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How Physicists and Philosophers View Concepts of Nothingness

Author:

Glenn Stok has a Master of Science degree and applies his research to educate his readers with information on science and philosophy.

The concept of "nothing" is quite enormous.

The concept of "nothing" is quite enormous.

Nothing, or nothingness, is the state of nonexistence, or the absence of anything. Although that explanation seems simple, its concept had troubled physicists and philosophers over the ages. Let's see why.

What Got Me Started?

When I was in college many decades ago, I used to contemplate thoughts of infinity and the results of dividing by zero. A physics professor once told me not to think about those things because it would drive me insane.

I didn't listen to him, and I spent the rest of my life studying scientific and philosophical essays by scholars on the subject.

You might think there's nothing to it, but "nothing" is quite enormous. It makes up the total of everything that is nonexistent.

What Is Nonexistence?

According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, nonexistence is the negation of being.

There are several ways to refer to it:

  • zero
  • nada
  • null
  • empty
  • vacant
  • vacuum
  • void

All of these relate to the idea of nonexistence. There is more of this "nothingness" than these simple terms. When we try to understand nothingness mathematically, we get into an entirely new philosophy that leaves us confused.

What Is the Concept of Nothingness?

The concept of nothingness is complicated to explain. Comparing it to something one can envision might help. You might consider it to be a void or a vacuum.

Another way to express it is mathematically. We think of nothing as "zero" when we define it mathematically. But due to it's complicated nature, the Egyptians hated it and felt there was no need for zero. However, they did just fine building the pyramids without it. As a result, roman numerals have no representation for zero.1

Charles Seife, professor of journalism at New York University and author of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, explains nothingness as follows:

Nothing, zero, nada, emptiness, void.

Nothing, zero, nada, emptiness, void.

The History of the Number Zero

The Greek philosopher Aristotle never accepted the concept of division by zero. He found too many paradoxes with it. I could explain the problems he ran into with it, but it's beyond the scope of this article.

Suffice it to say that we interpret division by zero as infinity. Zero can go into anything an infinite number of times.

The ancient Greeks were aware of the concept of zero. After all, they knew when they had no stones.

And the Egyptians, well, they eventually acquired the use of the number zero from the Babylonians.2

Was the Universe Created Out of Nothing?

Quantum physics already shows us how a particle can go from existence to nonexistence and back again. That is quantum fluctuation.

It may actually be moving through time, so once it is no longer in the present, we no longer see it. We might consider it to have become "nothing" or "void" of existence.

Even while nonexistent, the energy never dissipates. Einstein's formula E=MC2 applies very well. Energy and mass cannot be made or destroyed. It merely changes from one to another as per Einstein's formula.

Einstein's famous formula: E = mc²

Einstein's famous formula: E = mc²

Is Empty Space Nothing?

As shown above by Einstein's formula, energy and mass cannot be made or destroyed. So that proves that the universe did not come from nothing. But where was all that energy before the beginning? There are two theories.

  1. One theory is the Big Bang, which indicates that all matter (and its energy equivalent) was compressed into a single black hole. That compression is possible because the universe is mostly empty between all particles.
  2. Another theory was proposed by Edward Tyron, an American scientist and a professor of physics at Hunter College in New York City. In 1973, he proposed the idea of a zero-energy universe that emerged from a vacuum of energy. That is to say, it emerged from nothing—where all the positive energy of mass is balanced by the negative energy of gravitation.3

The Matter of Nothing in the Universe

All matter in our world contains a lot of nothing between its molecules and within its atoms. There is enormous emptiness between their nucleus and electrons. That means there is an entire factor of nonexistence within our physical world.

That explains how the entire universe could fit in a single black hole, and it could possibly reveal how the whole universe emerged with the Big Bang.

Nothingness Explained With Quantum Physics and String Theory

Why am I bringing up String Theory? Because I'm going to show you how we can misinterpret the concept of "nothing" when something indeed does exist. We simply may not be aware of it for particular reasons.

To understand string theory, you have to understand that time is the fourth dimension in mathematical terms.

Our three-dimensional world exists in the present. However, it also moves forward in time.

To understand this better, consider the fact that one dimension is simply a line. You can only move back and forth in the length of that line.

