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Nothing. Is it really something?

Updated on March 20, 2013

Nothing: what is it?

At this point I should just leave the page blank to make a point. But that wouldn’t make a good read and it wouldn’t explain why I feel the need to address this issue.

For some reason, strange as it may seem, some people think that nothing is something. This idea presents itself constantly in debates about how the universe was formed. Recently I told someone that when scientists such as Hawking say the universe may have come from nothing, what they really mean, and often explain, is that nothing in science does not mean absolutely nothing. In this context it means apparently nothing. To be specific, quantum fluctuation.

Quantum fluctuation was a theory predicted by the Heisenberg uncertainty principal and has recently been proven by experiment to exist in all seemingly empty space including the space between an electron and its nucleus. In quantum fluctuation we find particles coming in to existence in supposedly empty space. This means that potential energy in space is actualized producing something from potential.

For there to be potential, of course, there has to be something that has that potential. Potential cannot exist on its own. You can’t do experiments on nothing at all.

Space is not empty anyway you look at it. It holds planets and stars and galaxies and all manner of things. Space, according to Einstein and later experiments, can be bent. A bit of nothing cannot be bent, because there is no such thing. Notice the word thing.

Nothing is not a thing. That is the point. It is a concept about the absence of all things. Now we can say the bowl has nothing in it, but we don’t mean nothing because on earth it has air in it. But more to the point, we mean there is no specific thing that we are looking for in the bowl. No candy, or no keys, or no whatever.

Nothing is not a state. It is the absence of a state. Nothing does not exist. It has no matter and no energy, no shape no size… no anything.

When I recently put a similar argument to someone, they told me that since we do not know everything we cannot know that the universe did not spring up from nothing. I applaud the idea that we must be careful not to rule anything out entirely when thinking about how it all began. But nothing is not anything at all.

There are some things which are completely impossible. One such thing is a square circle. You can’t really imagine one either, but you can think of the concept even though it cannot be made in reality. It is a logical impossibility. So is nothing. We can think of the concept, and we can use it to talk about specific things that are not present: Relatively nothing. We can even imagine it because we know what absence of anything is. But it too is a logical impossibility.

Zero in math is not really a number though some say it is. It is a place holder. It tells us there is no number here. Even as a place holder in numbers like 10 or 100 the zeros represent nothing. 10.0 is still 10. Better than saying 9 plus 1 all the time. In ancient Babylon it was represented by an empty space. Later it was represented by two wedges. By 700 BCE it was three hooks. But it was never used alone or at the end of a number as a place holder, so many numbers with different value looked the same.

Zero as a potential concept within the number system was debated fiercely in Greece by people like Aristotle. How can nothing be something? Even they knew it couldn’t be. It was not until the 5th century CE in India that it was used as a number. You can divide zero by any number, even by a fraction, and get zero. That makes sense. But you cannot divide by zero. 7 divided by nothing is not dividing 7 at all.

We could say it is 7 but that is not how math works. 14 divided by 2 is 7 and 2 times 7 is 14. So if we say 7 divided by 0 is 7, then we have a problem when we multiply because 0 times 7 would have to be 7 but it is always 0. Therefore we are not allowed to divide by zero even though rationally we could say that a division by nothing is not a division of the number being divided at all. That it is a number to some is convenient, but it is imaginary and does not reflect any reality other than absence of a number or thing.

Nothing is: No thing, no part, no position, no portion, it has no existence. It has no qualities, no dimensions, no properties, no color, no texture, no taste, no substance, no anything at all. It does not exist. It is zilch, zip, nada, nought, nil,zero, void.

You can’t get something from nothing, no way no how. Not man not god, nothing and no one. It is a logical impossibility just as a square circle is.

I feel like I am on the Jerry Seinfeld show. I just spent 892 words talking about nothing because some people still don’t get it.

Update: Enter Lawrence Krauss, a physicist I admire as much as he admires Feynman. Lawrence loves to point out that the universe can spring up from nothing. He recently wrote a very good book about it.

Of course he is the first to tell us that nothing itself is something in this case. He goes on to point out that the void is teaming with energy that pops in and out of existence. Not just some here and there either; everywhere. (quantum fluctuation) The fabric of space has properties.

Well this is hardly nothing if it has properties. But then he goes on to tell us that he is arriving at nothing by eliminating everything one by one: no pre-existing atoms no particles, etc. That makes perfect sense, except that if things are popping into and out of existence from nothing, nothing must hold potential at least. The fabric of space must be potential or have potential inherent in it. He talks about nothing’s instability. How can nothing be unstable?

