“All I know is that I don’t know nothing.” –Operation Ivy.
Someone called me empty-headed the other day, and so I began thinking a lot about nothing. Not in the sense that I was proving them right, but rather that I became fixated on the idea of emptiness. I looked up the word “empty” in the dictionary.
“Containing nothing; Vacant.”
Let’s start with “containing nothing.” What does the word nothing mean? The dictionary tells me that nothing is “no thing, not anything.”
First: “No thing.” We’re just breaking the word apart. The given definition of “footprint” isn’t “foot print.” I’m not settling for this.
Second: “Not anything.” Great. We’re defining something by what it is not. The sentence “A ’57 Chevy is not a gallon of milk” tells us diddly-squat about what a ’57 Chevy actually is.
These definitions are no help. Which is actually quite logical, as to “define” is to give something shape, and you can’t actually shape nothing, can you?
Which, in a way, brings me to something about which the dictionary is quite clear: “Nothing” is a noun. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been told that a noun is a person, place or thing. “Nothing” is clearly not a person, and the word itself means “no thing,” so what we’re left with is a place. Where is this place?
Imagine two people standing on opposite sides of an empty room. We’d say there is nothing between them. But that’s not right, is it? There are things between them, though invisible to the naked eye: Oxygen, carbon dioxide, sound waves, light, and so forth.
Let’s put these two people, then, not in an empty room but in the vacuum of space. That’s a better fit, anyway, since the definition of “empty” did include the word “vacant.” Both “vacant” and “vacuum” derive from the Latin “vacuus,” which means—wait for it—“empty.”
But even outer space isn’t a perfect vacuum. There are a few hydrogen atoms in every cubic centimeter of space. There are microwaves, photons, neutrinos. Quantum fluctuations, paired particles spontaneously appearing, momentarily moving apart before colliding and annihilating one another. Even the emptiness of space isn’t empty. This is without bothering to ponder if things exist in those six or seven M-theory dimensions we can’t perceive.
Let’s imagine, then, for the sake of argument, that we could somehow erase every bit of matter and energy in the universe (be it a four-dimensional or eleven dimensional universe). What we’re left with isn’t nothing, either. That darkness that we call “space” is something, and not even in the abstract sense; it is a tangible thing. Spacetime can be bent and twisted and warped. That’s what gravity is: the bending of spacetime. We’ve seen it happen; the path of the light of a star changes as it passes by a black hole because space itself is warped by the incredible heaviness of the black hole. Spacetime itself is a kind of twistable, bendable substance. You can’t twist and bend nothing.
If no area in any space, terrestrial or otherwise, can be said to be nothing, then nothing cannot be defined as a place. If nothing is not a person or a thing or a place, can “nothing” truly be said to be a noun?
Another dictionary gives me this definition for nothing: “Nonexistence.” In other words, something that does not exist is nothing.
Nonexistence = Non-being. Odd, isn’t it? Because in saying “Nothing IS nonexistence,” we’re employing the verb is to say that something isn’t; in essence, “nothing is isn’t”
Nothing as nonexistence bothers me. For one, are unicorns nothing? No one has seen one (at least, not credibly). They don’t exist. And yet we all know what they look like. Dragons, ghouls, zombies, vampires, Huckleberry Finn. They don’t exist either, yet these words trigger recognition, don’t they?
Huckleberry Finn might never have existed in reality, but he exists as a creative invention. He exists in our cultural, collective imagination. Such inventions that do not exist in reality are not nothing but something: Let’s call them concepts.
If Huck and Frankenstein and Smog the Dragon exist as concepts they are not nonexistent. Likewise, Chris Farley once existed but is now nonexistent, i.e. dead. But he still exists in memories and is therefore not nothing. Memories and concepts are abstractions but–like love, hate, etc.–are still things. Someone who feels love cannot be said to feel nothing.
Speaking of which, a side-note: labeling “nothing” an abstract noun still has its contradictory issues. If we consider nothingness a concept, nothingness at least on a conceptual level exists and therefore can’t be said to equal nonexistence.
Another problem with nonexistence: Dinosaurs are nonexistent now, but existed in the past. We know it because there are fossils. Are dinosaurs nothing? Of course not. How about if there were no traces of dinosaurs and we never even knew they had existed? Would they be nothing then? Or let’s imagine that, unbeknownst to humans, there had been a species of giant crab-horses that roamed the Earth long before the dinosaurs. Does human ignorance of something make it nothing? Do things only exist if we think of/are aware of/can perceive of them?
Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, no one thought about them. They didn’t exist in the collective mind. Were they nothing before they were discovered?
Let’s say every copy of Star Wars is destroyed; Every VHS tape, laser disc, DVD, Blue Ray, and digital file–along with every Star Wars toy, coloring book, picture, collectable drinking glass, and so forth–is thrown into a massive, Texas-sized bonfire; in short, all physical traces of Star Wars are eliminated from the Earth. In a century or so, no one will have ever seen Darth Vader. Darth Vader the imagined figure, Darth Vader the concept, will no longer exist in the minds of humans. Darth Vader will for all extents and purposes cease to exist. And yet, Darth Vader isn’t nothing.
Even if the concept is erased from the collective memory of the human species, the concept once existed, as did dinosaurs and Chris Farley, and once something exists in the past, it can’t be said to be nothing, can it? I mean, ten thousand years from now, if no one remembers the French Revolution, it still happened, right?
If the future disappearance of something–from the mind, from the earth, from the universe–transforms something into nothing, then everything is nothing because everything will one day disappear. And I’m pretty sure “everything” is an even worse definition of “nothing” than “not anything.”
So, there it is. I tried to define “empty” and came up empty of anything but “nothing.”
Randall Jarrell once wrote, “Nothing comes from nothing.” I’ve taken that line out of context, but I don’t think he’ll mind. He’s dead, you see, and–if conventional dictionary wisdom holds–is himself nothing.