Nothingness – Four Perspectives

Nothingness haunts being - Thank you for watching, kind regards,  Christophe. | Minimalist photography, Dark photography, Abstract canvas  wall art

What is the nothing? Can we even talk about nothing meaningfully, or does the very act of making ‘nothing’ the subject of a discussion turn it into something? In this article, I take up the question of the nothing through the eyes of three philosophers (one is not Hegel, although he would have been a natural inclusion – Hegel is still a glaring blind spot in my philosophical knowledge), and one religion. All of the approaches to nothingness I look at (bar the very last one), despite being quite different and often reaching different conclusions, are equally valid, and rather than clashing in an either/or merge quite satisfyingly in a both/and.

Henri Bergson – Metaphysical Nothingness

Bergson investigates nothingness in his 1907 book Creative Evolution through the classic metaphysical question: Why is there something rather than nothing? In other words, if we start with nothing; no particles, no energy, no fields, no forces, no quantum ‘this’ or quantum ‘that,’ how could something subsequently come to be? From where would the first something get its existence if there were truly nothing prior? Why wouldn’t the empty void of nothingness just continue unabated for all eternity?

The way we begin is to ask: What is ‘nothingness’? One way to imagine nothingness is to simply imagine the totality of everything and annihilate it. The nothing is what is left over. The problem with this is that annihilation only means something for a being that remembers what existed prior to the annihilation. In other words, ‘nothing as annihilation’ only has meaning relative to the something that existed before it was annihilated. Similarly, we might try to think of nothingness as the absence of all things. Again, though, absence is a word that only means something in relation to its opposite, ‘presence,’ such that in order to think of nothing as the absence of all things, we are actually tacitly invoking a former presence of all things.

This inability to think ‘nothing’ without also, at the same time, and often without realising it, thinking ‘something,’ is a big problem for the coherence of our question. What it actually shows is that ‘nothing’ and ‘something’ are not metaphysically equal. In fact, the former is nothing but a concept that is derived from the metaphysical reality of the latter. This results in a category mistake, which is what makes the question we are considering seemingly paradoxical.

A category mistake occurs when one presents an object as if it belongs to a certain category that it, in fact, doesn’t belong to. Thus, to ask if love is red is to make a category mistake because it supposes that emotions belong to the category of things that can be coloured. The category mistake in the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” lies in treating ‘nothing’ as if it were the kind of thing that could actually exist prior to, and therefore independently of, ‘something;’ in other words, we are treating ‘nothing’ as if it had the same kind of metaphysical reality as ‘something’ when, in fact, it is a logical, abstract concept that therefore lacks concrete, metaphysical reality. The take-away? Nothingness, taken as metaphysical reality capable of existing independently of ‘something,’ is incoherent.

That’s the crux of the misunderstanding inherent in the question, but let’s go further. To ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” doesn’t just presume that ‘nothing’ belongs to the same metaphysical order as ‘something,’ it also tacitly presupposes that the former is somehow less than the latter. This intuition is so strong, and often goes unchallenged (not to mention unnoticed), because we see this progression from the simple to the complex in nature. Sub-atomic particles ‘gather’ together to form atoms; atoms bond to form molecules; molecules link to form compounds, and so on, with each stage being more complex than the one that preceded it. It is therefore quite correct, and meaningful, to say that atoms, being smaller, simpler, and more originary than molecules, are less than them. Conversely, a molecule is more than an atom because it is simply the latter with something added to it; i.e. other atoms. This is all fine when we are dealing with things that actually exist; i.e. two ‘somethings,’ but when we try to treat a concept (‘nothing’) as if it had metaphysical reality, our category mistake rears its ugly head once again. This time, however, it reveals something new; something that we might never have suspected had we not made the mistake.

