Editor’s Note: Each blogpost usually consists of a fictional dialogue followed by an essay that discusses recent advances in cognitive neuroscience, physics, and evolutionary biology/psychology in light of age-old metaphysical and epistemological questions. This blogpost, however, is one extended dialogue that takes place within the context of a broader narrative. It is inspired by an actual meeting that took place between René Descartes and Blaise Pascal in September 1647.
“All come from dust, and to dust all return.” – Ecclesiastes 3:20
René Descartes, weary after an infinite journey from Point A to Point B, alights from his horse-drawn carriage and steps out into the boundless arena of space bounded by the courtyard where he finds himself. In the corner a passerby holds out his Smartphone to record a madman who is smoking his pipe and raving, “CECI N’EST PAS UNE PIPE! CECI N’EST PAS UNE PIPE!” As usual – yet unbeknownst to almost everyone – everything was happening at once.
Descartes had come here to Blaise Pascal’s residence to discuss no matter more trivial than nothing, which was to say a matter that was most nontrivial for it was also concerned with the nature of everything. Descartes could imagine himself approaching the doorstep and saying, “I’ve come to talk about nothing,” followed by the inevitable rejoinder from Pascal: “If you are here to discuss nothing, then why come at all?” And, in jest, Descartes would reply, “Oh right, I shall be going home then,” leaving nothing unsaid and nothing said at the same time.
It was in light of Torricelli’s recent invention of the barometer that their discussion of the weight of air was to have more weight than mere air. Using the barometer, Pascal had observed that air pressure would decrease when he climbed to the roof of a cathedral, and he hypothesized that air pressure would eventually decline to zero at a sufficiently high altitude. He also believed that the empty space above the mercury in the barometer was a true vacuum – that is, it contained no matter. But Descartes fervently denied the existence of vacuums on metaphysical grounds. Anything that occupied space in our three-dimensional spatiotemporal reality, he claimed, was some sort of substance. Since we can see it, the ostensibly empty region of the barometer takes up space and, consequently, cannot be a vacuum. According to Descartes, what appears to be nothing is, in fact, something.
Evidently anticipating Descartes’ arrival, a bald man wearing a robe of saffron dye opens the door. Descartes is shocked by his clothing; so boldly did it challenge accepted norms of 17th-century French attire that he thought it may be a costume worn as a bizarre joke. He looked like one of the monks associated with – what was the name of that religion, Buddhism? – that appeared in the illustrations of books written by the likes of Marco Polo. “Won’t you please come in, Monsieur Descartes? How honored I must say I am to have such esteemed company,” he intoned in a voice of astounding, preternatural calm.
“Yes, take my coat, please, and lead me to Monsieur Pascal,” Descartes requests, taking the man to be a servant.
“Oh, that is I, monsieur.”
Descartes is utterly baffled. Unsure how to react, he says, stuttering, “Surely you must be joking, for you … cannot be Monsieur Pascal. I have met Monsieur Pascal once before, and you are … not …. he. Furthermore, your … shall we say, exotic … robes suggest that your origins lie elsewhere than the French roots of Monsieur Pascal.”
“Well, we are all one and the same person regardless,” Pascal(?) replies mysteriously. Descartes knits his eyebrows, no less dubious as to whether or not this apparent monk was the person that he asserted himself to be.
“Come, I have arranged to conduct our meeting in your living room, back in the Netherlands,” Pascal(?) beckons his guest into the interior of his home.
“The Netherlands? But we are in Paris, and I have just undertaken a long journey from the Netherlands so that we could have this long-awaited meeting,” Descartes replies, totally confused.
“Oh, you’ll get there as long as you stay right where you are,” Pascal(?) says.
“I beg your pardon, Monsieur Pascal – that is, if you really are Pascal? The more you speak, the more that I doubt that you are the real Pascal. Now really, I have traveled here at great expense and demand that we end this charade,” Descartes avers, beginning to lose his patience.
“You said that you have just traveled from the Netherlands?” Pascal(?) asks, maintaining the unruffled tranquility in his voice.
“Yes, where I currently live.”
“Then you are still in the Netherlands. You haven’t moved,” Pascal(?) says.
“What on earth do you mean? I have come here to discuss a serious philosophical matter and not to engage in some child’s play that makes contrived nonsense out of the universe’s physics,” Descartes scoffs.
“And indeed, we are to discuss that matter. But first, entertain me for a moment, Monsieur Descartes. Do you believe that your home in the Netherlands exists, even though you cannot see it from your current position in space?”
“I would hope that you give me no reason to think otherwise,” Descartes retorts, contemplating whatever ulterior motives this suspicious man might have.
