An Essay Reflecting on “Philosophy of Lack 2: Materialism (w/ Cadell Last, O.G. Rose, Tim Adalin, Alexander Ebert)”
Atoms and Void
Considering A Theory of Two, “Othering” Nothingness, and the Difference Between “In” and “Inside”
Democritus was a Pre-Socratic thinker whose work we only have in the form of fragments, and I sometimes wonder if he was the greatest of all the classical thinkers. Had his works on music, astronomy, and the rest survived, perhaps we would discuss the “Post-Democritus Thinkers” versus “Pre-Socratics,” but’s hard to say. From predicting there would be more planets than earth, that each star was like our sun, and that multiple dimensions could exist, Democritus was far ahead of his time. Most famously, he predicted atomic theory, which Richard Feynman suggested was the most important theory humanity ever generated.
Democritus thought the world was ultimately atoms and void, and that the “void” was a “not-thing” (distinct from “nothing”) in which atoms could move, bump into one another, hook together, and so on (“void,” “not-thing,” and/or “lack” are deeply related, to allude to “Lacks Are Not Nothing” by O.G. Rose). If there was no void, atoms would be stagnant and the universe could never come into existence, because the invisible parts that composed it would have never become visible. Democritus imagined that atoms had hooks with certain shapes that fit together with other hooks on other atoms, and if no atoms ever hooked together, the universe would have never become the “visible” universe. The only reason the atoms could become “visible” though was thanks to the void: without it, perhaps there would still be a difference between “atoms” and “void,” but it wouldn’t be a very meaningful one.
This paper explores the ontological vision of Democritus not so much to argue that “it’s true” — I’m not a scientist to say — but to suggest a vision of reality in which “nothingness” always means “not-thing or not(t)hing” (ergo “lack” and/or “void”: “actual nothingness” only exists in our heads, which might suggest something important, as discussed in “Hegel and the Ontological Implications of “Pure Thought” About What’s Not There” by O.G. Rose).¹ More importantly, Democritus provides us with a vision in which void plays an essential role in the movement of the sun and other stars. Void is not something we escape or that exists “outside the universe,” but what the universe must “be inside.” Dr. Cadell Last put it well when he wrote:
For Democritus, a presence that depends on absence signifies an important distinction vis-a-vis thinking “the real” (or fundamental reality), namely, that the most essential cannot be either a being (atoms, something), and neither can it be a non-being (void, nothing), but a paradox of the two.²
Through Democritus, we can “speculatively think” in hopes of arriving at thought that suggests possibilities beyond simple “A/A thinking” that fixates on “oneness,” “the observable,” and linearity. Democritus offers us an ontological and universal vision that makes the goal of “being” not to escape or erase “nothingness,” but to learn to exist in a perpetual and paradoxical relationship with it. If this relationship collapses, then so too will being: “being” that isn’t in relationship “isn’t,” and yet ironically the whole reason “being” might try to escape “nothingness” is precisely in order to “be.”
Some people consider Democritus a “nihilistic thinker” because of his emphasis on “the void,” but paradoxically Democritus is known as “the laughing philosopher.” Cheerfulness matters to Democritus, which suggests a truth that thinkers like Kafka understood (as Deleuze teaches): accepting the “void” is the secret to happiness. “The Philosophy of Lack” discussion between Tim Adalin, Cadell Last, Alex Ebert, and myself emphasized the importance of “integrating ourselves with lack” and how this actually increased our happiness: the very life of Democritus himself might be evidence of this reality. Perhaps nihilism is pessimistic, but “integration with lack” enlivens.
We don’t tend to think of void as what makes being possible, but instead what needs to be “removed” so that being can flourish. Where there is void, being is “sucked in” as if by a black hole; in this way, voids are threats to being, not enablers of it. Worse yet, we seemingly don’t even have a robust category of “not-thing” like “void”: we generally have a dichotomy of “being” and “nothing,” which generally means that we only have a category of “being” because nothing is, well, nothing. “Nothing” for us is a “dismissal category,” a category we use to say, “It isn’t” and “It doesn’t matter.” It’s a “limiting concept,” a “boundary” — we suggest “things can’t be nothing,” which means if we’re talking about nothing, we’re talking about nothing and wasting our time. And so we don’t talk about it, and instead focus on being.
