2012-04-13

Nothing


A few years ago, Chris Cornell released a song called "No Such Thing." Lyrically, it is one of the most powerful - and philosophical - songs I have ever heard.

The song describes a narrator who, upon developing a large degree of cynicism about the world, seeks to cope by becoming a nihilist. In doing so, however, the narrator discovers that "there's no such thing as nothing." This is probably best expressed by the couplet "I laughed at love; it was a big mistake / In the absence of, I filled it with hate."

Again and again the narrator's attempts to assume that nothing significant exists are thwarted by the growing sense of hatred and abomination he feels, right up to the point of suicide; suicide being the ultimate act of nihilism, and therefore a deeply symbolic (and hence, meaningful) act.

For the record, I agree with Chris Cornell: Nihilism is impossible.

Why Nihilism Is Impossible
There are a few different stripes of nihilism. Some claim simply that life is bereft of meaning. Others make claims that are more moral or epistemological in nature. Whatever the claims, they are all contradictory. This is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that nihilism itself is a concept.

Consider a box that contains nothing. If we know that there is "nothing in the box," then we are forced to conclude something rather dramatic: that it is an empty box. This is a very meaningful piece of information. It implies that something could be put in the box in the future; it implies that something may have been in the box in the past; it implies that the box either has or had some stated purpose.

More than all of that, knowing that the box contains nothing, our minds cannot help but think of the many things that the box could potentially contain. Observe:
  • The empty box is in the tool shed.
  • The empty box is on the shelf, next to the frozen peas.
  • The empty box is on the kitchen counter.
  • The empty box sits beside the mattress.
In every imaginable instance involving an empty box, there is a clear implication of its potential contents. If we strip the concept down to its most neutral case - "There exists an empty box," - our minds race to complete the story by locating the box and viewing its surroundings, from which we automatically guess at its purpose or potential contents.

If you dislike my box example, then try this: don't think anything at all. How did that work out for you? (Probably about as well as it worked out for the Ghostbusters when they met arch-villain Zuul.)

In the absence of nothing, something fills its place. The human mind simply thinks this way. It is a self-evident fact.

What This Implies About Life
You might not be inclined to believe that the impossibility of nihilism is an important life lesson, but in fact it is.

For example, some people choose to "do nothing" in stressful situations. The results are always bad. In doing nothing, they fail to assume responsibility for what will happen to them in the future. They attempt to ignore the problem, but the problem merely bowls them over in the process. Nothing doesn't work.

Consider economic behavior. If one chooses to "buy nothing," then one is implicitly buying dollars. That person chooses to save; saving is an action, it is a "thing."

Now consider life in the political sphere. Recently, I posed a question in a comment to Scott Sumner on his blog: Is the Federal Reserve capable of a "do-nothing" policy, or is every action or lack thereof some sort of policy? His response was that the only do-nothing policy would be the abolition of the Federal Reserve.

This is incredibly important, because it implies that the mere existence of the Federal Reserve is the existence of policy. Everything the Federal Reserve does must be - by definition - either expansionary or retractionary. The Fed must always be "doing something" to the money supply, not because they want to, but because no matter what they do or don't do, they are engaging in a policy.

Scope Creep
If this is true of one arm of government (for the sake of argument, let us assume that the Federal Reserve is an arm of government, just as every other central bank is), then it must also be true of all others. 

Therefore, if an "Environmental Protection Agency" isn't writing and enforcing regulations to "protect the environment," then they are by definition failing to protect the environment. If the army isn't engaged in warding off a foe of some kind, then the army is leaving us defenseless. If Congress isn't passing laws, then they are failing to rule.

Is it any wonder that governments grow so easily, and never shrink?

Conclusion
The reason I have written this is because I would like to inject a little frame of reference into the dialogue at large. Without knowing what "nothing" is, and what it implies, then we are stuck in a mindless tail-chasing game of "should we do X or should we do Y?" At some point, people need to stop and ask, "What happens if we do neither X nor Y?" The question is important because there isn't any such thing as "nothing." In the absence of a specific course of action, another course of action occurs, whether or not we "do" it ourselves.