A Scientific Explanation of Nothing (Appearing As Everything)

Midjourney AI’s take on scientists debating the existence of time and free will. Apparently Midjourney is of the impression that all scientists are male. I wonder where it got that idea? ChatGPT did no better with its all-male list of “prominent figures” on these topics. Not so intelligent. 

Over the last month or two I’ve made my way through four provocative books about the nature of reality:

  1. theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s Helgoland
  2. quantum physicist Julian Barbour’s The End of Time
  3. theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder’s Existential Physics
  4. neuroscientist Anil Seth’s Being You

The authors of these books know, refer to, support, and sometimes criticize each other’s work. But to some extent they all represent a growing but still unorthodox school of scientists who believe, on the balance of probabilities:

  • time does not exist
  • the ‘self’ does not exist
  • free will does not exist

They use words like illusionmisconstrual, and even hallucination to describe what time, self and free will really are, and why they seem to exist, and how their actual non-existence does not in any way affect how the world works, or how we function in it. Unlike some more conservative, orthodox thinkers in their fields (some of whom say that widespread acceptance of our lack of free will would somehow, preposterously, inexorably lead to global chaos and anarchy), they describe how the human brain might have evolved the faulty belief in the reality of these things (we are incorrigible pattern-seekers, sense-makers, and meaning-makers, after all), and how our belief in them has not affected, and need not affect, our beliefs and behaviours — any more than our mistaken belief that the sun revolved around the earth affected them.

Three of the books tackle the issue of free will, and explain why we are not ‘responsible’ for our actions, and describe the moral dilemma that this realization presents for our systems of laws, enforcement, and incarceration. The horrific lifelong trauma, both psychological and physical, suffered by most of those who then became serious criminals is supported by mountains of data. That doesn’t ‘justify’ their behaviour, but it does explain it.

Just as journalist Michael Pollan and biologist-neuroscientist Robert Sapolski explained in their books, the argument outlined in these books isn’t that we should take no action against those convicted of crimes, but that (i) instead of using the threat of punishment and incarceration as an attempt to deter criminal behaviour and reduce recidivism, we should use counselling and other methods to treat those convicted, the same as we should for anyone else suffering from serious mental illness, and (ii) we should only incarcerate those who we perceive to pose a significant risk to others, and only until treatment of their mental illness reduces that risk.

As scientists, all four writers are most interested in how abandoning our belief in the ‘reality’ of time, self and free will, affects our overall understanding of the nature of the universe and our place in it. In that respect, accepting that time is just a mental construct is relatively easy — our new models of the universe and its workings are mostly independent of the concept of time and work just fine without it.

Likewise, setting aside the confusing plethora of words like ‘determinist’, ‘physicalist’, ‘materialist’, and ‘compatibilist’, these writers seem to accept that, regardless of its lack of intuitiveness, and the ethical dilemmas it poses, the evidence for our behaviour being completely biologically and culturally conditioned, rather than subject to free will, is increasingly compelling, and that all attempts to locate, identify, or rationalize the existence or even the need for a ‘self’, have failed.

We simply don’t need the concepts of a self, or of free will, to comprehensively explain human behaviour. In fact, our behaviour makes more sense if we acknowledge that they don’t exist. And it’s not terribly difficult to explain why our species evolved the ubiquitous misunderstanding that we have selves and free will, and the false belief that time really exists.

In short, our understanding is wrong, but it is perfectly understandable. This is how the human brain apparently makes sense of things, by creating flawed, best-that-it-can-manage models, and then adopting them as accurate representations of reality until/unless a better model can be found. This is why it is so easy for humans to get caught up in a movie, which is just pixels on a screen, and feel that its characters are real and that the events it depicts are really happening.

So why do we care? If our misunderstanding of time, self and free will doesn’t affect our behaviour, what does it matter?

It matters for the same reason that our search to understand quantum effects, and why they just don’t fit (to put it mildly) with any of our existing models of how the world works, matters to us — We want to know ‘the truth’. We endlessly seek better models that more accurately represent reality.

Some scientists are now going further. Sean Carroll, another theoretical physicist (referred to in two of these books), says that when we dispense with the concept of time, we need to also reconsider our understanding of the rest of what seems to be real. While he is holding on to a belief in the many-worlds theory, he’s also admitted that the true nature of reality can most likely never be known or understood, and that the only thing we might be able to say with any assurance about the universe is that it is “an infinite field of possibilities”.

This is not so far from the message of radical non-duality that “nothing is either real or unreal”, that everything is just “nothing appearing as everything”. If there are only appearances, then anything is possible, ie the universe is an infinite field of possibilities. (Two of the books go into why, if anything is in fact possible, most ‘improbable’ things never seem to happen, drawing largely on entropy theory. They also suggest that our categorization of the ‘arrow’ of time might be our flawed model of the apparent tendency of things towards greater entropy.)