The classic quandary begins to lift its head here: if “the void” is “not-thing,” then it’s “nothing,” is it? No, it’s not, but it’s not a “being” either: we’re missing a desperately needed “third category” between being and nothing (as discussed throughout (Re)constructing A is A), and we also must decide if we’re going to emphasize the “absent dimension” of this third category or the “present dimension.” If a “lack” is a “form without presence” — say the IRS when I’m doing taxes and I’m wondering if they’ll fine me — do I emphasize the fact that the IRS is present or do I emphasize the fact that the IRS isn’t? This question of emphasis is a big one, for it could have practical consequences on how I’m “toward” the world.
Democritus could have just as easily called “the void” a “not something,” but instead went with something akin to the paradoxical “not-thing,” thus placing the emphasis on “nothing” over something. Today, we seem to do the opposite: we make a point to stress how the “nothing” described by Lawrence Krauss in his work on A Universe from Nothing can’t really be nothing if it’s unstable. And perhaps these are fair critiques — that’s a different discussion — the point though is how we stress “being” over “nothing.” And this habituates us to think in terms of “presence” versus “absence,” which though beneficial in some ways, may hurt us in others, say when trying to understand emergent entities or entities like “the mind” (which Dr. Cadell Last brilliantly describes as an “absence,” a “not-thing” which cannot be reduced to “brain states” even if the “not-thing” arose thanks to the brain). Why? Well, what we don’t emphasize is what we tend not to be careful with, and gradually our lack of care regarding “nothing” has made space for the term to get hooked up with numerous associations that hinder our ability to see “nothingness” as valuable.³
Due to our lack of care and emphasis, now if we treat things that are “like nothing” — say the relationship itself between two people, our mental states, etc. — then we will treat them as if they “aren’t a big deal” and “powerless” (and the more we emphasize “nothingness,” the more we’ll be “toward” this way of thinking than not). Take how people treat mental illnesses or neuroses in general: it’s apparently something we can “just will through,” ignore, and the like. Furthermore, what’s “nothing” is a thing that “doesn’t have value,” and so concerning ourselves with mental health is a waste of time. And worse yet, it’s a waste of time over something that should be solved with ease because it’s “powerless,” so then we view the person dealing with a mental illness as really messing up.⁴
Since we today only have the categories of “something” and “nothing,” we naturally associate what’s “invisible” with “nothing,” and that means “the invisible” is powerless, not valuable, and not worth focusing on. No, nobody when asked directly would say, “Mental states don’t matter,” but this is how we practically act (in general), and this disposition is habituated by our bias in favor of “being” (as does the absence of a third category of “not-thing” or “lack”).⁵ And so we treat “emergent entities” in general — they don’t matter and they’re not “really there,” as we think those who are “rational” tend to realize (for we overly associate “science,” “empiricism,” and “rational”), which is another problematic layer, because we tend to associate “the rational” with “the study of being.” Rational people “escape” nothing, as the universe “escaped” from nothing out of the Big Bang.⁶ Also, rational people don’t think about stuff that doesn’t matter, and if “lacks/voids/etc. are nothing,” then it’s irrational to worry about them. Thus, “rational people” disregard the “void” which makes movement and being possible.⁷
To many of us, due to our language, “nothing” is valueless, irrational, and powerless, and with these associations embedded into our subconscious minds, we’re not likely to integrate ourselves with “lack.” We’ve “othered” “nothing,” made it something that “has nothing to do with us” and that needs to “stay away.” Can we learn to welcome “the other?” Can we open our door and let the “lack” in? Only we can, but we likely won’t unless we “positivize lack” (the negative associations are just too strong).
