannot conceive of nothing. We are not equipped to think of or to imagine an absence. We only do so by implication. When asked, for example, to think of nothing we tend to think of something (even everything) and then try to cancel it. Instead of conjuring the void we engaging "adding the act of voiding". Or else we try to imagine nothingness as if it were spaciousness, transparency, potential. But of course these are all somethings.

If I show you a picture of a man on a park bench and then another picture of a just a park bench -- is that second image "really" the photo of a man NOT on a park bench? No. That is only a short-cut way of talking about it. It is a comparison, fine. but both pictures are completely filled...

Can it be that in our highest epiphanies and finest attempts at spiritual reasoning we continue to behave like little children -- saying "I have nothing in my cupped hands..." when we know quite clearly that air, energy, etc. fills this space. Let us not get carried away by mere invisibility!


"Form is emptiness, emptiness is form". Great phrase. Very suggestive. But in the mouths of smart, experienced Buddhist practitioners it is almost always followed by a remedial explanation. "Emptiness," they say, "is not really Nothingness but rather Non-separateness...." Okay, fine. Why not just say that and save us the trouble. Do we really need to keep using this outdated term that is quite possibly a mis-translation of the ancient wisdom-teachings? Why not say "indiscernibility" or "plenum" or "spacious presence" if one of these terms is what we are truly implying?

There may, of course, be some initial pragmatic invocation of the "sense of subtle presence that fills gaps & openings"... but is that worth the trouble? Could we not get this effect perfectly well in other and less misleading forms which do not require the supplemental claim that "emptiness is empty of emptiness"? Possibly so...


Contemporary physicists love to talk about Nothingness. As with concepts of higher dimensions, time loops and multiple universes it exercises the very conceptual brain upon which they completely rely. It helps to generate the haunting, "god-less", universe in which "any crazy idea might be true". This is the dominant aesthetic in official mainstream physics. And it leaves them wide-open to provisional (or perhaps pathological?) claims which any strong philosophical police force should crack down upon immediately. When they say, "it came from nowhere" -- what do they mean? Only that the page of their equations does not display another term which provides the source of the energy. Perhaps it on another piece of paper? Or on something which is not paper? At any rate, if people keep coming in the front door... our most plausible explanation should probably be that there IS an outside. While we certainly do not begrudge the physicists their desire to be freewheeling science-fiction thinkers, nor their attempt to imagine reality on the basis of the limits found in this or that equation, we must be very skeptical about any model in which the "energy" is coming in from "nowhere".


In his essay on The Word of Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger takes great pains to explain that "nihilism" is not a bunch of people going around saying they believe in nothing, have no beliefs, etc. Nor is nihilism a phenomenon which does not affect religious believers or crusading idealists. Nihilism is, rather, the cultural pathology of the mind. It is the inability to directly encounter the existential plenum of Being -- or of the paradox of Being -- which appears as a kind of relationship failure which must be "filled in" by all kinds of beliefs. The believer IS the nihilist. The "void" is believed in by all those persons who feel that they must believe in something or else be confronted by the void OR that reality will have no value unless I choose to value it. This attitude presupposes that reality is valueless. But this culturopathy goes must farther than just values, beliefs and philosophies.

Nihilism is operative in our cognition as the endlessly multiplied results of treating absences as if they were presences. It is operative in our hearts as an emotional reticence to embrace the fully intensity of our own feelings such that we encounter a world that is less than full. It is operative in the description of our physical behaviour... are we not prone to suicides, bad diets, anti-vegetable ideologies, preferences for toxins, every kind of body-destroying nonsense? Nihilism is operative in our communities when we passionately take up "moral" causes which have every likelihood of inflicting misery on people, decreasing social coherence and vitality, and regressing society to a more primitive level. And nihilism is operative in our personal relationships when we, having been hurt or frustrated, suddenly don't want to succeed, don't want to reach out, sour on our own pleasure, cease to love those whom we love most, etc.

This culturopathy is present in all quadrants and at all levels in various forms, some obvious, some sneaky, and many that are counter-intuitive. We may debate whether self-destruction is "really" an impulse in a living organism (although programmed cell death is well known) but what we know for sure is that we can form an interpretive matrix in which self-destruction, anti-reality, non-being, etc. is the symbolic explanation for all kinds of incoherent or limited behavior which we would like to recognize and get beyond. And as silly or trivial at it might seem -- the terminology of "nothing" of "emptiness" of "void", etc. may be a contributor to our problems. These terms are certainly not necessary. While me may hold fondness for their histories and they occasional benevolent seductions which lead us meandering toward deeper truths, we can also see that it might be better over all if the philosophical police were to bust in and confiscate this illegal contraband.

Or am I just making these terms sound sexy and rebellious?


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My IL response:


I am forgetting, for the moment, where I discussed this before, but just recently I was talking about the argument that "nothing" is an epistemological term rather than an ontological one. When we speak of "nothing," or "empty," we typically mean, the "non-finding of this." This is an epistemological concern. Confusion appears to ensue when we make it ontological. Ontologically, plenum is perhaps a better word...


In Buddhism, in my understanding, "emptiness" is typically used in the epistemological sense: specifically the non-finding of "inherent self-existence" in selves or things.

