Nothing is (real)
Surely you could tell in the course of reading that I have a certain penchant for philosophising. And I don’t know how it is that you always reflexively think: philosophising is blah blah blah. Is the word even used synonymously (something like: “Now he’s starting to philosophise again.” Meaning: switch off)?
I’m not entirely sure it’s a) decorous and b) adds credibility to what I’m saying. But I come from an old family of philosophers. My great-grandfather, Friedrich Paulsen, was even honoured post mortem with a street name, and that in Berlin. Likewise, the Paulsen School bears his name. And he was a philosopher and writer.
But there is another reason that triggers this inclination and also encourages it. That is the intimate relationship between philosophy and mathematics.
Let me translate relatively freely into Latin, and there, as far as I know, nothing is called nihil. So nihil is roughly “nothing is”. Or nihilist, if you just pronounce it together. But what is a nihilist?
It’s probably passed into the vernacular in a similar way to Murphy’s law as something very negative. “What ever can go wrong will go wrong” means “every misfortune will happen” or even “the greatest possible misfortune always happens”. Likewise, the nihilist is the life-denier.
Both are absolutely not true. I have explained Murphy’s law elsewhere. For me, Murphy’s law is really just the statement that the laws of large numbers have their validity and that, if interpreted correctly, even extremely improbable events will eventually occur if one only tries often enough (see chapter “Murphy’s Law”). This includes accidents, even very bad accidents, called SuperGaus.
Similarly, nihilism is not the philosophy that denies life. Rather, in my view, it is the basic theory for our lives that should once be understood. Once this basic idea has become clear to you, nothing changes in life and you don’t have to fall into depression but can approach the next day with the same, if not greater, optimism. It’s just that you have broadened your horizon decisively, and I mean that.
The basic idea of nihilism is, as the chapter title already suggests, that nothing is real. And even the title of the book alludes to this. Appearances are deceptive. So what are we to make of the statement “nothing is real”? My view is that I have understood at least once, and it is precisely here that it is paradoxical to say that, so I correct, I imagine I have understood, that I cannot prove my existence.
Let’s take the basic idea: If I cannot prove my existence, it immediately becomes clear that I can also prove absolutely nothing else, and certainly nothing absolutely. That I cannot prove my existence I find readily apparent, but I promise to take your judgement to heart. What would be proof? Would it be that I call 100 celebrities, judges and jurors, neutral persons and, best of all, God himself to a table, they all appear (only in my imagination?) and afterwards, after my lecture (“Please confirm my existence”) all nod in unison? Or do I buy a book that says “Dirk Paulsen is alive”? It is possible that the whole of life, like a dream, simply takes place in my thoughts.
Descartes thought about this too, but then found a simple answer for himself (which was then recited in my mind -times): “Cogito ergo sum.” And although I’m not Latin, I had it translated to mean “I think, therefore I am.” After that, there is no need to think about it any further. A simple conclusion. Why should one still doubt? I think, therefore I am. I see something, therefore it exists. I feel my heart, it beats. Therefore I am alive. But it remains possible that I am imagining everything. Nothing is real. Or everything is as I perceive it.
And I act accordingly. There is also nothing that could stop me from doing so. It’s just that the understanding of the statement “I can’t prove my existence” has led to the conclusion: in the end, I can’t prove anything. And that is quite helpful.
In every argument that is conducted, in which one fights bitterly for one’s right, the relaxing thought always seems to me to be: just as little as I can prove my existence, I can also prove that I am in the right. And if everyone were to pursue this thought… we would almost be back at Kant and the (equally much quoted) categorical imperative. But I don’t want to torture you with that now…
So, now I have to build a bridge to mathematics. In mathematics, the smallest, unprovable statements (better still, they are called basic assumptions) are called “axioms”. And the statement “I am a human being, I live and exist” is quite simply an axiom.