Fly on the Wall—Vacuums and Their Potential

What matters most in life?  If you’ve been asked by friends or family “what the matter is,” or been confronted with claims that you possess too much of a scowl for your own good, or that dreaded resting bitch face, you know that matter is more than a physicist’s imaginary landscape of facts, figures, and angles.  The history of science has an especially ambivalent relation between truth and evidence and how the twain shall meet.  The term for how we know what we know is epistemology, and the biggest debate usually splits along the lines of trusting our senses or our minds, and which of those in greater proportion.  After all, if we only trust what we see, then we have to question our very minds that do the trusting.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gave her answer (whether she originated the quote herself is moot) to what we ought to most value in social life: “Poor minds talk about people, average minds talk about events, great minds talk about ideas” (online).  What matters, then, is a matter of opinion.  And pretty or vacuous though our eyeballs be, they aren’t the progenitors of ideas per se.  In science and culture this debate has been especially piquant throughout history.  Bear with me; see, the namesake of Bill Watterson’s famous Calvin and Hobbes tiger, Sir Thomas Hobbes, was in the thick of the early scientific revolution and the familiar question hinged on what mattered most: empirical evidence from bodily senses or philosophic truth by the rational mind?

While Francis Bacon derived the classic empirical method—now the basis of scientific inquiry—Blaise Pascal claimed that the heart has reason that reason knows not and even that “there is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus” (online).

This might not ring true (although sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum while ideas know no bounds) to our modern secular minds.  Yet there’s something about the absence created by a vacuum that interests minds of metaphor as well as mathematics.  And, of course, there’s ol’ Isaac Newton, taking a pause from alchemist intrigues, who noted that an apple falling will always bonk something below it—such as his head.  (Incidentally, the tree associated with him lately fell over in a mighty windstorm.  Had that tree stood forever Newton’s Law of Gravity would have been surely and ironically disproven!  (Brockington, online).

Hobbes, though, as the conservative counterpoint to the erstwhile liberal John Locke, was of a metaphysical bent.  His geometry and math was a bit, er, crooked; such that a noted physicist of his time, Huygens, noted ‘‘nothing solid, only pure visions’’ in one attempt at a geometrical proof by Hobbes; “by dint of being absurd, it becomes funny” (online).  More recently, Bruno Latour claimed that, with the ascent of experimental science, a lack exists at the root of the human experience: “We live in communities whose social bond comes from objects fabricated in laboratories; ideas have been replaced by practices, apodeictic reasoning by a controlled doxa, and universal agreement by groups of colleagues” (21).  In this context of trite mechanism, it’s maybe no wonder that gossip and celebrity culture is so prevalent: the only place to feel a common humanity is in the lowest common denominator; whereby people attempt to connect with absent others to understand facets of themselves that prevailing wisdom leaves unaddressed.  Anyone who’s tried to take cognitive behavioral therapy seriously can appreciate how arid such a mechanical approach to emotions sounds.

The Right Person for The Task

Tis’ true, Hobbes wasn’t up to the standards of the great scientific minds of his time.  On the other hand, and we distance students know full well that any perspective is viable within the learning outcomes of a given course—so long as we cite the proper textbook sources, Hobbes did have one interesting point of note.  Robert Boyle had recently achieved fame for his experiments where vacuums were induced by a pump whereby birds would suffocate and fall from their perch while onlookers (nobles and ladies and probably pet dogs) would gasp as though grateful that the newfound atmosphere were still present.  After all, air was a mystery until the vacuum proved its necessity for life.  Hobbes, however, was concerned.  If the universe was created by and filled up with God’s presence, as was generally assumed in the 1600s, then what happened when this vacuum, this blank artifice of lack, came into being.  Not only birds might fall from the proverbial sky, Hobbes reasoned.  “if God pervades all space…then any space left truly empty, as a vacuum, might be filled by the Devil.  Therefore such a space could not be permitted to exist” (in Aldersley-Williams, online).

For Hobbes to try and abolish vacuums was a bit petty, yet, when we’re studying, pondering, and daydreaming, do we not notice the oddest bits of epiphany entering our minds at the most exquisite or odd of times? These mental vacuums, like paper tiger anxieties and false arguments based on emotion, can yield wonderful things in short order.  Out of apparently nothing the spontaneous generation of eureka moments is key to the growth of our intellect.

Nothing and Everything

When it comes to learning, first there was nothing, a lack.  And out of that a moment of something arose.  And isn’t all learning a bit like that; suddenly things all come together?  Ancient Greeks, like Plato, were convinced that we all have fallen from full knowledge to an earthly ignorance; such that when we do learn something new it’s actually more like we’ve remembered it.  Plato’s “theory of recollection” is core to the idea that out of every mystery is an answer that we know deep in our selves.  From this angle, the joy of education is that it feels positive to gain knowledge and understanding because we are almost destined to return to our all-knowing primal roots.  No wonder we feel God-like when we’ve mastered a new concept, theory, or idea!  It’s almost as though we were destined to return to our roots as omniscient geniuses.  Or, at least, our recursive and retroactive ability to embody students with top notch grades!

So, next time you feel a sense of inertia whereby you’re being sucked into a vacuum lacking ambition or inspiration, remember: the vacuum will be filled by as much awesomeness as we allow.  And hey, if we get nothing done in those deflated moments of inertia, we can at least claim jovially that the devil made us do it!

Aldersley-Williams, H.  (2021).  ‘Huygens: A Scientist Among the Philosophers’.  Philosophy Now.  Retrieved from
Brockington, S.  (2022).  ‘Cambridge University Botanical Garden’s ‘Newton’s Apple Tree’ Felled in Storm’.  Retrieved from
Latour, B.  (1993).  We Have Never Been Modern.  Boston: Harvard University Press.
Mayo-Wilson, C.  (2017).  ‘Plato’s Theory of Recollection’ Washington State University.  Retrieved from
Roosevelt, E.  (2022/early 1900s).  Retrieved from
Ruegg, N.  (2019).  ‘There’s No Such Thing as a Christian Genius’.  Retrieved from
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