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What is Nothing?

  • Nov 19, 2012 · 7:00 PM
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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.”

Lewis Carroll

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.



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  • A former member
    A former member

    What about Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing compares to you." which I hadn't realized till now was actually the most polite rejection note ever, set to a lament.

    November 20, 2012

    • alice g.

      Yes, indeed...but the subtly sardonic is lost on most...LOL

      November 20, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      Yes, like two negatives always meaning a positive, like "yah, right" ... and well the best example is Stephen Colbert being invited to that George W. Bush thingy... sadly there are still folks who haven't figured that one out yet...

      November 20, 2012

  • alice g.

    Good one Eric! Dialogue (well, argument) between two adversaries
    might go something like this... * "You know nothing..."
    * "Well, that's not true! I think a lot - therefore I am! And I know!"
    * "But you think about nothing!"
    * "So what's your point?"

    November 20, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    I still think Sgt Shultz got it correctly... especially when integrated with Descartes to get:

    "I think therefore I know nothing, I know nothing."

    November 20, 2012

  • alice g.

    Well, (to add a note of levity, lest we ever veer off into taking ourselves too seriously) - Seinfeld, a show self-described as being about "nothing" - made & still (re-runs) makes millions laugh and made billions of dollars - not bad for a show "about nothing" :)

    Then there's the Bard's "Much Ado About Nothing"...:)

    Moral of story, you need a funny bone to grasp this concept.

    November 20, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    Something I thought about this morning... In physics, we deal with electricity and measure the electrical current. However, thanks to Ben Franklin, what we call positive electrical current is often best explained as a flow of nothingness... electricity is the flow of electrons, which thanks to Ben we say they have a negative charge... you can think of a flow of electrons as being the opposite direction of a flow of "holes" where the electrons just were... all the formulas are written using these flow of holes...

    November 20, 2012

  • Robert ("Robaire") N.

    Mike, the first segment of your post summarizes the main thesis in Berkeley's Treatise. Unlike Locke who posited that all material objects have primary and secondary qualities or attributes, for Berkeley all qualities or attributes are secondary: size, texture, colour, etc.. These qualities are the product of the percipient mind. Without a percipient mind there are no qualities. Eliminate all these qualities one-by-one and what remains? Nothing. Yet Berkeley was not arguing that nothing exists. There actually is a top to the mountain and a dark side of the moon even if we can't perceive it. It exists nonetheless in the mind of God. In other words, "nothing" has no ontological existence outside the percipient Mind. It is non-Being (per Parmenides). The opposite of Being; the opposite of existence, i.e. non-existence. It exists only in the mind as a metaphysical construct. The second half of your post is a nice summary of Parmenides.

    November 17, 2012

    • Mike H

      Robert, I hope I wasn't summarizing Parmenidies particularly accurately given this very amusing abridgement of the entry on Nothing in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.nothing.co...­

      November 18, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      Wow! That was a surprisingly good abridgement, full of the kind of self-deprecation that could only arise, floundering in scopal ambiguity, as they say. Unfortunately, can't come tomorrow, but have every confidence that as of 24 hours from now, NOTHING will be solved. (and in the ironic sense in which the above entry was provided, I leave you with the grand thought that we are all really part of ONE big family: http://www.youtube.co...­

      November 18, 2012

  • alice g.

    Exactly so. No contest. Key word here is 'irony'. It is a construct of man's mind based upon fear. Czech writer Milan Kundera inadvertently explored the notion of the 'nothing' in his novel "The Incredible Lightness of Being".

    November 17, 2012

    • alice g.

      .......i.e. "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"...

      November 18, 2012

  • Mike H

    Empirical content arises only when something affects our faculties but Nothing is not a something. With no empirical object available the sole road to Nothing is via our ideas. That road starts everywhere: choose any idea you please, then abstract from every given aspect. The remainder is the idea of Nothing. Nothing is the ultimate terminus of abstraction. It is the idea furthest from the empirical: the purest, most ideal of ideas. But the ideal is not necessarily estranged from the real. Assume that A does not equal B, but becomes B. A is no longer. It is a piece with nothing. If there were only being, all would be what it is forever and nothing else. Nothing is that which permits being to become. If there were only being, every being would be fixed fast to the exclusion of the other: a frozen reality, devoid of communion. "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." L. Cohen

    November 17, 2012

  • alice g.

    That the "earth was formless and empty" (Genesis 1), a notion put forth as the initial premise in the Old Testament as a 'proof' of the existence of 'God', (in that the latter had an empty canvas of 'nothing' upon which to create), speaks more about man's DNA than God's;
    i.e. man's need to rid himself of the notion of the possibility of nothingness (of the "formless and the empty") having any chance to continue to exist - of man's need to obliterate that 'nothingness' with 'creation' - thus, de facto, and ironically, proving the very existence of nothingness.

    November 16, 2012

    • Robert ("Robaire") N.

      Alice, your post got me thinking some more about "nothing", and more specifically about the creatio ex nihilo. And the more I do, the more persuaded I am that "nothing" has no ontological existence outside the mind. It is non-Being (per Parmenides). The opposite of Being; the opposite of existence, i.e. non-existence. It can only exist as a metaphysical construct. That is likely why Aquinas didn't think much about nothing, or, more correctly, about creatio ex nihilo. Although he affirmed the creatio ex nihilo, he emphasized the origin of creation in God rather than its temporal beginning. Absent creation, only God exists. Absent God, nothing exists.

      November 17, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    Yes, the act of thinking about nothing is indeed not nothing, but I don't understand why that means that nothing can't exist? To do so you wouldn't you have to link a person's thought to the existence of an "object".

