Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Being and Nothingness

There has got to be room for stuff.

I have been told that I own too much stuff; although the word used for stuff rhymed with “IT”. The “too much” judgment perhaps came from the mistaken idea that the IT took up too much room, but that cannot be the case since there is nothing that can take up more room than it does. In other words there is at least a one-to-one mapping of IT to the nothing it sits in.

“On voit que, pour arriver à la solution de ces deux questions, il fallait d'abord bien connaître l'analyse et la nature du corps susceptible de fermenter, et les produits de la fermentation ; car rien ne se crée, ni dans les opérations de l'art, ni dans celles de la nature, et l'on peut poser en principe que, dans toute opération, il y a une égale quantité de matière avant et après l'opération ; que la qualité et la quantité des principes est la même, et qu'il n'y a que des changements, des modifications.” -- Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier

Matter, or stuff, can be converted to other assemblies of matter, but it stays matter. The famous E=MC^2 of the general theory of relativity states that it is possible to convert matter to energy (and back again), but that refinement to Lavoiser’s law of conservation of matter did not become clear till Antoine’s head and body had been separated for a over a century. Antoine birthed the discipline of chemistry by conjecturing that every single type of stuff is created by rearranging elemental building blocks.

Antoine shot down the idea that there was an elemental phlogiston that is destroyed when things burn. Instead the transformations seen in fire are the result of interacting measurable and postulated attributes assigned to the components of existence differentiated by having attributes from the nothing they exist in. In this model existence and nothingness themselves are attributes of being.

This idea, that the nothing needed for the context of existence is an attribute of being, is a basic concept of our understanding of any thing, and by extension hints at an underlying one-ness behind every thing. This, of course, has not gone unnoticed.

"Oh Sariputra, form does not differ from the void, and the void does not differ from form. Form is void and void is form” -- Hsuen Tsang

However, the idea that the space for stuff cannot be separated from the stuff itself predated the discovery that most of the stuff we know is void. At first gasses were separated into concentrated and dilute quantities, and pressure on the containers of diluted gas was found to be proportional to the concentration of the gas outside the diluted gas container. The attribute of the gas that was concentrated was described as being comprised of particulate molecules. The material the molecules moved through, and that which the gas was diluted by when molecules were concentrated out, was vacuum.

Is it proper to call vacuum a material? Is it possible to concentrate void? Can we have areas of space where there is more void than form?

The substance we have arguably the most intimate experience with –air- is mostly void. That is one reason why it is so much easier to put stuff into a room that has mostly air in it rather than one containing boxes of more solid material. Solids contain less void. So far from being synonymous, or void being an attribute of matter, it appears as if matter is an attribute of void.

When humans stepped into space (I like the solid metaphor of the astronaut, but it is more historically correct here to think of some abstract “stepping into space”) they encountered a seemingly infinite void that swallowed entire galaxies, and diluted what we know of as matter into unimaginable levels of vacuum. And space was very cold.

I have looked out into the fragile distance of oceans. Waves near and far continually obstruct an even farther horizon. It is as infinite an expanse as I am capable of imagining without coffee, and when I stand on its shore I can see its terminus at my feet.

Ex nihilo nihil fit

When humans began dissecting the atom they found the scale of the void around them increased. Form retreated into the void, and only after incredible increases in the resolution of our observations were we able to see it. There is was hiding in 0.00000001% of what we thought was there. The void was 100% of the universe. It was 100.0% of the universe. It was 100.00% of the universe. It was only after we could determine that 99.99999999% of every atom was void that we could see where the stuff was that for millennia was all we could see.

It is as if we were all we knew existed till we realized we were hardly there at all.

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