In putting ‘nothing’ on the same level as ‘something’ (metaphysically speaking), we are presenting the latter as the former plus matter, or energy, or a force, or some other existent. In this way, just as we saw with atoms and molecules, ‘nothing’ appears to be less than ‘something.’ However, if we now return to our earlier questioning of ‘nothing,’ which revealed that it has no metaphysical reality of its own, and only exists as a concept abstracted from the metaphysical reality of ‘something,’ we realise that ‘nothing,’ far from being less than something, is, in fact, more than it; in other words, to think ‘nothing,’ we first have to go through ‘something,’ or to put it another way, we can only think ‘nothing’ in relation to, in opposition to, and after we have already thought, ‘something.’ Thus, ‘nothing’ is actually, and counter-intuitively, more than ‘something,’ not in the concrete way that molecules are more than atoms, but in the sense that it is ‘something’ plus an additional mental operation of negation.

Returning to the seemingly intractable question which sparked this whole investigation: Why is there something rather than nothing?, we can now affirm with Bergson that it is, in fact, “a pseudo-problem raised about a pseudo-idea…” (Bergson, 1907) that has no answer because it isn’t a valid question. The idea of ‘nothing,’ while valid as a relational concept, is a metaphysical chimera, and we no more have to explain why there is something rather than nothing, than we have to explain why electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of around 700 nanometres is red (because, in actual fact, electromagnetic radiation isn’t the kind of thing that is coloured (in a metaphysical sense); it only appears coloured because of the way human vision works).

Martin Heidegger – Ontological Nothingness I

Although Heidegger made some inroads into nothingness in Being and Time in connection with his understanding of Dasein as thrown projection, he did not really delve into the nothing until after his magnum opus was published. In this section, we will be focusing on the inaugural lecture Heidegger gave at Freiburg university in 1929 entitled “What is Metaphysics?”, another lecture course he gave in 1935 called “Introduction to Metaphysics,” and a collection of Heidegger’s private musings between 1936 and 1938 not originally intended for publication, Contributions to Philosophy.

True to his phenomenological approach to ontology, in “What is Metaphysics?” Heidegger goes looking for the experience of the nothing, which he defines as the “complete negation of the totality of beings” (Heidegger, 1929). Now, in order for this negation to be possible, we must first be able to experience the “totality of beings” themselves. If we try to think the totality of beings; i.e. as an idea, we get an abstract concept, not an experience. The question then is: “Is an experience of the whole possible?” Heidegger maintains that it is, but not as some thing appearing before us; i.e. as an object; rather, we experience it somewhat obliquely, through “finding ourselves in the midst of beings as a whole.” (Heidegger, 1929) Our experience of the whole must, of necessity, always include ourselves, and this means that rather than appearing before us as a clear, well-defined object of thought, it can only appear in a “shadowy way;” that is to say, characterised by an ambiguity and imprecision that, instead of making it false, is just what it is for beings as a whole, of which we are a part, to be experienced.

Having clarified the experience of the totality of beings, we must now turn to the experience of the negation of this totality. This happens in anxiety, which Heidegger distinguishes from worry. The latter concerns a specific object or situation; i.e. is ontic in nature, whereas in the former we don’t know what it is that we are anxious about. In other words, anxiety lacks a specific object, so rather than being concerned with this or that situation or thing, “all things and we ourselves sink into indifference.” (Heidegger, 1929) This experience of abject meaninglessness is precisely the experience of the nothing that Heidegger was searching for. What does it mean, though?

