19 March 2006




It took western civilization quite a long while to discover and use the number zero. We also use the idea of nothingness in expressions, such as, “It cost me nothing to transfer the money to my other bank account.” Or, “The shop had nothing, it was a waste of time.”

The “nothing” (zero) of the decimal counting system, the “nothing” of no charge and the “nothing” of lack of interest, are examples of how we use nothingness. We have many other uses of the word nothing. For this essay I will assume that nothing and nothingness are synonyms in ordinary language. The fact is that nothingness does not appear as high frequency word in ordinary English usage.

Zero is a mathematical concept, which could mean something like, position or the set-with-no-members. Having said that, the set-with-no-members has given philosophers and mathematicians quite a few headaches, so I am using this term without the necessary due caution. As a number, we treat zero in many different ways. For example, in the sequence 0 1 2 3 4 5, we have five numbers, but six numerical places. When we do a count down we usually include zero, but not when we start counting. In the binary system, the zero (0) has a really specific meaning especially when applied to computers. In the case of electronics, it means “Off,” i.e. no electric current. In sports, 0 means no score, but in some sports no score does not mean no points, for example, in away games in football.

While zero clearly has a set of rules on how we use it, what it means and the implications of its use, the “nothing” of ordinary language does not have such a rules structure. Of course, it has to conform to grammatical conventions, but it does not get a VIP treatment in ordinary language. For example, ''The present queen of England said nothing during the visit,'' is no different from, “The present queen of France said nothing during the visit.” What we are interested in, however, is the meaning of nothing in these sentences, especially since the nothing in both sentences conforms to grammar conventions.

Clearly, in the first sentence nothing means, the queen did not utter any words, she stayed quiet, she chose to be quiet or it was the sort of thing the monarch would do in these circumstances. In the second sentence, we have a grammatically correct sentence and the word nothing is used correctly; but what does it mean? There is no queen of France, so there couldn’t have been a visit, there wasn't a person and therefore nothing could have been said.

The problem with the queen of France example is that it seems to put grammar on the spot. The syntax and the semantics are ok, but the sentence has no meaning. Either syntax and semantics are useless or something is missing. Of course , what is missing is the context and the probability of the sentence being said. At the time of writing, the context and probability of a sentence starting with, ''the present queen of France...'' is very limited. I can think of three main contexts, a historical document, a novel or an essay written by a British trained philosopher. Even, the latter context is a far fetched possibility; I doubt if such examples are in common use today. So, the context can give us an idea of the meaning of the word and the probably factor of a word being used in a given context serves as a source of legitimacy.

There is a paradox associated with nothing and nothingness: is nothing, a something? In the examples used so far, it could easily be said that the word nothing has the status of something by making it mean ''I did not like the things in the shop'' or ''the queen chose not to speak.'' So nothing in these contexts does refer to something that exists, hence a nothing being a something.

We can also approach the issue of nothing by asking what is the opposite of nothing? Is it “something”, “anything” or the traditional partner, “being”? The example, “there was nothing in the shop,” is totally understandable. But not the sentence, ''there was something in the shop.'' This begs the question, “so what?”

For grammatical reasons we can exclude “anything”, and “being” does not work either. The opposite to, ''the shop had nothing I wanted to buy,'' becomes, ''I bought a nice shirt from the shop today.'' In other words, the opposite of the single word “nothing” does not have to be a single or noun-group word concept. A nice shirt is a real thing, the words, “something,” “anything” and “being” are just that, words or concepts. I suggest that the opposite of nothing is something real.

However, are we really concerned about the ontological or existential status of the queen’s speaking habits or the contents of a shop? The nothing in these examples has the important ingredient of disappointment. So, “there was nothing in the shop,” not only means that I did not like anything there, but also I was disappointed for not having bought anything. I am happy to accept that in everyday language, “nothing” means all the above interpretations and in the appropriate cases disappointment.

This leaves us with the nothingness of philosophy; the metaphysical nothingness. The nothingness if god does not exist or the nothingness of the conscious self trying to achieve self fulfillment or the nothingness of we are nothing.

One of the big problems with philosophy, but not exclusive to philosophy, is that in many cases we are dealing with texts expressing ideas that have come to us via a translation. Now, it is one thing to read on a menu in a restaurant that they can offer you straw-ham or that your new DVD player comes with an instruction booklet translated into a dozen languages, and in a dozen languages it does not tell you how to switch on the machine. We can more or less feel at ease with these problems. But what are we to do when we come to translate concepts like nothingness or being?

In English we already have a good word for ''being'' and that is ''exist.'' Sure, we use being in a number of ways, for example, human being, or I am being treated for minor injuries (after an accident). We can even broaden our interpretation a bit and refer to the “I am” of the historical Descartes. Of course, this “I am” surely means “I exist,” but how many times do we need to use, “I exist?” At least in English, “I exist” is not a very high frequency expression, however, “I am” is quite common, especially in the formula, “I am x.” For example, I am here, I am writing and so on. I am therefore not totally convinced that we have a pure philosophical problem or whether we have a choice of word problem which we inherited from translations.

We can show the existence of something by pointing out information about it. I know that my computer exists because I have information about it. Most of this information has come to me via my sense perception when I’m in front of my computer and that it conforms with other information I have about computers. For example, I have information that some computers can be used to manage language text; now my computer does that. I have had other people referring to my computer and some of the things they told me was compatible with my knowledge of computers and so on and so forth. Of course, the information we have, whether direct or indirect, must be the right sort of information. Having a picture of my computer or cardboard cut out of my computer will not do.

