Social Question

Symbeline's avatar

How come we define nothing, if nothing isn't supposed to be anything at all?

Asked by Symbeline (29499 points ) January 23rd, 2012

Other than the word ’‘nothing’’ being conventionality used to denote the absence of something, is there anything else to it? I mean nothing can’t, as we technically define it, be ’‘nothing’’, because as soon as we give it a description, it becomes something.
I mean beyond that an empty glass does have air in it, that there isn’t anything in it makes that ’‘nothing’’ be that ’‘not anything’’. And that is no longer nothing, (nor was it ever) whether it denotes just that, or not. Er, what the hell am I talking about.
We have words like ’‘void’’ or absence thereof, but in my mind those all relate to how nothing can’t be what we say it is. What is true nothingness? Like, maybe what it’s like before we’re born and when we die? It could technically be nothing, but only because someone can’t come from before they’re born, or come back from the dead to tell us. And if they could, as soon as they give the description of what they experienced, again, it’s no longer nothingness.
Before either God came into existence or before the Big Bang happened, we say there wasn’t anything around. Going by what I think is logic, there forcibly had to have been something there. There couldn’t just not have been anything. That’s impossible! (I think…) Even if say, it was just some big neverending whiteness, that whiteness isn’t ’‘nothing’’, unless nothing actually has a source and a face. And if it does, it still doesn’t match what we understand it as, besides the convenience of saying something isn’t there.
Sorry if this is confusing. I just never quite understood how we can know what true nothingness if it’s something we recognize and define. Something that goes beyond everyday word usage, emotional states, cultural recognitions of things that don’t exist but that everyone talks about anyways, or metaphors and what have you. Maybe there just isn’t anything besides the human subscription to convenience? Lol. I mean I can only go at this with what feeble human logic and understanding of things that I posses. Any thoughts?

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33 Answers

saint's avatar

It’s a concept. The human mind holds information conceptually which means it is an abstraction, which means it does not have to refer to a specific object in reality, but it certainly refers to domething that is real.

Blackberry's avatar

We need a word for everything.

Keep_on_running's avatar

The idea of nothing is impossible to imagine. We’ve only ever known something, I know it’s a real brain screw when you try to think about; well what would be there if our universe pop into existence? I love and hate thinking hard about these things.

Symbeline's avatar

@saint A concept. Yeah, that’s my understanding of it, so far. Was having a hard time wording it though. Lol.

@Keep_on_running Well, yeah. It’s weird that nothing is impossible to imagine, yet suggests, outside of being a concept, something that truly is nothing. Wtv that is. And yeah, what was there before the universe? Musta been something. And if the universe always HAS been there…that makes no sense either. As far as I understand it, there isn’t anything that can just have ’‘been there’’ and not have had a beginning. Nor can it never see any end. But that’s another topic…

john65pennington's avatar

Lets simplify this…..............

In my left hand, I have nothing.

In my right hand, I have a hundred dollar bill and that’s something !

Symbeline's avatar

In both my hands, there is no money, and it pisses me off. So that nothing in my hand, that is, lack of money, is strong enough to be something if it flares my wrath. XD But nah, I get what you mean. :)

john65pennington's avatar

Symbeline, thanks. jp

King_Pariah's avatar

We can define it because someone way back when was able to wrap his or her mind around that there had to be an opposite to something or anything. Hence nothing because no thing is there. Such as, say, i have 12 burritos on a plate before me, i have some things or something. 12 little brats come and take my burritos and a 13th comes and swipes the plate. Now I have no things in front of me or nothing. However true nothing may easily be impossible to ever comprehend or be experienced. I suppose the closest a person could come to experience nothing would be complete sensory deprivation.

Symbeline's avatar

@King_Pariah However true nothing may easily be impossible to ever comprehend or be experienced. I suppose the closest a person could come to experience nothing would be complete sensory deprivation.

