In the English language, the noun ‘matter’ can refer to a hypothetical substance or to a topic or theme (‘We discussed a number of matters, in particular the company’s financial state’). The English verb ‘to matter’ has a different meaning.
To say that something ‘matters’ (verb) means that it is significant, relevant or important, or - more broadly - that it means something. Conversely, to say that something ‘doesn’t matter’ is to say that it is not important, that it has no significant meaning or relevance. Hence phrases such as ‘What really matters is….’ (‘What is really important is…’) or questions such as ‘What does it matter?’ (‘What meaning or significance does it have?’) or ‘Why does it matter?’ (‘Why is it important or meaningful?’). These idiomatic phrases and questions also have their equivalent in other languages. In German for example the verb ‘make’ is used in a similar way to the English verb ‘to matter’. ‘Es macht nichts’ (literally: ‘It makes nothing’) has the same meaning as the English ‘It doesn’t matter’.
With phrases like this in mind, let us feel ourselves into some of the most basic questions of life and existence we experience. For example: ‘What really matters?’ (‘What is really meaningful or important in life?) ‘Why does anything matter?’ (‘Why is anything important or meaningful in life?’).
The questions can be personalised: ‘What matters most to me is…’ (What is most meaningful or important to me is…) or ‘What matters most to you…?’ (‘What is most important to you?’).
Let us first of all restrict ourselves to just two general questions: Firstly the question ‘WHAT matters?’ and secondly the question: ‘Why does ANYTHING matter?’ The first question asks what it is that has meaning or importance? The second asks why it is that anything has or comes to have meaning or importance at all.
The first question, ‘What matters?’, can be heard with two intonations.
- ‘What MATTERS?’ – ‘What is it that is meaningful or important?’
- ‘WHAT matters?’.
In the second intonation, a different question comes into view, namely ‘WHAT is this that first gives or grants meaning or importance to anything?’, what is it that ‘makes’ something important. Here, the use of the word ‘makes’, which echoes the literal meaning of the German phrase Es macht nichts (‘It makes nothing’) also hints at a connection between one meaning of ‘matter’ as a noun, i.e. that substance out of which all things are supposed to be made - and its meaning as a verb. After all, the world itself and everything in it is supposed to be ‘made’ out of or from ‘matter’ - even if this ‘matter’ is seen in physics as equivalent to ‘energy’. So the question ‘WHAT MATTERS?’ has a double meaning as well as a double intonation. It also asks us whether we can separate the question of what it is that first ‘makes’ all things in the form of ‘matter’ – what it is that ‘materialises’ through them - from the question of what it is that first gives them ‘meaning’, thus making them ‘matter’.
In other words it suggests a connection between the ‘materialisation’ of things and the way they come to have meaning and, in this way, to ‘matter’. This connection should not surprise us. Do things not just dumbly lie around us as meaningless ‘material’ objects? Or are we only aware of them principally because they ‘matter’ to us in another sense – because they mean something to us? Thus a pen or kettle lies before us not primarily as some meaningless shape of ‘matter’ in the physical-scientific sense, but as something that means something to us in a very specific way. The pen’s meaning lies in the fact that we can pick it up and use it to write, just as a kettle means something to us as something we can get hold of, fill with water and use to make a cup of tea or coffee. Indeed we only see things as ‘pens’ or ‘kettles’ because of their meaning as instruments for specific purposes. In Heidegger’s terms, their meaning does not lie in simply being ‘present’ or ‘there’ (the conventional meaning of ‘being’) but rather in the way they are ‘ready to hand’.
In a more general sense, as Samuel Avery argues so persuasively, we only experience things as ‘material’ in any way at all because we are aware of them not only as things we can see but also, potentially, as things we can come to handle, to touch and therefore to feel - whether we feel them as light or heavy, hard or soft, smooth or rough etc. According to Avery then, what we think of as ‘matter’, far from being some objective or substantive dimension of the ‘physical’ universe, is nothing but an actual or potential dimension of the universe of our subjective, sensory experiencing and perception - in particular its tactile dimension.