Even if we might be persuaded that everything is just an appearance, and that nothing (including time, space, separate things, and selves with free will) is real, what does it mean when radical non-dualists say nothing is ‘unreal’ either?

By ‘unreal’ we generally mean imagined or imaginary, like a hallucination or a story. The message of radical non-duality is that time, the self, free will, and other constructions of the (apparent) brain are ‘purely’ unreal — they are just things the self conjures up and imagines to be true, because it lacks any better explanation for what seems to be happening. But “nothing appearing as everything” (all the ‘stuff’ that isn’t merely conjured up in our brain) is neither real nor unreal. In other words, it isn’t real, because nothing is separate and because there is no time for anything to ‘really’ exist in or be happening in. And it isn’t unreal, because we aren’t just imagining it. “Nothing appearing as everything” is, therefore, just an appearance. We can’t conceive of anything being neither real nor unreal (though if there’s been a ‘glimpse’ it is immediately understood), but we can kind of get the concept.

So what about ‘consciousness’?

In terms of understanding the nature of reality and the message of radical non-duality, the whole concept of consciousness, as important as it is to many scientists, theologians, philosophers, spiritualists, and psychologists, is essentially irrelevant. The term has no strict definition and is often used to mean very different things. It is, merely, another mental construct, a concept, a model, with no actual basis in reality. The entire family of similar terms — awareness, presence, self-awareness, sentience, and even knowledge — are the arrogation of qualities of the self, arrogated strictly to the self. They are scaffolding placed atop the concept of the self, and, like the self, they are just models, theories, ideas, sense-making, devices used by the illusory self to position itself (at the centre) in the model of reality that it has constructed. There is no need for something called ‘consciousness’ to ‘really’ exist, any more than there is a need for the self to ‘really’ exist. It is like the rationalization of a hallucinator for how their hallucinations are actually real.

One of the fundamental principles of science is that, in seeking to understand how something is, or works, one should look for the simplest possible explanation. We could all make up stories about fairy dust or holograms or 13-dimensional strings to try to explain how the universe unfolded or how everything fits. The problem is, every time we find an explanation that seems sensible, it turns out to be either disproven by a subsequent discovery, or crazily convoluted (like the theologians’ complicated models developed to try to refute Copernicus and Galileo) and untestable or unfalsifiable.

The message of radical non-duality, which resonates with a lot of new discoveries in both physics and neuroscience, is, arguably, the simplest possible explanation for the nature of reality. It is falsifiable — there could one day be verifiable evidence that time or the self or free will actually exists. The message is internally consistent and quite elegant in its simplicity:

  • The self and all its constructs are psychosomatic misunderstandings, illusions concocted by the (apparent) brain and body to try to make sense of the signals they are receiving.
  • Everything ‘else’ is only nothing appearing as everything, for no reason or purpose. Nothing that appears is real or unreal. And nothing matters.

There are obvious reasons why such a message produces rejection, outrage, dismissal and disbelief when it is heard by most people (including most scientists). Even if it is correct, it is useless. There is nothing you can do with this understanding of the nature of reality and humans’ place in it. It is immensely humbling, and thinking about it puts humans (especially scientists) on the defensive. Not only is there nothing you can do with this understanding, there is no ‘you’, no self, no thing separate that can do anything, or that ever has done anything. There is only what is apparently happening, for no reason or purpose. Everything that ‘we’ think we have done, or learned, is just a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation in the desperate attempt to make sense and make meaning of (and try to control) everything that is apparently happening, when there is no rationale or meaning for, or control over, anything.

It’s enough to make you howl in anger, indignation, and incredulousness. No, that can’t be.

Perhaps the same reaction that those who first read Copernicus’ and Galileo’s books had.

(Oh, and if you only have time to read one of the books above, I’d recommend Sabine’s, especially the excellent chapter on free will.)

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8 Responses to A Scientific Explanation of Nothing (Appearing As Everything)

  1. Euan Semple says:

    I was feeling tension that there are so many books to read and so little time but then relaxed when I realised there were no books, no time, and no point!


    Great post.

  2. realist says:

    It’s about time you start reading serious literature about reality and consciousness instead of relying on your own ruminations.

    As a general advice, scientific publications are of much better effectiveness than books because book authors need to come up with definitive and all encompassing “theories” which are, of necessity, 99% BS.

    If I may recommend this to your attention for a little puzzlement:

  3. Vera says:

    “The horrific lifelong trauma, both psychological and physical, suffered by most of those who then became serious criminals is supported by mountains of data. ”

    Psychopaths lie. They are very good at lying. They are extremely good at lies that convince others that they only victimize others because they were themselves so victimized. Much of that data is simply wrong. (And obviously, many — perhaps most? — people who have suffered greatly do not become criminals.)