For Democritus, the “not-thing” is the possibility space of the material. It is not what the Big Bang “escaped out of,” but what made the Big Bang possible, and what makes us possible to this very day. The void is what matter and atoms are still operating in: far from “escape” the void, we are still deeply indebted to it. We need it, for otherwise we’d be stagnant and unmoving. We’d be dead, and yet even knowing that doesn’t seem to stop us from privileging “being” over “void” again seconds later.⁸ ⁹
We use the phrase “creation ex nihilo” often, but Democritus would instead have us discuss “creation in(side) nothing” — there is no “ex” or “from.” In fact, we could theoretically escape the “void,” we’d cease to move: in the name of avoiding nothingness so that we’d keep existing, we’d cease to exist. How different would “nihilism” strike us if nothing wasn’t something we “escaped” from but instead “moved” thanks to and in? If nothing was “void,” and “void” was what made life possible, then when Sartre’s character in Nausea looked at the tree near the conclusion and felt that “Everything was nothing,” we’d perhaps take it to mean, “Everything was indebted to nothing.” In a world where the “void” was good and necessary for movement (and “love,” do note), it might be those who weren’t nihilists who might be seen as “life negating.”
Lacking Democritus, we tend to assume nothing is “out of place” when we see it in the world, like a virus that’s infecting something that’s otherwise healthy (we see “void” as always something that’s “not where it’s supposed to be”). To discuss “nothing” feels like a devolution back into what we “escaped,” and so we don’t discuss it. Far from accepting “void,” materialism seems to be an effort to “escape non-materiality” (and perhaps we could even say that materialism entails a pathological anxiety to avoid “nothingness” in fear of getting “sucked in”) — which materialism can easily feel justified in doing, because “non-materiality” is unobservable and thus doesn’t seem to be “there” (a fallacious conclusion that our “othering” of “no-thing-ness” aids). If nothing, on the other hand, was the condition that made matter “move,” then “the void” wouldn’t be “totally other,” something that was supposed to “stay away.” In fact, we’d need it to live. It also wouldn’t make sense to create a hierarchy between “nothing” and “something”: they’d need one another, and language of “escaping nothing” would be nonsense (it would be like escaping air, suicidal). Strangely, this means that the effort to escape nothing would be contradictory and self-negating, whereas we tend to think that not escaping nothing causes contradiction and self-negation.¹⁰ ¹¹ This suggests how critical it is for us to understand our “starting point” rightly (for “truth organizes values,” as argued in The Conflict of Mind).¹²
Earlier, it was said that “Democritus offers us an ontological and universal vision that makes the goal of ‘being’ not to escape or erase ‘nothingness,’ but to learn to exist in a perpetual and paradoxical relationship with it.” This relationship between “atoms” and “void” is “paradoxical” because being is “in” the void without “being void,” which seems strange: I am in space but also composed of geometrical and mathematical structures, for ontologically what is “in” something tends to also be “composed” of it in different ways. Democritus though is suggesting that it’s possible for something to be “in” something while still being “without” it, which frankly just doesn’t seem like it should be possible (x can apparently be “in” y without x being “inside” of y). To use language from “On ‘A is A’ ” by O.G. Rose, we as an “A” are “without B” in that B which is not found in A, and yet B is still the condition and setting which makes it possible for A to move, form, and be itself.
Atoms are “without void” in that void cannot be found “inside” of them, and yet void is the condition and setting which makes it possible for atoms to move, formulate, and the like. Perhaps there is a “relation” between atoms and void (similarities, connections, etc.), but there is no “presence” of void inside atoms themselves or atoms inside the void itself. Atoms are “in” the void, but void isn’t “inside” atoms. “In” and “inside” are very similar in this context but keeping them distinct is critical. Similarly, A is “in” the B which A is “without” (for B is the “possibility space” and “orientation” of A), and yet there is no B “inside” of A. Strangely, A “needs” B and yet B doesn’t compose A: logic would have us think that we only “need” what composes us, but perhaps this means that what “composes us” is not only what physically “makes us up.” But this is a line of though we will wait to pursue until “The Noumenon Frame” by O.G. Rose.
