(or “thoughts about nothing”)

For Paul, Jennifer, David and Johnny

           How can we say anything about nothing… unless nothing is actually something? (We can certainly use a lot of words and say nothing so maybe using a lot of words is the best way to understand nothing.) Let’s try this: What is the opposite of something? Nothing? The question and the answer tell us almost nothing. Nothing, defined logically, doesn’t exist. And naming it doesn’t mean we understand it. Can we really know nothing?

            Maybe the whole question of what is the opposite of something is a wrong-headed question to start with… And now we’re in verbal trouble because saying “nothing can be the opposite of something” seems to have two contradictory meanings. Surely if nothing was really what we say it is (or isn’t) we wouldn’t be able to say anything about it and “its existence” would never even occur to us. And yet it does so we go on in the hope that meditating on nothing will lead us somewhere.

            What about zero? Is it actually nothing at all? Again, if so, how can we name it? Why name it? Is zero a number? Or is it the absence of number? How can an absence be present to us? We all know how to count down to zero but where have we arrived when we get there? Countdowns usually lead some-where or at least some-when so how can zero, of all “things,” demarcate some actually existing place or time…or even a state of matter? (At absolute zero all molecular motion stops. Nothing can be colder.) Zero can also demarcate a starting place (that is not nowhere) as on a ruler, though appropriately it is rarely printed there. And it can serve as a placeholder establishing the value of nearby digits, as in the number 6,000.

            On a number line zero becomes the frontier between positive and negative – between the countable and the nonexistent – which seems appropriate since zero both signifies nothing and has been granted numerical status. Zero in this context is given a specific if abstract location by being defined as a reference point for numbers imagined via spatial metaphor. Can nothing really be a location, reference point, destination or state? Can beginnings, endings and states really be so definite yet intangible? How can so significant a feature of our intellectual landscape be simultaneously nonexistent, useful and slippery?

            Can we ever truly lose everything? It seems impossible though even then we would have nothing and that’s some consolation. (Or in losing everything would we have nothing to show for it?) Having nothing, if that’s possible, would surely gain the sympathy of others and that’s something. Having nothing can leave you feeling empty but that’s a definite, concrete state – quite a feat for an absence. Maybe nothing (and infinity for that matter) are hyperbolic fictions that serve to evoke sympathy or awe.

            Imagine that somehow, somewhere along the way nothing was conceived, created, dreamt up as if, having lost the very last of something, we were left with an empty feeling which needed a name. And out of the longing that comes from loss we counted their absence in memoriam and zero was born – a nothing that became an honored something by our naming. Stripped of what we had lost, we consoled ourselves with a something called nothing. Naming it we gained power over it. Now we could eventually let go and think nothing of it. Naming nothing becomes a path to peace.

            We might think true creativity means creating something out of nothing. On closer examination we never actually do this. Our creative acts always start somewhere with something. Maybe we should consider instead that making nothing as something is a creative act.

            Creating out of nothing is an act reserved for divine powers. Some ancient creation myths associate nothing with the void, darkness and chaos present before the universe was created. Meditating on this sort of raw nothing gathers a primal fear that all might be undone and return to nothing. (It may be that the primal terror associated with “nothing” is rooted in the fear of psychosis – of being utterly undone.) The original act of creation is a movement from chaos to order or from nothing to something.            

            Consider another experience of nothing. Having nothing to do (if we ever actually do nothing), we get restless and feel like we have to do something, even if it’s making something up. Deprived of sensory input we hallucinate. Our nature abhors a vacuum. It seems that whatever this sort of nothing “is” we can’t let it be (or not-be). Maybe that’s why we treat nothing as if it were something. We are not equipped to deal with pure absence. Likewise we are not equipped to fully embrace the notion of death as the pure absence of life.

            And, though we can’t fully embrace it, nothing as absence occupies a powerful place in our psyche. How can something that doesn’t exist be so powerful and convincing? Just like zero makes no sense without the other numbers (if zero is really a number), if no-thing exists at all it wouldn’t exist without the “thing” part.

            We are quite creative. With the tools of logic, language and imagination we make things out of no-things, completing the creation of a world full of concrete distinct objects that can be invested with meaning, talked about, tested and manipulated. Reification (thing-ification) is the tool by which we create that world.

