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Henri Bergson

“Close your eyes, if you will, and stop up your ears. Now picture yourself in an absolute void. Try to wish into nonbeing the entire contents of the world. You might begin, as Coleridge’s little boy did, by imagining away all the men and women and trees and grass and birds and beasts and earth and sky. And not just the sky, but everything in it. Think of the lights going out all over the cosmos: the sun disappearing, the stars extinguished, the galaxies winking into nonexistence one by one, or billion by billion. In your mind’s eye, the entire cosmos is sliding into silence, cold, and darkness — with nothing to be silent or cold or dark. You have succeeded in imaging absolute nothingness.

Or have you?

When the French philosopher Henri Bergson tried to imagine universal annihilation, he found that there was inevitably something left over at the end of the experiment: his inner self. Bergson thought of the world as being as “an embroidery on the canvas of the void.” But when he attempted to strip this embroidery away, the canvas of his consciousness remained. Try as he might, he could not suppress it. “At the very instant that my consciousness is extinguished,” he wrote, “another consciousness lights up — or rather, it was already alight; it has arisen the instant before, in order to witness the extinction of the first.” He found it impossible to imagine absolute nothingness without some residuum of consciousness creeping into the darkness, like a little light under the door. Therefore, he concluded, nothingness must be an impossibility.”


From Jim Holt’s new book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story.

The picture is of Henri Bergson.