Remember that nothingness, for Heidegger, does not describe a situation in which there are no beings; something like pure emptiness. This would be ‘nothingness’ as a kind of metaphysical reality. Rather, in nothingness, beings as a whole become utterly insignificant. Heidegger notes that if there were no beings at all in nothingness, there would be no anxiety either. In the absence of a totality of beings, about what could one be anxious? On the contrary, anxiety only arises because we find ourselves in the midst of a totality which no longer has any relevance for us. Heidegger’s nothingness, then, as a negation of the totality of beings, is explicitly a relative nothingness; that is, it is a nothingness which is relative to the totality of beings. The significance of this is that it is from the perspective of nothingness that beings themselves are for the first time disclosed; that is, beings are revealed as beings in the sense that they are not nothing. The nothing, then, is a repelling gesture which, in nihilating (reducing to insignificance) beings as a whole, discloses them with respect to itself. Beings are disclosed in relation to the nothing. But we can go further. It is not just that beings are disclosed in relation to the nothing; this is the only way beings can be disclosed. If Dasein did not have this capacity for nihilation, we could never be related to beings at all. That is to say, beings, the world, and our own being-in-the-world could never become problems for us. They would never appear as things available for interrogation. We might still ‘act’ in the world, but only in the same way that the wind ‘acts’ when it blows across the plain, or the rain ‘acts’ when it creates puddles.

In Contributions, Heidegger continues to flesh out his understanding of nothingness by incorporating it into his ontology; that is, by connecting it to Being itself. Nothingness, we have seen, is the nihilation of the totality of beings that first discloses beings as beings. But Heidegger also defines Being itself as that by which beings appear as beings. The overlap in definitions here indicates that nothingness and Being have a much deeper connection than we might at first have thought. Indeed, the nothing, as the repelling gesture, is, if not Being itself, at least an integral part of Being. But nothingness is a part of Being in another way, as well; namely, the way that Being withdraws, or conceals itself, such that it itself never appears as a being. That is to say, Being itself can never be objectified, either as a physical object or a mental representation. One way to understand this is to think about the way a pair of glasses work. In order for your glasses to help you see better, you must look at the world through them, which means that they themselves do not appear in your field of vision; i.e. they must “withdraw” from sight, and it is only through this withdrawal, that is, by not appearing, that they can let other objects appear. If you can see your glasses, then you are seeing them as objects, and not in their role as that which lets objects appear clearly. Moreover, they are no longer performing the function of letting objects appear clearly. It is the same with Being. Being must remain hidden, not because it is some magical, God-like entity beyond human ken, but because it is the ontological pair of glasses we all wear which allow beings to appear.

Being itself, then, as that by which beings appear as beings, is ‘nothing’ for Heidegger in two senses; first, it is that rejection, or nihilation (into insignificance), of the totality of beings, against which individual beings stand out in relief; and second, it is nothing because it itself is not a being; it is literally no-thing. As I already mentioned, this is an ontological description of nothingness, not a metaphysical one. We must constantly be wary here of falling into the error of seeing this as some kind of mysterious, unnameable, transcendent Tao that somehow bestows a magical property called ‘being’ or ‘existence’ upon beings.

Finally, in “Introduction to Metaphysics” Heidegger addresses the question of why there is something rather than nothing, and insists that it is, in fact, meaningful. He starts by trying to simplify the question, such that instead of asking, “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” we simply ask, “Why are there beings?” Nothing is, after all, nothing, and therefore can’t meaningfully be spoken about. On this basis, perhaps it would make sense to jettison it from our question. The problem with doing this is that it means our inquiry is no longer originary. We are starting from a position in which beings are already given; that is to say, in which beings are presupposed. We would be asking, “Why are there beings? Where and what is their ground? Tacitly one is asking after another, higher being. But here the question does not pertain at all to beings as a whole and as such.” (Heidegger, 1935) Thus, in starting with beings as already given, we completely cover over the real target of our inquiry; Being itself, that by which beings appear as beings in the first place, beings as a whole and as such. Why? Because the very thing that would lead us to question this; i.e. the fact that there are beings instead of nothing, has been ignored. We’ve already assumed that beings are. We no longer have to explain this. It is the point from which we begin our inquiry. Wherever our investigation might go from here, we have missed the absolute beginning Heidegger is interested in. Contrasting beings with their opposite – their non-existence – brings our focus back to this originary question; i.e. to the question of Being itself, to the question of how it is the case that there are beings about which we can ask, “Why are there beings at all?” in the first place.