Aye, that’s the nothing I’m wondering about. Complete sensory deprivation makes sense, but as you say, it may be one of the closest ways to experience true nothingness, if it exists. Not that I’d want to find out this way…I mean you’re still conscious in such a state, or would be. Must be a horrible experience.

rebbel's avatar

Nothing is also not a thing.
Not a subject.
So it is everything, except a thing.
@Symbeline: Edit: So it is everything else, except a thing.

Symbeline's avatar

How can it not be a thing if it’s everything? ’‘scratches head’’

auhsojsa's avatar

A student of logic would ask, what is the absence of something. A mathematician would ask, what’s the opposite of a positive. All in all, we just need to come to a conclusion that there either is or there isn’t to agree that “it” which is something, either is in fact something, or nothing.

Symbeline's avatar

Yeah, but that conclusion has to be based on what something actually is, or isn’t, and not just what we think it might, or might not be. Zero is still a number as far as I know lol. XD

elbanditoroso's avatar

Remember that Porgy (in Porgy and Bess) sand “I got plenty o’ nothing” -so Gershwin, who wrote the must have assumed that nothing was something you can have a lot of.

Rarebear's avatar

One white duck equals nothing at all
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Fcj5QVmihc

King_Pariah's avatar

@Symbeline it is terrifying and maddening.

wundayatta's avatar

Nothing is not a concept you can stand under, my dear S. No matter how you apply your intellect to it, it will drive you to drink. Excessively. It is, as the zen might say, a koan.

What is nothing?

Your mind is a terribly busy place. It’s also noisy. And as long as you allow that noise to run roughshod through your cerebellum, you won’t get it. Nothing will be a thing to you. A thing that is no thing, but a thing none-the-less.

Your mind is unusually busy, I suspect. The busier it gets, the more you wish it would shut up and the harder you try to shut it up and of course the more it rebels and the more noise it produces until finally, you have consumed enough to blackout. But that is not a nothingness where you can be aware of the nothingness, and so it is a useless nothingness.

What you need is to experience the cessation of thought without the cessation of awareness. This sentence will make no sense to you until you actually experience it, so you won’t believe me.

The fastest and most reliable way to shut down your thoughts is with physical activity, but you can do it with meditation, dance, or music, as well. If you succeed, you will find yourself in a place of nothingness. You will know nothing.

And yet…
you will know nothing.

Good luck!

ddude1116's avatar

It’s mostly just a figure of speech, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of thing, because there is always something, it just might not be noticeable. “Nothing” as a term is relative, because it only encompasses whatever you want it to at the time, but as you delve deeper, you’ll reach something eventually. This is also one of those the-abyss-gazes-also scenarios, don’t think about it too much, or it will consume you.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Imagine a box. Now take out all the molecules that are bouncing around inside that box. Oops!. You missed one tiny hydrogen molecule in the corner. There, you got it.
Now, what’s in the box?
A perfect vacuum. Or, what the TV show, Seinfeld was about.

Rarebear's avatar

@LuckyGuy Well, sort of. Don’t forget about quantum foam
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_foam

mattbrowne's avatar

Maybe set theory can help. The empty set is an entity just like all other sets as well. Even got a nice symbol which consists of two characters: { }

Symbeline's avatar

@wundayatta So nothing is actually something that exists as true nothingness? Or some state that might resemble that? What you need is to experience the cessation of thought without the cessation of awareness. This sentence will make no sense to you until you actually experience it, so you won’t believe me. The sentence does make sense, I just can’t imagine how that’s possible. (unless I’m imagining the wrong thing) Not saying I don’t believe it though.

@ddude1116 Ah, abyss scenarios. I remember this quote from Silent Hill; He who is not bold enough to be stared at from across the abyss is not bold enough to stare into it himself. i don’t know what that has to do with anything, but it seemed fitting to present.

@mattbrowne Ha, actually yeah…I can’t seem to be able to argue that. There literally is nothing in the middle of those. Kinda, there’s still the page color showing.

wundayatta's avatar

@Symbeline ” What you need is to experience the cessation of thought without the cessation of awareness.”

I just can’t imagine how that’s possible.

Hmmm. It’s actually fairly simple to get someone to this state. I use dancing as the mechanism. It’s not just any old kind of dancing—it’s a kind of formula that sets out, step by step, to deliberately stop your thinking. We call it getting out of our heads and into our bodies.