This is something from nothing, but it is really something from potential. Is potential nothing? Is the fabric of space nothing? Lawrence then tells us nothing weighs something. What that means essentially is that this nothing interacts with the Higgs Boson (which has now been found) and thus has mass.

So Lawrence is coming to rational conclusions from the science, and changing the literal meaning of nothing. He is in fact telling us that potential is nothing. And in a sense that is true. It is not something until it becomes actual. Some would say it is not actual unless it is physical. Of course if it has weight then it is physical; that is to say material (energy/matter).

Lawrence tells us that he is changing the definition of the word nothing. My first question is why? I asked him exactly that in an email. The reason I did that is not because I don’t understand his definition. It was because he is now in the middle of trying to fight off the fundamentalists in the US who want to teach creationism in science class, among bizarre things. Something from nothing has always been their territory. God created everything from nothing. The fundamentalists must feel vindicated. Everyone else is confused and they shouldn’t be..

Does Lawrence Krauss or Hawking care about that? No. And if it were true that something came from nothing then I would accept that. However, you can only make something appear from nothing by changing the definition of nothing. And I don’t even see that he has done that. The absence of all things is part of the modern definition already.

Yet we say concepts exist and they are not physical in and of themselves, though they are held by physical beings. In and of itself a concept could be said to be nothing, as in not being a physical thing. I can accept that. But on the other hand, potential exists as more than a concept, we have a name for it. We know what it is. We know that a pencil has enough potential energy to power a small town for a week were we able to control the energy release and release all of it. This is proven by E=MC squared.

The common sense idea is and was that energy is work and nothing more, meaning that it is a concept. But the math proves otherwise. Not only is matter not the be all and end all of existence, energy is something. Energy is what matter is made of, not the work matter can do. That is what is proven by Einstein’s famous equation. So energy is something, and is now considered something.

In fact, according to the Big Bang there really was nothing but energy at the beginning. Any particles that existed traveled at the speed of light. But when the Higgs field became actual it slowed most of the atomic world down, and created what we now know as mass. Only a few particles like photons do not bond with the Higgs field and stay pure energy. Photons therefore have no mass. But they sure do exist.

Now let’s say the universe has more than 4 dimensions. The 4th being space/time. String theory is based on that idea. So if it were true then perhaps empty space is not void of everything, the causes that provide empty space with teaming activity that seems to come from nothing, may be hidden in another dimension.

I’m not saying this is the case, and Lawrence doesn’t think much of String theory so he probably wouldn’t like my example. But the point is that there are always alternatives to any model, since a model is only an explanation of what specific facts may mean. But the facts stand alone. They don’t need to be fit in to a model. We create models with them to make sense of them.

Professor Krauss does not say the events of the quantum or the events of the void are causeless. So unless that is what he thinks from his research, if causality is intact then it all makes perfect sense, even if it doesn’t to many of us. Something causes potential to become actual, even if it is something we do not consider to be something. Or something we don’t know about. It may certainly defy common sense, but not sense.

Oh yes, what did Professor Krauss reply to my complaint? He advised me that he was writing a book to explain it all, and indeed he did. His version of nothing is what I would say is apparently nothing, not really nothing.

Now I have spent 1854 words on this: “much a due” about nothing.


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    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 5 years ago from Isle of Man

      You have very eloquently explained nothing and I applaud you Slarty for this.

      There was one thing however that you said that made me wonder a bit and that was the impossibility of a square circle. Doesn't this depend on the shape of the space it is drawn on? e.g. how straight is a line that you draw on a circle? Food for thought don't you think.

      Thank you for another great read.

    • lone77star profile image

      Rod Martin Jr 5 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      Very nicely put, Slarty. Some good information and logic.

      Nothing. What is it? It isn't.

      But there are many definitions of "thing."

      For the definition, "An inanimate object," space would be "no thing" or "nothing." So would a chipmunk.

      The space between stars is not empty, at least in the disk of the galaxy. It contains a compressible gas -- highly rarefied, mind you, but a gas nonetheless. An atom or molecule cannot go that distance without a high probability of several collisions with other gas atoms or molecules. So, if space is a "nothing" (and it is by certain definitions), then that nothing contains something.

      And even with all your protestations, you still treat zero as a number. You said, "You can divide zero by any number, even by a fraction, and get zero. That makes sense." It has a very specific value and resides on the numeric scale between 1 and -1.

      Something happens when the denominator approaches zero. The entire expression approaches the non-specific "value" of infinity. Wow. Wrap your mind around that, if you can. What really happens there -- right at the cusp, where the denominator reaches zero?

      If you're trapped in continuity, then such non-specificity seems meaningless. And well it should for the continuity-bound individual. For the few who can "grok" it, it means everything.

