Saturday, April 08, 2006

Nada nos es ajeno!

That everything implies Nothing, has puzzled human animals for thousands of years; and will keep puzzling them for years to come. That everything is red does not force us to reject that nothing is red; at the most it entails that it is false that there is something that is not red. And this is not a problem about colors. Or to put it more into a proper form, to accept that everything is X does not preclude us from accepting that nothing is X. Furthermore, we may sometimes find it compelling to derive that nothing is x from accepting that everything is x. Plato famously (and correctly, I think) argued that if everything is true then nothing is true. The problem, for Plato at least, was not the inference but the predicament. He did not want everything to be false, and so he paid by squeezing things out of reality.

Another way to put this same point consists in pointing out that the claim that nothing is x does not contradict the claim that everything is X. Strictly speaking, if you claim that everything is green and I that nothing is green it can be said (in some pragmatic sense of disagreeing) that we disagree, but it cannot be said that we contradict each other. For the negation of the universal claim is not another universal claim, but a particular one with an inside negation. Thus, to contradict that everything is x I must claim that there is at least one thing that is not X; but this is clearly different from claiming that nothing is X. This may be reason for despair. How can it be both that everything is X and nothing is X. One way to make sense of this consists in reifying everything and nothing, by taking the quantifiers to be referential terms. Thus, having something like Being and Nothingness in your ontology, and ascribing the same property X to both of them. Hence, Being might be X and so may Nothingness too. Why not? After all they (i.e. Being and Nothingness of course) are different objects. Another way of making sense of this merely consists in noting that the phrases are about different domains and, thus, can’t be taken to contradict each other. Everything has as its domain, say, the Universal set, while nothing has the empty set. The disagreement would be, as it appears to make sense to say, about the distribution of property X. But then the problem is passed on to the way in which the concept of X works, and not about everything and nothing.

A third way to put this, the way I currently prefer, is given by the following example. In her last opera, Marcela Rodríguez represents Seneca (the famous roman Orator and Stoic Philosopher) as claiming that everything is foreign to us, that we own only time and nothing else. As the argument (created by Carlos Thiebaut) goes, everything we experience is constantly gone. As our experience seems to show, no single thread of life is able to last more than an instant. EPHIMERAL is properly predicated of everything. Nothing that we take to posses is something that we have, for even that will somehow be taken from us. Even our experiences, even our imperfect memory, everything, everything is foreign to us. So, as sad as many correct philosophical conclusions tend to be, everything is foreign, external, independent, outside.

There is something to these externalist claims when they are made to the extremis. They all wind up crawling back to where they started. Consider the following. Something is foreign to you if and only if it is local or proper to an organism distinct from yours. Thus, something is or will be foreign if an only if something is proper. If, however, as Seneca claims, absolutely everything is foreign and so it is false that there is something that is proper then, by definition, we are lead to claim that nothing is foreign. Not only by definition, perhaps also by some emotions and needs to recognize ourselves in what we do and what we feel. For all I know, Seneca might have also claimed that, because everything is foreign to us, it is also the case that everything is proper to us, everything local. For every single object of experience is a fleeting one. Every single shade, book, text, drink, food, sight, place, and smile is (as Seneca puts it) forever gone. In that very sense it is that I claim that everything, every object of experience is such that it is proper or local or internal or non-foreign to us. For it makes no sense to think of an object that is now being suffered (or sensed if you may) by an organism that we take to be distinct from us, as the same object that we used to suffer by ourselves.

And such is the big consolation hidden between the words of this fantastic stoicism. That everything takes us to accept some claims about nothing; and so, that we win reality by losing it all. Be merry, then, for nothing more than your experience will ever be within your reach and that is something you already have.