You could probably do it in almost any kind of dancing, but it may not work so well if that is not the point of what you are doing and unfortunately, the people who have developed this technology (I call it a spiritual technology), haven’t spread it around to other places. They aren’t interested in learning the organizational and entrepreneurial skills necessary or in working hard enough to spread it around. So it may well die with them. Since they are in their 70s, that might happen sooner than any of their friends would like. And none of us, at the moment, have lives where we could devote ourselves to spreading this around. Perhaps we fear that no one would really be interested.

I say it’s simple, but it is kind of complex, too. Most people have a hard time understanding how it all works together. There are only a few of us who have been trained to lead the workshops. None of us are all that interested in being entrepreneurs.

But it works. It works with people who have never done it before. It works better once you are relaxed about it and trust the process. The basic principle is to get you to focus on your body and on moving your body purely as you body wants to move (as opposed to trying to guide yourself with your thoughts). You develop a language of your body with respect to other dancers, and you start communicating in this language.

When you do this, your body takes over, and your language thinking mind tends to shut down to some degree. Some people take longer to let this happen than others. Not a big deal.

The thing is that is sounds sort of suspicious and new agey and, well, anti-zombie, I suppose. Although, if you were totally into being a zombie and you got to the point where you were purely walking the way they do, I think this would happen. It’s about concentration. When you focus enough on movement, the rest of your mind gets out of the way. Thought stops. Awareness continues.

Self-consciousness gets in the way big time. Wondering what others think of you gets in the way. Wondering if you are doing the right thing is counter-productive. These are all very natural thoughts and to the extent you worry about these things it will be difficult to stop thinking and get out of your head.

Unfortunately, if you worry whether you are doing it right, you are doing it wrong. If you are not worried about it, you could be doing it all wrong and still be doing it right. God! Don’tcha love those silly conundrums that zen trainers are always coming up with? Problem is, that’s how it works. Self-awareness is anathema. Yet die-hard right-brain Westerners are loathe and fearful unto death to give up the conscious, critical mind.

In the end, you will find you don’t have to give it up. But for a while at least, you need to because it is too strong, and your non-conscious mind will never get enough exercise to build it’s muscles if you don’t find a way to get the conscious critical mind to shut the fuck up for a while.

Anyway, I hope that gives you some idea of how it is possible. I can’t help you find a place to do it, unfortunately, although I’ll let you know if I hear of anything like it coming your way. Still, you might enjoy taking a hike over to the Chateau area and wandering around being a zombie, no matter what people say to you!

Naw. That wouldn’t do any good. You have to practice zombie walking in a place where you never worry about what anyone else thinks. Maybe out in the vast forest somewhere. If you seriously want to try something, I do have other ideas.

Symbeline's avatar

Actually I love walking around like a zombie, but not in public, unless I’m trying to be silly in front of friends or something. If I wanted to experience this, zombie walking might be a good start for me. It’s actually pretty trippy when you do it long enough. I don’t know how to dance though, unless you count tap dancing, which does require, for me at least, to concentrate. Erm. But there really isn’t any kind of specific dancing needed, is there? What about music? Does that have to be present? I’m imagining that dancing with and without music are probably two different things.
Also, what’s it like when you experience this, anyways? is it kind of like meditating? Which I’ve also never really done. I did try it before, and actually it freaked me out. XD Not sure I was doin it right though. Or are there no words to describe it?

wundayatta's avatar

You can do it with or without music. Music makes it easier. But I like the idea of zombie walking in the woods, just really getting into the flow and stumble of it, kind of trying to become so connected with the woods that it’s as if you’ve known it all your life or that you are an integral part of it.

No specific dancing. The idea is to get into a state people call “flow.” You move without being aware that you are causing the movement. It just happens. You are “one” with the forest. Your awareness has expanded so you can just about see things all around you. Certainly if feels as if you can feel them. I don’t know if we really feel things, but it feels like we can feel things outside of our area of visual awareness. Our kinetic senses are all engaged so it feels like we know things without really knowing how we came to know those things.