    On the other hand, there is lots of data showing that “counseling” makes better psychopaths. Data collected by people who actually tried it in prison and followed up.

    Dave’s housemate: Hey Dave, you spilled milk all over the floor and left it. Please clean up after yourself.

    Dave: I am not responsible for my actions. Nobody is. Nothing matters.
    [exits stage left]

    I guess I am a bit slow here. Can you explain what I am missing in the spilled milk drama?

  4. Mahmoud Ghorbanifar says:

    Thanks, Daoudjan!
    I’ll give the Hossenfelder book a look-see.

    Greetings from Trumpestan.

  5. Vera says:

    So I made a dash through this weird world of non-dualism, or neo-advaita. For folks who may be interested in a contrary viewpoint of someone who’s been there, done that:

    He sums up various issues I have been puzzled by, including this:
    ““There is no me, there is no you, there is no world, there are no others, suffering doesn’t exist, there‘s no responsibility on any level” – wow, what a comfort for the exhausted seeker! A one-way ticket to freedom from all worldly problems – Hallelujah! No responsibility, no past, no choice – what a relief! I could do what I wanted, say what I wanted, I could even hurt people intentionally and it didn’t matter because it was all Oneness and I had no choice anyway.”

    Exactly. The new religion of “fuck it.” That’s what the cynic in me says. Complete with a new set of gurus preaching “nothing matters” but they do take money for their enlightened dispensations. Complete with a new way to feel superior to others who don’t get it. Balm for the soul of the overburdened modern, as long as he or she does not take it too seriously and fails to clean up the spilled milk.

    The philosopher in me of course agrees that all is one. In a deep fundamental way. Not a new insight. But neo-advaita goes from there to make the assumption we need to be “liberated” from dualism. Isn’t it just another dogma that sells some pie in the sky? Another set of strivings?

    I happen to accept dualism as part and parcel of creation. To be embodied, to be incarnated in this world means entering duality. So poetically described in Genesis. To create, you must differentiate. Every so often, we get glimpses of the non-ego, oneness state. Lovely and welcome. Where does one derive from that that we should be like that ALL THE TIME? That it is a prison to be liberated from? That it is something to be demeaned as “illusion”? Rather than a phase shift we go through when we come here (to this planet) because it is only through embodiment that some experiences can be gained, and so enrich the Oneness which is not static but anti-entropic, expanding its wondrous abundance?

    Anyways. :-)

  6. Brutus says:

    Vera, I agree with your thrust but I don’t typically go the extra distance to divine underlying motivation, whether pecuniary, status seeking, or salve for lost souls. It’s enough for me to recognize that for many, flight from reality and its burdens is the desired path with many branches. Some seek forward to Transhumanism, others backward to the state of nature nonhuman animals occupy, yet others toward virtual reality or some shared hallucination. Whatever the path, not hard to assess that the modern psyche is fracturing badly and avenues of escape are rather attractive.

  7. realist says:


    The self and all its constructs are psychosomatic misunderstandings, illusions concocted by the (apparent) brain and body to try to make sense of the signals they are receiving.
    Everything ‘else’ is only nothing appearing as everything, for no reason or purpose. Nothing that appears is real or unreal. And nothing matters.

    I am absolutely not a non-dualist, nor a dualist BTW, yet I happen to subscribe to nearly all of this except “And nothing matters”.

    The self is indeed an illusion in the sense that is it not a fair description of the world but only a MAP which has some usefulness for YOU to survive and this “you” is the self which is not an illusion.

    You probably noticed that you have some agency, stirring up the sugar in your coffee does make a difference, THIS is your non-illusory self.

    The Advaita link by Vera is an excellent illustration of what can count as illusory or not.

  8. Paul Reid-Bowen says:

    I agree pretty much all of the the claims/conclusions that time, the self and free will don’t exist, or, minimally, that they aren’t what you, we or most people either think they are or else want them to be. I would probably simply diverge on some of the ways by which one can deconstruct these things. That is, there are forms of metaphysical materialism, pluralism and process thought that can do similar work (or get to similar answers), but which don’t leave you with nothing, simply a whole lot of everything, contingency all around. Not here to argue, speculative metaphysics is near impossible to refute beyond certain basic standards of theory construction (e.g. consistency, coherence, applicability and adequacy), I simply cut my teeth on Advaita and radical non-dualism many years ago and always felt it was self-refuting at some level. Instead I’ve found myself edging towards forms of new materialism, speculative realisms and metaphsycial pluralisms over the years (which, in part, is probably an aesthetic and value judgement which “I” have no control over). Of course, the flip-side of nothing matters is that everything matters, which isn’t especially helpful, but it can shift one’s perspective on the world.

    Anyways, thanks for the book suggestions. I was aware of a couple of them, but not all, some more material to challenge student’s conceptions of the world and themselves with (always fun deconstructing their ideas of and arguments for free will and identity).

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