“Good. And are you equally certain of what you will be doing in your home once you return there, after our meeting?” Pascal(?) queries.
“While I have plans, I of course cannot be certain of whether they will come to fruition. What will happen in the future is unknown to me. Why do you wish to know anyway? What is this – a ruse?”
“Do not fear, Monsieur Descartes. You talk as though I wish to harm you, but I have no malicious intentions. So you are telling me, then, that you cannot know what lies beyond this present moment, yet you can know what lies beyond this point in space?” Pascal(?) asks in order to make assurances.
“Well naturally. Your line of questioning is merely making explicit our intuition that space and time are fundamentally different from each other.”
“Which brings us, Monsieur Descartes, to the matter of this contraption.” With a flourish, Pascal(?) pulls out a barometer from his robe. “Monsieur Torricelli, with his most recent invention, has succeeded in producing a true vacuum. Above the mercury, there is nothing. Now, wasn’t it you who concurred with that adage from the medieval era, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’?”
“Yes. The very notion that nothingness exists is a self-evident paradox.”
“And yet, if there were no void, then there would be no space that objects could move into. Space and matter would be one and the same thing. So when matter moves, the space that it occupies must also move, and consequently there would be no change of space,” Pascal(?) argues.
“It is true. I resolve this problem in my treatise by claiming that all motion is relative,” Descartes replies.
“Then there is no absolute change of position, but only change that is relative to a particular observer? As such, when you think that you are traveling from France to the Netherlands, you aren’t really changing places, yet to an observer at rest you bear the appearance of motion,” Pascal(?) says.
Descartes raises a caveat. “Sure, but it doesn’t follow from that argument that I am not ‘really’ moving, since our reality, as we know it, is defined by the relations among things.”
“Ah, a crucial insight. Mustn’t it be the same with time, then?”
“Well, perhaps I should raise an exception for time. Time marches forward at its uniform rhythm regardless of who is observing it. You may think that time passes more slowly at some points, for instance when you are a child, but only because your subjective experience distorts it,” Descartes asserts.
“Less and less does what you say seem like philosophy and more and more does it seem like common sense,” Pascal(?) says in a seeming compliment. “But don’t we say that one thing happens before or after another much like we say one object is behind or in front of another?”
“Sure, time is relational in that sense. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an absolute frame of reference that determines those relations. I see on my clock that my trip to France took thirty-seven hours, but everyone else’s clock should reflect the same fact.”
“Well, some discoveries that will be made several centuries from now will prove that wrong, but they will not happen until they occur in the present,” Pascal(?) notes. A quizzical look strikes Descartes’ face, but before he has a chance to express his bewilderment, Pascal(?) continues: “Anyway, when did you leave the Netherlands to travel here?”
“Yesterday.” Descartes responds.
“Yesterday is when your mind remembers it to have occurred. Yet when you departed, it happened in the present moment, did it not?”
“When else could it have happened?” Descartes utters sarcastically.
“And when you arrived here in Paris, it must have happened in the present moment as well, just like everything else that you experience.”
“Sure,” Descartes replies tersely.
“Indeed. You may conceive of these events – your arrival and your departure – as happening in either the past, the present, or in the future, but all these modes of time are figments of your mind. What are they but memories and invented memories -recollections and predictions? Even the now, as you conceive of it, can only ever be known in relation to the past and the future. What is the now but that which you can cognize only at a later time? All that exists is the awareness through which you perceive the two events. No change is occurring at the moments when they are happening, when you consider the moments in of themselves and not in relation to other moments. They are like photographs – never mind, those have not been invented yet – rather, they are like completely still frames from a play. It is only by virtue of your conscious experience that you can apprehend the temporal relation between them, that you can view them as flowing from one to the other. Time is relative to, and entirely dependent on, the consciousness that experiences it,” Pascal(?) claims.
“Of course we are conscious of time, but I do not understand why consciousness is necessary for the flow of time to exist. And at any rate, I’m still confused as to how any of this discussion relates to our original topic, nothingness.”
“Ah patience, Monsieur Descartes; we are nearly there. You are like the tortoise that outpaces a hare yet somehow manages to lag behind it. Naturally, you will be reluctant to agree with me on this idea about time, since you are psychologically conditioned to think that time inexorably ticks forward, no matter whether or not you are aware of it. You refuse to believe that the past, the present, and the future are not real because they are inextricably wedded to your sense of personhood. And you cannot conceive of stillness because everywhere around you, there is change. You may think that you are standing still, yet in fact you are moving because you are situated on a planet that is rotating on its axis. You may observe a scene in nature with no ostensible movement, yet you forget that the air around you is vibrating with dynamic energy. When you experience true motionlessness, when you are deeply in touch with the nothingness that is equivalent to the total absence of change, you understand that there is no before, after, or even now because you are aware of the moment as the moment. This is a profoundly sacred and infinitely blissful feeling, for you have unlocked the timelessness of the heavens.”
