Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Ex nihilo nihil fit: Heidegger's Vacuuity and False Vacuum Decay

By Prof Rowan

There's no denying that Heidegger was a member of the National Socialist party. The controversy over Heidegger's association with the Nazis is now well-known and all too often used as an excuse, a shortcut, to dismiss his philosophy out of hand with the phrase “well, you know, he was a Nazi!” A recently published book (Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (2005), by Emmanuel Faye) has even made the utterly moronic argument that his philosophical work is so thoroughly contaminated by party ideology that his books ought not to be taught as philosophies but rather as “hate speech.” Look, I loathe Heidegger even more than I do Sartre, and I reject his philosophy as emphatically as anyone, but for various reasons and according to arguments more valid than merely calling him a Nazi. [1] The very existence of Godwin's law testifies to the fact that to do so amounts to little more than ad hominem and one that is widely taken to indicate the absence of a better argument, and in the case of Heidegger's “philosophy” there is no shortage of them.

The final section of the newly published English translation of Hans Blumenberg's Care Crosses The River (1987, English Translation 2010), “Dasein's Care,” contains several suggestive and compelling criticisms, including the following:
Perhaps no one has ever shuddered, as if before a yawning abyss, on being asked or asking themselves whether the world in which we live, experience, and gain knowledge really exists... In opposition to many opinions that want to view this question as the core of modern philosophy, it must be insisted that none of the imaginable answers had any consequences. In each case, everything remained the same. Indifference in the face of what looks to be such a hard problematic already sees that nothing will come of it, because nothing can come of it. (Blumenberg 141-2) [2]
Hans Blumenberg is Awesome
This refers, of course, primarily to Heidegger's lectures of the early to mid 1930s, “What is Metaphysics?” and even more to An Introduction to Metaphysics. In these lectures, Heidegger makes precisely the claim that the question “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” (Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics 1) is precisely the core of modern philosophy, concern for which differentiates it from science, for “the nothing is rejected precisely by science, given up as a nullity... The nothing – what else can it be fore science but an outrage and a phantasm? If science is right, then only one thing is sure: science wants to know nothing of the nothing.” (Heidegger, Pathmarks 84)

Look, I'm as critical of scientific reductionism and its dogmatic adherents as the next (see Dawkins, Richard), and I do maintain that there are questions to which science does not and in principle cannot answer, but Heidegger's assertion is refuted outright by the existence of texts such as The Structured Vacuum - Thinking About Nothing (Rafelski & Müller 1985). Furthermore, research in quantum field theory since Heidegger's death in 1976 has revealed the real question concerning “the nothing” with the concepts of false vacuum and the possibility that “the nothing” is in fact not the true void but merely a metastable state which could at any moment decay into a lower energy state and thereby destroy the universe as we know it by changing the values of the fundamental physical constants which make it, and life within it, possible: the vacuum metastability event.

Riddle me this, Uncle Marty: “Is the nothing really nothing?”

Or not.

The question is still without any consequences. No one's ever given themselves panic attacks over whether nothing is actually nothing either. What's the point? If we exist in a false vacuum and it does in fact decay, there would literally be no consequences as all existence as we know it, whether we interpret it in terms of being or becoming, would cease completely and well-nigh instantaneously. There's be no one to notice. There is even an argument in the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics analogous to that of quantum suicide/immortality (you can only experience world-lines in which you exist, therefore suicide will always fail no matter how improbably) that is in fact stronger than its analogue. The quantum suicide argument has solipsism as its Achilles heel. ALL observers in the universe would be annihilated in a vacuum metastability event, avoiding this weakness of the original argument.

More emphatically, then, has anyone worried themselves sick over whether nothing is really nothing? Do feelings of joy or moments of boredom occasion quantum physicists to obsess over the possibility of false vacuum decay? It's not impossible, though I'd hate to imagine such a miserable existence! In the face of question that makes no difference whatsoever or would rule out any possibility of any difference being known, all I can say is “so fucking what?” It would make no difference.

Even though false vacuum decay is devoid of consequences it's at least interesting and has been formulated with clarity and rigor: two qualities of which Heidegger knew and wanted to know nothing.

Postscript: Heidegger's criticism of science are inextricably bound up with one of the a fundamental myths of Nazi and various fascist and conservative ideologies, cultural decadence. Decadence – the idea of living during a period of decline – is of course an apocalyptic mythologem opposed to equally the mythic inevitable progress of reason and technology. Likewise the vacuum metastability event is but an avatar of the immanence of apocalyptic myth even in the natural sciences.

