Is there any such thing as “nothing”?

Perhaps we have to start by asking what a “thing” is.

Let’s try the following definition: a thing has the attribute of location in space and time. Further, we might conclude that in order to locate something, we must have a sense of its extent in space and time: its boundaries.

This definition of “thing” is handy because we can “try it on for size”. An apple is a thing: it has a location and a boundary. An electron is a thing, albeit with a more fuzzy location and boundary. Even certain abstractions can count as things under this definition, like the United States, or a hurricane, or a sports team.

But eventually we must come to concepts. Are they things? I don’t really know. Dragons are not things in the real world. But what about the concept of dragons? Is that a thing? I suppose you could say that a person’s concept of dragons is located somewhere between their ears.

But what about the fact that we tend to speak of the concept of dragons? We don’t merely talk about your concept of dragons and my concept of dragons, but also a kind of depersonalized and generalized concept. Where is the general concept of dragons located? It’s not in any one person’s head. But if it is in many peoples’ heads, then does that mean that it’s location is spread out among all people who have heard of dragons?

If we run with this idea, then it seems as if the world of concepts — often but not always constructed and accessed via language — constitutes a kind of virtual world with its own “physics”. One might call it the memosphere or the noosphere. If reality is the land of fact, this parallel realm is the land of fancy. The noosphere is the sphere of consciousness — not just one consciousness, but a space emerging from the interaction of all separate consciousnesses.

The noosphere seems to grow out of the “thingiverse” of physical matter, and maintains close relations with it. Plants and animals, rocks and rivers, celestial bodies — they all have their counterparts in the domain of ideas. And we draw invisible links between representations of things with the help of connective tissue: language, mathematics, science, art.

But the realm of collective consciousness also contains vast regions that have an unstable relationship with the things in reality. The noosphere contains fairies, angels, demons, werewolves, and little green men. It contains Heaven and Hell, Faerie, Utopia, Dystopia, Heterotopia, Narnia, and every other magical land accessible via furniture. It contains countless “counterparts” of our Selves: funhouse-mirror-reflections. Perhaps most importantly, it contains our ideals and idols: the abstractions that seem to beckon us.

“Nothing” is an inhabitant of the noosphere. Whatever else it is, it is a concept. As geographers or the imaginary, our task is to identify the region that this strange creature resides in: the civilized plains of sensible knowledge, where all concepts are neatly linked by rational roadways, or the shadowy jungle of fiction and phantasm. In other words, does “nothing” point to anything?

“Nothing” emerges as a placeholder. It shows up when we contemplate possibilities: the could haves, should haves, would haves, may haves, might bes, and maybes. The counterfactuals.

Do possibilities dwell in the “civilized” regions of the noosphere, or are they just across the border, in some buffer zone keeping the jungle at bay?

When we point to nothing, we are pointing to a place in time and space (or idea-space) where there could be something, but there is currently nothing. There is nothing in my teacup — but there could have been tea in there earlier, and could be more at some future time. The emptiness of space is a lot like the emptiness in my teacup: it could contain planets or spaceships or Lovecraftian horrors, but currently it does not.

Where did the universe come from? If you mention some thing, then the question is not truly answered, because one can always ask, where did that come from? So instead, you might say the universe came from “nothing”. All explanations have to stop somewhere. So nothing seems like the right word to place in the sentence “The universe emerged from X”.

The alternative is to say the universe always existed. But our cosmologists tell us everything we see seems to have expanded outwards from a very dense point: we are invited to consider that point as a starting point, rather than an inflection point in an endless oscillation.

The void is sometimes defined as formless potential. Potential is deeply connected to the idea of what is possible but not (yet) actual. If the universe began with a void, then in a sense it was pregnant with all this.

Is this void real? We can’t say, because the idea that the universe has a beginning is not something we can test. Our physical theories can waggle their eyebrows and point suggestively in one direction or the other, but we cannot travel back in time to settle the matter.

But perhaps there is another approach to the void. Creation is not complete — the universe is constantly being made and remade, and we are a part of the process. Where do we come from? If we arose on this planet, there must have been a potential for our emergence all along. We can trace this potential back through evolutionary history, chemistry and physics. We find ourselves confronting the idea that our presence ultimately derives from our absence: even if the universe is eternal, our own existence is not, and so we know that we start from nothing and become something. This is also true of individual people: before a sperm merges with an egg, what was there of you? Nothing. We might also say the same about our ideas, concepts and mental states. To trace them backwards is to follow a family tree that ultimately ends in nothingness.

So is nothing a thing, or a placeholder? I have no idea: but it seems as if a place for it emerges whenever we look closely at things.


This first appeared as a Quora answer.



About Yohan

I'm a neuroscientist at the Neural Systems Laboratory in Boston University. My PhD was in Cognitive and Neural Systems, and my work involves computational neural network modeling, mostly of cognitive-emotional interaction and psychiatric disorders. Apart from neuroscience, I spend a lot of time engaging with music, history, politics, philosophy, and religion.
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2 Responses to Is there any such thing as “nothing”?

  1. slehar says:

    Ideas live in brains, in the same way that programs live on computers, and the concept of nothing pervades both of them, and for the same reason. In order to conceive of anything, the computer first needs a memory, or registers, a “universe” of possibilities that are initially blank, or empty, or irrelevant, until some meaningful data is stored in them. The existence of data pre-requires a data storage mechanism, which, if it is to be at all useful, must be able to store multiple possible alternative states in its multiple cells. Or it can clear memory and declare that it contains “nothing”. You need something to represent nothing.

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