    As to physics and the perfect vacuum, yes, we may not ever be able to create a perfect vacuum, and yes, even in the universe a perfect vacuum may not have been shown to exist ... but that isn't a proof that an area of nothing can't or doesn't exist somewhere in the universe, say for example you have a spinning sphere of black holes the interior of which isn't a black hole, but everything in the interior has been sucked into the black holes and the black holes suck in anything that tries to get into the interior... that could be a space of nothing... One intriguing idea is that if the universe keeps expanding and thinning out the energy within the universe, isn't the universe just asymptotically approaching nothingness.

    November 15, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      On further thought, when a black hole moves in space-time, does it leave a temporary trail of nothingness?

      November 16, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      ...does it leave a temporary trail of nothingness?" Way beyond my understanding and an interesting question. I'd settle for what happens t space-time at the 'trail-edge' of a moving black hole. Unfortunately, there aren't enough Richard Feynmans around who can transform the relevant equations into simple physical pictures for the public, as far as I'm concerned.

      November 16, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    Well, here is somethin' from nothin'...I have a ticket to give away to see Gilberto Gil (of 'The Girl from Ipanema' fame). The concert will take place at 7:30 PM on November 20th at Dominion Chalmers. First come, first served. Please email me if you are interested.

    1 · November 14, 2012

    • alice g.

      Again, THANKS Lorraine! What a treat!

      November 16, 2012

  • Robert ("Robaire") N.

    "One intriguing idea is that if the universe keeps expanding and thinning out the energy within the universe, isn't the universe just asymptotically approaching nothingness." Intriguing, indeed. And the corollary: the universe expanding into... what?? Empty space? Or nothing?

    Enter Parmenides again. What I find intriguing about Parmenides' view of Being & non-Being (nothingness) , if I understand him correctly, is that while he assigns "Being" to the realm of thought, he at the same time accepts it as material, pervasive in space (contra Berkeley). Think about it: "nothing" - the opposite of "Being" - becomes empty space. By denying reality to "nothing", Parmenides at the same time denies the existence of empty space. Since space is a proper object of scientific study, and since "nothing" and "empty space" are equivalent (in Parmenides' thought), he elevates "nothing" to a proper object of scientific query... not just philosophical speculation.

    November 15, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      I think the dogma is that science works on falsifiable postulations, to contrast it to philosophy which doesn't? But at the heart of the matter, underlying theorizing will always be unquestioned philosophical assumptions ... Kuhn and paradigmatic revolutions and all of that ...

      November 15, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      Although, maybe saying that science is "the low hanging fruit of philosophical speculation" might be a way to say it.

      November 15, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    I jest, but perhaps the closest thing we can experience to nothing is sleep or consciousness?

    November 15, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      How about a sensory deprivation tank? Either that or watching Fox News :)

      November 15, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      Hi Alex, I've actually read a philosophical treatment where deep (non-REM) sleep was likened to the experience of nothing. As I recall, it was akin to how some Buddhist schools liken Satori to the attainment of a non-dual/non-objective state of consciousness. I

      November 15, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    I beg to differ, nothing is of great importance if you have nothing ...

    November 15, 2012

  • James

    Nothing does not carry any importance.

    November 15, 2012

  • Robert ("Robaire") N.

    What occurs to me from Ron's comment and Alex's question "is nothing even conceivable?", is Parmenides. He is the first philosopher in the Western tradition to focus exclusively on Being & non-Being (nothingness). Because, as Alex rightly points out, to think at all - even to think of nothing - is to think of something. But thinking itself is the act of a conscious mind (see Berkley). For Parmenides, non-Being or "nothingness" is unintelligible. Modern physics appears to bear that out in positing that there is no such thing as a true vacuum or "empty space" devoid of traces of energy or quantum fluctuations.

    This leads me to the 17th Century empiricist George Berkeley who argues that nothing can exist or come into being absent a conscious mind, i.e. esse est percipe: to be is to be perceived. Nothing is (in an ontological sense) unless there is a conscious mind to perceive it. Put another way, nothing can only exist in the mind. It has no separate ontological existence.

    November 15, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    I see nothing as a lack of something, the absence. But is nothing even conceivable? As to talk about nothing is something, and to truly understand what nothingness is, is like talking with out saying any words - literally speaking!

    November 15, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    It strikes me as odd that the concept of 'nothing' is invoked by those who engage in grand metaphysical system-building, and those who reject of the possibility or desirability of that philosophical project entirely. Is it a question of a totalizing nothing (say, Hegel, Adorno, Lukcas) or a non-totalizing nothing (Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida)? It would be interesting to look a some writers who attempt to overcome this opposition (or have it both ways!) such as Kojeve in the '30s and Zizek today. Just a thought.

    November 14, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    Or Billy Preston's "Nothin' from nothin' leaves nothin'" ...

    November 11, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      as to how can the

      November 13, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      oopsy ... asking be of use critically and practically ... the context I think is from an earlier discussion of what the Big Expansion (well that's what I call it, it didn't Bang) meant. As the Big Expansion came out of nothing ... maybe a discussion on what is nothing can shed some light on what caused or occurred to make the Big Bang (I give up, takes to long to type expansion...) happen... as well as can something come from nothing or is it two different types of nothing, one being whatever we haven't the foggiest idea about, and the other being the lack of stuff or the "space" between stuff, where stuff is the class of things we can perceive and/or think about...

      November 13, 2012

  • alice g.

    "L'etre et le neant" (excuse no accents here-hard to access on my Mac)
    or in translation, "Being and Nothingness" (Sartre) is one potential resource from which to launch this fascinating topic...Look forward to this...

    November 11, 2012

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