There is a long pause. Eternity chases its own tail as Descartes draws a breath, then two, while intently gazing at the empty space in the barometer. Man is the father of the child, and child is the father of the man (1). The tree grows out of the seed, and the seed grows out of the tree, he suddenly finds himself thinking.
Man is the father of the child, and child is the father of the man.
The tree grows out of the seed, and the seed grows out of the tree.
Man is the father of the child, and child is the father of the man.
The tree grows out of the seed, and the seed grows out of the tree.
Man is the father of the child, and child is the father of the man.
The tree grows out of the seed, and the seed grows out of the tree…
This pair of thoughts repeats itself in an endless loop in Descartes’ mind, resulting in a feverishly active mental state that becomes too excruciating to bear. He glances away from the barometer and, startled, stares at the face of the man who purported to be Pascal. He observes the bald dome of his head grow hair, his ruddy complexion turn pale and ashen, his eyebrows arch forward into his nose, and within no time at all, he bears perfect resemblance to the real Pascal. But then, rapidly, his face is transformed into an unrecognizable, monstrous mess of misplaced and displaced features. Yet as they rearrange themselves, the expression of a faintly familiar man begins to emerge, until it finally reveals itself to be that of Descartes himself.
“What … time is it??” Descartes shouts with desperate perplexity.
All around him, he begins to observe imprints of his own consciousness. In a way that he could not possibly articulate, the patterns on the walls enfold and unfold to form massive networks of faces that he could dimly recognize, until they all merge together to produce an image that looked exactly like him. The phenomena in his environment swirl and dissolve into an immensely interconnected Web of undifferentiated goo, all bearing the shape and appearance of his own face.
The Web, as Descartes soon discovers, stretches infinitely towards the horizon and projects outward into every corner of the sky. The fabric of reality has been torn asunder yet fully realized at the same time; space and time have interlocked together like an endless braid. Every moment in his life, and all the lives that he would ever lead, is contained within a link in the Web, a point in the broader structure of his own space-time. Descartes kneels down and tries to break through the Web with the raw force of his hands, but each time he leaps through the holes that he makes, he lands back into the same Web, again and again. It is then that he understands that he is, quite literally, trapped by himself.
Though he has fully apprehended that he cannot escape this prison of his own mind, he continues to rip and shred the links within the Web, for the false hope that there may be an exit is enough to afford him the courage to carry on. So, onwards he persists in this Sisyphistic struggle. During this time, he surveys all of history as it was fixed and laid out in an infinite landscape of simultaneous events (2). He sees empires collapse, the sun implode, the universe disappear into itself. His beard grows long and his face turns wrinkled as he watches his entire life unfold on an infinite loop.
One day, near the pearly gates of eternity, his hands are so calloused and his knees so fatigued that he simply cannot dig anymore. His spirit is so weary from eons of suppressed despair that he cannot even muster the will or the strength to cry. His struggle here has lasted forever, and in the sense that nothing has changed from the time that he first came into the Web, all of it has been one prolonged moment.
He lingers on this thought.
He looks down at the particular nexus in the Web where he happens to be sitting, and he sees a portrait of a scene that he has already viewed uncountably many times before: his conversation with the man who purported to be Pascal. Nothing is happening in the moment itself, and in that sense it can be said to last forever; it is beyond the realm of change, in which the notions of past, present, and future take on meaning. How strange. He had always thought of eternity as a period of time in which an infinite number of things happened. But actually, eternity only really manifests itself when nothing is occurring. And if nothing at all is transpiring, what sense does it make to say that there is past, present, and future, or that there are any relations between things at all?