It’s about the feeling, not the reality. It’s about your sense of awareness and connection to what is around you. If you lose the thinking, most people will feel as if they gain a greater awareness of connection to that which is around them. Sometimes the connection extends much further away.

Meditation is another way to get at this feeling. Personally, I’m too impatient to work meditation. I need my body to be engaged or I need to be making music. Both these things kind of short-circuit my thinking processes and throw me into this other kind of awareness.

What is it like? Well, you got it right that there are no words to describe it. But I have taken that as my challenge. Can I say what can’t be said? It’s a folly, I’m sure, but I’ll try. This is all metaphor, of course. To know it, you have to experience it, and when you experience it, it’ll probably be different. So in the end, you get to decide if you have experienced it or not. No one else can confirm or disconfirm it. Which means there are no experts. In a way, it is your choice. But we can share stories, and it does help us when it sounds like are stories are somewhat similar.

When you feel it, you will probably realize it has been happening all your life. I remember when I first realized what “chi” was like. It happened during an acupuncture treatment. I fell electric zings and other things I call “rushes” up my spine and this reminded me of times in Concert Band when I was 16, and we’d get to certain passages and if felt like this rush of energy went shooting up my spine and out the roof of my head. It tingled and it felt so charged and I absolutely loved it!

So years later I find out that this is what chi is, and that I can make this feeling happen just by thinking about it (or by practicing yoga or Tai Chi), and I can send it into other parts of my body (I’m really good at hands and feet). What does it do? Well, supposedly you need free flow in your body, and if it doesn’t flow freely, you can get ill, or maybe illness stops the flow.

Chi means breath. But chi isn’t necessarily breath, itself. However, most practices on earth start by focusing on the breath, and you should do that in your zombie walking. In my practice, we start by lying down and breathing into various parts of our bodies. This is a metaphor. We don’t actually breathe through our feet, but we can make ourselves feel as if we are and that can start that tingling feeling that I know as chi in my feet.

By focusing on your breath you start to pay attention to the rhythm of your breath and more importantly, you come to understand how your breath moves your body. This is obvious, except mostly we never think about it or pay attention to it. Paying attention to how your breath moves you starts to get you into your body and out of your head.

In meditation, it’s more mental and more difficult. You focus on your breath but you count breaths and try to stay focused so you can stay counting. This is very difficult because the mind wants to pay attention to all kinds of shit. So it keeps wandering off, and then you forget to count. So you are supposed to gently remind yourself to count and you start counting over again. It’s hard.

With dance and movement, you don’t have to count. Rather you feel. Which is where you want to be, anyway. You feel the effect of your breath gently stimulating your muscles throughout your body. You can focus on your feet or hands or whatever. In my practice we move from one to the other until we have gone through the entire body in about five to ten minutes.

Then we start activating our bodies. You might see this as stretching, but we prefer to think of it as dance. Inside, we are paying attention to what our muscles want to do. So, using the breath to start things, we begin our stretching dance, first lying on the floor, and then sitting or kneeling, and eventually we work our way up onto our feet.

I like to keep my eyes closed during this process. Sometimes, I start to feel like I can see the dance floor even though my eyes are closed. I feel like I know where I am in relation to the band and the other dancers. But most importantly, keeping my eyes closed allows me to stay within my body without getting distracted by my relationship to the world around me.

I work into a flow where I am constantly working muscles, except really, the muscles are working me. They are guiding the movement. I am not deciding what to do. Rather, my attention is so focused on them that I can allow them to move me. This sounds kind of confusing—these words—to me.

I think that our mind is not just in our head. The whole nervous system is part of how we think. Impulses come from everywhere. The idea is to shut down the center enough that you can pay attention to these impulses from elsewhere in your body and allow them to move you. Of course, they are you, so you are still moving you, but it kind of feels like the impulses are coming from outside you—as if a god were moving you.

That’s where you’re headed. You want to feel as if you are being moved, even though you are moving yourself. This is what tells you that your thinking mind is no longer in control. You are letting other parts of you move you. These are the parts that are usually dampened down below our level of awareness. They are always there and they always have a say, but most people don’t become aware of them.