Does this place Heidegger in opposition to Bergson? No. Bergson argues that nothingness as metaphysical reality is a chimera. There is thus no need to explain how something arose from nothing because something did not arise out of nothing (indeed, it is ‘nothing’ which arises out of ‘something’!). Heidegger does not dispute this. This is because the nothing, contrary to the title of the lecture course, has nothing to do with a metaphysical nothingness. Rather, its purpose in the question is simply to keep us on track, to make sure that our inquiry is fundamental, rather than devolving into a search for “another, higher being.”

Jean-Paul Sartre – Ontological Nothingness II

Sartre very much took his cues regarding nothingness from Heidegger, but interpreted this notion in a very different way to the German. Nothingness, in Sartre, is non-being; that is to say, the opposite of ‘being.’ So, what is being? Before I answer this, I should first remind you that we are talking in terms of ontology here, so ‘being’ does not mean ‘the real,’ as opposed to the non-real, or ‘the physical,’ as opposed to the non-physical, or even ‘what exists,’ as opposed to what doesn’t exist. Rather, being refers to the mode of existence. For Sartre, things can exist in one of two ways; either in the mode of being, or the mode of non-being. Exactly how this latter works will become clear once we have investigated the former.

Sartre lists threes characteristics at the end of the introduction in Being and Nothingness that describe being; being is in itself, being is what it is, and being is. On the off-chance that this hasn’t cleared up being in the slightest for you, let’s break those down. Being is in itself because it is completely independent and self-enclosed. The idea here is that being is complete and whole as what it is. It doesn’t refer to anything else; it is what it is, in and of itself. Secondly, being is what it is in the sense that it lacks the capacity to be anything other than what it is. The way Sartre puts this is to say that being doesn’t refer to itself. An existent which referred to itself could never purely and simply be what it is, because it would always have the option open to it of being something else. Finally, being is, and this means that being is neither necessary nor possible. Necessity only applies to ideal propositions, never concrete existents, and possibility only applies to existents which have possibilities; i.e. conscious beings. Being, on the other hand, is completely and utterly without reason for being. It is purely contingent, or in Sartre’s words, superfluous. It also means that being is a plenitude of positivity. In other words, it does not contain the slightest trace of negation or non-being. It is what it is, pure being, through and through.

Now, what of the opposite; non-being? Does this notion even make sense? Is non-being real? Certainly not in a metaphysical sense. If you open your wallet expecting to find thirty dollars, but only find twenty dollars, you don’t find the non-existence of ten dollars. However, this misses a deeper, phenomenological truth (that will lead us on to an ontological truth) about human life. Consider the situation when you walk into a cafe, and look around for your friend Pierre, whom you had earlier arranged to meet here. Pierre, however, unbeknownst to you, is running late. As you cast your gaze through the cafe, carefully scrutinising the customers for your missing friend, the entire scene takes on a certain hue. It is no longer just a cafe filled with people; rather, it is the backdrop upon which Pierre doesn’t appear. What has significance for you is neither the cafe nor the people in it as ‘positive’ existents, but the fact that none of these people are Pierre; in other words, the absence of Pierre from this cafe is very much a real event concerning this cafe, and it is just as real as the presence of all of these people who aren’t Pierre. As Sartre famously says, “Pierre absent haunts this café.” (Sartre, 1945)

So, non-being is real. Once we realise this, we see that we are in fact surrounded by non-being. Negation, as a genuinely experienced phenomenon, is everywhere. But if being is a pure plenitude of positivity in those three ways we outlined earlier, where does all of this non-being come from? If the entire world is being, how does non-being arise? One possibility is that non-being is the result of a logical, analytic judgement. The problem with this is that, as we’ve seen, non-being is hardly restricted to the textbooks of analytic philosophers or mathematicians. On the contrary, it is everywhere in a lived, human life. Can it arise somehow from being; that is, from what is? This is also a non-starter because non-being is precisely the refusal of being. As we’ve already seen, the pure plenitude of being can have nothing of non-being about it. Thus, Sartre concludes, non-being can only come from a kind of existent which, in its very being, is nothingness (or non-being; Sartre makes no distinction between these terms). That existent is consciousness. Hence, consciousness is nothingness.

