What is Nothing?
“And she tried to fancy what the flame of a candle
looks like after the candle is blown out,
for she could not remember ever having seen such a thing.”
Can we have a true idea of nothing? Consider the following views (and the list is far from complete):
• Grammar poses challenges here; ‘nothing’, as an indefinite pronoun, refers to something. However, since ‘nothing’ is an indefinite pronoun, attributes should not be ascribed to it.
• Semantically ‘nothing’ represents ‘no thing’, thus it stands as an antonym for ‘some thing’. However, ‘no thing’ presupposes there is a ‘thing’ such that the thing is no more or not present.
• Some philosophers (e.g., Parmenides) have argued that ‘nothing’ cannot logically exist (in a world without change). Others (e.g., Aristotle, Newton) have argued that a reference to ‘nothing’ refers to absolute, though empty, space to be populated with things.
• Those who argue that nothing is the (a?) void were also, if they were theists, equating nothing with a (the?) god. Evidently ‘nothing’ has a promising career as an absolute.
• It seems logically challenging for scientists to have a concept of ‘nothing’, since ‘nothing’ would not by definition be observable. And indeed much ‘stuff’ has been observed in so-called empty space. But there is still the question whether it is something or nothing into which the universe expands.
• And we should bow before the idea of ’zero’, whether lowly placeholder or nil value for a numeric grouping. Can ‘nothing’ have the attributes and the functionality required for mathematics?
• And, perhaps at a more personal level, ‘nothing’ can be a state of being or consciousness; there is debate whether this state is one of bliss or of challenge.
Our discussion will consider the relative merits of each concept or group of concepts about ‘nothing’. If we wished to pursue a course of discussion likely to be helpful in our lives, we might consider which idea of ‘nothing’ is:
- The default interpretation in everyday speech
- The most unambiguous
- The most persuasive
- The most useful
- The most wrong.
Following is a short accessible paper I wrote about nothing a few years ago:
Thinking about Nothing
"What are you thinking about?" "Nothing"
Most probably the answer means 'nothing important', 'nothing I remember' or 'I was just drifting'. Perhaps in some cases it means that the answerer has literally emptied his or her mind of all thinking content, which is a significant accomplishment.
But suppose one of us were actually thinking about 'nothing' - about the essential nature and the characteristics of 'nothing'. Is it nonsense to think about nothing in that sense?
What is our idea of 'nothing'? For we do have one. We know that 'nothing' is not 'something': we probably perceive 'nothing' as the absence of something. But 'nothing' cannot simply be everything that something is not. Nothing and something share characteristics. For one thing, something and nothing both exist, at least as concepts.
'Nothing' is in fact essential to our understanding of 'something', it draws the boundary lines of existence. Affirmation requires negation, or at least contradiction. If we are to identify something, say an apple, we must also identify those things which are not apple. If everything were an apple, we wouldn't be able to identify apples, we would be apples ourselves (who, I'm told, are chronically vague about existential concepts).
So we have already made progress:
• 'Nothing' exists.
• The idea of 'nothing' is essential to our understanding of what does exist.
Does 'nothing' have characteristics apart from its necessary existence? We know that 'nothing' does not have the qualities of things. 'Nothing' is not blue, not soft, doesn't smell or sing. In fact, it appears to be essential to our understanding of 'nothing' that it not have any qualities present in things.
• So 'nothing' exists as a matter of necessity to our understanding, but has no discernable qualities.
Our thought processes suggest that 'nothing' is logically, and temporally, prior to 'something'. Our concepts of creation, and indeed annihilation, are based on 'something' derived from - and proceeding to - 'nothing'.
Except we do seem to have difficulty with this sort of nothing. In one theology, a god is required to create the 'something', in that case the heavens and the earth. Unless this god is without qualities, though, the entity doesn't qualify and 'nothing' In one statement of Big Bang Theory, there is a primaeval atom which makes the Mother of all Explosions. This is also presents a problem in getting to the 'nothing', as the atom has the qualities of being primaeval.
In another rendition of the same theory, all matter and all space are concentrated at one point. If we add 'time' to that concentrated mix, we can get close to the idea of 'nothing'. For if all things - matter, space and time - are concentrated at one point, there is no basis to distinguish between them, we can discern no qualities among the 'all'. If everything is apples, there are no apples.
We already have argued that 'nothing' has no discernable qualities.
• So all things, all space, and all time together add to 'nothing'.
Maybe nothing is something after all.