So sometimes when people have conflicting ideas about what to do, and then they do things they didn’t mean to do, it’s these other ideas that other parts of our minds have that are forcing themselves into control. These kinds of practices (dance, meditation, Tai Chi, etc) help us learn to be a little more out of control, so as to allow other parts of us to have greater input into our decisions and to do it in a more conscious way. The paradoxical nature of it is that in order to include more of ourselves in our consciousness, we have to learn how to be more unconscious.

I hope my explanations allow me to get away with that statement. I guess I’m talking about two different kinds of consciousness, or maybe two aspects of consciousness. The problem with terminology is that we don’t define these things very clearly. I think in terms of mind-mind and body-mind. Or linguistic mind and non-linguistic mind. Or thinking-mind and non-thinking mind.

These dualities may or may not be helpful. I’m not enough of a brain scientist to be up on the current theory. My study is basically studying myself and trying to be aware of how I interpret and act out these ideas I hear from others. I am careful not to claim that the thoughts come from outside me even though they feel as if they do. I think that the fact that many people report experiences that seem to be similar means that we are talking about something semi-reproducible.

However I am also careful not to go so far as to claim universal reality for these things. I am very uncomfortable with this notion that these things actually could come from outside the body. Many people claim they do. Many people will claim that “god” spoke to them or handed them the music or the words or made their bodies do things they can’t do.

Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to go outside the body to find explanations for these experiences. I believe people are generally telling the truth about what they experience. I really don’t even want to get into a discussion of how or why it happens if we have to bring in something outside the body. I just want to hear what people experience.

This gets back to the notion that you can’t explain it. There are no words for these experiences. Literally. My theory is that this is because they don’t occur in the thinking or linguistic mind. They are wordless experiences. Thus, it is very difficult to talk about them. Like dreams, we have to translate them into words, and that never seems satisfactory. Something seems to be missing.

Now it is very tempting to say that what is missing is something magical. It is tempting to label that magic with a word everyone knows: god. The explanation that conveniently fakes us into overlooking that it is not an explanation. When we say “god” made this for us, it is like punting in American football. You punt when you don’t know what else to do. It is not an answer.

When we say god did it, it feels like an answer, but it isn’t an answer. God is a black box. We have no idea what goes on inside it, yet most people are willing to stop asking questions at this point. They know they can’t understand God. That’s the definition of God. So therefore, god is the final answer. Can’t go any further.

I have a theory that we have evolved to ask questions. I think one mechanism of this is the anxiety we feel when we don’t know the answer. If something is important, we feel more anxiety, but we also feel anxiety when we don’t know the answers to non-urgent questions. Like where did this feeling of knowing the woods come from? Of being one with the woods?

It makes us anxious to have such questions hanging out there, and the anxiety can be debilitating. So I think we invented god as the answer that ends all questions as a way to keep from being so anxious. I think that being able to constantly ask more questions and to learn more enhances our ability to survive. But I think that being able to stop the questions when they become fruitless is also important. So I see God as a clever mechanism that helps us cope with not knowing.

Of course, different people have different levels of tolerance of non-knowing, and so we can get into passionate disagreements about all kinds of issues related to the end of knowledge. Some people claim special insight into the end of knowledge and retrieve answers others disagree with about all the stuff we find in religious disagreements.

Personally, I find that I am ok with not knowing. I want to know. I want to find answers, but I am unwilling to go to that place where I must fool myself that I know something I don’t really know, or that I have an answer that really isn’t an answer.

So I dance. I make music. These things are therapeutic in addition to being creative. The state of awareness I attain actually heals my anxious and depressive thoughts. My body mind seems to know how to smooth over my thinking-mind. My body mind knows how to connect with other people and with the environment around me. It prefers a natural environment. Boxes and rooms are not easy to generate flow in.

