Occasionally, language and logic blend together in such a way where the results are funny. It’s rare, but this is one of those occasions.
We’ve discovered a rock-solid foundation for our worldview: logic applies to everything.
This sentence can be rephrased into, “Logic does not apply to nothing.”
But that might bring up the question, “Well, what is nothing?”
It’s a wonderful question, and trying to answer it creates humorous sentences you’d never encounter anywhere else. Comedian Louis CK even has a stand-up bit about “nothing”.
Like any other topic, we have to be extremely careful. If our concepts about “nothing” are inaccurate, it can result in logical contradictions and absurd conclusions.
I can only think of one sensible answer to the question, “What is nothing?”:
Nothing is nothing.
The following syllogism demonstrates why:
a) If some thing is something, it is certainly not nothing.
b) Every thing is something.
c) Therefore, nothing is nothing.
In other words, there is no such thing as “nothing” in existence. By definition, “nothing” can’t exist – because there’s nothing to exist.
Here’s where crystal-clear language becomes important. From the beginning, we have to distinguish between “the concept of nothing” and “nothing”. If we don’t, we’ll end up in absurdities, and many people get tripped up by this distinction.
“The concept of nothing” certainly exists, as I’ll explain in a minute, but “actual nothing” does not.
Concepts and Reference
Imagine somebody were to ask, “What are you referencing by the term ‘nothing’?”
The only appropriate response is to say, “Nothing at all.”
But this is problematic. Just how can we keep using a term that doesn’t reference anything? The term has meaning, doesn’t it?
We must distinguish between concepts and their reference. Consider the sentence, “My dog named Goose.” Certainly, “the concept of my dog” is not the same thing as “my dog”. He exists separate of my conception, but I can reference him using everyday language.
Consider a more difficult case: Harry Potter. What does “Harry Potter” reference? Certainly something, but not something separate from our conception. Harry Potter does not exist in the physical world; he’s a concept.
But what about the term “nothing”? If we were to conclude, “Nothing is only a concept”, we run into the following contradiction:
a) All concepts are something.
b) “Nothing” is a concept.
c) Therefore, “nothing” is something.
But nothing can’t be something! Where have we gone wrong?
The only way to preserve sensibility is to draw the distinction between the concept of nothing and “actual nothing”. The concept of nothing exists. Actual nothing does not. And crucially:
“Actual nothing”, as a term, is not a reference to anything. It’s merely two words we put together to spark something in your mind – something like a formula for universal negation.
We have an intuitive idea of what the word “not” means. If you place “not” in a sentence, you’ve negated whatever follows. When I say, “I am not a woman”, that has clear meaning.
The word “nothing” simply applies this idea universally. It’s a universal negation. It’s saying, “not anything whatsoever”.
In order to avoid contradiction, we have to dive further into the weeds. We must relentlessly refuse to turn nothing into something. Consider the difference between:
“I am not a woman.”
“I am a not-woman.”
The former is a negation. It’s essentially saying “I am not that”.
The latter is a positive claim. It’s saying, “I am a not-that.”
But a “not-that” is not something you can be. It’s an error in language. A man, for example, is not a “not-woman”. A man is simply “not a woman.”
We can rephrase this sentence more clearly by saying, “it would be false to say a man is a woman.”
The same is true with the term “nothing”. It must always remain a negation and never become a positive claim.
Consider the question, “Eliminate everything in existence, and what are you left with?”
If we answer, “You are left with nothing”, that implies nothing is something – that, in some possible world, you can “have nothing”.
But nothing is not something to be had! By logical necessity, nothing can’t be left over, because it can’t be.
We can avoid the confusion by concluding, “If you eliminate everything in existence, you would not have anything remaining.” This only a negation; it doesn’t imply that “nothing could exist”.
I’ll illustrate this distinction one more way. Consider the universally true abstraction: A is A.
This means, “For anything that exists, it is itself.” Or, “Everything is however it is.”
Another way to phrase it is, “Everything has identity with itself; things are what they are.”
This truth applies to everything – which means it does not apply to nothing.
“Nothing” is not itself, as “to be itself” requires “to be”, which nothing isn’t. “Nothing” does not have identity.
We might be tempted to transform the sentence “nothing is nothing” into “A is A”. But this is an error. “Nothing” is not “A”. Strictly speaking, nothing is “not A”. So, if we want to create a formal abstraction about “nothing”, the most we can say is “not A is not A” – that ensures “nothing” remains a negation, not a positive thing.
Empty Space versus Nothing
This might seem like a bunch of unnecessary linguistic nonsense. But it has big implications. For example, Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking have become popular for claiming they have answered the age-old questions, “How did the universe come into existence?” and “Can you ever get something from nothing?”
They claim that, “Aha! Something can create itself out of nothing, because nothing is actually something that you can weigh and measure.”
One problem: by “nothing”, they are talking about “empty three-dimensional space”. This is a clear logical contradiction. “Actual nothing” is not “empty three dimensional space”. The latter has both existence and identity. It’s a self-evident and elementary error which is revealed by simple examination of our concepts.
Even the image I chose for this post – pure blackness – is certainly not nothing. It’s a bunch of black pixels. You might call it “only empty background”. But “empty background” is still something, and you can know this by simply recognizing that we’re talking about it.
The final way to think about “nothing” is to simply add a space. Instead of “nothing” – which sounds like something – we change our language to “no thing”. So, our sentences look like:
No thing is no thing. (As every thing is a thing)
No thing is not itself. (As every thing is itself)
No thing has no existence and no identity. (As every thing exists as itself)
No thing is not something. (As every thing is some thing)
No thing isn’t. (Because if it’s a thing, it is)
“No thing” is a formula for universal negation; it is not a reference to something.
Pushed to its extremes, language is a funny thing. When we’re talking about nothing, we better make sure we’re not talking about anything. Otherwise, we’d be talking about something, which is certainly not nothing.
I have tried to ensure that, by the end of this article, the reader will have a clearer understanding of how to talk about absolutely nothing.