Update 7/22/2011: Not long after posting this, I chanced upon an outstanding essay by Jacob Taubes (who, toward the end of his life called Blumenberg "the only philosopher alive today I find interesting") , "From the Adverb 'Nothing' to the Substantive 'Nothing': Deliberations on Heidegger's Question Concerning Nothing (1975)," published last year in English translation in the volume From Cult to Culture, in which he highlights Heidegger's theological and mystical influences, which would lead him to affirm creatio ex nihilo over ex nihilo nihil fit - i.e. from the dogmas of the Judeo-Christian tradition that posit God creating the universe out of nothing; and with Gershom Scholem, notes a mystical strain that inflects Heidegger's hypostasization of the "nothing." If it were the case that God created ex nihilo, the nihil would be external neither to God nor to creation, the "nothing" awaiting anxiety's revelation.

[1] I've previously written on the matter of Heidegger's Nazi engagement in “The Dialectic of Authenticity” (2005). There I argued that Heidegger pulled a philosophical “fast one” and illegitimately claimed that collective being (mit-sein/mit-dasein, being-with) was structurally analogous to individual Dasein, as Das Volk (the people) and thus found himself close to party philosophy. His evasion of the question of his involvement and the stipulation that his 1966 interview in Der Spiegel was to be published posthumously testify not to discomfort with the atrocities committed or a genuine “turn,” as it were, away from his earlier commitments. I note a passage from An Introduction to Metaphysics that must make every Heideggerian wince as I did in college, before I saw through his intentional obscurity and terminological pleonasms:

“what is peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism, but which has not the least to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement [namely, the encounter between global technology and modern humanity], is fishing in these troubled waters of "values" and "totalities." (Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics 213)

“In his prefatory note to Introduction to Metaphysics [1953], Heidegger claims that [the text in parentheses] was added during later reworking of the text; [however] in his 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, [he said it] "was present in my manuscript from the beginning" but that he did not read it aloud for fear of party informers.” Fried & Polt, Trans. Introduction, An Introduction to Metaphysics xvi-xvii)

In Soviet Russia, Party kill YOU, Uncle Marty!

[2] Blumenberg is alluding to the Scholastic argument for God's eternity, ex nihilo nihil fit, i.e. that because nothing begets nothing, God must be eternal, being the creator of the universe (before it) and not being able to have arisen out of nothing.

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  1. I would agree with you that we cannot dismiss with Heidegger's philosophy via ad hominem attacks. However, I do not think that appeal to quantum weirdness will advance us very far.

    Any metaphysical argument which depends upon terms shared with QM is prone to the fallacy of equivocation. Here, it is "nothing" that is problematically invoked as a scientific challenge to Heidegger's metaphysical views. But surely Heidegger and Hawking (for example) stipulate the term "nothing" in different ways. In fact, they do so in seemingly contrary ways. Heidegger would not think that a vacuum with fluctuating low-energy is truly nothing, i.e. the complete absence of being.

    If anything he would probably note that science has gone from outrageously giving up on the nullity to fallaciously pretending that something is nothing. The scientist now presumes to know something of nothing when he or she in fact knows something about something.

    The scientist and metaphysician are talking past one another. And compared to those scientists who refer to quantum vacuums as nothing, it is the metaphysician who is on more solid ground (ironically enough). That is, it is not the metaphysician but the scientist who is stretching and stipulating the term much further beyond the way "nothing" is used in everyday language. I would say that there is no good reason to stioulate "nothing" in this way. We have other words in our language better suited for discussing vacuums. "Nothing" confuses the issue.

    Though the two parties are talking past one another, it is not clear to me that either one is merely espousing some avatar of apocalyptic mythology. We must consider whether they are truthfully using those terms within the contexts of their specific field. It is possible that they are both correct, once the quibbling is resolved.



  2. Thanks, Rufus. It's rather pleasant to see this spark a conversation. In fact, I'm glad you take issue with some of my points - I'd take that over agreement any day. It should be said that I've been intentionally polemical - and that this is more a thought-piece than anything else.

    I write as an academic philosopher, albeit in a Comp Lit department at present, who has had the good fortune to do work in physics and QM on the side. In response to the charge of equivocation, I would argue that the physical and metaphysical definitions of 'nothing' intersect - if we mean 'the complete absence of being(s)' (as being cannot, for Heidegger, exist without beings, even if it cannot be conceptualized on their model), the correlate in physics would be absolute vacuum (which does not exist in practice; interstellar and intergalactic dust and CBR, etc). No matter, no energy, nothing.

    Anyway, it's late, otherwise I'd not break off mid-thought. I'd be happy to continue - as my intent was to provoke - discussion, not Heidegger's many fans. I swear. ;)

  3. Let me chime in on the metaphysical point, because it is the only one I'm really qualified to speak about. (Yes, I've read plenty about "quantum physics," big finger quotes, but I'm really skeptical of applying the behavior of subatomic particles to thought experiments related to macroscopic matter- us, for instance.)