Suddenly, the Web shudders as though there is a violent earthquake. The colossal lattice of connections around him, vibrating intensely, starts to undergo a dramatic transfiguration. The enmeshed entanglement of nets straightens out to produce a neatly horizontal pattern and rises to a towering height. Then, it cascades outwards like a tsunami slowly preparing to crash into the shore, looping back into itself to form a perfectly circular ring with Descartes at its center. With a thunderous smack that echoes through the entirety of space, all the links within the Web shatter into oblivion, and every frame within the bounded chronicle of history drifts aimlessly in the ether. Then, all of these moments are pulled towards a singular locus, where they agglomerate into an extraordinarily condensed ball. Once the vast field of eternity, the totality of history, the all-encompassing cycle of life, death, and change in the universe is captured within that one point, it explodes outwards with an unsurpassably bright surge of light. To state that Descartes was totally overwhelmed by it would not even begin to capture the extent to which he was engulfed, inundated, shaken, and floored by its sheer radiance. In the warm embrace of the light, he is struck by the most remarkable feeling of detachment. Out of the self that experiences sensation emerges the self that is purely aware of the sensation itself, and by God, everything around him is suffused with this unfiltered awareness, this universal current of energy, being qua being. Then he is stripped of every sensation left in him until his body becomes like a glass shell of crystalline purity. Everything that he will ever stroke, feel, believe, remember, anticipate, love, hate, fear, hear, destroy, and create rushes into his consciousness in a single instant until finally, there is only the silent observer left within him, which is to say that there is nothing left, everything is totally silent, and there is only vacuum.
When he awakens, he has returned to the three-dimensional world of false appearances, where space is decoupled from time. The calendar shows that it is September, 1647. He is wearing a saffron robe, and his head has been shaven bald. He finds Descartes standing across from him and yet somehow isn’t surprised at all. Everything is clear to him. They seem to be in the middle of a conversation.
“But you have not yet explained how nothingness could possibly exist,” Descartes says.
“We have already established,” he replies, noticing that the tone of his voice has become blissfully sonorous and peaceful, “that space and time are fundamentally relational. It is the same with the rest of reality. We cannot identify the position of a point on a two-dimensional plane without making reference to its coordinates on a Cartesian grid, and similarly, the location of an object in our spatiotemporal reality is determined by its relation to the broader structure of space-time. It would not make any sense to talk about the properties of the object, or even the object itself, if this structure were not in place. Think about a brushstroke on a canvas. If the canvas disappeared, there would be no brushstroke either.”
“Space and time,” he continues, “undergird the structure of our reality in a way that permits change to exist. Imagine if reality came to a total standstill. Nobody moves, all interaction stops, and the atoms of the universe cease their eternal dance. Where is everything located in space? Here, forever. What time is it? Now, for the rest of eternity. If nothing ever changes position, what purpose would it possibly serve to ascribe a coordinate system to reality, or to talk about the spatiotemporal distances between things? In the absence of change, it is meaningless to talk about space or time. Space and time are physical measures of the relations between things, but in a changeless reality, there is no such thing as relation.”
“Indeed,” he proceeds, “change is the foundation of the relational structure of our reality. The notion of a relation between two things presupposes that they have the capacity to effectuate change, or that they belong to an environment that is experiencing change. For instance, it is only because the universe is capable of transitioning from one state to another that it makes sense to say ‘this happens before that’ or ‘this causes that.’ Even seemingly static relations are just properties of objects that are fundamentally subject to change. You may think, for example, that the color shared by a tree leaf and a blade of grass is a relation that is independent of change, until you realize that the tree and the grass participate in the perpetual cycle of creation and destruction. In the realm of change, everything happens and nothing is. What is life except that which flows into death, water except that which evaporates into mist, forward motion except that which turns into backward motion? The self has no intrinsic essence for its nature is determined by its relation to the other. So long as the universe is governed by impermanence, everything exists in the form of the dialectic.”
“It is logically consistent, therefore, that the only “thing” which is defined in relation to itself and not in relation to the other is the pure vacuum – that is, nothingness. It transcends the dialectic because it is the very absence of relation. It exists both beyond and within space and time because it is neither created nor destroyed yet nonetheless permeates everything that exists in the domain of change. It transcends the forces of change and immortalizes each fleeting moment in the stillness of eternity, the timelessness that lives within and without time. It is the permanence to be found everywhere within impermanence.”
He concludes, and the room is totally silent. He bows his head into his robe, and within an instant, vanishes into the ether. “Wait!” Descartes cries, desperately reaching his hand out. For a moment he is utterly dumbstruck, with so much to express yet nothing to say. Then, as though he were struck by a stone and lost his bearings, he blinks several times and turns around rapidly. Didn’t I have to go to Paris today? he thinks to himself. But then he quickly dismisses the thought, as though nothing has happened at all.
Yet, for some reason that he can’t explain, he feels totally at peace.
(1) “Child is the Father of the Man” is the title of a song from the Beach Boys’ abandoned 1967 magnum opus, Smile. The title was taken from a line in the poem “My Heart Leaps Up,” by William Wordsworth.
(2) This line – “All of history is fixed and laid out like an infinite landscape of simultaneous events that we simply happen to travel through in one direction” – is taken from It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012), directed by Don Hertzfeldt.