Any statement or sense perception about my computer also has a probability of truth about it. That my computer can manage text, should be balanced with the equally valid fact that sometimes it crashes and cannot manage anything. The first evidence we have of something is an event. Of course, lack of evidence is not in itself evidence either for the existence of something nor the non existence of something.

We are now back to context since events take place in a context. When I believe that my computer can manage text, I do so in the context that the shop assistant sold it to me as such, the manual says so, people who bought a similar computer confirmed that this model can manage text and so on and so forth. So if my computer does not manage text, i.e. no evidence towards the claim that it manages text, maybe because it crashes, it is more reasonable to see this as evidence that there is something wrong with the computer rather than that my computer does not exist.

Therefore, how we process information (see information theory) is as important to us as the information we receive. Context helps us deal with the “how we process information” part of the project. Take the tsunami tragedy that hit Asia in 2004. Some people interpreted this as a punishment from god while others interpreted this as a result of marine land slides and tectonic plates movement. This is a good case of the same information being interpreted differently because it was processed in different contexts. However, the difference is that the geological explanation is much better since on the balance of probability, it seems to work even when there are no human beings around or whether there is a god or not. The alternative view, would beg the strange question, what was god doing creating tsunamis when no human beings were around?

In the computer example, I was faced with two types of information. Old information, which I already knew about, and new information. Every time I came across a piece of information that my computer can manage text, my sum total of information about my computer did not increase. At most, it increased the probability that my computer is capable of managing text. However, with new information, my sum total of information about my computer did increase. For example, knowing that I can legally install a text management program for free on my computer was valuable information.

Maybe here we have come close to the core of what nothingness is, at least in a philosophical sense. Nothingness is the absence of information in a context. This is not the same as not understanding the information we have nor does it mean that we don't have direct information. It means just that: no information. In astronomy and physics they refer to information reaching us through a light come. Imagine that an event took place yesterday on one of the stars we see at night. For us to know about that event information about that event has to travel at the speed of light over huge distance to reach us. Now, given the literally astronomical distance involved that information can take a very long time to get here. Before that happens not only don't we know about it, but as far as we are concerned it is nothingness; it does not exist.

In fact, it is impossible to talk about an event which we have no information about. Compare this with say black holes. Black holes are supposed to have such a strong gravitational field that nothing can escape from them; although there are reports that black holes do generate some information. For this discussion, it is irrelevant whether black holes destroy all information or release information because we still have a lot of information about black holes. Information need not be direct but also indirect, in fact a lot of science is conducted using indirect information. However, there is a serious paradox called the information loss paradox; to cut a long and controversial story short, this says that black holes destroy information in principle and not just in practice. This lack of information is, I suggest, a very good idea of the concept nothingness. (NB: there is a lot of technical information on the internet for those who are interested on this matter.)

It is only new information that adds to our sum total of the information we already have and as a consequence, our knowledge. Furthermore, repeated information does not add to our information, although it might help reinforce existing information. Of course it matters a lot how we reinforce this information. Reading the same newspaper 50 times about a piece of news is not worth anything: reading the accounts of ten independent witnesses would make a difference. Neither would a billion people believing that the Earth was flat, just because someone in authority told them so, be evidence for the physical aspect of the Earth. Of course life is not as simple as that, but I’ve made the point.

Going back to the expression, “we are nothing,” how does it fit with the idea that nothingness is really no information. First of all, this expression can easily have two contexts. The every day use of the expression and the philosophical context.

The everyday use of the expression implies in its meaning helplessness. We look around us and see all these amazing structures in the universe. We see the futility of human life, so short, so painful and think that we are of no consequence. At the end, we don't matter in the big picture, at the end we are insignificant. Of course we have a number of options about what to do should we be inclined to escape from this depression. Finish it all, become rich or a hermit. Join a club, join a religion, or whatever else takes our fancy. One thing we cannot change, though, is the world around us. However, we can always try to change ourselves. Basically this is a practical issue,: how can I change my life to the better? More relevant, however, is that issues relating to our worth and value are more suited to ethics than metaphysics.

The metaphysical aspects of the question of nothingness are probably more interesting. We start by excluding nothing and nothingness to mean, we are dead. Strictly speaking, the conservation of energy rule prevents us from disappearing just like that, so strictly speaking, information about us is still around. In practice we are easily forgotten! And then again, there is the information paradox mentioned above or the possibility of hitting a lump of anti-matter, which should lead to the same results. But just because people do not remember us, it does not mean that we didn’t or don’t exist.

A better candidate to explain “we are nothing” is before we are born. There is certainly no information about us before we are born so this meets the criteria that nothingness is no information. We also have no context for our existence. The future children of our parents does not qualify. Not only no one could know that our parents were going to have children, but there was no guarantee that one of those children would be us. This is not even an event that has not yet reached us.

So by implication “we are nothing” or anything connecting us to nothingness is a fallacy. Information about us implies that we exist. When Descartes said to himself “I think,…,” he was generating information about himself, so he could only but exist as far as he was concerned. Compare this with the present queen of France thinking to herself, “I’m not going to say anything during this visit.” The present queen of France can do no such thing, nor can we create information about the present queen of France that can bring her into existence in the same way the historical Descartes could or we can about him.

And that is the beauty and the point about consciousness. Consciousness is our way of generating a certain type of information about ourselves and processing a certain type of information about the world around us. That's proof enough that we are not nothingness. And if you want a rational test to show what nothingness feels like, it is this: trying to think and nothing happens.

Take care


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