Heidegger vs Carnap: The metaphysics of nothing

Hearing the sounds of silence

Heidegger and Carnap famously argued over whether metaphysics has any real content or is meaningless nonsense. Carnap called metaphysicians “musicians without musical ability” and thought science could give us the answers to all meaningful questions. But Heidegger insisted that metaphysics is needed to answer some of our deepest questions, like why there is something rather than nothing and what silence can teach us about the nature of ‘nothing’, writes Roy Sorensen.


In his 1932 inaugural address “What is metaphysics?”, Martin Heidegger ends: “Why are there beings at all rather than nothing?” There followed a respectful silence.  Did Professor Heidegger’s audience hear the silence? Or did they just fail to hear anything? Rudolph Carnap, as a logical empiricist, defers to the physicists of his era: We hear only sound. Silence is the absence of sound. Therefore, no one hears silence. Martin Heidegger thinks physics must defer to metaphysics. Metaphysics goes beyond an inventory of entities. A complete description of the universe requires the ending: there is nothing more. This ending is the beginning of metaphysics.

All English speakers know how to use `be’. The grammarian therefore attends to its everyday usage. All human beings know being. The metaphysician therefore attends to the everyday experience of being.

Silence is savored by Heidegger in his winter hut in the Black Forest. His enjoyment is not a mere relief from hearing. Thanks to the snow, thanks to the solitude, Heidegger hears the nothing.


There is no sound of silence. There is no veil of appearance covering the nothing-in-itself. Hearing silence is a direct perception of nothing.


Silence can be heard with a single ear. But Heidegger hears a single silence with two ears. The particular silence at the end of his lecture was heard by a hundred ears. Instead of there being as many silences as there are members of the audience, there is a single silence heard by all.

Social silences can be further scaled up. Pope John II died at 9:37 pm April 2, 2005. Exactly one year later, there was a national moment of silence in Poland. The same silence was heard across the country. Simultaneously, there was a moment of darkness. When the candles went out, the night came in. There is a look to the absence of light: DARK. In contrast, there is no sound of silence. There is no veil of appearance covering the nothing-in-itself. Hearing silence is a direct perception of nothing.

Franz Brentano, who taught Heidegger’s teacher Edmund Husserl, maintained that intentional mental states are always transitive. When you think, you think about something. When you hear, there is something that you hear. If you hear silence, must the something you hear be a nothing?

Critics of Brentano’s intentionality principle deny that an absence can be an object of perception. They compare hearing to counting. Usually, there are some things that get counted. But occasionally, we count intransitively. A student shows she can count in German by simply listing the German numerals in the correct order: eins, zwei, drei, . . .

But we do count how many silences are heard. Consider “The Joke” (Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat, Op 33 No 2). The music stops. The audience begins to applaud. But then the composition continues. Awkward! After a few more false endings, the audience begin to laugh in recognition that the musicians are playing a prank. Most listeners lose track of the number of silences.  But the musicians must count the silences to coordinate their performance. Someone with a faulty hearing aid can count how many times he fails to hear while losing count of the number of silences. While deaf, he cannot hear silence.

Heidegger resolutely applies Brentano’s principle. The contrast between a specific fear and “free floating” anxiety is not the apparent aimlessness of anxiety. Anxiety is directed - at nothing. Your life is sandwiched between the nothingness of your pre-life past and your post-life future. Inside that sandwich are further pockets of nothing – the irregular holes in the Swiss cheese of your life. These little nothings are accessible to the senses. Holes can even be touched. Loneliness, nostalgia, count up to the Nothing. One can also count down to Nothing. In Being and Time, Heidegger embeds each thing in time. Anything that is in time, need not have existed at that time – or at any time. Therefore, a complete absence of beings is possible.

Rudolph Carnap discussed Being and Time with its newly famous author. They had common ground: answers had to be disclosed by experience. Heidegger and Carnap agreed that most epistemological questions failed this requirement. They dismiss `How can we prove the external world?’ and `How do I know that there are other minds?’ as pseudo-questions.


After reading “What is metaphysics?” Carnap viewed any bridge from nothings to Nothing as a bridge from nowhere to Nowhere.