In Democritus, atoms and void are two different entities that require one another but aren’t composed of one another — the void isn’t made of atoms and atoms aren’t made of void — and thus explaining void doesn’t explain atoms or vice-versa. In this schema, a “Theory of Everything,” which is presently sought after in physics (take M-Theory, for example), would be impossible: “A Theory of Two” would be the best for which we could hope. Perhaps we could generate a “Theory of Every-Thing” that explained the world of atoms, but we would also need a “Theory of Void” that explained the conditionality that made it possible for atoms to move, join together, etc. And never could the two meet: if the “Theory of Every-Thing” was used to explain (or “cover over”) the void, the theory would negate the potentiality space which made atoms and their movement possible. An “overreaching” “Theory of-Every-Thing” would negate itself.
Again, as a reminder, please note that I’m not saying “A Theory of Two” is necessarily true, but I am saying that it’s a possibility and reason we should take Democritus seriously, a possibility we today seem biased against. Perhaps both “atom” and “void” somehow came from an identical source, but once that source generated them, it was like there was an “Event” (as I understand Alain Badiou to use the term) which split atoms and void apart in such a way that they are now totally distinct and independent (and now it’s like “the Event” never occurred or that the two never had anything to do with one another, a kind of “flip moment”). On the other hand, perhaps the void and atoms have always existed and always existed paradoxically — perhaps they are, in a sense, “one” in that they have always been together, like a married couple who came into existence married “always already” — I have no idea.
To make an example with inspiration from “The Difference Between Neuroscience and Psychoanalysis: Irreducibility of Absence to Brain States” by Cadell Last, perhaps “the brain” (atoms) and “the mind” (void) come from the same source, or perhaps “the mind” somehow comes from the brain, etc., but once “the mind” is generated, that generation is perhaps an Event that totally breaks from the conditions that made that Event possible, making it seem “as if” the conditions were never necessary and that the Event and its products were “always already.” Yes, in this schema, the brain and the mind exist thanks to the same process (and in that sense are “one”), but once the process generated an Event, it’s “as if” the two were never one, and frankly even if they were once “one,” it ceases to be practically significant (because we can never go back in time before the Event, as the believer can never go back to “before” God created). “As of now,” we must treat void and atom, mind and brain, “as if” they were always two, because that is “practically” the case.¹³
Even if atom and void were perhaps once actually “one” (before the Event), it is now practically “as if” they were “always” two. To treat the two as one then would be a terrible mistake. The possible “oneness” of “the two” falls in the realm of “explanation,” but that explanation will not prove adequate to help us “address” the two. Merely explaining the two by saying “they were one (before the Event)” will be to fail to address them. Also, if there really are “Two Theories,” then explaining and/or addressing one will not explain and/or address the other: if I explain to you that your mind is a result of “brain states,” that might explain why your mind is doing this versus that, but it will not “address” what your mind is undergoing.¹⁴ If I explain to you that you are here because of the Big Bang, that will not address the fact that you are here.
To suggest that “explaining” is “addressing” would be to suggest that we can solve the problems of the mind by solving the puzzle of the brain, and though solving that puzzle might certainly help, if the mind and brain are somehow distinct, solving one puzzle will not solve the other. Perhaps we want to believe “brain” and “mind” are ultimately similes, because then we will only have one puzzle to solve. If they are distinct, there are two puzzles, and one of the puzzles (the “puzzle of the mind”) is one we hardly even know where to begin solving, it being so distinct and unique compared to the world we know. Yes, it may seem like thinking we must understand the Big Bang to understand “where we come from” is the most complex and difficult undertaking imaginable, but at least regarding the Big Bang we have a sense of what we should do. But understanding ourselves? That’s a whole other ballgame: far better to believe discovering the origins of the universe will be to discover ourselves.