Either plenum (even an invisible plenum) or else non-separateness, indiscernibility, etc. seem to be quite passable.  The tendency of the "empty" epistemologies is to accrue a drag effect of ontological implications and produce an unnecessary amount of backtracking and supplementation.  And this is all the nice way to say it.  The harsher way is to point out the analogy to nihilism at all levels of the being. 

At the very least, the argument made above is an extended remix of "empty of emptiness".  At the most it is part of a cultural self-diagnosis attempting to re-secure and discriminate between two trends within the habits of even the highest elements of human experience.

I've invested a lot of exegesis on postmetaphysicalizing the emptiness of emptiness doctrine, most recently in the OOO thread through the withdrawn. I agree that as is in Buddhism it still contains some metaphysical problems, hence my philosophical policing. Though plenum has its own metaphysical connotations, also discussed in that thread. Recall this post on asserting a positive through double negation and the specter. And poetically expressed here as:

I see a ghost on the horizon
calling me to follow.
When I get there
loose rags on a tattered fence.
I look up and he's still there on the horizon

And recall the chorus from The Three Veils which re-un-posits via triple negation, or as you say, "emptiness is empty of emptiness."

That's right, that's right, nothing
and not just nothing, but no nothing
and not no nothing neither.

Though the hermetic qabalah version is also metaphsycial with the plenum from which the universe springs, akin to Kennilingam's conscioussness per se. See my differe(a)nce(s) with plen(um)itude in this thread. Hier(an)archy.

The language used for the name of this thread also reminds me of my old tai chi training. And how the latter can itself be recontextualized in light of more recent OOO rhetaphor. In tai chi one meets an attack by becoming empty at the point of attack and withdrawing. But the body is never fully empty or full. When one side is empty the other side is full (and various combinations therewith) so that while one withdraws at the point of attack one simultaneously attacks from another angle. So when one attacks emptiness they are met with not just nothing but counter-attack!

Yeah, the terminology really should come to grips with the functional balance or "edge of imbalance" between not-full & not-empty.  This morning my preference is replacing Nothing with Nothing Else.  That basically does the trick without overstating the case but it also gives us that sharp line from which the attack may proceed...

I agree that "plenum" is metaphysical -- but not necessarily in the sense critiqued by postmetaphysics.  Here, I was thinking of something like Harman's description of reality as "jam-packed with objects," where every form, (momentary or eons-long) relationship, process, etc, is "object," and where every object also withdraws.  So, this would be a different meaning of "fullness" (plenum) than a fully present super (ass)holon.  Granted, I think Bryant handles the notion of "withdrawal" better than Harman.  A model like this also needs to handle something like "space," in my opinion.  (Harman does so, for instance, by positing "space" as an emergent feature of emergent object-relations.)

Weird association but when I hear the word plenum I associate by sound the word frenulum.* Since the latter serves to functionally allow flight by connecting the fore and aft wings on certain insects, perhaps to distinguish the bad from the good metaphysical plenum we might call it plenulum? This way it can take flight from bad metaphysics?

It is also "a thin strip of flesh on the underside of the penis that connects the shaft to the head." You knew there had to be a sexual meaning in there if I'm using it. Aka the "banjo string." Also relates to female genitalia.

That's pretty cool, Theurj.  An odd association, yes, but quirky enough that I like it.

It echoes "pendulum," too, which might be seen to imply the tai chi swing between (not-)empty and (not-)full...

I place this TED talk here since at a quick peruse I don't see the title phrase 'quantum science' or the like, and do see the word "emptiness."

This piece is not deeply philosophical or specifically post-metaphysical, yet in talking about both relativity theory and quantum science and why is there something rather than nothing, it fits close enough. I enjoyed it.

It turns out as I chose this thread, and now read it for the first time, I am animated by it, the epistemological/ontological theorizing and particularly finding language and maybe having the wherewithall, maybe partly discipline, to change one's long-term default language patterns and tendencies. I am noticing myself as I say this.

I have had an affinity for how Layman gets at (along with Bruce and theurj), around, and through these questions, and though I like each sub-topic and paragraph of his intro, I especially like his eloquent ongoing emphasis of Nietzsche's "nihilism." I like how the phenomenon of nihilism slices through so many domains, a ghosting x-factor perhaps latent in all human epistemological endeavors.

This short TED comes at the physics of all, of "multiverses", partly via a couple of critical numerical representations, the underlying realities of which life and death seem to pivot. It draws on the swiss circular accelerator's discoveries and refinements on Higgs-Boson knowledge and extending theoretical speculation about the nature of all, including emptiness and things and *fields*.


The number that says there is a basic energy that operates as a "nearly" or "almost" or "barely" -- rather than not existing or existing strongly.  And the number that says there is way too much of another energy for our model of the cosmos.

Aside from getting better at handling emptiness (i.e. combining a principled refusal of non-concepts w/ a visceral embrace of Mystery w/ an practical philosophy of how to handle surprising, uncertain universes) what does this suggest?  Well probably that something like an "aether" not only exists prior the plank-scale of quantum particles but that it has to be retrofitted into our equations and some of them will prove to be incorrect -- most likely those which tell us the age of the universe and expansive-contractive behavior of space. 

Layman - cool.  There's a lot of potential there embedded in what you say. I suspect something of the same. This question of "what is the most basic energy" is a very deep one, and very interesting to me.

I've not yet had a chance to look at the Ted talk...

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