    • Slarty O'Brian profile image

      Ron Hooft 5 years ago from Ottawa

      lol... so, Lone77star, nothing is what you want...

      Being a student of Zen I gork it well. I just don't believe it. But then, I don't believe anything. ;)

    • Slarty O'Brian profile image

      Ron Hooft 5 years ago from Ottawa

      SW. Drawing a square on a circle doesn't make a square circle or a circular square. ;)

      Yes the straight lines would look curved because of the curvature of a sphere if you draw a square on a ball. But that's a square drawn on a sphere.

      Light travels in straight lines and only appears to bend due to gravity. In fact gravity bends space so light still travels in a straight line unaffected by the gravity itself, But like the square drawn on a sphere, the straight lines appear curved.

      Oddly what most people do not realize is that when you fly an airplane the shortest distance is not always in what appears to be a straight line on a flat map.

    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 5 years ago from Isle of Man

      The figure you draw depends on the space you draw it on. The image of the square drawn on a balloon is just an example of the curved space I am referring to. If I get time I may even write a hub about this.

      I am still quite surprised at how you say things like "Yes the straight lines would look curved because of the curvature of a sphere if you draw a square on a ball. But that's a square drawn on a sphere." as if they are facts.And these statements from a man who says he believes nothing you! LOL! You have a good day Slarty and remember if you decide to take off in your space ship today you will eventually arrive back even though you think you will be travelling in a straight line! :)

    • Slarty O'Brian profile image

      Ron Hooft 5 years ago from Ottawa

      It makes no difference. We were talking about a square circle not a square drawn on a sphere. A circle is two dimensional or disk-like. A circle and square are geometric shapes conforming to specific rules.

      It is simply impossible to create a square circle.

      You are not creating a square circle when you draw a square on a sphere.

      Yes they are facts. I know you don't see it that way and that's why it often puzzles me that you can get through your day with that attitude. ;)

      You also still do not understand what I mean by lack of belief. I do not need belief to have an opinion based on rationality or facts.

      I accept facts but that does not mean I believe in them.

      They are simply logical facts. If they prove not to be then I am most happy to throw them out and accept that they are not facts.

      But you will have to show me why they are not facts.

      I don't buy the idea that ego makes our world and we can't know reality. It is simply unfounded speculation.

      The fact that space is curved has nothing to do with any of this.

      Truth is relative to a specific set of variables being true and remaining true. A square circle is impossible by the rules of geometry. Something is either a square or a circle but it cannot be both.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 5 years ago from The Caribbean

      "7 divided by nothing is not dividing 7 at all." Now that makes sense. I'll follow you so I can learn from you.

    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 5 years ago from Isle of Man

      "7 divided by nothing is not dividing 7 at all."

      The number 7 is a symbol and the meaning you give it you make up in your head.

      From another perspective 7 is always divided by 1 as there will always be 7 whole units in 7 So in this sense 7 can never be divided by nothing without changing the meaning of the number.

      So how does that make sense to MsDora? I am intrigued.

    • Slarty O'Brian profile image

      Ron Hooft 5 years ago from Ottawa

      I don't understand what you mean by 7 can never be divided by nothing unless you change the meaning of the number. If you divide by nothing you are not dividing anything, Makes sense. lol...

    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 5 years ago from Isle of Man

      A whole number is a rational number which means it can be written in the form a/1 where a is whole number. If you say that you wish to divide by nothing then zero is the symbol for nothing and a/0 is undefined! LOL! What sense???

    • Slarty O'Brian profile image

      Ron Hooft 5 years ago from Ottawa

      Thats why you don't divide by zero. You aren't dividing anything. the original number/symbol stays the same. I'm still not sure what you are objecting to or disagreeing with.

    • f_hruz profile image

      f_hruz 5 years ago from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

      Very good hub!

      There is a difference between the word and the meaning of the word, nothing.

      The word most definitely does exist and can be used in a variety of ways. One good example, in conversation, when one person says something nasty to another person, they may just turn around and inquire rhetorically: "What did you just say?" ... to which the other person may reply: "Nothing!" just to avoid a prolonged argument, when in fact both know, it was something they both know it was said, but just want to get over with and forget ...

      Another interesting point you made about matter being created virtually out of nothing.

      Any person who did not even exist as an embryo the year before the day they were born, they obviously weren't a product of nothing, but the only thing which really existed, was a well tried and tested reproductive system with the potential to give birth to quite a few more earthlings ... so biomass provides not only for reproduction but also for evolution, adaptation, mutation and a whole list of constant processes of change.

      Where does nature get all that motivation from? I still remember how I used to get motivated doing my own thing when I was younger ... :)

      Franto in Toronto

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