On Nothing

I was hesitant to write about this. Its a bit...philosophical, heady, seemingly irrelevant to this week’s discussion. More than anything, its intuition, but one that dances in my mind very frequently. And it regards the concept of zero, and the idea of nothing. I believe that the integration of the object “nothing” into our viewing the world has been insidious and ultimately is a problematic way of perceiving the world.

    The ontological game we play today generally operates to explain why there is anything at all as opposed to nothing at all. Whether we are talking about “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) or George Lemaitre’s first noting that an expanding Universe might be traced back to an original point, Christianity and science endeavor to explain this same question. And, in fact, all creation myths attempt to answer that same question, which to me is curious. It would sound silly, for instance, for one to make the claim, “perhaps all of this has always been here and always will be.” That type of thinking falls distinctly outside of our deeply held notion of an origin in nothingness and meaningful timely progression. But, what should be noted is that this claim of alwaysness is much more tangible and observable than the other. Although not perfectly congruent, the number zero has much to do with our concept of nothing and, interestingly, is a fairly new concept.

In Egypt something like zero is used as a placeholder in their base 10 number system, but the number zero does not make itself known. The Greeks were hugely skeptical of the number zero, and asked themselves, “How can nothing be something?” while there is no Roman numeral for the number zero (Aczel 2015); yet, today we take the concept of zero for granted. Its real to us, however its only use is to make a mess of fitting it into mathematics, to insight confusion in logic problems, or to just be useless.

    In math, the basic sets of numbers we have are the Integers {...-2,-1,0,1,2…}, the Whole Numbers {0,1,2,3…}, and the, and I highlight, Natural Numbers {1,2,3,4…}. There are of course hundreds of other sets, but these are the three big ones that are learned very early on in American education. Just after learning that numbers exist, we then learn how to manipulate them. We learn addition, with the ever-useless additive identity property (i.e. 5 + 0 = 5), multiplication, that anything times zero is just zero, and division, wherein anything divided by zero is “undefined”, which, when you think about it, is hugely problematic in a field that prides itself on intellectual purity. There is then the question of whether zero is an even or odd number. For what its worth, its even, but the logic to get there is messy and has more to do with semantics than mathematics. And interestingly, the proof of the theory of The Big Bang is purely mathematical, and those mathematics surely incorporated the number zero. I’d stress, that within the set of Natural Numbers, none of these conundrums exist. In a mathematics of Natural Numbers, does the theory of The Big Bang still work?

    Today, when we talk about creationism, like we did in class, we are referring to “the belief that God created all things out of nothing” (Merriam-Webster). What I mean to say is that today, whether we are a rationalist that believes in naturalistic evolution, or a fundamentalist that believes in theistic evolution, we are actually all operating on the same assumption that all of this, at some point, came from nothing. Our acceptance of the number zero, a number that is so useless it is infuriating, is indicative of just that.

Like I said at the onset, a basic rule of the philosophical game we play today is this idea of nothingness, even though another rule, be objective, renders nothingness invalid, because there has never been and never will be objective proof of nothing! From a rationalist perspective, this conundrum means that one of these two rules is false, and I contend it is the former. But, to make this argument from a purely rationalist perspective would be, I think, selling it short in regards to how deeply I feel the problematic nature of this concept of nothing. I’m going to continue to think about this...I get the sense that it goes way deeper than we think.

Anyway, I’ve rambled...what I meant here was to recognize the reality that, whether creationist, rationalist, whatever, today we all have this innate sense of everything originating in nothing. That is a narrative we tell ourselves, and it is a narrative that is, not only problematic in many ways, but a purely theoretical notion with no basis in observation. For me, it is a curious assumption to make that all of this has always been here. I think we would do well to take that as a new rule in a new game of discourse and see where it leads.

Koyaanisqatsi and Nothing

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