Here, even in relation to the ordinary scientific notion of ‘matter’ and ‘material’ objects – we begin to get behind the basic questions of how it is that anything first comes to ‘matter’ - to mean something to us - and also how and in what ways specific things come to mean something to us - ‘to matter’. We have not yet begun to fully explore the question of what it is that ‘matters’ – either in the sense of giving things meaning - and so ‘making’ them ‘matter’ - or in the sense of ‘making’ or ‘materialising’ them as seemingly solid objects.
These questions already assume that, besides them being either particles or constructions of some tangible material substance, or else being simply ‘present-to-hand’ (Heidegger) as things we can handle and use in particular ways, there is actually any meaning to things at all – to anything. Aware of this, we are brought to perhaps the biggest question of all, namely what if – quite independently of all the ways in which we come to perceive things as ‘material’ and to make meaningful use of them in everyday life, in the end ‘NOTHING MATTERS’?
The seemingly radical or even nihilistic idea that ‘NOTHING MATTERS’ is in fact in perfect accord with a purely physical-scientific viewpoint: one which sees the very existence of matter, a material universe and of any and all ‘material’ things – as having no intrinsic meaning at all, being instead simply as an accident or unexplained event of nature such as a ‘Big Bang’.
If this is the case however, if ‘matter’ basically has no meaning, then surely all our earlier questions around the meaning of life and existence – questions such as what it is that ‘makes’ something mean something or ‘matter’, in what way it comes to mean something or ‘matter’ and how it comes to mean what it does – would appear to simply vanish, to vanish into NOTHINGNESS.
I say ‘would appear to vanish’. Why this ‘would appear to’? Because, in reality, the physical-scientific worldview of our day rejects the whole notion of pure nothingness. Instead it simply reduces all lived and experienced dimensions of meaning – whether personal, social, cultural or spiritual – to a pure ‘idea’. This is the idea of ‘matter’ as some form of hard ‘substance’. Yet this is also an idea that physical science itself has long since abandoned, making this old idea vanish into a whole host of other purely theoretical ideas – ideas of ‘energy’, ‘energy-matter equivalence’, energetic ‘quanta’, ‘quantum dynamics’ etc. etc.
The physical-scientific worldview in other words, still holds to the ancient idea that ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’ - for even where it talks of ‘vacuum states’ it does so only to then immediately fill that ‘vacuum’ with ideas of ‘vacuum energy’, ‘vacuum fluctuations’ etc. A quantum ‘vacuum’ turns out to be a space or field in which supposed ‘particles’ constantly pop into and out of existence, no sooner emerging than destroying each other.
In this way, the vacuum ceases to be a vacuum and the ‘nothing’ into which our questions appeared to vanish ceases to be truly nothing – ‘pure nothingness’. ‘The Nothing’ as Heidegger called it (das Nichts) is only ‘nothing’ in so far as it is seen in physics as ‘no-thing’ in any tangible sense - but instead as a complex of intangible physical-mathematical ideas and constructs such as ‘virtual particles’. Yet these very ideas and constructs are seen by physicists as ultimate realities – as that which ‘makes’ all things and lies behind all ‘matter’. In this way the ideas and constructs are themselves ‘reified’, ‘objectified’, ‘thingified’ and ‘materialised’ in physics. In other words, the universe of ‘matter’ and of material things as physics understands it, is itself a world that physics itself constructs. Physics itself, through its concept of matter, is itself the ‘what’ that makes or ‘materialises’ all things, even though, in the end physics itself denies them all meaning and all the attributes of ‘matter’ normally associated with our actual experience of things.
Where do these contradictions of physical science in relation to the nature of matter, to vacuums - and to ‘nothing’ or ‘The Nothing’ - now leave us in relation to the phrase: ‘NOTHING MATTERS’?
Does the phrase simply reduce itself to the expression of some extreme state of existential ‘meaning loss’ or to some ultimate denial of all meaning - to an expression of so-called ‘existential nihilism’?
On one level this would also be a contradiction. For if what the phrase essentially says is that NOTHING MEANS ANYTHING - then how could the phrase itself have any meaning or resonance for us? Here again, however, everything depends on how we hear this phrase. If we listen to it more deeply, it too resonates with different intonations and dimensions of meaning. And if we truly listen into these deeper resonances - to the point where we experience ourselves as living them – then the phrase itself can in no way be taken as an absolute, brutal and crude denial of all meaning in life.
