Nothing Matters and What if it Did?

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!

  1. #1 by Black Flag® on January 27, 2012 - 03:04

    Yes, take your philosophy and understanding of the Universe from a guy who impregnated his girlfriend before he finished high school, spent two years in college in a self-induced drug haze and whose job after college was installing telephones – and…only gets your ear because he can hold a tune….

    ….okie dokie…

  2. #2 by Black Flag® on January 27, 2012 - 03:05


    • #3 by Scott Erb on January 27, 2012 - 04:17

      Well, that’s irrelevant as I’m sure you know — argumentum ad hominem is a logical fallacy. Though clearly I’m using the songs as a device to make my point.

  3. #4 by lee1978Lee on January 27, 2012 - 11:54

    Personally, I think your point is well made, but this could be also because I am a long time John Cougar Mellancamp fan! I had both those albums and remember actually agreeing with the sentiment of “nothing matters and what if it did” I was young and my life was going through a very tumultuous time and it seemed like the perfect encapsulation of how I was feeling.

  4. #5 by Titfortat on January 27, 2012 - 15:34

    Great post Scott

    I tell my kids all the time that the only thing we will probably take with us will be our experience’s. I point out King Tut as an example, he tried real hard to take it with him but it just ended up in the museum’s. 😉

  5. #6 by Alan Scott on January 28, 2012 - 17:16

    Scott ,

    Wow, how Metaphysical. You have echoed much of what I have thought about over the years . A thousand years from now no one will care or know we existed. Yet, right now in this space we matter . Most of God’s creatures do not struggle with this . Only human beings do . To a mouse, eating and breeding and living through today, is enough meaning .

    • #7 by Black Flag® on January 28, 2012 - 18:32


      Yep, and most mice are eaten by predators, die at birth and suffer horribly violent short lives.

      The focus on the short-term sacrifices the long term.

      My grandfather did not labor for himself, but his son.
      My father did not labor for himself, but his son.
      And I do not labor for myself, but for my child.

      Progress is a gift we pass on to the future – and when the present no longer understand this, and consume today at the cost of tomorrow – Endarkenment begins to grow over mankind.

    • #8 by Scott Erb on January 28, 2012 - 19:03

      Yes, I was thinking of that watching our cat — cats live now like they did thousands of years ago, all that matters is the moment, past and future are utterly irrelevant. I’ve read that animals do have reasoning abilities, but they are very basic. I think its comforting to take life as it comes, deal with each moment based on ones values and understanding, and not get bogged down trying to figure it all out or worry about what may come next. That’s hard to do – our human reflective ability is a blessing and a curse! I think the blessing is stronger, but it takes perspective and patience to not get caught in the anxiety and worry that can grip people, especially in the modern disconnected world.

  6. #9 by Titfortat on January 28, 2012 - 19:08

    There are two days in every week
    about which we should not worry,
    Two days which should be kept free of fear and apprehension.

    One of these days is YESTERDAY,
    With its mistakes and cares,
    Its faults and blunders,
    Its aches and pains.
    YESTERDAY has passed forever beyond our control.

    All the money in the world cannot bring back YESTERDAY.
    We cannot undo a single act we performed;
    We cannot erase a single word we said.
    YESTERDAY is gone.

    The other day we should not worry about is TOMORROW
    With its possible adversities, its burdens, its larger promise.
    TOMORROW is also beyond our immediate control.

    TOMORROW, the sun will rise,
    Either in splendor or behind a mask of clouds,
    But it will rise.
    Until it does, we have no stake in TOMORROW
    For it is as yet unborn.

    This leaves only one day – TODAY.
    Any man can fight the battles of just one day.
    It is only when you and I add the burdens of those two awful eternities
    That we break down.

    It is not the experience of TODAY that drives men mad.
    It is remorse or bitterness for something which happened YESTERDAY
    And the dread of what TOMORROW may bring.

    Let us, therefore, live but ONE day at a time.