So, for Sartre (as for Heidegger), nothingness, or non-being, does not mean some kind of metaphysical non-existence, which would be voidness or emptiness. Rather, nothingness is ontological in the sense that it is the being (mode of existence) of consciousness. Consciousness exists as negation – negation of being. This is why Sartre’s nothingness is not metaphysical. It isn’t a metaphysical reality in opposition to being. The only thing with positive existence is being. Nothingness, then, can only appear within being, as an absence. One way to think of this is to imagine a hole. The ‘emptiness’ of the hole is nothing, but, at the same time, there is clearly nothing metaphysical we can point to called ‘nothingness’ that has some kind of temporal or spatial reality. The only thing with positive existence is the ground. The hole is simply the absence of ground. We can measure all sorts of things about the hole; its size, shape, depth, etc., all without invoking a metaphysical reality that would be a ‘nothing’ over and above the metaphysical reality of the ground.

Buddhism – Metaphysical/Religious Nothingness

Saying anything about ‘Buddhism’ as a whole is fraught with peril because, like all religions, there is no single, monolithic religion called Buddhism. Over the years it has fragmented into distinct schools of thought that, while still clearly Buddhist, are nevertheless distinguished by any number of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences when it comes to individual doctrines. This situation is only exacerbated by the (often deliberately) obscure and cryptic nature of the source texts, passages of which are often subjected to word by word and line by line analyses that end up supporting a variety of differing interpretations. With that said, in what follows, I offer two ways I think the Buddhist conception of nothingness can be understood. The first has philosophical merit, but ironically will, I believe, leave most actual Buddhists feeling ambivalent at best. The second flies off the philosophical rails, but is closer to what a Buddhist might be inclined to actually believe.

Buddhism basically admits two kinds of nothingness; relative and absolute. Relative nothingness is a nothingness that has meaning only in relation to something; it is, in other words, a negation of being. The ‘being’ referred to here could be the (apparent) substantiality of beings, the ego, or being in general. The point of this first movement of negation is to reveal the illusory nature of being. Emptiness (sunyata) is the fundamental nature of reality, and is prior to, or more originary than, being. This claim makes it clear that we are talking about metaphysics here; not an ontological nothingness as we saw in Heidegger and Sartre. Buddhism is trying to describe reality itself beyond the existential/phenomenological-based perspective of the subject, not that by which beings appear as beings (Heidegger) or the condition of the revelation of beings (Sartre), both of which are obviously tethered to some form of subjectivity.

The first movement of negation in Buddhism, then, aims to uncover the illusory nature of being. The belief that beings (tables, chairs, etc.) enjoy some kind of ultimate, metaphysical reality is false. Likewise, the belief that you are a little kernel of being called an ego is an illusion. The fundamental, metaphysical truth of reality is non-being and no-self; nothingness. But this has only gone part of the way. Left here, we have nihilism; that is, a nothingness which is nothing more than the flip side of being, a nothingness that comes from annihilating a somethingness, an emptiness that is only empty in relation to what is present. In all of these formulations, there is still an active subject negating, emptying, annihilating, and that means there is also still an object being negated, emptied, and annihilated. From here, the step to absolute nothingness beckons, and this is where those two different interpretations I mentioned at the start of this section kick in.

In the first, we negate the negation; empty the emptiness. But if you negate nothingness, you come full circle back to a positivity. This positivity is therefore an affirmation of being, but it is no longer the erroneous, illusory being we started with. Absolute nothingness is ‘being,’ but ‘being’ which is now properly understood. How so? Being is understood to be constructed on, or out of, that which is originally not being, or no-thing.

