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An Essay on Nothing

Sophia Gottfried meditates on the emptiness of non-existence.

In philosophy there is a lot of emphasis on what exists. We call this ontology, which means, the study of being. What is less often examined is what does not exist.

It is understandable that we focus on what exists, as its effects are perhaps more visible. However, gaps or non-existence can also quite clearly have an impact on us in a number of ways. After all, death, often dreaded and feared, is merely the lack of existence in this world (unless you believe in ghosts). We are affected also by living people who are not there, objects that are not in our lives, and knowledge we never grasp.

Upon further contemplation, this seems quite odd and raises many questions. How can things that do not exist have such bearing upon our lives? Does nothing have a type of existence all of its own? And how do we start our inquiry into things we can’t interact with directly because they’re not there? When one opens a box, and exclaims “There is nothing inside it!”, is that different from a real emptiness or nothingness? Why is nothingness such a hard concept for philosophy to conceptualize?

Let us delve into our proposed box, and think inside it a little. When someone opens an empty box, they do not literally find it devoid of any sort of being at all, since there is still air, light, and possibly dust present. So the box is not truly empty. Rather, the word ‘empty’ here is used in conjunction with a prior assumption. Boxes were meant to hold things, not to just exist on their own. Inside they might have a present; an old family relic; a pizza; or maybe even another box. Since boxes have this purpose of containing things ascribed to them, there is always an expectation there will be something in a box. Therefore, this situation of nothingness arises from our expectations, or from our being accustomed. The same is true of statements such as “There is no one on this chair.” But if someone said, “There is no one on this blender”, they might get some odd looks. This is because a chair is understood as something that holds people, whereas a blender most likely not.

The same effect of expectation and corresponding absence arises with death. We do not often mourn people we only might have met; but we do mourn those we have known. This pain stems from expecting a presence and having none. Even people who have not experienced the presence of someone themselves can still feel their absence due to an expectation being confounded. Children who lose one or both of their parents early in life often feel that lack of being through the influence of the culturally usual idea of a family. Just as we have cultural notions about the box or chair, there is a standard idea of a nuclear family, containing two parents, and an absence can be noted even by those who have never known their parents.

This first type of nothingness I call ‘perceptive nothingness’. This nothingness is a negation of expectation: expecting something and being denied that expectation by reality. It is constructed by the individual human mind, frequently through comparison with a socially constructed concept.

Pure nothingness, on the other hand, does not contain anything at all: no air, no light, no dust. We cannot experience it with our senses, but we can conceive it with the mind. Possibly, this sort of absolute nothing might have existed before our universe sprang into being. Or can something not arise from nothing? In which case, pure nothing can never have existed.

If we can for a moment talk in terms of a place devoid of all being, this would contain nothing in its pure form. But that raises the question, Can a space contain nothing; or, if there is space, is that not a form of existence in itself?

This question brings to mind what’s so baffling about nothing: it cannot exist. If nothing existed, it would be something. So nothing, by definition, is not able to ‘be’.

Is absolute nothing possible, then? Perhaps not. Perhaps for example we need something to define nothing; and if there is something, then there is not absolutely nothing. What’s more, if there were truly nothing, it would be impossible to define it. The world would not be conscious of this nothingness. Only because there is a world filled with Being can we imagine a dull and empty one. Nothingness arises from Somethingness, then: without being to compare it to, nothingness has no existence. Once again, pure nothingness has shown itself to be negation.

A world where there is nothing is just an empty shell, you might reply; but the shell itself exists, is something. And even if there were no matter, arguably space could still exist, so could time; and these are not nothing.

Someday we may come face to face with pure space, that is a nothingness waiting to be filled. Possibly, when scientists find a way to safely pilot spaceships into black holes, or are able to create a pure vacuum, we will be forced to look straight into the void. But even if that really is nothing, by entering into that nothingness, humans will destroy it by filling it. Or perhaps we will be consumed by it and all traces left of our existence will be erased.

Death, the ultimate void for humans, makes people uneasy for obvious reasons: all that they are will be forever reduced to a blank space felt only by loved ones, and even that absence will be forgotten someday. However, let us not steer away from these questions about nothingness, even if they may take us to bleak places. When one looks a little closer at the big questions, even though it may seem contradictory, nothingness appears everywhere. And if we want to learn how something came from nothing, or if there ever was nothing, we can not shy away from looking into the scary void a little closer.

© Sophia Gottfried 2020

Sophia Gottfried is the philosophy club president at the Harker School in San Jose.

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