Explaining nothing


Busy with the mundane life and the constant noise around, we often want to sit silently to think of nothing. But does that happen? Within seconds your mind is filled with some thought, person, colour or even a song. If not either of them, you start wondering about the word nothing and what it means.

Recently I came across an article which talked about nothing and I was recently fascinated with it. It shows how pondering over nothing can be a beautiful meditation for some people, while it is just a waste of time for others.

The concept of nothing is so simple that it lies in the intersection of science, philosophy and language. Similar to a kid’s question inquisitive ‘Why?’ to every statement, finding the meaning of nothing can be frustrating. Here are some answers of great physicists and philosophers to what nothing means.

Physics explanation

Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist at the California Institute of technology has also been concerned with nothing. In a recent blog post, podcast and chapter of the Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Physics, he attempts to answer the question why is there something, rather than nothing?

It seems natural to ask why the universe exists at all. Modern physics suggests that the universe can exist all by itself as a self-contained system, without anything external to create or sustain it. But there might not be an absolute answer to why it exists. I argue that any attempt to account for the existence of something rather than nothing must ultimately bottom out in a set of brute facts; the universe simply is, without ultimate cause or explanation.

He says that our experience of the world is confined to a small fraction of reality and thus we never really question the existence of life. Unlike the common notion, true nothingness is different from empty space. He explains how empty space is a very interesting topic in physics and though the universe might look empty it still has quantum properties, which are in a zero-energy state not doing anything. But you could probe the vacuum, as particle physics does, and discover its properties.

It’s probably better to think of nothing as the absence of even space and time, rather than space and time without anything in them”

The philosophical explanation of nothing

Jim Holt is a philosopher who has written on a variety of scientific subjects, including the universe’s beginnings and the philosophical development of humour. In a TED Talk titled “Why do the cosmos exist?” he also discussed quantum mechanics and nothingness.

Holt believes that nothing is an intelligent concept for the human mind and can be described using philosophical reasoning. He argues that nothing is empty space filled with invisible things as mentioned in quantum physics but it can be explained using formal logic. He says nothingness is a state in which everything is not self-identical.

I’ve never been able to understand nothingness completely, but I can get close to it when I watch professional bowling on television

Nothing really matters

We have wired our brains to understand only discrete entities but that does not stop us from understanding the true nature of nothing.

Carroll says that he believes it is easy to understand nothing. We believe that the universe had a start and after that we had something. the moment before the start was nothing. Holt mentions that nothing logically may sound intelligent, but one cannot visualize it.

Nothing reminds us that there we need to accept the limits to human understanding and humans will still not be willing to give up and keep digging deeper into their limitations. Confirming the same Carroll says that while studying the universe, satisfaction is what we can hope for but not demand. It is up to us to cultivate intellectual maturity to accept some questions which do not have an answer.

We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.