With this, we now realise that the language that has been used here is more than a little deceptive, and wide-open to mystical interpretations, but if we’re careful, we can get some sensible philosophy out of this. Essentially, the negations we effect here, although leading to metaphysical understanding, are actually themselves methodological in nature. They are, if you like, mental acts, steps one must take that serve to clarify the true nature of metaphysical reality; in other words, we are doing philosophy. On this account, the metaphysical nothingness we uncovered in the first negation (relative nothingness) doesn’t mean void, which would leave you with the problem of why there is something rather than nothing; rather, it means formlessness. Strictly speaking, metaphysical nothingness is something, but it is something that, lacking form, is no-thing; that is, not an actual, specific thing. It is, if you like, pure potentiality; a kind of raw capacity to take on form under certain circumstances, such as when a conscious being becomes aware of it from a specific embodied and engaged perspective. The second negation (absolute nothingness) is also itself not metaphysical, being merely the second step one takes in the method leading out of erroneous thinking about ultimate metaphysical reality. Absolute nothingness is therefore, like the first negation, a mental act, but one that, instead of carrying us to the truth of metaphysical reality (no-being as formlessness), brings us back to the world of being, only this time, with a deeper understanding of what that being entails.

For the second interpretation, I’m going to turn to Nishida Kitaro, who offers, at least in the beginning, a philosophically sophisticated account of absolute nothingness. All beings appear in a ‘place’ (basho) in relation to other beings. However, this basho has nothing to do with physical space. Indeed, the ‘place’ where beings appear is consciousness, and they appear there thanks to the correlating and organising categories and judgements consciousness imposes on the world. For example, it is only as a result of consciousness bringing the category of ‘colour’ to bear on the world, that ‘red’ things appear red, and appear contrasted to ‘blue’ things. The problem with this picture is that we are not getting to the truth of things. What is the red thing, in itself; i.e. before it has been schematised by the subjective field of consciousness? So far, this is very Kantian, but where Kant left us in epistemological limbo staring out at a thing-in-itself forever unknowable to us, Kitaro takes the Buddhist off-ramp in trying to locate a place where subject and object encounter each other beyond intellectual judgements, the ‘place’ of absolute nothingness. ‘Absolute nothingness’ is a ‘nothingness’ because it is not ‘being,’ rejecting, as it does, any notions of a transcendent being, or even a pantheistic universal Spirit, both of which obviously refer to being, to some thing. What Kitaro is interested in here is precisely the source of being, and what grounds being won’t, can’t, itself be a being. Further, ‘absolute nothingness’ is ‘absolute’ because it is nondual; that is, it doesn’t refer to an object which it isn’t.

Now, this position is still philosophically defensible, and even though Kitaro is certainly engaging in metaphysics, that is, trying to understand reality as it is before the mind intervenes and turns whatever this metaphysical reality is into the beings we all know and love, nothingness can still come out, as we saw above, not as void, but as something like a pure potentiality which is not a thing. However, the Buddhist off-ramp now opens out onto a highway as we move from metaphysics to religion. First, the whole picture takes on moral overtones, as being is deemed inauthentic and non-being authentic. Being becomes associated with pain, sickness, and death; in short, with suffering, and the goal becomes to escape, to free oneself from the illusion, by transcending being into absolute nothingness. Everyday being is no longer just not metaphysical reality; now it is denigrated as an illusion, a falsehood, something to be overcome. Second, absolute nothingness, as some kind of transcendent, mystical state we are supposed to be able to attain, can no longer retain the metaphysical credibility I tried to give it above as pure potentiality. Instead, it now becomes some undefined, indefinable reality we are expected to believe that we can somehow dissolve into, or become one with, usually through some kind of focusing of the mind. Metaphysical speculation and improbabilities begin to accumulate. Finally, the original problem of knowing the ‘red’ thing as it really is beyond the appearance it takes on in the basho of consciousness is supposedly overcome as we are transformed into a “pure seeing” or a “seeing without a seer.” The claim is that, having completely purged oneself of one’s ego, and dissolved into the basho of nothingness, objects now appear as they are in themselves; we see the thing by becoming it. It is at this point that I throw in the philosophical towel because we’ve passed from philosophy and metaphysics into mysticism and religion, with all of the mystery, paradox, and faith-based claims that such a move entails.

