While having lunch with Jonathan last Thursday, he steered our conversation towards his more serious concerns. Jonathan had a close brush with death when he was a high school student. He interpreted the incident as a wake-up call to pay attention to the world around him. Some of the paying of attention involved reading about philosophical and “heavy” topics.
Jonathan said he was puzzled and worried about nothingness…not the afterlife question, but whether nothingness is real or if it is just a thought experiment for theologians and philosophers.
I mentioned the Eastern wisdom idea that phenomena are empty in their own nature but not that phenomena are non-existent. That is phenomena do not exist separate from everything else-interconnectedness.
Take for example something we might call “unique carness”. We might be in the process of restoring an antique automobile to museum quality. This will involve disassembling the vehicle. We remove the doors, the fenders, the wheels, the engine, and so forth. When does it cease being a car and just a collection of parts? Then the time comes to reassemble the vehicle. Some of the most damaged and rusted parts had to be replaced with parts from junked cars of the same make and model. Other parts had to be fabricated from scratch.
When the car is fully assembled, painted, and prepared for use, is it the same car? Does the restored vehicle retain the same “carness” of the former rusty old heap? Is the restored car, the same car as the old car? Perhaps the restored car is an example of an ever-changing, seamless state of existence. The restored car shows us that no thing (or being) has a fixed, permanent identity.
We see the two words “no” and “thing” and grammatically join them together to form “nothing”. We can extend the states of assembled and unassembled with “nothing” and come up with “nothingness”.
Jonathan then reiterated, “So, what we call a car is a collection of stuff, but the stuff, put together a certain way forms a car. Just as sheet metal itself is not a car, but formed and stamped, the sheet metal can be part of a car. It takes humans and machinery to create the car.”
I said, that is one illustration of what nothingness can mean. We can take that example and extend it further. Nothingness does not mean stuff like cars and stars do not exist in reality. Nothingness means that stuff doesn’t exist the way we commonly suppose it does. We give cars and stars human meanings. We understand cars as objects we use for transportation. Stars are large, brilliant, hot spherical objects much like our Sun.
If you could ask your cat to define them, they might mean something different to him. Your cat probably doesn’t understand cars or stars the way we understand them.
My friend replied that cats don’t know cars as anything but objects. At most a cat uses a car as a perch to sit on or something to use in cold weather when the engine is still warm. Sometimes the perch or cat-warmer is absent and sometimes it is nearby. Jonathan laughed, “That depends on whether or not the cat can conceptualize.”
I added my opinion about nothingness. People worry and suffer because we believe stuff and people are unchanging, solid, and infinite. Everything in the Universe is constantly changing. Stuff is made and decays. People and creatures are born and die. Stars are formed and eventually shrink or explode.
We can grasp the reality of this fluidity of reality and can see that no thing is unchangeable. Our human explanations of nothingness are weak and incomplete. I thanked Jonathan for bringing up the subject. I hope that he will continue to contemplate the question of nothingness.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders a saying from Lao Tzu. “To manage your mind, know that there is nothing. Then relinquish all attachment to nothingness.”
Then the big question is; when our bodies eventually cease to function and we die, is that the end? Is there nothingness?
That, my friend, is the big existential question of all time. We have to wait until our demise to know that one.