If the idea of “A Theory of Two” sounds crazy, please note that such an idea is basically what most of humanity has believed for most of history, because most of humanity has been religious. I understand religions are all unique and different, but the moment we believe in a God, we probably believe in a “Unique Substance” that is “totally other” from materiality, something “spiritual.” If a person believes in “spirt” and “matter,” then the person believes there are two realms that cannot be fully understood by just studying one or the other. Yes, there could be resemblances between “spirit” and “matter,” and matter could exist “in” spirit just like atoms in void, but the two will remain ontologically distinct. Considering this, it is probably not by chance that our hunger and efforts for “A Theory of Everything” have strongly correlated with “the death of God” and waning of religion. After all, if God Exists, “A Theory of Everything” would not be possible, only a “Relative Theory of Everything” (a theory of “everything” relative to us).
My hope here is only to speculate on ontological possibilities that I feel today we don’t even consider. And this is problematic because it contributes to how we “other nothingness” and think of it as something we need to “escape” and push “outside” as opposed to “integrate ourselves with” (dynamically). If it is true that “integration with lack” is necessary for obtaining cheerfulness like Kafka and Democritus, this is practically significant and consequential.
A world that believes it is the center of the universe thinks about itself differently than a world that believes the sun is the center of the galaxy, a galaxy which is just one of many. We all make ourselves in the image and likeness of what we believe is true, and in this way, science is always in the business of identity.¹⁵ If we believe in God, then we live like children of God; if we believe freedom is the utmost value, then we will live in a way that respects the autonomy of our neighbors (though we might overlook their impoverishment). If we believe that the universe escaped the void thanks to the Big Bang, then we will likely believe that we should escape the void ourselves in order to “be.” If we believe that nothingness is outside the universe, then we will likely believe we should work to keep “lack” outside of our lives. On the other hand, inspired by Democritus, if we believed the universe moved and found its being in the void, then we make seek to “enter into” lacks and voids so that we could better find, move, and create ourselves.
“What’s wrong with lack?” — Alex Ebert’s wonderful question frames the dilemma well. Unfortunately, if we think “lack” is unnecessary, we will think there’s no reason to suffer, wrestle with anxiety, and the like. Perhaps if we had all the money, power, love, etc. in the world, then we’d have no “void” in which we could “move.” Alex Ebert also made the point that what’s infinite is precisely what “needs nothing,” suggesting that we cannot be “complete” and “fulfilled” unless we possess a relationship with “nothing.” Efforts then to erase nothingness from our lives are self-destructive, for such efforts paradoxically make impossible a state “like infinity.” By how we seek money, power, fame, love, etc., we seem to seek a state “without void,” which could be a state in which we could not “move.” In other words, we seek what ends all seeking, believing fulfillment is found in motionlessness, when statues are never cheerful.
Democritus suggested that “the void” is necessary for movement and, in so doing, thus gave us reason to think it was rational to assure “void” always had a role in our lives. Disregarding “lack” is then insane, for that would be “a death drive.” “Truth organizes values,” to allude to The Conflict of Mind, and in a world where Democritus is forsaken, we do not have a possible truth “at hand” according to which our rationality could be organized in a manner that values “the void.” Missing this, we can’t know what we’re missing.
¹It should be noted that despite popular thinking, there have been many serious conceptions of reality in which “total nothing” plays no role at all (the thinking of Democritus is not as “out there” as it might seem). Even in Christian theology where God “makes the universe out of nothing,” this “nothing” is only a “relative nothing (to us),” for God always exists, and thus there isn’t “total nothing.” Similarly, Lawrence Krauss discusses how the “nothing” before the Big Bang was actually more like a “void,” and generally the reason the Big Bang happened was because “nothing is unstable” (according to Frank Wilczek, though I understand the point is controversial).
²Please note that if there is a bias to assume “paradoxes don’t exist,” then if we encounter an “actual paradox,” we will automatically dismiss it as not there, meaning we will dismiss reality for the sake of finding reality.
