Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Ex nihilo nihil fit: Heidegger's Vacuuity and False Vacuum Decay



By Prof Rowan

There's no denying that Heidegger was a member of the National Socialist party. The controversy over Heidegger's association with the Nazis is now well-known and all too often used as an excuse, a shortcut, to dismiss his philosophy out of hand with the phrase “well, you know, he was a Nazi!” A recently published book (Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy (2005), by Emmanuel Faye) has even made the utterly moronic argument that his philosophical work is so thoroughly contaminated by party ideology that his books ought not to be taught as philosophies but rather as “hate speech.” Look, I loathe Heidegger even more than I do Sartre, and I reject his philosophy as emphatically as anyone, but for various reasons and according to arguments more valid than merely calling him a Nazi. [1] The very existence of Godwin's law testifies to the fact that to do so amounts to little more than ad hominem and one that is widely taken to indicate the absence of a better argument, and in the case of Heidegger's “philosophy” there is no shortage of them.

The final section of the newly published English translation of Hans Blumenberg's Care Crosses The River (1987, English Translation 2010), “Dasein's Care,” contains several suggestive and compelling criticisms, including the following:
Perhaps no one has ever shuddered, as if before a yawning abyss, on being asked or asking themselves whether the world in which we live, experience, and gain knowledge really exists... In opposition to many opinions that want to view this question as the core of modern philosophy, it must be insisted that none of the imaginable answers had any consequences. In each case, everything remained the same. Indifference in the face of what looks to be such a hard problematic already sees that nothing will come of it, because nothing can come of it. (Blumenberg 141-2) [2]
Hans Blumenberg is Awesome
This refers, of course, primarily to Heidegger's lectures of the early to mid 1930s, “What is Metaphysics?” and even more to An Introduction to Metaphysics. In these lectures, Heidegger makes precisely the claim that the question “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” (Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics 1) is precisely the core of modern philosophy, concern for which differentiates it from science, for “the nothing is rejected precisely by science, given up as a nullity... The nothing – what else can it be fore science but an outrage and a phantasm? If science is right, then only one thing is sure: science wants to know nothing of the nothing.” (Heidegger, Pathmarks 84)



Look, I'm as critical of scientific reductionism and its dogmatic adherents as the next (see Dawkins, Richard), and I do maintain that there are questions to which science does not and in principle cannot answer, but Heidegger's assertion is refuted outright by the existence of texts such as The Structured Vacuum - Thinking About Nothing (Rafelski & Müller 1985). Furthermore, research in quantum field theory since Heidegger's death in 1976 has revealed the real question concerning “the nothing” with the concepts of false vacuum and the possibility that “the nothing” is in fact not the true void but merely a metastable state which could at any moment decay into a lower energy state and thereby destroy the universe as we know it by changing the values of the fundamental physical constants which make it, and life within it, possible: the vacuum metastability event.



Riddle me this, Uncle Marty: “Is the nothing really nothing?”

Or not.

The question is still without any consequences. No one's ever given themselves panic attacks over whether nothing is actually nothing either. What's the point? If we exist in a false vacuum and it does in fact decay, there would literally be no consequences as all existence as we know it, whether we interpret it in terms of being or becoming, would cease completely and well-nigh instantaneously. There's be no one to notice. There is even an argument in the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics analogous to that of quantum suicide/immortality (you can only experience world-lines in which you exist, therefore suicide will always fail no matter how improbably) that is in fact stronger than its analogue. The quantum suicide argument has solipsism as its Achilles heel. ALL observers in the universe would be annihilated in a vacuum metastability event, avoiding this weakness of the original argument.

More emphatically, then, has anyone worried themselves sick over whether nothing is really nothing? Do feelings of joy or moments of boredom occasion quantum physicists to obsess over the possibility of false vacuum decay? It's not impossible, though I'd hate to imagine such a miserable existence! In the face of question that makes no difference whatsoever or would rule out any possibility of any difference being known, all I can say is “so fucking what?” It would make no difference.


Even though false vacuum decay is devoid of consequences it's at least interesting and has been formulated with clarity and rigor: two qualities of which Heidegger knew and wanted to know nothing.

Postscript: Heidegger's criticism of science are inextricably bound up with one of the a fundamental myths of Nazi and various fascist and conservative ideologies, cultural decadence. Decadence – the idea of living during a period of decline – is of course an apocalyptic mythologem opposed to equally the mythic inevitable progress of reason and technology. Likewise the vacuum metastability event is but an avatar of the immanence of apocalyptic myth even in the natural sciences.

Update 7/22/2011: Not long after posting this, I chanced upon an outstanding essay by Jacob Taubes (who, toward the end of his life called Blumenberg "the only philosopher alive today I find interesting") , "From the Adverb 'Nothing' to the Substantive 'Nothing': Deliberations on Heidegger's Question Concerning Nothing (1975)," published last year in English translation in the volume From Cult to Culture, in which he highlights Heidegger's theological and mystical influences, which would lead him to affirm creatio ex nihilo over ex nihilo nihil fit - i.e. from the dogmas of the Judeo-Christian tradition that posit God creating the universe out of nothing; and with Gershom Scholem, notes a mystical strain that inflects Heidegger's hypostasization of the "nothing." If it were the case that God created ex nihilo, the nihil would be external neither to God nor to creation, the "nothing" awaiting anxiety's revelation.



[1] I've previously written on the matter of Heidegger's Nazi engagement in “The Dialectic of Authenticity” (2005). There I argued that Heidegger pulled a philosophical “fast one” and illegitimately claimed that collective being (mit-sein/mit-dasein, being-with) was structurally analogous to individual Dasein, as Das Volk (the people) and thus found himself close to party philosophy. His evasion of the question of his involvement and the stipulation that his 1966 interview in Der Spiegel was to be published posthumously testify not to discomfort with the atrocities committed or a genuine “turn,” as it were, away from his earlier commitments. I note a passage from An Introduction to Metaphysics that must make every Heideggerian wince as I did in college, before I saw through his intentional obscurity and terminological pleonasms:

“what is peddled about nowadays as the philosophy of National Socialism, but which has not the least to do with the inner truth and greatness of this movement [namely, the encounter between global technology and modern humanity], is fishing in these troubled waters of "values" and "totalities." (Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics 213)

“In his prefatory note to Introduction to Metaphysics [1953], Heidegger claims that [the text in parentheses] was added during later reworking of the text; [however] in his 1966 interview with Der Spiegel, [he said it] "was present in my manuscript from the beginning" but that he did not read it aloud for fear of party informers.” Fried & Polt, Trans. Introduction, An Introduction to Metaphysics xvi-xvii)



In Soviet Russia, Party kill YOU, Uncle Marty!

[2] Blumenberg is alluding to the Scholastic argument for God's eternity, ex nihilo nihil fit, i.e. that because nothing begets nothing, God must be eternal, being the creator of the universe (before it) and not being able to have arisen out of nothing.

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