There's something fascinating about nothing.
Yes, that's a paradox. Necessarily so, because "nothing" is an abstraction, an impossibility. If nothing actually existed, it wouldn't be nothing. And even if somehow there could be nothing, no one would know about it.
A recent issue of New Scientist largely was devoted to exploring the nature of nothingness. In one page, physicist Brian Greene summarized the main themes in "Nothingness: why nothing matters."
SHAKESPEARE had it right, even in ways he couldn't have imagined. For centuries, scientists have indeed been making much ado about nothing - and with good reason. Nothing, or rather what we've long taken to be nothing, may be the key to understanding everything from why particles have mass to the expansion of the universe. As explored in this special issue of New Scientist(see "The nature of nothingness"), nothing is a rich and subtle subject whose biography is far from finished.
Every article in the special issue had some passages that made me think, "Wow, nothing really is something."
For example, Richard Webb's description of how zero eventually became a core concept in mathematics included these insights:
Greek thought was wedded to the idea that numbers expressed geometrical shapes; and what shape would correspond to something that wasn't there? It could only be the total absence of something, the void -- a concept that the dominant cosmology of the time had banished.
...Eastern philosophy, rooted in ideas of eternal cycles of creation and destruction, had no such qualms.
...Brahmagupta was the first person we see treating numbers as purely abstract quantities separate from any physical or geometrical reality.
...The result was a continuous number line stretching as far as you could see in both directions, showing both positive and negative numbers. Sitting in the middle of this line, a distinct point along it at the threshold between the positive and negative worlds, was sunya, the nothingness. Indian mathematics had dared to look into the void -- and a new number had emerged.
In the next article, mathematician Ian Stewart taught me a lot more about set theory than I'd known before (of course, starting at zero, essentially, I could only go up).
Already I've managed to work this empty paper bag explanation of how set theory defines numbers into a conversation. Try doing that yourself. You're virtually guaranteed to stop the conversation in its tracks because nobody will know what you're talking about, including yourself. Fun!
Zero is a number, the basis of our entire number system. So it ought to count the members of a set. Which set? Well, it has to be a set with no members... the empty set. It is unique, because all empty sets have exactly the same members: none... We can define the number 0 as the empty set.
What about the number 1? Intuitively, we need a set with exactly one member. Something unique. Well, the empty set is unique. So we define 1 to be the set whose only member is the empty set... This is not the same as the empty set, because it has one member, whereas the empty set has none. Agreed, that member happens to be the empty set, but there is one of it.
Think of a set as a paper bag containing its members. The empty set is an empty paper bag. The set whose only member is the empty set is a paper bag containing an empty paper bag. Which is different: it's got a bag in it.
The key step is to define the number 2. We need a uniquely defined set with two members. So why not use the only two sets we've mentioned so far: [0, the empty paper bag set, and 1, the paper bag containing the empty paper bag set]
You can probably guess what 3 is. A paper bag containing 0, 1, and 2. So every number is based on nothing, an "empty paper bag." Mathematics, which so accurately describes reality through the laws of physics, is founded on nothing. So says a sidebar in the article.
The empty set has no members, as an empty paper bag contains nothing. It can be used to define numbers uniquely by forming other sets from the empty set.
Likewise, a New Scientist video at the top of this page shows how there is no such thing as "nothing." Take all of the particles out of a box, or the universe. There still will be energy in (or as) this supposedly empty space.
In "The Physics of Nothing; The Philosophy of Everything," Ethan Siegel lays out in words and pictures how the cosmos evolved from nothing. No God required. No creator required.
By the time we arrive at today, we've obtained the Universe we currently exist in. We started from literally nothing; from empty spacetime containing solely the energy of the quantum vacuum, and have arrived at our Universe today, with its billions of galaxies, stars, and all that ever was or will be here on Earth.
So if we feel a need to worship something, that should be nothing. (A Google search of "nothingness" on my two blogs shows that I've done a lot of wordful worshipping of this elusive non-entity. Such as here, here, here, and here.)
Alan Watts praises nothingness in this You Tube video that is included at the end of Siegel's post. Have a look and listen.
Regarding empty paper bag 3, or using it as an example. Where did we get the words; empty, paper, bag and number 3? Those are just dualistic words and numbers. So, what is the exact absolute non-conceptual description of that "empty paper bag 3" thing? Go there and then tell me what it absolutely is. Well, that journey will not happen, so what do we then have? But, but this non-conceptual so-called place would be a no-thing-ness kinda no place?
Posted by: Roger | December 01, 2011 at 11:24 AM
Roger, good questions. I'm not adept enough in mathematics to answer them, so I'll simply share some more quotes from the Ian Stewart article:
...a basic idea needed sorting out that no one really understood [in the late 1800s]. Numbers.
Sure, everyone knew how to do sums. Using numbers wasn't the problem. The big question was what they were. You can show someone two sheep, two albatrosses, two galaxies. But can you show them two?
The symbol "2"? That's a notation, not the number itself. Many cultures use a different symbol. The word "two"? No, for the same reason... For thousands of years humans had been using numbers to great effect; suddenly a few deep thinkers realised no one had a clue to what they were.
...The way to define them, he [Frege] believed, was through the deceptively simple process of counting.
What do we count? A collection of things -- a set. How do we count it? By matching the number of things in the set with a standard set of known size. The next step was simple but devastating: throw away the numbers.
You could use the [seven] dwarfs to count the days of the week. Just set up the correspondence: Monday (Doc), Tuesday (Grumpy)...Sunday (Dopey). There are Dopey days in the week. It's a perfectly reasonable alternative number system.
...The number of days equals the number of dwarfs, not because both are seven, but because you can match days to dwarfs.
What, then, is a number? Mathematical logicians realised that to define the number 2, you need to construct a standard set which intuitively has two members. To define 3, use a standard set with three numbers [or members?; could be typo]. ...This was where the empty set came in and solved the whole thing by itself.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | December 01, 2011 at 11:42 AM
Let me remind everyone once again:
Of course we will never know the answer but things can become crystal clear in such a way that there is no question, if we understand the primary illusion which is...
objectifying what is functioning (while objectifying) and calling it 'me'.
Therefore, the freedom (answer) you look for is where you look from. And what would that be?
Now you know (don't know).
Posted by: tucson | December 01, 2011 at 09:29 PM
This blog entry suffers from philosohpic naivetee. In fact, this is due because it relies on the works of scientisits and mathmaticians who happen to be the worst of philosophers in our unfortunate times.
Nothing is nothing, period. So saying nothing is comprised of the quantum energy of space-time, super symmetric, quantum loop, non-dual gravity or whatever is just silly attempts at intimidating people.
Simple philosophical truth. Any statement saying nothing is formed of ... is wrong.
In addition, i didn't understand what al this fancy talk about set theory has to do with nothing. Who ever said that nothingness is equivalent to zero or to the empty set? It seems you're comparing oranges to apples only because they'reboth spherical in shape.
One final advice, if you accept it. Never take philosophy from scientists. They're really, ... Well, naive.
Posted by: Mohamed Sharnoubi | December 02, 2011 at 03:36 AM
I'm guessing my follow up got lost.
Posted by: Roger | December 03, 2011 at 08:14 AM