    To that, as Rowan said, non-being is essentially a conceptual phantom. I'm going to quote from a rather long footnote in IoM:

    "Since this metaphysical method is the specific device used to investigate as well as “prove” a proposed system of thought, (whatever it may be), it is really the method itself that is brought to question when we investigate the validity of an argument, rather than the philosophy itself. Or perhaps, more succinctly said, the heart of philosophy, insofar as philosophy is not art, is this method of “like” and “not like” — which is the analogy structure of Aristotelian logic, and the basis of linguistic representation as well. I would suggest that all forms of individual and cultural cognition are expressible through this application of the structure of logic-language, however it is a tool unsuited to existential and even ontological or metaphysical questions, thus leading us to propose concepts that do not bear out in life. For example, the most obvious expression of this binary is “being” and “non-being.” A great deal of conjecture has been spun around these seemingly opposite ideas; yet what exactly is “non-being”? What is its relationship to “being”? Surely it is not the relationship that 0 has to 1, as 0 still exists in the same sense that 1 does, it merely lacks any quantity. This linguistic concept of “non-being,” formed from the idea of the negation of that which is (“being”), cannot, by definition, be. If you took and negated all things that were, are, and ever will be, one might say “then, you are left with non-being." Yet that doesn't mean anything at all. From the perspective of being, non-being is a conceptual phantom, created by the structure of language, and thus, the structure of logic. (Non-being would have to be some form or modality of being for it to be in any way represented or spoken about.) At a fundamental level no two things can ever be said to be true opposites except for in mathematics. Male and female, for example, are not rooted in opposition, they are not opposite categories, they are merely two different alternatives provided as pre-requisites for species that procreate through sexual means. Love and hate have a bi-polarity but indifference is more literally the opposite of either. Language creates the simplistic forms of opposition which logic depends upon. Thus the crucial point, which underlies much of Nietzsche's later writings: this exalted method of extracting truth does not, as many philosophers would like to think, strip away the illusions until only truth remains. Rather, it is a form of representational illusion, a form of myth-making, itself."

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Dear Prof. Rowan,

    Apologies, this is my third attempt at posting a response and for some reason the Blogger keeps eating it! :-(

    Anyways, I wanted to respond to your point made here:

    In response to the charge of equivocation, I would argue that the physical and metaphysical definitions of 'nothing' intersect - if we mean 'the complete absence of being(s)' (as being cannot, for Heidegger, exist without beings, even if it cannot be conceptualized on their model), the correlate in physics would be absolute vacuum (which does not exist in practice; interstellar and intergalactic dust and CBR, etc). No matter, no energy, nothing.

    It seems that you are saying that the correlate to metaphysical nothingness is an absolute vacuum, which does not exist in practice. But, your essay deals with false vacuums, a metastable sector of space that tunnels to low energy states. My point is that a false vacuum is not identical to Das Nicht as Heidegger would call it. Your response is to bring in the absolute vacuum. Are you saying that the absolute vacuum is the same as a false vacuum? If not, why bring it in this third term to the discussion?

    Even still, I am not convinced that absolute vacuums are identical to Heideggerian Das Nicht. You wrote that absolute vacuums do not exist in practice. I take this to be significant--that the physical world is constituted such that absolute vacuums cannot obtain. Right? However, Das Nicht does not exist IN PRINCIPLE! Unlike absolute vacuums, which we know cannot exist a posteriori due to facts of our universe, Das Nicht cannot exist a priori by definition. This difference is sufficient to establish non-identity. Thus, if one were to argue that the have a univocal meaning, one would be committing the fallacy of equivocation.

    Now suppose you say that absolute vacuums do not exist in principle. Perhaps then you are getting closer to metaphysical nothingness, but then you have taken a step away from that which the physicist studies. If the physicist says that an absolute vacuum a priori does not exist, then she does not say this from empirical knowledge, and so not as a physicist.

    The problem ultimately is this: if you mean to stretch identity from false vacuums to absolute vacuums and also intend to say that absolute vacuums cannot exist in principle, then you must say that false vacuums cannot exist in principle. This is problematic given several claims of your original essay. But this is the only way I could see you avoiding the charge of equivocation.

    I don't mean to be giving you are hard time here. I hope that you find my challenges helpful as you move forward with your work here. For what it is worth, I enjoy these sorts of exchanges.

    Also, I should admit that I am no expert in QM. I think it is admirable that you have expertise in both QM and philosophy, a cross-disciplinary knowledge which is rare among academics.

    Best of luck,



  6. Your issue is that, for some reason blogger keeps putting your comments in the spam folder. I'm not sure why.

  7. If you could delete the first one at 11:11, I'd appreciate it. I think I was more clear in the latter attempt.

  8. Rufus,

    I will get back to you shortly. The past few days have been rather hectic. Shoot me an email (dialdfordialectic (at) gmail) and I'll get to it faster as with any follow-up - and in more depth.



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