To be true, many people experience states of being in which life no longer seems to have any meaning for them, in which nothing – even their own lives – mean anything or ‘matter’ to them anymore, or in which they no longer feel that they ‘matter’, that they ‘mean’ anything to anyone.
Yet the phrase ‘NOTHING MEANS ANYTHING’ does not say ‘LIFE is meaningless’, ‘NOTHING MEANS ANYTHING TO ME’ or ‘I MEAN NOTHING TO ANYONE’. It says simply: ‘NOTHING MEANS ANYTHING’. So let us listen into and feel and think the many intonations of these words:
NOTHING MEANS ANYTHING (‘NOTHING MATTERS’)
To begin with, if we simply listen and feel ourselves into the phrase as a whole, it may begin to speak to us in a new way and resonate in us with a felt tonality that is in no way the expression of some mood of total dejection and meaning loss - but rather a mood of liberation.
If ‘Nothing Means Anything’ then are we not freed or liberated of all life’s cares and concerns, worries and preoccupations – freed of any need to ‘do’ anything in relation to any ‘thing’, ‘person’, ‘situation’, ‘state’ or ‘question’ - any ‘matter’?
We can also hear and read the phrase as saying that:
NO THING in itself MEANS ANYTHING (‘NO THING in itself MATTERS’)
In this case however, are we not free to ‘make of things’ whatever we wish, to put any meaning we wish into them and into our dealings with all things and all ‘matters’.
So though the phrase ‘Nothing means anything’ may make us feel ‘removed’ or ‘at a distance’ from the whole world of ‘things’ or ‘matters’ that normally ‘mean’ something or ‘matter’ to us - whether in a transcendent, pleasurable and liberating way or in a distressing and isolating way - does not the phrase also implicitly affirm the simple existence or ‘being’ of things – independently of whatever they ‘mean’ or do not ‘mean’? Does not the phrase also implicitly acknowledge that ‘There ARE things’ or that ‘Things ARE’. If so, is this not meaningful in itself?
NO THING MEANS ANYTHING (NO THING ‘MATTERS’)
Can we therefore not also hear in this intonation of the phrase - ‘No thing MEANS anything’ something which does not simply negate the meaning of things but instead makes space for the affirmation of that which Martin Heidegger saw as MOST meaningful of all - namely the mystery and the miracle that any ‘thing’ IS at all?
Is there not therefore a way in which, precisely by removing us from the world of things that ‘mean’ or ‘matter’ to us in very particular or personal ways, the phrase also returns us to a space and a place in which we can come to rest in a pure awareness of the Being of things?
NO [one] THING ‘MEANS ANYTHING’ (‘NO [one] THING MATTERS’)
In this reading we can hear a similar message. For precisely because the word ‘Nothing’ can also be read and heard as ‘No Thing’ – it can also be heard as meaning no ONE thing in particular but rather ‘Anything and Everything’ – what Heidegger would term ‘beings as a whole’, in their Being. Understood in this way, the phrase can also be written: ‘Nothing’ MEANS ‘Anything’.
Here our hearing attends to the word ‘MEANS’, and reads it as defining ‘nothing’ and ‘anything’ as ‘the same thing’ – asserting their identity as a transcendent unity of all things.
‘NOTHING’ means ‘ANY [possible] THING’
By ‘anything’ we now hear ‘any POSSIBLE thing at all’ – not just any actual thing, anything that actually ‘is’. This reading of the phrase offers us a new understanding of ‘The Nothing’, not simply as realm of ‘NON-Being’, but as the source of all that possibly or potentially COULD be.
‘Nothing’ MEANS [intends] ‘Anything’
Here the word ‘means’ is understood in its other meaning in English – where ‘to mean’ something can mean also ‘to INTEND’ something - as in the expression: ‘I didn’t mean (intend) to knock the glass over’. What we hear in this wording of the phrase is an ACTIVE side of ‘Nothing’ – its capacity to INTEND something. But what can ‘Nothing’ be understood as ‘intending’? Precisely, anything at all – which is to say, all things that actually and possibly are. Put in other words, this formulation of the phrase reads:
‘Nothing’ is that which INTENDS Being.
Heard in this way, ‘The Nothing’ – ‘Non-Being’ itself, is suddenly transformed into a primordial Intent to Be - that ‘WILL TO BE’ that could be said to constitute the living core of all beings – of anything and everything that ‘is’ or ‘could be’.
