Nothing Matters

If life is Maya, an illusion, as the Vedas say, or that there is more to reality than meets the eye, as scientists have proven, then what is real?

The Cheshire cat, in Alice in Wonderland, is the wise one, always ready with an answer to Alice’s questions. It appears and disappears at will. Sometimes the cat is gone, and left behind is its smile. Reality might be like the smile on the Cheshire cat. The smile is real, the cat illusory. What we don’t perceive might be more real than what we do.

When I look out of my window, I see trees with branches and leaves. The tree is separated from other trees by empty spaces, the branches are separated from other branches by spaces between them, and the leaves too are separated from other leaves by spaces between them. Without the spaces, the tree would be a big mush. Without space, there would be no objects. When we remove objects, all that is left are spaces in between, like the smile on the Cheshire cat. Does space give rise to objects? Can there be one without the other? Is the nothing of space something? 

The new frontier in physics is the “nothingness” of space. Physicists are trying to figure out what it is. Nothing apparently is not no-thing. At first, physicists believed that space was filled with the mysterious substance ether. This idea was experimentally put to rest by Michelson and Morley in 1887[1].  More recently, physicist John Wheeler commenting on Einstein’s theory had this to say about the nothingness of space “Mass tells spacetime how to curve, and spacetime tells mass how to move.” This put nothingness of space on the same footing as matter. “Nothing” mattered from this point on. Space was no longer an inert stage on which matter did its thing. Nothing is active in the cosmic dance, moving and being moved by matter. The nothingness of space is not emptiness but is as much a player (or should I say a dancer) as objects are in Shiva’s cosmic dance.

“Plato, who so vigorously avoided the void…. sounding a little bit like a chemist, seemed to view the background (void) something like a neutral solvent–something that allows other things to come to be without imposing too much of its personality. The background can’t have any personality of itself, otherwise, it would be showing its own face as well.” Wrote K.C. Cole, The Hole in the Universe.

Philosophers such as Plato and today’s scientists agree that the void of space, the nothingness, has no detectable features. So, what is this void? And how do we find out what it is?

“…suffice it to say that very little in the universe is nothing. Almost all the seeming nothings are sums of opposing somethings,” writes K.C. Cole. “What seems like a silent sea of nothing is an infinite number of positives and negatives, all joining together and splitting up in an endless jumble of uncertainty.”

Nothing is not no-thing, but, instead, is teeming with potential some things. It is full of matter and antimatter in equal proportion, canceling each other, which the scientists refer to as conserved quantities or the law of conservation. The things that are conserved are energy, momentum, and charge. The most fundamental things in nature are those that never change. These are changeless and timeless. As is the speed of light, it is a constant, no matter what. It is interesting to think that a photon that travels at the speed of light never ages. The photon that started at Big Bang is still the same photon. It is timeless.

Symmetry is a term used by physicists to describe the void or emptiness of space. It is what accounts for the void or nothingness but has no detectable features. Symmetry is the reason why the void appears as nothing, yet it is full of potential energy and teeming with matter and antimatter. Symmetry is what cancels matter and its opposite, resulting in nothing or the void. Symmetry is an important concept in physics. All the conservation laws are the result of symmetries in nature. Conservation laws are the accountants of nature; they balance the books, that is, they make sure that energy is never created or destroyed, and all the energy that we started at Big Bang is conserved. In other words, when we reassemble all the fragments of nature that happened during the Big Bang, we return to nothing.

Symmetry is the equivalent of Yin and Yang in Zen Buddhism. Yin and Yang’s symbol represents opposites that exist in harmony as one until that harmony is broken, and then they become opposites.

Another analogy for Symmetry is if you were to walk into a glass door thinking there was nothing there, and you shatter the glass into many pieces, you have just broken Symmetry and created something out of nothing.

When symmetry is broken, something emerges. Out of nothing comes something. In the beginning, there was nothing, just the void, which was teeming with potential something. By breaking this symmetry, our universe emerged at Big Bang. This is the creationism story in science.

The creationism story in the Vedas is written in hymn form in the Rig Veda. It too, speaks of how in the void, the opposite existed until “symmetry” was broken, and creation happened.

First, there was the void:

    Then there was neither death nor immortality

    , nor was there then the torch of night and day.

    The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.

    There was that One then, and there was no other.

In the void existed opposites:

The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom

know that

which is 

kin to that which is not.

Rig Veda, Creation Hymn 1500 BCE —Translated by A. L. Basham

It seems that all of existence is the dance of opposites. When the opposites merge, as in Yin and Yang or in the concept of Symmetry, there is a void. The void is seemingly nothing but in it is the potential for everything.

From the void emerged the “opposites”-matter and anti-matter, spaces and objects, darkness and light. Without opposites, there is no existence. Without darkness, there is no light; without evil, there is no good. We know a thing by its opposite. Reality itself is non-dual[ii]; it is an undivided whole. Because of the limitation of our sense organs, we do not see the oneness behind appearances.

Most of us accept, uncritically, what our senses tell us is reality. We are like fish in a pond; all they know is water. To them, their reality is the pond; they have no reason to suspect that there is anything other than the pond. Most of us are like that, but the few, like the physicists and the ancient sages, who have gone beyond the limitations of their sensory perceptions, have brought us tales of what lies beyond. It is up to us whether we accept what our senses tell us is reality or find out for ourselves what lies beyond the reach of our senses.

“If you look at zero, you see nothing, but look through it, and you will see the world.”[iii] Robert Kaplan.

There is a void in each of us. It is the hole we feel in our being; it is what makes us feel that there is something missing from our life. This void is the source of energy that animates us. As Rumi, perhaps the greatest poet of all time, wrote:


[1] (https://www.aps.org/programs/outreach/history/historicsites/michelson-morley.cfm, n.d.)

[ii] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZ0YFoUcY0s, n.d.)

[iii] (Kaplan, 1999)

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