As I’ve said in other places, Buddhism has a rigorous philosophical core, and, unique among religions, makes sense without the supernatural and mystical trappings. I tried to demonstrate this with my first interpretation which resisted the tendency to over-extend, and gave nothingness, what I consider to be, a solid metaphysical grounding. The problem is that, as I have discovered the hard way, you have to work so hard to carve out this ‘secular,’ philosophical interpretation of Buddhism, and ignore so much of the literature and teachings, that at some point you just have to concede that you are trying to force a square, religious peg into a round, philosophical hole. Buddhism, despite the genuinely profound insights some of its deepest thinkers have made, is fundamentally a religion and a system of salvation. Being is inauthentic, nothingness is authentic, and the overarching goal is to break free from the former by attaining to an absolute nothingness which is a mystical, transcendent, ego-less state of pure bliss.


As I promised at the start, the different attitudes to nothingness we have looked at here (except the very last one), rather than clashing, actually complement each other and give us a more complete understanding of nothingness. Bergson dismissed the metaphysical question of why there is something rather than nothing, by noting that ‘nothing’ is an abstract concept that lacks metaphysical reality. The belief that something comes from nothing is an intellectual bias that we, as finite beings within the universe, incorrectly apply to the universe as a whole. My first Buddhist interpretation also pursued nothingness as a metaphysical reality, but concluded, contrary to Bergson, that it is meaningful. The apparent clash dissolved when we realised that this nothingness, rather than being absolute void (which would be metaphysically meaningless), actually referred to a formless something (hence, no-(specific)-thing) that could become some-(specific)-thing from the perspective of a conscious observer.

Heidegger and Sartre both first discovered nothingness in the phenomenological experience of conscious beings (Dasein and the for-itself, respectively), before using it to effect different ontologies. For Heidegger, nothingness is a capacity inherent in Dasein (or Being itself, depending on your perspective) which reveals the world and beings through a nihilating relation characterised by anxiety, while Sartre saw in this nihilating relation not just a capacity, but the whole being of consciousness. In addition, we saw Heidegger assert that the question of why there is something rather than nothing, is not only valid, but cannot dispose of the ‘nothing’ while retaining the same meaning. Again, there was no clash with Bergson though because Heidegger still didn’t have a metaphysical conception of nothingness in mind. Instead, the inclusion of the phrase, ‘rather than nothing,’ was necessary because it kept our inquiry directed to the ontological roots Heidegger was interested in; i.e. not just, “Why this or that being?”, which naturally directs us to a higher being, but, “Why any being at all?” In a similar way, my first Buddhist interpretation understood the distinction into relative and absolute nothingness, not as a metaphysical claim, but a methodological one. Relative and absolute nothingness are mental acts in which one negates, first being, and then negation itself, in order to come to a deeper understanding of metaphysical reality; which we have already seen was nothingness as formlessness.

The only approach to nothingness that I felt compelled to reject was my second Buddhist interpretation, which was a metaphysical inquiry, but one that differed from the earlier metaphysical claims I outlined because it was motivated by a religious sentiment that sought to connect nothingness to ethics, mysticism, and a notion of salvation. This resulted in claims that were metaphysically suspect, intellectually obscure, and demanding of levels of faith of which I am no longer capable. Basically, if you crack the door open wide enough to let the religious interpretation of nothingness through, you no longer have any reasonable grounds on which to refuse entry to all manner of mystical, religious, new age, or pseudo-scientific nonsense.


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