Understood in this way nothing ‘means’ or ‘matters’ more than ‘NOTHING’ itself!
Yet even this understanding can in no way be understood as ‘concluding’ our reflections on ‘Nothing’ and on phrases such as ‘NOTHING MATTER’ or ‘NOTHING MEANS ANYTHING’.
That is because even to speak of a ‘will’ or ‘intent’ to BE that has its source in ‘nothing’ already implies the possibility of this will or intent not being realised – the possibility of things not being or having come to be. This recalls us to Heidegger’s fundamental question, the question of why there is anything at all (including a hypothetical ‘God’ or a cosmic event called a ‘Big Bang’) rather than nothing?
Yet we cannot even begin to think this most fundamental of questions without first of all asking what ‘NOTHING’ or ‘NON-BEING’ itself can be said to ‘BE’ – a question which already appears to contain an inherent logical contradiction. On the other hand, without probing this question more deeply how can the expressions ‘NOTHING matters’ or ‘NOTHING means anything’ themselves mean anything at all, rather than NOTHING!?
At the heart of the question – and the apparent contradiction in asking what ‘nothing’ or ‘non-being’ can be said to ‘be’ - is, as Heidegger first recognised, the more basic question of what it means for anything to ‘be’ – the question of ‘Being’ itself and of its ‘meaning’.
To me a more basic question than this is how we first know that anything ‘is’. How do we even first come to know that we ourselves ‘are’?
My answer to this question, as is well known to my readers, is that we only know that anything ‘is’ through an AWARENESS of it. Similarly, we only know that we ourselves ‘are’ through an AWARENESS of being. This understanding forms part of a new philosophy that I call ‘The Awareness Principle’.
This principle argues that what we call ‘awareness’ cannot – in principle – be reduced to a property or product of anything that we are aware OF – whether a ‘self’, ‘subject’ or ‘I’, matter or energy, our bodies or our brains. In a more general sense, The Awareness Principle argues that awareness cannot, in principle, be reduced to a property or product of anything we experience or think of as ‘being’ – since, again, we can only know of anything that is, any ‘being’ - through a prior or ‘a priori’ AWARENESS of it.
Yet even this principle, argued in strict logical fashion - and also elaborated in countless of my essays and books - still leaves open certain fundamental questions.
For on the one hand it raises ‘Awareness’ to the status of an ultimate reality transcending even ‘Being’. On the other hand, precisely by doing so, it implies that Awareness itself ‘is’. In other words, what is left open is the question of how and in what way Awareness itself - if it is, in principle, prior to Being and to everything that is - can be thought of or said to ‘be’?
In my long search to articulate what I call a new and ultimate ‘Metaphysics Awareness’ I have already formulated some ways in which this deep and paradoxical question can begin to be answered.
To begin with, it must be acknowledged that Awareness, like ‘Nothing’ - or even ‘Being’ – is itself ‘no thing’ and ‘no being’, and in this specific way, cannot be said to ‘be’. I have also argued in earlier writings that Awareness itself needs to be understood, first and foremost, not as an awareness of ‘Being’ - of anything that actually ‘is’, but rather as a primordial Awareness of that realm of pure possibilities or potentialities of Being which can be called ‘Non-Being’.
In other words, Awareness is not simply ‘No-thing’ but also, metaphysically speaking, only ‘is’ or ‘exists’ as a RELATION to all that ‘is not’ – to Non-Being or ‘The Nothing’.
Consequently, NOTHING MATTERS or MEANS more to AWARENESS itself than NOTHING or NON-BEING - understood as all and anything that COULD BE, but IS NOT.
Indeed it is only through a primordial and universal Awareness of all that could be - but is not, i.e. to NON-BEING that:
1. Awareness itself comes to know itself in any way as ‘being’, and
2. All that ‘could be’ begins to take on ever-more defined shape in Awareness – in a similar way that dreams begin to take shape and become more vivid from within a state of dreamless sleep, or that a feeling or intuition begins to take shape as we give it more awareness.
If Awareness is that ultimate ‘light’ in which all things that are possible – all that ‘could be’ – first 'come to light', then ‘Nothing’ could be understood as something like ‘The Dark Side of Awareness’ - that cosmic blackness in which all that could be is to begin with, invisible, black and occluded: ‘occult’.
