Planes of Existence
4-minute read

What does ‘nothing’ look like? Cosmologists are grappling with the question of how everything began, but the comprehension of nothingness is a more personal quest. To comprehend is to encode an idea, a metaphysical object, into bits in the physical world, circuits in your brain. There is, apparently, a natural division in the world between the realm of physical structures that can encode bits, and the realm of meaning that an observer may ascribe to these bits. Comprehension, or understanding, is behavior that falls squarely on the latter side; it is subjective, contestable, murky — something that is given rather than taken.

There is another way to describe the world though, and that is in the way of emergent phenomena. If you start with nothing along with a set of natural rules of transformation, what do you end up with? For instance, we know there is a natural ebb and flow of complexity, through an idea we know of best in the context of natural selection. Elementary particles don’t remain elementary, they congeal to create complex structures carried forward in a definite direction, though not always with metaphorical escape velocity.

This raises the interesting question of whether there are other such phenomena with emergent complexity, and if the very idea of abstraction is one of them. Consider the idea of ‘nothing’ once again. Before we had the decimal system with zero playing a pivotal role, nothing was simply…nothing. It had no representation, because — aren’t we talking about nothing? But then we realized that the concept itself was a thing and could be represented. With that, we developed an encoding — a comprehension — of the concept of nothing and could begin to reason about it. What if we had nothing, we asked, what follows then?

Now this brings us to the concept of levels or planes. Since the time of Bertrand Russell, we have known how self-referential systems are inconsistent and lead to paradox (“Does the barber who shaves everyone who can’t shave himself, shave himself?”). Our physical universe, in all its constructivist glory, does not tolerate paradox. Here, we have real things that begin to interact with other real things in a strictly sequential manner, bounded by the speed of information transmission (c = 299,792,458 m/s). Sure, feedback loops abound and spacetime may stretch or compress, but from the moment an electron-positron pair emerges from a burst of energy, we know the sequence in which the movie runs (even if we don’t know all the scenes to expect). This then, is the usual resolution to Russell’s paradox: the introduction of levels and jumping up a level any time a construction is about to lead to paradox. And thus, the jump from nothing to zero may be viewed as the addition of a level. In the same way, the extension of natural to negative numbers, and real to complex numbers, may be seen as another set of jumps.

Some people get carried away with the idea that this abstract world of concepts could be separated out and have a life of its own, independent of any physical reality. There is no basis in truth for this idea, and I reject it completely. But in a practical sense, each of us does inhabit a plane of existence at every point in our lives, and it isn’t the purely physical one. Rather, we may think of our existence as stretching our minds across these planes, bouncing back and forth. Intelligence, as we understand it, is arguably a measure of how much we can stretch, and how nimble we are at choosing to live in the plane that gives us the most utility at any given point in time.