From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Nothing is true, everything is permitted" --Hassan-i Sabbāh
"D’abord, il n’y a rien, ensuite un rien profond, puis une profondeur bleue" --Gaston Bachelard
Nothing is commonly understood as the lack or absence of anything at all. Colloquially, the term is often used to indicate the lack of anything relevant or significant, or to describe a particularly unimpressive thing, event, or object.
Some would consider the study of "nothing" to be foolish, a typical response of this type is voiced by Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) in conversation with his landlord, one Dr. Gozzi, who also happens to be a priest,
- As everything, for him, was an article of faith, nothing, to his mind, was difficult to understand: the Great Flood had covered the entire world; before, men had the misfortune of living a thousand years; God conversed with them; Noah had taken one hundred years to build the ark; while the earth, suspended in air, stood firmly at the center of the universe that God had created out of nothingness. When I said to him, and proved to him, that the existence of nothingness was absurd, he cut me short, calling me silly.
However, "nothingness" has been treated as a serious subject worthy of research for a very long time. In philosophy, to avoid linguistic traps over the meaning of "nothing", a phrase such as not-being is often employed to unambiguously make clear what is being discussed.
One of the earliest western philosophers to consider nothing as a concept was Parmenides (5th century BC) who was a Greek philosopher of the monist school. He argued that "nothing" cannot exist by the following line of reasoning: To speak of a thing, one has to speak of a thing that exists. Since we can speak of a thing in the past, it must still exist (in some sense) now and from this concludes that there is no such thing as change. As a corollary, there can be no such things as coming-into-being, passing-out-of-being, or not-being.
Parmenides was taken seriously by other philosophers, influencing, for instance, Socrates and Plato. Aristotle gives Parmenides serious consideration but concludes; "Although these opinions seem to follow logically in a dialectical discussion, yet to believe them seems next door to madness when one considers the facts."
Leucippus (early 5th century BC), one of the atomists, along with other philosophers of his time, made attempts to reconcile this with the everyday observation of motion and change. He accepted the monist position that there could be no motion without a void. The void is the opposite of being, it is not-being. On the other hand, a thing that exists is an absolute plenum and there can be no motion in a plenum because it is completely full. But there is not one monolithic plenum, existence consists of a multiplicity of plenums. These are the invisibly small atoms of the atomists theory, later expanded more fully by Democritus (circa 460 BC – 370 BC). They are a necessary part of the theory to allow the void to exist between them. In this scenario macroscopic objects can come-into-being move through space and pass into not-being by means of the coming together and moving apart of their constituent atoms. The void must exist to allow this to happen or else the frozen world of Parmenides must be accepted.
Bertrand Russell points out that this does not exactly defeat the argument of Parmenides, but rather ignores it by taking the rather modern scientific position of starting with the observed data (motion etc.) and constructing a theory based on the data as opposed to Parmenides attempts to work from pure logic. Russell also observes that both sides were mistaken in believing that there can be no motion in a plenum, but arguably motion cannot start in a plenum. Cyril Bailey notes that Leucippus is the first to say that a thing (the void) might be real without being a body and points out the irony that this comes from a materialistic atomist. Leucippus is therefore the first to say that "nothing" has a reality attached to it.
Aristotle (384–322 BC) provided the classic escape from the logical problem posed by Parmenides by distinguishing things that are matter and things that are space. In this scenario, space is not "nothing", but a receptacle in which objects of matter can be placed. The void (as "nothing") is different from space and is removed from consideration.
This characterisation of space reached its pinnacle with Isaac Newton who asserted the existence of absolute space. Interestingly, modern quantum theory agrees that space is not the void, there is the concept of quantum foam which still exists in the absence of all else, although Albert Einstein's general relativity no longer agrees with Newton's concept of an absolute space. René Descartes, on the other hand, returned to a Parmenides-like argument of denying the existence of space. For Descartes, there was matter, and there was extension of matter leaving no room for the existence of "nothing".
The idea that space can actually be empty was generally still not accepted by philosophers who invoked arguments similar to the plenum reasoning. Although Descartes views on this were challenged by Blaise Pascal, he declined to overturn the traditional belief, commonly stated in the form "Nature abhors a vacuum". This remained so until Evangelista Torricelli invented the barometer in 1643 and showed that an empty space appeared if the mercury tube was turned upside down. This phenomenon being known as the Torricelli vacuum and the unit of vacuum pressure, the torr, being named after him. Even Torricelli's teacher, the famous Galileo Galilei had previously been unable to adequately explain the sucking action of a pump.
John the Scot
John the Scot, or Johannes Scotus Eriugena (c. 815–877) held many surprisingly heretical beliefs for the time he lived in for which no action appears ever to have been taken against him. His ideas mostly stem from, or are based on his work of translating pseudo-Dionysius. His beliefs are essentially pantheist and he classifies evil, amongst many other things, into not-being. This is done on the grounds that evil is the opposite of good, a quality of God, but God can have no opposite, since God is everything in the pantheist view of the world. Similarly, the idea that God created the world out of "nothing" is to be interpreted as the "nothing" here is synonymous with God.