If you go 90 degrees perpendicular to that line, you create a plain (a flat surface) where you can move in two dimensions: length and width.

If you go 90 degrees perpendicular to that flat surface, you are moving in three dimensions: length, width, and height.

If you consider another 90-degree turn, the three-dimensional space that we live in moves perpendicular at a 90-degree angle through the fourth dimension: Time.

Note, however, that we can't see into that fourth dimension. We can't observe the past or the future. We can only remember the past, and we can only anticipate the future.

String theory shows how we can observe an object wiggling around in a three-dimensional space. However, once that object wiggles in a fourth dimension, it leaves our awareness.

It still exists, but we can't observe anything in dimensions beyond ours. It's just like a cartoon character that's drawn on a two-dimensional piece of paper. That character can't visualize what is happening above or below that flat surface.

A two-dimensional plane in a three-dimensional world

A two-dimensional plane in a three-dimensional world

As I think about this object wiggling around in a fourth dimension, I realize it is traveling through time because time is the fourth dimension. This consideration brings to mind that quantum physics may be related to string theory.

Quantum physics has shown that particles can move from one location to another instantaneously without existing anywhere in between. String Theory can help explain how this works.

That particle merely is wiggling into the fourth dimension. Once it's there, it is outside of our awareness. Eventually, it wiggles back into our three-dimensional world in a different location, and we see it again.

Does that mean that it became nothing and then later became something again? If that particle merely is unobservable, then who's to say that it is nothing? Just because we can't see something doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

I wonder if that's why the Egyptians hated zero. Perhaps they knew better. Maybe they knew something.

Why Is There Something Instead of Nothing?

In the following TED Talk, Philosopher Jim Holt tries to describe how everything we know that exists in the universe was created from nothing. In my opinion, he failed to do that. But that demonstrates how difficult it is for philosophers to understand or describe the concept of nothingness.

It’s best to avoid asking the question, "Why is there something instead of nothing?" A better question might be to ask, "How do you experience nothingness?"

As I said at the beginning of this article, the concept had troubled physicists and philosophers over the ages, and it will continue to eternity.

If you’re curious to see how Mr. Holt struggles with the explanation for 17 minutes, watch the video. But remember, it’s much ado about nothing.

How Do You Experience Nothingness?

So I left you with that thought! And now you're wondering. Well, I'll end this article with my attempt at an explanation.

We live in a three-dimensional world that travels through time. Within this conceptional world, we have everything.

However, among everything, we have a bunch of null sets that are void of anything. But how do we experience that?

My method is to do it in your mind. Imagine limiting our space of length, width, and height to a mere point (or dot). That dot has no dimension. It becomes void of anything.

The problem is that it still exists in time. If it exists, then it cannot be void of anything. So we need to eliminate time from the equation, too, leaving us with a four-dimensional point with no width, length, height, or time!

That’s about the closest I can come to imagining nothing.

I hope I didn’t leave you feeling too empty!

References

  1. Intro to Roman Numerals.” KnowTheRomans.co.uk
  2. G. Donald Allen. (2002). "Babylonian Mathematics." Texas A&M University
  3. Edward P. Tyron, "Is the Universe a Vacuum Fluctuation?” Nature Magazine, vol. 246, p.396–397, 1973.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Glenn Stok

Comments

Louis Gennaro on March 18, 2020:

Glenn,

I submit for your consideration that nothing is a concept, not a physical reality. I believe that physics is well advised not to attempt to define verbally something that is nothing. Certain concepts beg to be defined mathematically. I think "nothing" belongs in that category. By defining something verbally you relegate it to the physical world, and that creates an oxymoron with the concept of nothing.If it does not exist, how can you define it?

It is possible that "nothing" is not an option - therefore "nothing" does not exist and cannot be defined.

Maybe your prof was correct and we are all going batty.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on March 18, 2020:

Louis Gennaro - A void is absent of anything, and is therefore empty space. A vacuum is an area of space with no matter, and therefore is also empty space. One might argue that either of these are something or nothing, based on personal interpretation.

I appreciate you coming back after two years to continue this discussion. It shows your loyalty as a valued reader of my topics. Now, that’s something!