Heidegger and Carnap disagreed over what counts as experience. Carnap emphasizes the difference between experience and the inferences drawn from experience. One hears music, not the musicians. The musicians are inferred from auditory sensations. We also make inferences from the absences of sense data. We fail to hear sound and trace that failure to an absence of sound. Reports of experience should have the hedged form `It seems to me now that ______’. These are not based on any inferences (as when a bystander reports hearing a gun on the basis of an auditory sensation). The only way to make an error is to make an inference. Therefore, completely hedged statements have the certainty needed to serve as axioms for all knowledge of the world.

After reading “What is metaphysics?” Carnap viewed any bridge from nothings to Nothing as a bridge from nowhere to Nowhere. `Nothing’ can be defined with `everything’ and negation: `Nothing is heard’ means `Everything is not heard’. `Nothing’ just a quantifier and so does not refer to anything. Hearing silence is not hearing anything. Heidegger mistakes an absence of representation as a representation of absence.

Many of Carnap’s fellow physicists agreed that there are no verifications of nothing. That certainly was the case when Carnap wrote “Overcoming Metaphysics” in his 1932 debunking of Heidegger. Carnap never claims Heidegger falsely answers `Why is there something rather than nothing?’. For Carnap denies there is even a question.

A question is a request to verify one of its direct answers (a response that is minimal but complete). The questioner displays all the possible direct answers and requests: Pick a true one! For a why question, the possible answers are reasons. The correct explanation of `Why does the sun exist?’ is that there was a cloud of gas that swirled into a body massive enough to undergo nuclear fusion – with a little left over to form planets. No such explanation is possible for “Why are there beings at all rather than nothing?”. For this all-embracing why-question does not allow us to explain why one thing exists in terms of another thing. Carnap concludes that “the fundamental question of philosophy” is not a question at all – just like all metaphysical “questions”.

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Most metaphysicians hasten to challenge Carnap’s verification criterion of meaning: a statement is meaningful if and only if it is verifiable by experience or calculation. They object that a statement implies a prediction only when combined with a variety of other statements. This holism distances every statement from experience.

Even those who accepted the verification criterion disagreed over whether experience could confirm `There are experiences after death’. The leader of the Vienna Circle, Moritz Schlick, wrote “I can easily imagine, e. g. , witnessing the funeral of my own body.” (from an article published after his murder by a deranged student). Carnap disagreed with Schlick. But Carnap believed that experiences might confirm `I am telepathic’. Some of his colleagues agreed, others disagreed.

Some regard dreams as perceptions of an alternate realm.  Others discount dreams as off-line pseudo-experiences. Ditto for passive daydreams, hallucinations of mad men, and the visions of mystics.

Some Soviet psychiatrists sincerely discounted the experiences of dissidents. In “The Politics of Experience” (1967) the psychiatrist R. D. Laing argued that American psychiatrists treated schizophrenics in the same way. Their patients were forced to take drugs to make their experiences conform to reality. The Harvard psychologist, Timothy Leary, argued that other Americans were forced not to take drugs that challenge the hegemony of ordinary experiences.


Ironically, the scientific approach favored by Carnap suggests that Heidegger is correct.


Which experiences are the most revelatory? When Carnap discusses space, he turns to astronomical experiments that support Albert Einstein’s theory of space that bends near massive bodies such as the sun. When Heidegger discusses space, he discusses the peasant measuring distance by how many pipefuls of tobacco must be smoked along the way. This might make us pessimistic about settling the question `Do we hear silence or do we merely fail to hear?’.

Ironically, the scientific approach favored by Carnap suggests that Heidegger is correct. In 2023, the philosopher Ian Phillips co-authored an article with the scientists Rui Zhe Goh and Chaz Firestone to show the principles governing hearing work uniformly for both sound and silence.  The operation of perceptual principles is exposed by illusions. For instance, a single sound seems longer than two sounds that sum to an equal duration. In an exact parallel, a single silence seems longer than two silences that sum to an equal duration. In a second illusion, silence plays the same background as sound. Two tones embedded in a larger silence/sound seem further apart than in random noise.  Listen for yourself at https://perceptionresearch.org/silence.

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