I wasn’t expecting to range so far in this answer, but I figure you, at least, will be interested. It is good to be able to connect some of the different aspects of this theory. I tend to use the word “spiritual” to describe the feeling I get from this method. For me, spiritual means the sense of connection to things outside myself. That is what these practices are about, on some level. Although they also have the health and creative aspects, too. But since the general aesthetic seems to be about oneness and connection, it seems a little like cheating to talk about the different threads of it.

On the other hand, we are trying to translate from the “oneness” mind to the “separate strands” mind. The thinking mind is all about taking things apart to see how they work. The body mind is about connecting things to see how they work. We need both, I think. We are well served if we can place ourselves right in the middle, where we can use both minds at will, and not privilege one way of thinking above the other.

I think Western society has really focused on the thinking mind. And no wonder. Science is an incredible method for generating useful knowledge. It has allowed us to improve our standard of living like crazy. So science sucks us in because of its utility.

As a result, we have generated a suspicion, I think, culturally speaking, of the other parts of our mind that generate knowledge in other ways. I think we are doubly suspicious because some people make claims for mysticism that science has shown can not be supported with any evidence.

But people get excited. The things we learn from our non-linguistic minds are emotionally powerful. They feel good. We want to make claims for them out of our excitement, I believe. Thus the battle and the separation get exaggerated. Feelings get hurt. People get angry. And we learn to suspect our emotions and feelings and non-linguistic thinking as if they are alien (which also contributes to the notion of magic and god).

I think it is possible to hold these different methods of thinking and awareness together without conflict if we don’t make claims based on our emotions. I think we can just feel what we feel, and let it be. We can describe it dispassionately and as accurately as we can without saying it is real. It is an experience. We don’t have to say if the experience is “real” or not. We just accept the person’s description of it.

If we leave it at that, I think there is much more to learn. If we resist the urge to interpret or label these experiences, I think we get more out of it. Naming it “god” or “spirit” or whatever causes us to lose information. Let’s deal with the data, not the interpretation.

And that, my dear @Symbeline, is how it is done! LOL!

everephebe's avatar

Sorry @wundayatta I only read posts up to 2,500 words not 2,657.
:P

mattbrowne's avatar

Technological progress would have been almost impossible without one smart guy in India inventing the number zero.

wundayatta's avatar

Sorry @everephebe. I wasn’t writing for you. I thought you knew that.

I’d add another sentence, but I know I’d lose your attention.

ETpro's avatar

@Symbeline I think of very deep space. There, you find a hydrogen or helium atom here and there, but between them, nothing. Oh, an occasional photon or other energetic particle may dart through. But even there, we have atoms and particles and where they are not, we can conceive there being nothing.

To get to real nothing, we have to think back before the big bang. Without things to define it, there is no space-time. It seems both impossible and obvious that there was a time when there was truly nothing—not infinite space-time—but true nothing. Where my noodle explodes is when I begin to think of what would be if the nothing that preceded the big bang disappeared.

There is a concept of vacuum energy but like @Rarebear‘s link to quantum foam, that relies on their being space-time for it to function within.

Symbeline's avatar

@ETpro Good answer, but I still don’t know…I mean, isn’t an empty space formed by something? Speaking not through metaphors and all, isn’t a space still something? It’s made up of some matter, or…something. Like even if you can only wave your hand through it. Like oxygen, a fart, or smoke.
So space is black because there isn’t any light. But this space couldn’t not be illuminated, if there wasn’t anything there not to illuminate. Does that make any sense at all? People say that darkness couldn’t exist without light, and vice versa. So, forcibly, something has to be something to either receive or not receive light. (or darkness)

I understand what you mean by conceiving nothing, at least to as close as we can get to nothing.

Also, as you said in your other question, God popping into existence when there was nothing before is ludicrous. But it’s the same if we believe that the Big Bang popped out of nowhere, too. There must have been something there before it big banged along, that made it happen. My noodle is also exploding…there’s pasta everywhere. XD

ETpro's avatar

@Symbeline I can no more explain nothing than I can explain infinity—or the lack thereof. We cannot apply finite human terms to things that are infinite.

Rarebear's avatar

@Symbeline You have been touched by his noodly appendage.
http://www.venganza.org/

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