Reality is nothing and everything at once

Every year, for the past four years or so, I give a four-week-long course on idealism in collaboration with the UK's Psychedelic Society. Today, a short clip extracted from the latest edition of that long course was published. Have a look at it below. 

In the clip, I argue that past and future exist solely in the present, and that the present moment is infinitely small, a singularity. Therefore, there is a fundamental sense in which everything exists in nothing, for the present moment, being infinitely small, is a kind of nothing.

This may seem to contradict my key criticism of Carlo Rovelli's contention that the universe is relational "all the way down": I maintain that such a contention is an obvious instance of the fallacy called 'infinite regress'; you can't have relationships all the way down, without something that relates, for the same reason that you can't have movement all the way down, without something that moves. For details on my criticism, see this essay. For Rovelli's acknowledgment that he is indeed arguing for "turtles all the way down," see this clip.

To justify his stance, Rovelli appeals to Buddhist mystic Nagarjuna's notion that reality is ultimately nothing. By acknowledging, in the clip above, that reality is made of nothing I may seem to be agreeing with this and, therefore, to be contradicting my own criticism of Rovelli. The need to clarify this apparent contradiction is what motivated me to write this brief essay.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the clip above is a very brief extract from a four-week-long course, which provided a lot of context and language to couch my acknowledgment of the nothingness of reality adequately.

The second thing to notice is that the 'nothing' I am talking about is a mental nothing, not an absolute nothing; it is a mental substrate without substance in the exteriorized sense we use the word 'substance,' not an absence of substrate. As such, I am talking about no-thing, rather than nothing, if we understand for 'things' entities that seem to exist outside mind. My no-thing has an ontological essence (namely, mentality) that exists; it's not an ontic vacuum. This is clear throughout the clip even without its full context, as I constantly speak of a (universal) mind trying to make sense of the fact that it creates everything out of no-thing. My position is thus different from Rovelli's absolute nothing, in which the whole universe is like movement but there is nothing that moves. In my case, there is mind 'moving.'

The third thing to notice is that, more rigorously speaking, my point is that reality has no extension, not that it is an ontic vacuum. Indeed, what I am saying is that everything unfolds in an infinitely small period of time. At the limit, this period has no extension. So my no-thing means that there ultimately are no extended entities; that is, entities with size or duration. And since extension is what characterizes 'things,' then in my view reality ultimately has no-thing. Now, can there be structure, complexity, real existing 'somethings' in the absence of extension? As I argued just a few days ago in another essay, the answer is yes.

Finally, the fourth point: as I allude to in both the clip above and my original criticism of Rovelli, we are allowed to play two different games, as long as we remain consistent with the game we choose to play at any one time. The first game is that of the Enlightenment values: Aristotelian logic, conceptual explicitness and unambiguity, empirical adequacy, and so on. The second game is one where we acknowledge that Aristotelian logic is arbitrarily limited (e.g. the law of excluded middle, questioned by Intuitionist logic), our conceptual dictionary is too limited to capture every salient aspect of reality, and a great many important things cannot be tested under controlled laboratory conditions. Instead, we play a more intuitive game, based on first-person insight, where we try to suggest and hint at things. Again, both games are valid, as long as we remain consistent with the rules of the game we choose to play at any one point. In other words, what is not allowed is to begin an argument by implicitly adopting the rules of the first game and, at the crucial point of the argument, switch to the rules of the second game. This is internally contradictory and invalidates one's point from the perspectives of both games.

In the clip above, I explicitly say that most of my work assumes the game of the Enlightenment values, and that the specific argument I am making in the clip belongs in another game: the one I played in my book More Than Allegory. I am thus willing to play according to the rules of both games at different times, but not change the rules midway through the game. The latter is what I believe Rovelli does: the whole of Relational Quantum Mechanics is developed under the Enlightenment values and then, at the crucial point in the argument, Rovelli switches to vague subjective intuition, handwaving, and appeals to Buddhism. I don't think this is valid because it is internally contradictory.

Whenever I am playing the Enlightenment game, I will maintain that reality isn't an ontic vacuum, but a mind. Whenever I play a more intuitive game that acknowledges the obvious limitations of our conceptual reasoning, I will say that reality has no extended entities and, as such, is a no-thing. I play consistently within the rules of both games, and don't cut across them.

I hope this helps clarify the potential appearance of contradiction the video clip above may trigger.



  1. Whilst you are clarifying things: why are you sceptical of verified sensory perceptions during an NDE on the grounds that nature wouldn’t have evolved sensory organs of perception were it possible to perceive without them, and yet you state that the ‘exact same’ perceptions are experienced in dreams.

    1. Can you restate your query? "Sensory perceptions" in a lucid dream are not those in the waking state, are they?

  2. You might have an interesting and productive conversation with Jay L. Garfield about Nagarjuna's views.

  3. I am not going to say that the "Law of the Excluded Middle" was not one of the biggest misunderstandings in the history of Western civilization. And I'm not going to say that because I'm afraid that only a logician would understand why I worded my sentence in that way. :)

  4. Is it nothing or no-thing or just how does the visible exist from the invisible?

  5. Bernardo Kastrup your slicing of time is something Iain McGilchrist addresses in his latest book as a peculiarity of left hemisphere thinking. It generates absurdities like Achilles and the tortoise and Aristotle saying at the moment an object starts to move it is neither in motion nor at rest. McGilchrist says that the right hemisphere, by contrasts experiences the flow, the duration of time that can't be abstracted in this way. What if your slicing and dicing of time a la left hemisphere is a self deception?