The Answer to the Ultimate Question

Perhaps I’m just being supremely arrogant (I wouldn’t deny this at all), but I believe that I actually know the answer to the Primordial Existential Question1: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

The canonical response is to reject the premise of the question—namely, the assumption that a state of pure nothingness is somehow more natural than any other state. Philosophers now tend to agree that there is no good reason to hold this assumption, and the question therefore does not require an answer at all beyond the cheeky one given by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Well, why not?”2

While I don’t disagree with the above reasoning, I have a different response that I think is more meaningful. Specifically, I believe that the question contains yet another false premise: that “something” and “nothing” are mutually exclusive states. The question assumes that since we observe the existence of something (our selves, at the very least), it therefore cannot also be true that there is nothing. Although this assumption makes intuitive sense, I now believe it is wrong.

My initial epiphany was born out of my frustration with trying to make my voice heard over the din of the clamoring masses. While surveying the cacophony on the media, on Twitter, in the blogosphere, and now in the realm of podcasting, I realized that we are fast approaching a state in which everything is being said. And once the multitude of voices drown each other out in utter static, we reach a state that is equivalent to one in which nothing at all is being said. This idea is, I admit, little more than a faint analogy, a mere inkling—but it is one that I believe is worth pursuing further.

Imagine a blank projector screen. (It doesn’t matter whether your concept of blankness is pure white, pure black, or even pure gray.) Now let an image—any image—be projected onto the screen. Then let a second image be superimposed on top of it, and then a third, and a fourth, and so on. Consider the limit in which all possible images are projected onto the screen (with the intensities being averaged as each new one is added, if you like). Such an operation can actually be carried out with calculus, using discrete sums for digital images or continuous sums for analog ones. Either way, the result will be the same: convergence to an utterly blank screen.

The key point in the above exercise is that the very act of projecting everything onto the screen gives rise to nothing. Crucially, this phenomenon is not limited just to the superposition of images on a screen; it can be generalized to any information-bearing medium to show that the sum of everything, in terms of information content, is nothing. Perhaps also relevant here is the result from information theory stating that the signals that contain the most information are those which, paradoxically, are composed of completely random static—i.e., nothing.

Consider also the famous quote attributed to Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” I like to modify this idea as follows: A block of stone contains within it every possible form—a dolphin, say, or an airplane, or a tree—until the sculptor chooses one and carves away the excess stone from around it. In other words, when you have a big block of marble, which is, in a sense, nothing (since it has not yet been sculpted into any form at all), you have at the very same time everything. And if you were to attempt to carve all possible forms out of the block, every last bit of marble would be scraped away and you would end up with nothing. In other words, creating everything will leave you with nothing.

Perhaps all of these analogies add up to nothing more than a rhetorical trick, and perhaps I am deceiving myself; but right now I think there really is something to it. I suspect that nothing and everything really are opposite sides of the same coin. In a very real sense, everything resides within nothing—while at the same time, nothing resides within everything. Moreover, I suggest that it is not even possible to have one without the other.

And so I think the best answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is this: There is something precisely because there is nothing—for each one is contained within the other. Thus, the reality we inhabit is a bubble of something within the great cosmic soup of nothing and everything. With this in mind, I once again present the following little “poem” I posted previously, which captures my understanding of existence and the meaning we find within it:

Everything from nothing,
And nothing again from everything.
Meaning is in the middle.

And here are some other related tidbits I’ve run across:

“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” —John Cage

  1. So named, I believe, by Adolf Grünbaum.

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A Bed Time Script for All of Us

I’m trying to teach my son to be as forgetful as I am. Most nights, when I put him to bed, I go through something like the following script with him. Note the bit about “letting go” at the end of the second paragraph. (Also note that my son is only three years old, so the language is intentionally simple and repetitive.)

It’s time to go to bed, and it’s time to go to sleep. And we love going to bed, and we love going to sleep because we get to rest, relax, and look forward to tomorrow. And we love looking forward to tomorrow because tomorrow will have new opportunities to learn and grow.

But before we go to sleep, we think about everything that happened during the day. We remember all of the good things that happened, and we hold onto those memories so that we will always have them with us to make us happy. We also think about the bad things and the mistakes that we made so that we can learn from them. And after we learn from them, we let go of them so that they will never bother us again.

