It could be argued that the concept of “nothing” is something of a misnomer. Nothing is interestingly enough quite easy to quantify but difficult to characterize. It mirroring its conceptual reciprocal infinity. In colloquial speech, we tend to often misuse the word “nothing”. If our mailbox is empty we are tempted to say “There is nothing in the mailbox”. However, is this actually true? Not technically. While there may not be any mail inside the mailbox it does contain other things. Such as the air, microorganisms, and even the atoms comprising the internal structure of the mailbox. From more of a finetuned perspective saying that the mailbox contains nothing is grossly inaccurate.
Many of you are probably thinking “who cares”! I am being too pedantic. How we speak is generally figurative anyhow. Some may even believe that such inquiries are a hair above semantics rather than true philosophic discourse. I recently read an essay published in Philosophy Now that has inspired this blog entry. The essay in question is entitled An Essay on Nothing by Sophia Gottfried. Gottfried details how existence is often addressed in philosophical discourse and absence of existence is generally not. Sure nihilism addresses the absence of moral values, but few philosophical schools examine “nothingness” in its totality.
She touches upon an excellent point, we have profound difficulty comprehending the concept of “nothing”. Even for the nihilist, the proclamation of an absence of moral convicts is still moral convictions. Even for the anarchist, advocating for the absence of a formal government is still a policy prescription. We encounter the paradox of nothing actually being something. Gottfried explains how to some extent we do have some ontological apprehension of thoroughly thinking about a pure state of “nothing”. As she states :
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 someday be forgotten. (Gottfried, 2020, P. 24) .
Throughout human history, religion has attempted to provide answers to the mystery of the afterlife. Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Are we reincarnated? Even atheists have expressed discomfort with the potential of their human essence dissipating into oblivion. Death is unsettling because it is a conspicuous reminder of our potential for nonexistence. No frontier is more unchartered as the other side of the slivery brook. It is difficult to fathom nonexistence when existence is all that we have known. Just about every thought we have cannot adequately reflect a pure conception of nil. Because our thoughts are still something, they are still concepts, constructs, assumptions, language, etc.
The problem extends beyond the human mind having the faculties to properly understand the pure absence of everything. How can we ponder the enigmatic truths of death if we can’t even cope with awkward silence? In social situations, people are distressed by the absence of conversation. Mind you not the absence of sound (background noise), but the lack of verbal communication. When compared to the concern of the end of existence is much more trivial. This fact would further substantiate the point that humans are fundamentally uncomfortable with the concept of nothing. Both intellectually and emotionally. The absence of something has been allotted a myriad of negative adjectives. It is synonymous with awkwardness, loss, misfortune, death, immorality, chaos, ineptitude, etc. Rather shouldn’t “nothing” be viewed as value-neutral? After all, the numeric expression of nothing operates as neither a positive or negative integer. If “pure nothing” is actually neutral, we are merely projecting our own negative perceptions on the phrase/ state of being. In a pure state of nothing, there aren’t any negative characteristics to make attributions of.
It would be reasonable to question how we as a species have ended up engaging in this fallacy. Thankfully, Gottfried has provided some insight into the potential reason for our potential misconceptions about the idea of “nothing”. She divides nothingness into “perceptive nothingness” and “pure nothingness”. Outside of an astrophysicist who studies black holes the vast majority of us have a very weak understanding of “pure nothingness”. At least they would possess the foundational knowledge required to expound upon such a concept. When the average person uses the term “nothing” it is more from the standpoint of “perceptive nothingness”. Which is defined as:
The nothingness is a negotiation of expectation: expecting something and being denied the expectation by reality. It is constructed by the individual mind, frequently through the comparison with a socially constructed concept. (Gottfried, 2020, P. 24) .
This explanation sheds some light on how we tend to misapply the concept of “nothing”. It is an attempt to reconcile aspects of reality that depart from our expectations. Let’s say that you reach for your wallet and that you have no money in your wallet. Colloquially we say ” I have nothing in my wallet”. This is a severe overgeneralization. Even if we avoid distilling it down to the hyper granular level of the molecular, there isn’t truly nothing in your wallet. You are ignoring all of the receipts, coupons, etc. that are physically in your wallet. Nevermind the air and the constituent molecules that comprise the leather that lines the interior of your wallet.
In my opinion, “perceptive nothingness” is merely a heuristic to help us better navigate the mental complexities of our world. It is quicker and easier to perceive the mailbox as empty rather than further dissect the actual contents down to the molecular level. The mailbox isn’t truly empty. It would be efficient or cognitively adaptive for every person finding it necessary to get that specific. Especially when odds are you have concerns that are of higher priority than whether or not your mailbox is truly empty.