³There seems to be a similarity between how words “float through space and hook-up” and how atoms in Democritus “float through the void and hook-up.”
⁴Detectives in murder mysteries often “follow the evidence” to figure out what happened; similarly, we can “follow the language” to figure out why we treat certain ideas the way we do. Charlie Munger once noted that if you showed him the incentives, he could show us the outcome, and I think something similar applies to words, because words gradually garner connotations, and connotations entail incentives. If “nothing” connotes “valueless,” then there is an incentive to treat “what is nothing” like it is “valueless.” This is because there is an incentive to “be right,” and if “nothing” connotes “valueless,” we want to “be right” regarding how we relate to something, and we have “reason to think” due to the language that the “right relationship” is one of “disregard.” Thus, because there is incentive to be “rightly ordered” to the world, there is incentive to treat what we experience “as nothing” as that which is “valueless.” (We don’t want to be fooled, after all.)
“Show me the words, and I’ll show you the thought.”
⁵Another reason we may have a bias again “non-materiality” is because it’s less controllable, and, worse yet, Democritus would have us think that we are “in” this thing we cannot control. That can make us feel like the void “controls us,” which of course doesn’t follow, but the feeling is enough to motivate our bias against nothingness.
⁶Since nothing is what we “we’re created from,” discussions of “integrating lack” can feel like threats to our freedom and liberation. And yet “accepting lack” could free us from the effort to escape it.
⁷And in this way we see how consequential one’s “truth” is in the formation of their rationality.
⁸If “total nothing” is possible anywhere in Democritus, perhaps it is what we could call a world of atoms without void, a world where atoms could never “hook together.”
⁹Here’s a thought experiment: try to imagine a cat behind a tree. You see the tree? How do you know there’s a cat behind it? Now you see the cat, right? Well, that’s not a cat behind a tree. Try again. I’m sure on a third try you can envision a tree and tell yourself, “There’s a cat behind that tree,” but notice how unnatural and difficult it is (we “naturally” end up with “just” a tree or “just” a cat). This might suggest a way in which our minds “naturally” tend to privilege “being,” what “presents itself,” as opposed to the “background” which makes that presentation possible.
¹⁰With David Foster Wallace in mind, as we feel stuck in our first-person perspective, perhaps our brains feel stuck in our minds, as atoms feel stuck in their void. And that makes me wonder: what if the brain lives inside the mind more than the mind lives inside the brain? What if we’re always getting it backwards? I mean, phenomenologically, doesn’t it feel like you approach your brain through your mind?
¹¹Perhaps we could metaphorically think of “speculative thought” as “the void” and “science” as atoms?
¹²Perhaps “the mind” and “the universe” both emerged out of the same ontological substance, the same “void?” And as the void makes the universe move, so the mind moves us (to move is to express the possibilities of void).
¹³Please note that “A Theory of Two” might help us grasp why a distinction between “explain” and “address” is so desperately needed, but that is a topic taken up elsewhere in O.G. Rose. Generally, perhaps perception is the way to explore “The Theory of Void” while thinking is the way to explore “The Theory of Every-Thing.”
¹⁴For more on this topic, please see “Reflections On “The Difference Between Neuroscience and Psychoanalysis” by Cadell Last.”
¹⁵“Total nothing” is only epistemological, not ontological, but “being” and “lack” are both epistemological and ontological. However, the fact we are capable of considering a “total nothingness” that is only epistemological “says something” about us ontologically. No, “total nothingness” isn’t ontological, but it entails ontological implications for those who can consider it. For more on this case, please see “Hegel and the Ontological Implications of “Pure Thought” About What’s Not There” by O.G. Rose.
Stay tuned for more discussions on the Philosophy of Lack! For more by Cadell Last, please visit here. Voicecraft by Tim Adalin is outstanding, as is the work of Alex Ebert. Please visit O.G. Rose.com and subscribe to our YouTube channel and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.