[Here I ask my son to tell me his favorite parts of the day—friends he played with, fun things he learned, etc. Then I say, “Hold onto that memory. Whenever you feel sad, think about that, and then you’ll be happy again.” Then I ask him to tell me about something bad that happened or a mistake that he made. “We won’t do that again,” I might say. “And now let’s let go of it so that it will never bother you again.”]

I believe this is a good exercise that we should all practice, no matter how old we are. The busier we get, the harder it is to find time to reflect on our experiences. And if we don’t reflect, we’re probably not storing up all the good memories that we’d like to have in the future. We’re also probably not learning from our mistakes. I hope that one day my son will see this habit as a gift I gave him—something he will always hold onto that will make him happy long after I am gone.

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Memory Loss: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

For two months now, I’ve been trying to remove a shotgun-blast-shaped cranberry juice stain from the wall beside my bed. When I say this, it sounds like I’ve tested various stain-removal remedies—soapy water, bleach, an abrasive sponge, etc.—and that none of them have worked. But in fact, the problem has nothing to do with how difficult the stain is to remove; it’s just that I can’t remember to wipe the damn thing off.

Every night goes something like this: As I get ready for bed, I set the contents of my pockets on my nightstand, and my eyes fall on the stain. I think, Oh, that’s right. I’ll clean that up as soon as I finish changing clothes. But then, by the time I’ve changed—which takes all of thirty seconds—I have completely forgotten about the stain. Or, on one of my sharper nights, I will actually walk into the kitchen intending to get a wet cloth to clean the stain, but then, upon arriving at the sink, promptly forget why I went there.

That this has only been going on for two months is also a bit odd, because it was six months ago that I actually spilled the juice. The difference of four months is how long it took me to notice that there even was a stain on the wall—and when I noticed it, I had to think for a long while before I realized where it had come from. Thus, my powers of observation would seem to be just as bad as my memory. (In my defense, though, at the time of the spill, I was frantically engaged in getting the juice out of the carpet and soaking up the puddle from the nightstand, so it’s understandable that I missed the splatter on the wall.)

Every time I repeat this nightly ritual of forgetfulness, I mentally kick myself, and a worry bubbles up inside of me: Am I losing my mind? Are these the signs of early-onset dementia? But I dismiss the question every time for the same reason, which is that I distinctly recall having this problem all the way back into my childhood. And when I remember that, I’m forced to acknowledge another ugly (but not as frightening) truth: I just have an abysmal memory.

Sometimes I wonder what things I’ve forgotten without ever realizing I forgot them: How many times have I ordered takeout from a restaurant and then gone to the store, bought groceries, and cooked dinner? (Would the restaurant bother to call me and ask why I never came to pick up the food?) And how many times have I set a drink from McDonald’s on top of my car to free up my hands so I could put my son in his child seat, only to drive off and lose the drink somewhere along the way? (There was at least one occasion on which I arrived home and discovered the cup still resting on top of my car.)

Few things are more terrifying to me than losing my memory. Memory is a big part of what gives us our identity, after all. Sure, you could keep living after losing your memory—but without memories, the person you once were would be every bit as gone as if you had died. On the other hand, memory loss can be a blessing. How many jokes have given me a fresh laugh a second, third, or fourth time because I’d forgotten the punchline? And how many of my relationships have been saved by the forgetting of grievances?

I suppose that forgetfulness is not all bad. Even in the case of this cranberry juice stain, it has given me a reason to laugh at myself. But I would like to move on. And so, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see if I can walk over to the kitchen right now, wet a cloth under the faucet, head to my bedroom, and wipe that infernal splatter off the wall once and for all.

[PS: I did it!]

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The Death of Bruce

Bruce ought to like ants, I thought.

I was seven years old, and I was playing God — though I didn’t think of it that way at the time. My aim was to create a glorious paradise for the lone inhabitant of my domain: Bruce.

I had found Bruce in my parents’ garage, and I managed to catch him without pulling his tail off — a feat of which I was quite proud. I should mention here that Bruce was an anole, that common backyard-dwelling lizard that can change from green to brown.

Bruce’s Garden of Eden would be the 2.5-gallon aquarium that had previously housed a school of guppies, all of which had recently died as a result of my attempt to convert them from freshwater to saltwater. In that aquarium, I lovingly sculpted for Bruce a dirt landscape that sloped down to a “pond” at one end of the tank. I added sticks. Leaves. Grass. All that was missing was food.

