Caves are ideal places for enlightenment
As part of a more extensive interview on his book ‘Nothing: A Philosophical History’ (Oxford University Press, 2022), we asked Roy Sorensen, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, about some aspects of his philosophizing into “nothing.” The whole interview will be soon published by Iran Daily.
Is it a fair representation of the idea you’re trying to drive home if one were to summarize it as “there is nothing out there” is not equal to “there isn’t anything out there?”
Well, I think that is because I want to say that there are these absences. Some people are ambivalent about whether their shadows exist, for instance, Plato, who seems to be casting them as things that don’t exist, or as illusions. I think that the shadows do things to you; they make you experience this interesting thing. You see the shadow, but it’s not because the shadow is reflecting light in your eyes, and it’s not because it’s beaming light into your eyes. It’s because of what the shadow is not doing that makes it visible.
You might want to say, it’s an absence of light; it doesn’t have any mass; it doesn’t have the normal physical properties. But it seems to be something that you can count, that can move, that is extremely well behaved, physically. As far as you can concentrate on the light and the object which is casting it in focus, you can predict, with exquisite precision, what the shadow is going to do.
It has got a lot going for it as far as its credentials for being something real, as opposed to an illusion. They are certainly illusions about shadows. You might think that something is a shadow, and it is not a shadow, or you might think a shadow is moving, but it is not moving. So there’s an appearance reality distinction for shadows. And that’s another sign that there’s something there.
I talk cautiously when I say, “What is an absence?” There is an absence of light. And then people say, “Oh, come on! Tell me more about these absences.”
And I kind of say, “Well, I can’t really improve on that.”
But I think people actually are pretty good with the word absence. And they know how to relativize it to different situations. They know what an absence of a person is. So when students don’t show up, I see they are absent. My colleagues don’t see because they don’t have the same students. They don’t see them, but I see them.
Then, if the students have always been showing up and suddenly they don’t materialize, or I’ve had a bicycle stolen, then I see the absence. I remember going outside, and then there is no bike. I panic. But other passersby are not having this big reaction. Your reaction, however, is because the absence is leaping out at you. So it’s kind of a curious perception, but seems to be pretty important.
Your style of writing is very gripping, I would say, and one of the things I noticed, especially in terms of absence, is that there could be romantic interpretations of many of the things you say. You might have noted that all of us humans understand the concept of the absence of a person, which could be experienced at the most dramatic level. So did you intend your text to be interpreted in a romantic way?
I sympathize with the romanticism in respect to its aesthetics. Historically, what happened is that in the 18th and 19th centuries, people in aesthetics thought there’s more than just what’s beautiful and what’s ugly. There is also what is sublime and awesome. So people like Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant started to talk about this. And then the poets took this up.
In preparation for this interview, I started googling holes in Iran. And I was given a lot of interesting videos about these sinkholes. Of course, they’re all over the world, but there are some really awesome ones in Iran. So, there was this video and, in it, they’re just painting over this thing. Then you see a little peep first, you can’t tell the dimensions of this thing. Then you see a very small person. Gosh, this is a huge hole, and then they look down and then you’re amazed, speechless. What a sight!
One of the sinkholes popped up in Bowling Green, Ohio, which was at a museum, and there were all these fancy cars, these Corvettes, you know, extremely expensive cars that fell into the sinkhole. The people who were in the museum were upset. They were wondering how they could fill up the hole. But then they found out that it was itself an attraction. You still can go and see this sinkhole that just materialized.
If you think of your experience of total darkness when you go into a cave; there are many interesting things about a cave. There are the stalactites and stalagmites. There’s this and there’s that.
And then the cave operator will get you all assembled and tell you not to wander off now. And then they cut the lights and it is totally dark. This is not like a shadow. There’s not a contrast effect. It looks a certain way. It looks dark, very dark. And that’s breathtaking. People find it gripping.
And an interesting thing happens when you try to move your hand in front of your face. For some people, there is a feeling, like if it is your own arm, then you’re kind of seeing it in a way. But if someone else were to do it, you wouldn’t have a similar experience.
People who study synesthesia have an explanation: They think what happens is that you have a certain kind of crossover between your feelings of how your limbs are moving, and your visual system. And you somehow get a ghostly feeling. I get it a bit. But it doesn’t look that distinct, but it’s some sort of weird feeling of presence.
Anyway, part of the attraction of going to the cave is that darkness. And also, a cave is a standard place for enlightenment. People go into the cave for that.
So, generally, most cultures don’t have the attitude that Plato has to the cave. Plato has this idea: Oh! These poor people in the cave! They don’t know what’s going on.
The more common idea is that I have all these distractions happening on the surface. I need to go to a cave, get rid of the distraction, and understand how things are. And I think it is a suitable venue for that.
And then, as long as there is a kind of control over darkness, where I can leave the cave if I wish, then it’s fine. If you take away the control, then it’s a terrible punishment. And there are people who are punished that way. There is putting someone involuntarily into a dark cave as punishment. Because human beings are highly visual animals, so they are appropriately terrified.
So as long as they have control, it is okay. But take away the control, and it’s frightening. Therefore, the darkness becomes a suitable area for horror, which is another thing that the Romantics were into. Like Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein. So there is this kind of dark side of aesthetics there.
About the Book
How can nothing cause something? The absence of something might seem to indicate a null or a void, an emptiness as ineffectual as a shadow. In fact, 'nothing' is one of the most powerful ideas the human mind has ever conceived.
An entertaining history of the idea of nothing – including absences, omissions, and shadows – from the Ancient Greeks through the 20th century, this short book by Roy Sorensen is a lively tour of the history and philosophy of nothing, explaining how various thinkers throughout history have conceived and grappled with the mysterious power of absence – and how these ideas about shadows, gaps, and holes have in turned played a very positive role in the development of some of humankind's most important ideas. Filled with Sorensen's characteristically entertaining mix of anecdotes, puzzles, curiosities, and philosophical speculation, the book is ordered chronologically, starting with the Taoists, the Buddhists, and the ancient Greeks, moving forward to the middle ages and the early modern period, then up to the existentialists and present day philosophy. The result is a diverting tour
through the history of human thought as seen from a novel and unusual perspective.