Louis Gennaro on March 18, 2020:

Glenn,

I apologize for not giving my last name. We corresponded 2 years ago- see below. I have been thinking about the subject ever since- hence my latest posted comment.

In your reply 2 yrs ago you suggested thinking of " nothing" as a "void' or "vacuum" and asked if it helped. It helped only to reinforce my belief that by defining "nothing" you negate the concept of "nothing". If nothing is a void or a vacuum, then it is not nothing - it is a void or a vacuum. And they are both something

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on August 28, 2019:

Eugene Brennan - I discussed nothingness in several different ways in this article. In a mathematical sense, I used string theory to explain how things can disappear from our “awareness” and therefore seem like nothing. Eugene, maybe I need to rework that section to make that clearer. Let me know what you think. I have this article on my list to update soon anyway.

Eugene Brennan from Ireland on August 28, 2019:

Can we truly have nothingness between atoms or sub-atomic particles in the mathematical sense? There will always be electric and magnetic fields but are they "somethingness" that permeates the intervening space?

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on June 04, 2019:

Anton – You have a very unique way of expressing abstract thoughts. Well done.

Anton Al on June 04, 2019:

I think that we need to have better ideas, concepts, notion and definitions about all that, and other questions like this one.

Many of these words have distinct meanings in function.

Space, for example, could simply specify a linear, bi-dimensional, tri-dimensional, quad-dimensional, or other conceptual reference. Such as abstract distance, area, volume, or other concept. It's not, clearly, a concrete thing in a physical world of objects and its inherent constitutional forces.

The concept of zero, null, space, emptiness or other abstract ideas are virtual objects, they are not of the physical universe, but we use them as a means to represent the interior or exterior of all things that exist. They are all realities from distinct domains belonging to the physical universe and the others to the wonderful virtual universe!

Anton Alves

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on November 16, 2017:

Louis Gennaro - Good point. The fact of the matter is that “nothing” is very difficult to define other than using a comparison as you had indicated I am doing.

I guess a way to express a definition of nothing that you can envision is that it’s a void, or a vacuum. Does that help?

Louis Gennaro on November 16, 2017:

Very interesting . I have one question. Can anyone DEFINE what "NOTHING" is ? All I hear is that nothing is a lack of something. That tells me what it isn't, it does not tell me what it is. As is the case with you and your erstwhile physics professor, this can drive me crazy. I cannot envision "nothing" without comparing it to "something", or the lack thereof. This is not a definition, it is merely a comparison.

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on October 01, 2015:

MizBejabbers - You seem to have a better understanding of "nothing" than you give yourself credit for. I enjoyed reading your comment. Thanks for getting all the way through my hub, even if not to infinity.

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on October 01, 2015:

Yep, I'll admit it, I'm certainly not normal, nor am I a scientist, so your article about nothing struck no recognition in my brain. However, my Dad would have loved it. He always said that there was nothing after you died. I do go crazy trying to imagine the beginning before the Big Bang, but not crazy enough to try to figure it out. Every time I see it fold over like cake batter being folded (a very "scientific" view written by one of the Big Bang theorists) My mind hits a wall and refuses to go into infinity.

Thanks for "nothing," Glen, it was fun!

Glenn Stok (author) from Long Island, NY on September 30, 2015:

MsDora - Maybe all my readers are insane for following me. lol. Now all I need is nothing more.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 30, 2015:

You have said quite a bunch about nothing. Please take my next statement in a fun, teasing way. I don't think these thought will make anyone insane; I think they come from, and are interesting to people who are already insane. Just so you know, I'll keep reading.

Tim Mitchell from Escondido, CA on September 30, 2015:

Hooray! An article of 'Nothing' that is really is 'Something' that may explain 'Everything'. ;-) I like the logic shared with this article, of which I feel a worthy read. I have been enlightened with the science of 'Nothingness' with new knowledge. I must ponder . . .

I have always speculated while pondering between the concepts shared here with zero, the null set, and greater than and less than. Interesting enough the philosophy I have encountered states that 'zero' is something and does occupy space. It simply is a point along a line. Herein we may encounter dimensions. I must admit I had not seen the explanation of the relationship between zero and the null set until reading this article. Worth a peek IMHO. I will ponder . . .

Thank you Glenn for writing this stimulating article

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