What about Everything?
If you clicked here from my post “The Task of Nothing,” then it might make sense to jump right in: What’s the deal with Nothing’s counterpart, Everything? We’ll get there soon, I promise.
First, however, if you arrived here without first encountering my post on Nothing, then what you need to know is that I’ve thought about Nothing since I was seven years old. By the time I was 18, I had stumbled onto the realization that, in casual conversation and philosophical texts alike, Nothing tends to travel alongside Everything. I was so taken with the Zen Buddhist contemplation of Mu (Japanese for “not have; without,” written as 無) and its travelling partner Yu (“to exist; to have,” written as 有) that I got the symbols tattooed on my lower back (i.e., my center, but a place that I can’t see; an invisible everything). Traveling with Everything and Nothing has convinced me that the latter is in fact quite something.
But in this post, my consideration is Everything. Specifically, it seems reasonable to suggest that if Nothing is in fact something, then something must be amiss with Everything. How are we to think of Everything? Is it one thing? Do all things retain their collective multiplicity when collected into this one Everything? If not, then was there ever a multiplicity of things to begin with, or is the appearance of multiplicity actually an illusion behind which throbs the One (whatever that might be)?
I think it makes sense to provide two opposing viewpoints in order to glimpse the continuum of possible answers to these questions. One viewpoint comes from popular culture and the other from advanced mathematics. Any apparent disparity between pop culture and complex math fades away alongside the promise of Everything, which, after all, should accommodate the comparison of each thing residing in the great One (again, whatever that may be).
The first viewpoint—which, I admit, I find refreshing but ultimately misleading—comes from the musical group They Might be Giants. On their 2008 children’s album, Here Come the 123s, the band sings the following words on the song “One Everything” (which, funnily enough, is song number 2 on the album. Zero comes first…that’s a different story altogether):
There’s only one everything
Remember these words
There’s only one everything
And if you go out and count up everything
It all adds up to one
There’s only one everything
The last time I checked
There’s only one everything
It kinda makes sense that there would only be
Just one, not ten, not three
If you get all the stuff together
And you have not left something out
Then could there still be anything left over?
I'm pretty sure that means there could not
The claim here—presented as a humorous but also philosophically rich introduction to the number 1—is that Everything = 1. The great 1 of the universe shows itself if we try to imagine all things gathered together. Fascinatingly, then, Everything is not infinite or another word for infinity; it is, rather, a unity. The unity.
While the band doesn’t delve into particulars, their lyrics do hint at answers to some of the big questions I asked at the beginning of this post. For example: What happens to multiplicity within this unity? They Might Be Giants suggests that the two—multiplicity and unity—co-exist in an unresolved mystery. This mystery is similar to the one that children likely feel when they ask their parents a question and receive the answer, “Because I said so.” Is that really an answer? There must be more to it. Will I ever find out???
(In their characteristic, self-reflexive lyrics, the band even acknowledges this: “There’s only one Omniverse. Go clean your room. There’s only one Omniverse.” Here, the lead singer, a father, creates a joke by juxtaposing a deep thought about the Universe/Multiverse/Omniverse and the most mundane and tedious of all parental commands, thereby underlining the co-existence of multiple strata of being within the unity of Being.)
I both agree and disagree with They Might Be Giants. I quite like their tacit insistence that the One everything contains multiplicity (audible in the command to go and remove the many toys from your room’s floor, preferably while thinking about the Oneness of Everything). The wiggle room made available to the listener allows for “One” to mean something different than it usually does. Something mysterious resides in the quantity of the One. But I disagree with the quick take-away message made possible by the pithy title “One Everything.” The disagreement comes from my belief that there are many everythings, which, in turn, comes from years thinking about the work of the mathematician Georg Cantor who developed what we now call Set Theory.
With this turn, I highly recommend the book Everything and More: a compact history of ∞, by David Foster Wallace, which provides a fantastic primer to the work of Cantor. Without delving into the details here, however, I can summarize one of Cantor’s main ideas in this way: There are many infinities, and thus there are many everythings. Now, it is possible to grasp this idea through a simple experiment:
I will sit here in my apartment and think of everything.
Next, wherever you are, think of everything.
Imagine, next, that there are five other people reading this and each of those people is thinking of everything.
Summary: All in all, then, we have seven everythings.
Cantor’s fame in the history of mathematics came in his ability to demonstrate the possibility of these multiple everythings in mathematical language, thereby satisfying thinkers who see math’s logical language as superlative (i.e., more fundamental to the nature of existence) than our everyday language (which introduces too many question marks, as in (the pronouns) “you,” “I,” and (the verb) “think”—what, after all, do those words mean??).
I am not a mathematician (to say the least), but I still feel the heat of Cantor’s realizations. His work demonstrated a logical explanation to some discoveries that poets had made before him, thereby extending the poetic discoveries to the study of mathematics and the (albeit Sisyphean) ordering of chaos. Think, for example, of William Blake:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Note the indefinite articles: “a World;” “a Heaven.” With this construction, we can picture a thousand of us scattered across the beaches of the planet, absorbed with the granules in our palms, each seeing a different world and a different heaven in our hands. How many worlds are there? At least as many as there are grains of sand. How many hours are in the day? Not 24, as we like to say; rather, there are infinite hours. It depends on how we look at it (to evoke a phrase that will also find mathematical justification in the eventual work of the profoundly bored patent clerk, Albert Einstein).
Why does any of this matter for you? If, like me, you have experienced the devastating loss of loved ones and sunk to your knees with a single thought—Everything is ruined. All is lost—then the material, non-metaphorical existence of multiple everythings is, well, Everything. Personally, I experience multiple everythings (i.e., complete, disparate realities) at each moment of every day. In one reality, my two-year-old son Phalen runs around the apartment by himself and plays with blocks, and magnets, and balls, and books, and chalk, et. al. In another reality, my would/should-be-four-and-a-half-year-old son Finlay is here with him, functioning as an older brother to both enhance and obstruct Phalen’s fun. In another reality, Finlay isn’t here bodily but he is here as pure energy and infuses all matter with a buzz. In another reality, Finlay isn’t in this apartment at all because he has work to do elsewhere, and I feel this to be true in my bones. In another reality, I feel “nothing” and read this as a sign of his absence that hangs over my cavernous internal emptiness. All of these realities—and more—coincide in each moment of every day.
When I allow the multiple everythings to develop in the darkroom of my mind, the words “Everything is Ruined” and “All is lost” lose their illusory power. Only one everything is ruined. In another everything, the ruins left behind in the shape of Finlay’s absence vibrate love into the universe like a beacon transmitting pure electricity. Only one all is lost. In another all, Finlay’s absence transmutes into a strange something that improves and empowers my parenting of his brother. This is not psychosis or derangement or poetic imagining. These alls all collaborate in the multiplicity of my Being.
Returning to the starting point of these reflections (as a way of concluding), we notice that we have embarked on quite a journey. Nothing turns out to be a powerful something. Everything turns out to be the starting point of the many alls in which we participate at each moment of the day. Paired side by side, Everything and Nothing author an invitation to see beyond the surface of appearance and to journey into the Great Mystery.