            What do tools do for us? Tools generally are extensions of our bodies and a means to accomplish or intentions by manipulating objects. [Manipulate is from the Latin manus=hand and manipulus=a handful as a unit of measure. Through tools the hand as manipulator becomes the measure of things in the world.] Tools as imaginative acts are potentials for action and constitute the world as populated with objects more or less susceptible to those actions. Reification is a tool for creating a world of discrete things that can be manipulated toward our intentions. Tools well crafted and skillfully wielded, like our bodies in action, fade from our awareness as we focus on the task at hand. Likewise the act of reification is forgotten as an imaginative act in favor of having a world that we can grasp and shape.

            Consider the tool of operational definitions in the sciences. First see the world as populated with measureable, discreet but interrelated things that yield their truths to mathematics. Then, starting with the tools of quantification and a potentially quantifiable phenomenon, create a seemingly relevant concept (a construct), act as if “it” is a measurable thing, create a controlled circumstance, measure your “thing” and analyze and draw conclusions generally forgetting your “thing” is an as-if. And to no small degree this works. The world yields to and supports our mathematical imagination. The as-if works even if we apply it forgetfully.

            Reification, an extension of our capacity for tool making, works. And yet what if nothing as a thing which can be talked about is illusory – a semantic trick – a pretension based on the capacity built into language to reify (thing-ify or noun-ify) any-thing. But where would language be without nouns? Nowhere probably. Noun-ifying makes things and makes them stick. It makes them into sticks – tools we can manipulate.

            Our capacities for language and for making tools have much in common. Noun-things, once made, can be controlled, shaped, bent to our purposes and enable us to interact with our environment in ways that would be impossible otherwise. Yet reification has a price. Nouns get stuck and we with them while the world changes. Nouns separate what is not separate. Nouns invite us to literalize our metaphors making them illusory dogmatic truths instead of holding them as modes of perception and paths to understanding. And our self understanding suffers as we see ourselves too as noun-things, forgetting that we are more verbs than nouns – more becomings than beings. To respect who we are means to embrace our no-thingness. This sort of nothing is quite substantial.

            Zen Buddhists certainly make a lot of sunyata (a sort of nothing oft translated as emptiness, openness, spaciousness, “voidness”) which is at the heart of all things. We typically think of things as having an unchanging intrinsic nature (petrification by reification). Zen sees this as an illusion that we impose on the world. Through the practice of meditation we can let go of and see through this illusion and experience sunyata.

            Emptiness in this sense is a positive phenomenon (not strictly a negation). And, as a teaching, it is a rhetorical device meant to stretch us away from our clinging to things as having an unchanging intrinsic nature. And yet while Buddhists think about emptiness, the experience of emptiness for them is primary. To experience the true nature of things is to experience their emptiness. This is less a logical negation and more a path that includes the undoing of our typical assumptions about the nature of things. And while that path may include in the undoing a temporary sense of loss, the experience of sunyata is one of fulfillment and peace. Perhaps this is an experience of what western metaphysics calls Being (minus the inclination to treat it as unchanging). So if our thinking diverts us from the path to that experience of sunyata by turning nothings into things, maybe we need to lose our minds.

            Nothing as an absolute absence cannot be spoken about or even thought because speech and thought deal with somethings. It cannot be tolerated because our nature abhors a vacuum. Even treating this sort of nothing as an abstraction turns it into something imagined – a mental construct thing sufficiently tangible to be dealt with. We create nothing as something. Nothing is striking evidence of our tendency to turn everything into a thing, including ourselves.

            So instead of accepting nothing as literally nonexistent and in deference to its character saying nothing about it, we’ve explored the places nothing has carved out in our imaginal landscape. We’ve seen it as a state of matter that cannot be exceeded, as a number that cannot be counted and yet is, as a place holder, a reference point, a beginning and ending and a boundary between the countable and the unreal. We’ve seen it as naming the experience of loss and lack, as sunyata – the no-thingness of all things and as a rhetorical device meant to stretch us out of the tendency to reify everything.

            Nothing has weight. Confusion sets in only when we take nothing’s logical origins literally; that is, when we take them too far from human experience. Nothing, taken experientially, honors our capacity for the literal and the metaphorical, the abstract and the concrete, the logical and the experiential.

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
         – From The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens

-Bob Sandford, 2015