I was pretty sure that lizards ate insects, so I went looking for some. And right there in our front yard, I hit the jackpot: Against the curb was a beautiful anthill — plenty of food for my little Bruce!

I carried Bruce’s aquarium outside, scooped up a generous chunk of the anthill with a trowel, and dumped it about six inches away from Bruce, who didn’t seem to notice. After watching until I grew bored — probably about ten seconds — I left, intending to come back every once in a while to see whether Bruce had yet found the food I’d so lovingly provided for him.

As it turned out, Bruce didn’t find the ants, exactly; they found him. At least, that’s how I imagine it went. All I know is that when I came back to check on him, he was lying upside down, his body swollen and motionless, covered with a swarm of fire ants.

And so for the second time in as many weeks, I emptied out that little 2.5-gallon aquarium and honored its erstwhile occupant, whose death I had caused, with a shallow backyard grave marked by a cross fashioned from popsicle sticks. (This, I believed, would ensure Bruce’s entry to heaven.)

It was a shame that Bruce had to die, but at least I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t try to feed a lizard five hundred fire ants all in one go. Of course, I never put this lesson into practice, and that does still make me feel a bit guilty. But what can you do?

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll go out and catch another lizard.

Daddy, Are You Dying?

“I can’t see the stars,” I said.

I was talking about the glow-in-the-dark dots on my son’s new space-themed pajamas. He was excited about them, as only a two-year-old could be, and he wanted to show them off to me. But they were invisible to my eyes.

“Why?” he asked.

I thought for a moment. I would probably be able to see them in a few seconds, once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness; but it also occurred to me that my sight just wasn’t as good as it used to be. Eliot’s was better.

“My eyes aren’t as good as yours,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

Once more, I paused.

“Because my eyes are old,” I said at last.

Why are your eyes old?” he asked.

“Because I’m old!” I said.

This time, Eliot was the one who paused. During the silence, I began to make out the stars on his shirt, but I couldn’t see the expression on his face as he looked at me, processing what I’d just told him. When he finally answered, his voice was much quieter and more serious than it had been just moments before.

“You’re dying,” he said.

I stared into the darkness. He was only two. He had seen plants and flowers die, but as far as I knew, he’d had no cause to think about people dying. Had someone told him about the connection between old age and dying, or had he just known? I suddenly had a spooky feeling that perhaps Eliot’s mind was connected to some well of universal truth—a source we all begin life connected to but then lose touch with as we grow out of childhood.

“Daddy, are you dying?” he asked.

“No, buddy,” I said. Not yet.

After we said good night and I closed his bedroom door, I couldn’t get his little voice out of my head. Daddy, are you dying? Just how much did he know?

It wasn’t until the next morning, as I was walking him to the playground, that I would get another hint as to what was going on in his mind.

“Daddy,” he said, “I don’t like you.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you’re old.”

I laughed, even though it actually hurt a little.

“Well,” I said, “when you get old, I will still like you.”

He looked up at me, eyes narrowed.

“No,” he said. “I will still like you.”

A moment later, he was running toward the slide.

Merel and Tony Live at Discovery Green


Merel (standing, far left) and Tony (sitting, far right)

On Saturday, Cathy and I took Eliot to Discovery Green in downtown, Houston, where we saw the musical duo Merel and Tony perform live (with their band “The Woe Woe Woes”). They have a fresh, unique sound, and I highly recommend checking them out:

Merel and Tony’s Facebook Page

A Song by Merel and Tony

I met Tony about a year ago through a mutual friend who kept telling me random facts about him. “Did you know that Tony writes music for This American Life?” he asked me. And on another occasion, “Tony writes books, binds them himself, and sells them at private readings.” It didn’t take long for me to start calling Tony “the most interesting man in the world.” And so it was a treat to finally get to hear him in concert.

The weather was beautiful, and we thoroughly enjoyed relaxing in the park over a cup of lemonade, listening to the music, and watching as the sun set behind the band. After a few songs, Eliot said to us as he looked longingly at the stage, “I want to sing.”

“What do you want to sing?” we asked.

“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” he replied.

While the musicians were taking a break, he approached the stage to ask them if they would let him sing, but he turned shy at the last second and posed for a photograph instead:


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