The Riddle of Being or Nothingness

being or nothingnessJon Ronson’s The Psycopath Test (2011) opens with the strange story of Being or Nothingness:

Last July, Deborah received a strange package in the mail…  The package contained a book. It was only forty-two pages long, twenty-one of which—every other page—were completely blank, but everything about it—the paper, the illustrations, the typeface—looked very expensively produced. The cover was a delicate, eerie picture of two disembodied hands drawing each other. Deborah recognized it to be a reproduction of M. C. Escher’s Drawing Hands.

The author was a “Joe K” (a reference to Kafka’s Josef K., maybe, or an anagram of “joke”?) and the title was Being or Nothingness, which was some kind of allusion to Sartre’s 1943 essay, Being and Nothingness. Someone had carefully cut out with scissors the page that would have listed the publishing and copyright details, the ISBN, etc., so there were no clues there. A sticker read: Warning! Please study the letter to Professor Hofstadter before you read the book. Good Luck!

Deborah leafed through it. It was obviously some kind of puzzle waiting to be solved, with cryptic verse and pages where words had been cut out, and so on.

Everyone at MIRI was pretty amused when a copy of Being or Nothingness arrived at our offices last year, addressed to Eliezer.

Everyone except Eliezer, anyway. He just rolled his eyes and said, “Do what you want with it; I’ve been getting crazy stuff like that for years.”

Doug Hofstadter had roughly the same reaction when he received his own copy. Or rather, 80 copies. Here’s Hofstadter, from an exchange of letters with Ronson:

I have been sent about 80 copies (70 in English, 10 in Swedish) by its author. They sit untouched in my office. Before the book existed, I received a series of extremely cryptic postcards, all in Swedish (all of which I read, although not carefully, and none of which made the least sense at all). People who are normal (i.e., sane, sensible) don’t try to open lines of communication with total strangers by writing them a series of disjointed, weird, cryptic messages.

From there on, it only got weirder—first several copies of the book were sent to me in a package, and then, some months later, about 80 copies arrived at my office, and then came the bizarre claim that a bunch of copies “were found under a bridge” on my campus, and then books started arriving at various universities around the world, sent to people in certain disciplines that were vaguely associated with Al, biology, etc. And then there were the scissored-out words (super-weird!), and the taped-in letter, addressed to me. All of it was completely nuts. I could say much more about it all, but I don’t have the time.

I have a great deal of experience with people who are smart but unbalanced, people who think they have found the key to the universe, etc. It’s a sad thing, but there are many of them out there, and often they are extremely obsessive. This particular case was exceedingly transparent because it was so exceedingly obsessive.

Eliezer’s “Collector’s Edition” of the book came with a separate volume titled Recipients of BorN: The Collector’s Edition, which has 7 chapters. Chapter 1 is a list of recipients 1-100; chapter 2 is a list of recipients 101-200; etc. The addendum includes the line “If you find inaccuracies in the text… please contact us at” Sure enough, is a Swedish book publisher that lists Being or Nothingness: Collector’s Edition in its catalogue, though it can’t be purchased there.

Chapter 1 of the Recipients book begins like this:

  1. R
  2. I
  4. Dr Watson      UNDELIVERED
  5. David Deutsch

… and then provides a full-color photo and short bio for Dr. Deutsch and the other 695 people on the list. (Eliezer is #303.)

It’s an eclectic list of recipients and, to my surprise, I know who most of them are. Here’s a sampling of the first 215 names:

Doug Hofstadter, Lee Smolin, Seth Lloyd, Steven Pinker, Stephen Wolfram, Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Nagel, Ayann Hirsi Ali, Thomas Sowell, Greg Chaitin, Pope Benedict, Robert Pirsig, George Church, Alan Sokal, Tenzin Gyatso, Mikhail Gorbachev, Roger Penrose, Henry Markram, Richard Dawkins, Craig Venter, Murray Gell-Mann, Christof Koch, Ray Kurzweil, Peter Shor, Steven Weinberg, Salman Rushdie, Nelson Mandela, Daniel Kahneman, John Roberts, David Chalmers, Bjorn Lomborg, Gerard ‘t Hooft, Jeff Hawkins, Daren Acemoglu, Lars von Trier, Edward O. Wilson, Scott Aaronson, Leonard Susskind, Tony Blair, Tim Cook, Andrew Wiles, Antonio Damasio, Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, Harold Bloom, Condoleezza Rice, Ian Hacking, George Lakoff, Justin Rattner, Ron Paul, Gary Kasparov, Saul Kripke, Tim Berners-Lee, Susan Cain, Warren Buffett, Paul Davies, Lawrence Krauss, Bill Joy, John Searle, David Sloan Wilson, Ned Block, Neal Stephenson, Roy Baumeister, Stephen Fry, Madeleine Albright, Thomas Metzinger, Alvin Plantinga, Eric Chaisson, Philip Pullman, Stuart Kauffman, Leonard Cohen, Charles Bennet, Marvin Minsky, Hans Moravec, Christopher Boehm, Marcus Hutter, Martin Rees, Julian Assange, Hans Roling, Derek Parfit, John Conway, Frank Wilczek, Rodney Brooks, Eric Drexler, Ben Goertzel, David Albert, Bill Gates, Andre Agassi, John Leslie, Nicholas Carr, Geert Wilders, Peter Singer, James Randi, Buzz Aldrin, Nassim Taleb, David Mamet, William Easterly, Michael Shermer, Jurgen Habermas, Graham Priest, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Sam Harris, Irene Pepperberg, Niall Ferguson, Vernor Vinge, Eckhart Tolle, George Steiner, Jared Diamond, Dharmendra Modha, Aubrey de Grey, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bob Dylan, Paul Allen, Umberto Eco, Patrick Buchanan, Dileep George, David Lynch, Muhammad Yunus, Joshua Knobe, Oliver Sacks, Noam Chomsky.

Anyway, Jon Ronson tried to figure out who Joe K was:

I had a lead in Gothenburg, the name and business address of a man who might know the identity or identities of “Joe K.” His name was Petter Nordlund. Although none of the packages sent to the academics contained any leads—no names of possible authors or distributors—somewhere, buried deep within the archive of a Swedish library, I had found “Petter Nordlund” referenced as the English translator of Being or Nothingness. A Google search revealed nothing more about him, only the address of a Gothenburg company, BIR, that he was somehow involved in.

Ronson went to Gothenburg, Sweden and spoke to Nordlund:

“I’m surprised you’re here,” Petter said.

“I hope it isn’t too unpleasant a surprise,” I said.

There was a short silence. “If you study Being or Nothingness,” Petter said, “you will realize that you will never find out the author.”

“I think I know the author,” I said. “I think it’s you.”

“That’s easy to . . .” Petter trailed off. “That’s an easy guess,” he said.

“Is it a correct guess?” I asked.

“Of course not,” said Petter.

Petter…  bounced up and down on his feet a little. He was adopting the demeanor of a man who had received an unexpected visit from a neighbor just as something was boiling over on the stove. But I could tell his air of friendly distraction was a mask and underneath he was feeling quite overwhelmed by my arrival.

“Petter,” I said. “Let me at least ask you this. Why were those particular people chosen to receive the book?”

At this, Petter let out a small gasp. His face lit up. It was as if I had just asked him the most wonderful question that could be asked. “Well… ”

“How would you know who got the book?” Lily quickly interrupted, a sharpness in her voice. “You only translated it.”

And, with that, the moment passed. Petter’s face once again took on the mask of polite distraction.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes. I really am sorry, but I’m going to have to end. . . . My intention was just to say hi and go back. I have said more than I should. . . . You talk to my wife now.”

Petter backed away then, smiling, back into the shadows of his house, and Lily and I looked at each other.

“I’m going to Norway now,” she said. “Good-bye.”

Ronson corresponded with Nordlund via email after that. He asked Nordlund how the recipients were chosen. “There has to be a little mystery left,” Nordlund replied. And then he cut off all contact.

Here is a scanned copy of Being or Nothingness, for your enjoyment.

The story of A.M. Monius is even better.


  1. Itai Franklin says

    Hi Luke,
    My father also received the book a few years ago, i always wonders who else got it. Where can i see the full list of people who got the book?

  2. Jen says

    Am I the only person who finds this funny? Surely it is all a joke after all, a way to get all the intelligent ‘big thinkers’ thinking? At the end it says beware, and “you wouldn’t want to trade the eternal loop of your life for the infinite loop in the world of ideas, would you?”
    Maybe it just means we over think things and it’s a perfect example as this has caused a lot of people to try and figure out what it means. I think it’s just a loop, it’s meant to make your think, it’s meant to confuse you as people over analsye and think too much after all. And it’s funny if it’s all a joke and if people have just been trying to find some meaning which isn’t really there.
    But I’m just a reader, no brainy expert.
    I think it’s just trying to say people look for answers and spend all their life looking for answers rather than living, maybe?
    I’m not really concerned as the person who wrote this has the last laugh and I’m not concerned if I’m right or wrong, I just enjoyed having the mystery.

  3. jeminiii says

    A lot of those names look familiar – I am thinking maybe (at the time it was written) these perhaps were some of the members of “The Committee of 300”. Just a thought…. :)

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