So whilst it is the Light of Awareness which awakens the Will-to-Be that is latent within ‘The Nothing’, The Nothing itself occludes it. Hence the inner association of ‘The Nothing’ with ‘the occult’, with nihilism and with annihilation, with expressions such as ‘the dark side’, ‘dark forces’ or ‘dark powers’ - as well as by the ‘scientific’ mysteries of ‘dark matter’ and of all-devouring and all-occluding ‘black holes’. It is symbolised also by the colour black itself, by the notion of ‘Black Magic’ and by the symbolism of a ‘Black Sun’ at the centre of the cosmos.
‘The Nothing’, as a still black and totally indeterminate and undefined fullness of potentialities, is nothing but a realm of ‘pure potentiality’ – and in this sense also Pure Power – but a dark or even black power – hence its traditional association with ‘evil’. And indeed we can see why this Power might easily be conceived as ‘evil’.
For ‘The Nothing’, precisely as ‘No Thing’, is also that Power which NEGATES all things - unlike Awareness, which, though also ‘No-thing’, embraces both the Being of things and their Non-Being - and which also releases all possible things into Being or actuality from within ‘The Nothing’.
‘NOTHING MEANS ANY-THING’ can then also be heard as saying that NOTHING, as ‘NO-THING’, is what ‘intends’ or ‘means’ the negation of any and all things that actually are. It does so by seeming to keep in dark, black or occult concealment all that could be - and not just in its own realm of Non-Being but also in the realm of beings. For actual things too, have their own infinite inner potentialities.
Herein lies another reason why the Pure Power of NOTHING or of THE NOTHING might be seen as ‘evil’ – not only as an intrinsically negating or ‘negative’ power but also a malignly destructive one. For the destruction of any actual life, thing or being is also and above all the destruction of that which most belongs to The Nothing – namely the still unfulfilled potentials of that life, being or thing – which are not ‘annihilated’ in this destruction but rather absorbed back into ‘The Nothing’.
Yet there is a paradox here. For any potentiality of being, or of a being, to be ‘absorbed’ back into ‘The Nothing’ is in no way its ultimate ‘annihilation’. Instead, to be absorbed back into The Nothing is to be sheltered, protected and GUARDED there. ‘The Nothing’ is therefore essentially the ultimate guardian of all potentialities of Being. In this very important sense it shares a common essence with ‘AWARENESS’ – the root meaning of ‘aware’ (cognate with words such as ‘ware’, ‘wary’ and ‘beware’) meaning TO GUARD.
And returning to the negative or ‘destructive’ nature of The Nothing, is it not also true that it is often preservation of the actual - the ‘status quo’ – that most of all hinders the emergence and realisation of new potentialities? Therefore the negation or destruction of actual things – for example rigid belief systems or rigid political and economic systems - is what also first clears and opens a space for the emergence and actualisation of new potentialities – which have their source in The Nothing.
Despite all these considerations, still, there is nothing that is more universally FEARED - emotionally, existentially, scientifically and philosophically - than the mere idea of NOTHING. It is out of this intense fear (essentially a fear of NOTHING!) that all sorts of projections of ‘evil’ are placed upon THE NOTHING. This is another reason why NOTHING MATTERS OR MEANS MORE THAN NOTHING ITSELF – for our understanding of and our emotional and existential relation to THE NOTHING carries profound dimensions of MEANING, not just philosophically but in the world and for all beings.
ALL GENUINE AND CREATIVE AWARENESS BEGINS, IN ONE WAY OR ANOTHER. WITH AN AWARENESS OF ‘NOTHING’ – WHETHER IN THE FORM OF SOMETHING STILL UNTHOUGHT, UNQUESTIONED OR UNDONE, SOMETHING ABSENT RATHER THAN PRESENT, AND - IN PARTICULAR - SOMETHING POTENTIAL RATHER THAN ACTUAL – SOMETHING THAT ‘COULD BE’ RATHER THAN SOMETHING THAT IS. WITHOUT AWARENESS OF ‘THE NOTHING’, ALL THAT COULD BE THOUGHT, SAID OR DONE DOES NOT EVEN ‘COME TO MIND’ - AND SO WE REMAIN BLIND. THE MEASURE OF EXPANDED AWARENESS IS THE DEGREE TO WHICH IT BRINGS TO MIND – ‘FROM NOTHING’ - MORE CREATIVE POSSIBILITIES OF ACTION THAN WE WERE AWARE OF OR EVEN DREAMT OF BEFORE. This is perhaps the single most important reason why, in the deepest possible way: ‘NOTHING MATTERS’.