  7. #10 by Alan Scott on January 29, 2012 - 02:44

    Scott ,

    Life is nothing if not filled with paradoxes . A gambler or a drunk lives in the now and we will condemn him because he does not take care of his or his family’s future . The rest of us struggle to build a little wealth and security in this life . While we struggle, we are like the little mouse, philosophical questions are not important . Once we get a little security, we question whether there is any higher reason for this life . To use another rodent analogy, we feel like a hamster running in the wheel for what ?

    I think you have to find pleasure in the simple things and in the people you meet every day . If you don’t, you have to change your attitude . Sitting inside all winter can get boring. Go outside, do some work and get wet and cold. Come back inside and suddenly being warm and dry goes from boring to wonderful .

    Black Flag ,

    Sacrificing for your children is a great way to give your life purpose . It’s not an all out meaning of life for everybody . I have known more than person who are burnt out husks after living for their kids and the kids now can’t stand them .

    • #11 by Black Flag® on January 29, 2012 - 06:07


      I would remind you that the effort for your children is NOT done to obtain recognition or reverence from them.

      It is done for the betterment and progress for them.

      Many will not see this – most are like Scott, generally short-term focused – and a few, with maturity, adjust to more a long term view.

      But the personal reward of reverenced of child to parent actually is immaterial. The parent knows the contribution, and also knows that their child will understand this only when they have children of their own

  8. #12 by Titfortat on January 29, 2012 - 18:07

    It is done for the betterment and progress for them.(BF)

    Depends on what you do for them. Many parents today try to ensure that their children’s lives are relatively pain free. Not a very good model in my opinion.

    “One often learns more from ten days of agony than from ten years of contentment.”

    • #13 by Black Flag® on January 29, 2012 - 18:12

      Though I am not one to suggest agony is desirable, I agree with the sentiment.

      All progress is due to solving a pressing problem – and not by sitting comfortable in a big chair.

      People rarely move unless motivated by discomfort.

      Even me – I, too, am Newton’s Law of Motion – once at rest, it takes a lot of energy to get me going – once in motion, it takes a lot of energy to stop me.

  9. #14 by Alan Scott on January 29, 2012 - 20:13

    Black Flag,

    What do you do with your life after you have done what you could do for them ? In the animal kingdom you have fulfilled your biological purpose, the kids are hopefully reproducing, and you die . Humans for the most part continue on for 3 or 4 decades . What is the purpose of old age ?

    • #15 by Black Flag® on January 30, 2012 - 01:38


      One of the anthropological arguments to why humans are the only known animal that can transfer knowledge to its future generations: grandparents.

      Prehistoric man died young and healthy but there was no real extension of learning to the young beyond sheer survival. Essentially every generation – like our domesticated animals – had to relearn the lessons anew.

      During a warming spell, and the resulting expansion of the food supply, humans did not die young by (typically) starvation, thus started to age to a point where their children had children (grandchildren).

      Now a low division of labor could occur – the young adults could concentrate on obtaining food, while the elders could care for the young children.

      And in that care, grandparents taught their experience to the very young – allowing the young to apply this experience far earlier in their lives – creating the fundamental recursion of progress.

      So the purpose of old age is to teach the young the wisdom earned by years.

  10. #16 by Alan Scott on January 30, 2012 - 03:04

    Black Flag ,

    ” And in that care, grandparents taught their experience to the very young – allowing the young to apply this experience far earlier in their lives – creating the fundamental recursion of progress.

    So the purpose of old age is to teach the young the wisdom earned by years. ”

    Good answer . If I ever get grandchildren. But I know so many who are really terrible at old age . They do not bring joy or knowledge to the young and basically bring nothing but, trouble to their middle aged children . One cannot always help the physical deterioration aging brings, but the moral decay can go beyond the loss of brain cells sometimes . It seems to coincide with the loss of smell and the accumulation of clutter and the expectation of free stuff .

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