Only once have I bought a record album or CD solely on the basis of the title: John Cougar’s Nothing Matters and What if it Did? It is a great album. Ain’t Even Done with the Night is a classic, and To M.G. and This Time are also excellent — a spur of the moment purchase that I never regretted.
But why would that album title cause me at age 20 to pick the album off the rack and buy it? John Cougar was not that well known yet (though this album helped push him to the next level), I just liked the title.
One question I think about when I want to tie my mind up a bit is “why is there something and not nothing?” The idea that a universe exists is far more outrageous than the notion of complete nothingness. Something can’t come from nothing, at least according to the laws of physics (well, particles can zip in and out of existence borrowing energy from the universe, but quantum physics covers that). Positing a God is a logical but incomplete conclusion. Why is there a God and not no God is just as puzzling a question!
Speculation about that question leads me to believe that material reality as we experience it must be a secondary form of experience. While my description and reflections on reality now are much more sophisticated than they were when I was twenty, I think my gut intuition remains the same – this world is not the true world.
Hence the appeal of the question: Nothing matters, and what if it did? The 20 year old Scott liked the rebelliousness of that question. How dare someone say that poverty, war, child abuse, rape, genocide and murder don’t matter! The suggestion seems disrespectful of the experience of millions of humans. The 20 year old Scott rather liked creating discomfort in that sort of way; thirty years later, though, I still find the question appealing.
…and what if it did? What if it did matter, what happens? Would that make reality any different?
Even at 20 I saw the impossibility of truly embracing the idea that ‘nothing matters.’ Of course things matter to me, and to everyone else. My children matter to me, my students matter to me, even my blog matters to me – it’s a recording of my ideas as they develop over time.
But let’s be honest. Nothing we do here will be remembered or make a difference far into the future, except as a minuscule part of creating the world that will be — any of us might never have been born and the world would have gone on just fine. Others would have filled our life roles, be it as a hero, a parent, or worker. In a “real” materialist sense, our lives are meaningless. Nothing material matters. The sun will eventually go nova, humanity will die out, the vanity and arrogance of our brief dance on this planet represent nothing but impotent egos trying to assert that they have value. The value is subjective and transient.
Yet what if it did matter? Consider: all we experience is sensation. That is a product of our brain. It interprets the world and that interpretation is what we experience as reality. It’s based on a small bit of reality that our senses can perceive. Even though most “solid material” is made up of empty space — atoms are almost all empty space, the nucleus 1/100,000 of the atom’s size, yet containing all its mass — we experience solids as, well, SOLID! It’s what our brain creates for our experience.
And while we might be real bodies walking and moving around through a universe that has three dimensions, we could also be receptors, taking in data and turning it into experience that simply seems like it takes up space and time. That’s an old meditation, be it from Plato’s cave or more recently The Matrix, but there is nothing about human experience that gives cause to believe that reality is as we experience it. We only know experience.
If that were the case, what matters would not be the physical world we believe exists. What matters might be the emotions, connections, and what we learn in our hearts through living. A person who struggles through difficulties to develop true happiness and a capacity to link meaningfully with others may be far more successful discovering useful knowledge than the most brilliant scientist or inventor. One who lives in a state of engagement with the world of emotion, intuition and social connection may be far more better at life’s challenge than one who amasses a material fortune. We know the material stuff perishes and may not even exist as we experience it. But that spark of consciousness and life, that sense of spirit — that seems real, and it seems untethered to matter.
But why — what would the point of such an existence be. Why is there something and not nothing?
“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” – John Cougar Mellencamp, from Jack and Diane.
John Cougar Mellencamp’s next album, American Fool, put his career into the stratosphere with songs like Jack and Diane and Hurts so Good. He also reclaimed the last name his record company thought too boring for a rock star.
But think about – life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone. To me, that’s a key idea. At some point living is a thrill, a joy, there is excitement, anticipation, plans and goals. One dreams, explores ideas, and the horizons seem limitless. Then the routine kicks in, and at some point the future seems short with limited possibilities — one might be stuck in a job, stuck in a marriage, dealing with commitments, and unable to achieve earlier dreams.
But that’s true only if life is about the material. Life becomes limited and the future more narrow if one looks only at material ideals — those do get limited over time as one lives and makes choices. But if the spiritual and emotional matter; if connections with others are more important than individual material achievement, then life can be thrilling up until the last moment; the thrill of living need never fade.
The more I reflect on it the more real those ephemeral aspects of life and my existence become, and the more illusory the material world I experience seems to be. I find that thrilling!