G. W. F. Hegel
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) is the philosopher who brought the dialectical method to its pinnacle of development. According to Hegel in Science of Logic the dialectical methods consists of three steps. First, a thesis is given, which can be any postulate in logic. Second, the antithesis of the thesis is formed and finally a synthesis incorporating both thesis and antithesis. Hegel believed that no postulate taken by itself can be completely true. Only the whole can be true and the dialectical synthesis was the means by which the whole could be examined in relation to a specific postulate. Truth consists of the whole process, separating out thesis, antithesis or synthesis as a stand-alone statement results in something that is in some way or other untrue. The concept of "nothing" arises in Hegel right at the beginning of his Logic. The whole is called by Hegel the "Absolute" and is to be viewed as something spiritual. Hegel then has;
- Thesis: The Absolute is Pure Being
- Antithesis: The Absolute is Nothing
- Synthesis: The Absolute is Becoming
The most prominent figure among the existentialists is Jean-Paul Sartre whose ideas in his book Being and Nothingness (L'être et le néant) are heavily influenced by Being and Time (Sein und Zeit) of Martin Heidegger, although Heidegger later stated that he was misunderstood by Sartre. Sartre defines two kinds of "being" (être). One kind is être-en-soi, the brute existence of things such as a tree. The other kind is être-pour-soi which is consciousness. Sartre claims that this second kind of being is "nothing" since consciousness cannot be an object of consciousness and can possess no essence. Sartre, and even more so, Jaques Lacan, use this conception of nothing as the foundation of their atheist philosophy. Equating nothingness with being leads to creation from nothing and hence God is no longer needed for there to be existence.
The understanding of 'nothing' varies widely between cultures, especially between Western and Eastern cultures and philosophical traditions. For instance, Śūnyatā (emptiness), unlike "nothingness", is considered to be a state of mind in some forms of Buddhism (see Nirvana, mu, and Bodhi). Achieving 'nothing' as a state of mind in this tradition allows one to be totally focused on a thought or activity at a level of intensity that they would not be able to achieve if they were consciously thinking. A classic example of this is an archer attempting to erase the mind and clear the thoughts to better focus on the shot. Some authors have pointed to similarities between the Buddhist conception of nothingness and the ideas of Martin Heidegger and existentialists like Sartre, although this connection has not been explicitly made by the philosophers themselves.
The Kyoto school handles the concept of nothingness as well.
Language and logic
Grammatically, the word "nothing" is an indefinite pronoun, which means that it refers to something. One might argue that "nothing" is a concept, and since concepts are things, the concept of "nothing" itself is a thing. This logical fallacy is neatly demonstrated by the joke syllogism that contains a fallacy of four terms:
- The Devil is greater than nothing.
- Nothing is greater than God.
- Therefore, the Devil is greater than God.
The four terms in this example are God, the Devil, nothing-as-a-thing that the Devil is greater than, and nothing as no-thing or not-some-thing (there does not exist something that is greater than God). The error in the conclusion stems from equating nothing-as-a-thing with no-thing which are not the same thing.
Clauses can often be restated to avoid the appearance that "nothing" possesses an attribute. For example, the sentence "There is nothing in the basement" can be restated as "There is not one thing in the basement". "Nothing is missing" can be restated as "everything is present". Conversely, many fallacious conclusions follow from treating "nothing" as a noun.
Modern logic made it possible to articulate these points coherently as intended, and many philosophers hold that the word "nothing" does not function as a noun, as there is no object to which it refers. There remain various opposing views, however—for example, that our understanding of the world rests essentially on noticing absences and lacks as well as presences, and that "nothing" and related words serve to indicate these.
In computing, "nothing" can be a keyword (in VB.Net) used in place of something unassigned, a data abstraction. Although a computer's storage hardware always contains numbers, "nothing" symbolizes a number skipped by the system when the programmer desires. Many systems have similar capabilities but different keywords, such as "null", "NUL", "nil", and "None".
To instruct a computer processor to do nothing, a keyword such as "NOP" may be available. This is a control abstraction; a processor that executes NOP will behave identically to a processor that does not process this directive.
In physics, the word nothing is not used in any technical sense. A region of space is called a vacuum if it does not contain any matter, though it can contain physical fields. In fact, it is practically impossible to construct a region of space that contains no matter or fields, since gravity cannot be blocked and all objects at a non-zero temperature radiate electromagnetically. However, even if such a region existed, it could still not be referred to as "nothing", since it has properties and a measurable existence as part of the quantum-mechanical vacuum. Where there is supposedly empty space there are constant quantum fluctuations with virtual particles continually popping into and out of existence. It had long been theorized that space is distinct from a void of nothingness in that space consists of some kind of aether, with luminiferous aether postulated as the transmission medium for propagating light waves (whose existence has been disproven in the now famous Michelson-Morley experiment).
- Dolce far niente
- Empty set
- Negative theology
- Vacuous truth
- L'Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness), 1943
- Nothing Matters: A Book About Nothing, Ronald Green