And because the simple phrase ‘NOTHING MATTERS’ serves to remove us from all those things that might otherwise do nothing but constantly preoccupy and fill up the space of our awareness in ways that lead nowhere - in this way consuming both our time and our lives - the simple phrase ‘NOTHING MATTERS’ can be heard as a most powerful mantra for freeing our lives. It works by helping to clear out and expand a fresh space of awareness, one in which those still darkly hidden things that truly and alone mean and matter most to each individual being can first come to light from the great womb and power of darkness – from THE NOTHING.
Yet to say ‘yes’ to that which matters to us, the things, people, ideals, values or beliefs that mean most to us, is impossible without the strength to say ‘NO’ to other things and in particular to reject beliefs of any sort. The Power of The Nothing is therefore also intimately connected with the power of negation or NO-saying, as described in the following parable from Seth:
“You have the right to say NO! And, in all Christian terms, Satan said ‘No!’. He looked at the grandeur of the God – as it is understood now – and I am speaking in your terms, and not in my own …. and as the Bible was interpreted, and not as reality was at all. But in the terms of the story, God said ‘I am just. I control the universe. I am truth. I am reality.’ And Lucifer stood there, and he said ‘No, you are not!’. And God said, ‘Out!’. And out Lucifer went. Now Lucifer was not evil, but, in the terms of the story, Jehovah was not good. Lucifer did not send floods to destroy whole populations! Lucifer did not turn people into salt. But those are old legends. They are old, ancient legends and both God and Lucifer – Jehovah and Lucifer, in those terms, are done poorly. The characterisation is weak!”
It is worth noting also that according to the psychoanalytic thinking of Wilfred Bion, it is through an inability to tolerate the frustration of a vacuum or ‘nothing’ – in particular one created by the temporary absence of a valued ‘object’ or other (the mother or ‘breast’ in particular) that this absence come to be experienced by the infant not as the absence of a ‘good object’ but as the presence of a ‘bad object’. On this basis, Bion developed a new psychoanalytic model of thinking itself, arguing that only through a capacity to tolerate the frustration of the ‘no-breast’, does this ‘no-thing’ become a thought. Without this capacity for patient tolerance of frustration however: “What should be a thought … becomes a bad object … fit only for evacuation” and “…all thoughts are treated as if they were indistinguishable from bad internal objects”. Put in general terms: inability to tolerate The Nothing in form of a vacuum or ‘nothing’ created by absence, leads to the evacuation of thought itself from awareness – which instead is filled with ‘internal objects’ experienced as ‘bad’. These can take the form of ‘bad’ feelings about oneself and/or others which themselves then need themselves to be actively evacuated in some way – for example by paranoid projections of ‘badness’ or ‘evil’ onto and into things and people, or through the experience of ‘hearing’ what are experienced as malign, evil or Satanic ‘voices’. In this context, experiences of ‘demonic possession’ (spontaneous or self-induced) and even Christian religious ‘exorcism’ can potentially play a positive role: by allowing or inviting an intense accumulation of fury and frustration to embody and personify itself through a loud and powerful NO-saying voice – the voice of a ‘demon’, or even of Satan himself. Hence also the attraction of ‘Satanic’ rock and heavy metal music – which also resonates with the intense frustration and fury that so many people feel towards the world. As a result, it can help transform this frustration and fury (and also fear of The Nothing) into a feeling of freedom – a freedom to at least symbolically say NO to all that is conventionally seen as ‘good’ or as ‘God’ and instead say ‘yes’ to ‘The Nothing’ - to ‘The Dark Side of Awareness’.
Avery, Samuel The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Bion, Wilfred A Theory of Thinking, in Second Thoughts - Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis
Heidegger, Martin Being and Time
Roberts, Jane Conversations with Seth, Volume 2
Wilberg, Peter ‘Event Horizon’ – the Ultimate Metaphysics of Awareness