Nautilus

The Bridge From Nowhere

The question of being is the darkest in all philosophy.” So concluded William James in thinking about that most basic of riddles: how did something come from nothing? The question infuriates, James realized, because it demands an explanation while denying the very possibility of explanation. “From nothing to being there is no logical bridge,” he wrote.

In science, explanations are built of cause and effect. But if nothing is truly nothing, it lacks the power to cause. It’s not simply that we can’t find the right explanation—it’s that explanation itself fails in the face of nothing.

This failure hits us where it hurts. We are a narrative species. Our most basic understanding comes through stories, and how something came from nothing is the ultimate story, the primordial narrative, more fundamental than the hero’s journey or boy meets girl. Yet it is a story that undermines the notion of story. It is a narrative woven of self-destruction and paradox.

How could it not be? It stars Nothing—a word that is a paradox by its mere existence as a word. It’s a noun, a thing, and yet it is no thing. The minute we imagine it or speak its name, we spoil its emptiness with the stain of meaning. One has to wonder, then, is the problem with nothingness or is the problem with us? Is it cosmic or linguistic? Existential or psychological? Is this a paradox of physics or a paradox of thought?

Either way, here’s the thing to remember: The solution to a paradox lies in the question, never in the answer. Somewhere there must be a glitch, a flawed assumption, a mistaken identity. In so succinct a question as “how did something come from nothing?” there aren’t many places to hide. Perhaps that is why we return

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