Nothing is simpler than nothing. Not just a world devoid of objects. That’s easy to imagine. True nothingness is a world devoid of worlds. A world where space collapses into a point of zero radius and the river of time ceases to flow. Nothingness is the grand abyss. An infinite well. Abandon all potential, ye who enter.
The power of absolute nothingness has gripped some of the greatest minds throughout human history. Given the abstract nature of the topic, conversations about nothing tend to be filled with obfuscation. The problem is that nothing is a slippery term infused with a variety of meanings. What is nothing? What are its features? If nothing has properties, doesn’t that make it something? Among the many questions that accompany the abyss, it quickly becomes apparent that nothing is a really complex topic.
Some philosophers have chalked nothingness to a pseudo problem peddled by intellectual world play. It is generally agreed that existence is a predicate. Nothing is the antithesis of something and thus, is not a predicate. Therefore, the phrase “nothing exists” is logically incoherent, since “exists” can only refer to a subject or an object.
The argument that nothing is a pseudo problem peddled by intellectual word play is itself an argument peddled by intellectual word play. In a world devoid of stuff, there are no objects that fail to be anything. To phrase in slightly denser philosophical prose, “for every x, it is the case that x does not exist.” Thus, there is nothing (forgive the term) incoherent in the idea of a world “devoid of stuff.”
We now have a better understanding of nothing at the conceptual level but what about at the tangible level? In order to melt the abstract into the concrete, we have to understand what the stuff of the world is made of. What light does twenty-first century science have to shed on the abyss?
Rather surprisingly, the bulk of the universe is made of nothing. We normally think of the universe as a conglomeration of galaxies stitched into a rapidly expanding space-time fabric. In reality, the stars, planets and dust that illuminate the universe are equivalent to seaweed floating atop a vast, cosmic ocean. Approximately 74 percent of the universe’s mass is attributed to a mysterious repulsive force that increases with distance known as dark energy; and around 26 percent is made up of a mysterious form of gravity known as dark matter unaccounted for by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Visible matter—the stars, planets and celestial debris—contributes to only 0.5 percent of the universe’s mass. So congratulations. The human race is even more insignificant than previously believed.
But it gets worse. The constituents of matter have more in common with nothing than something. The structure of the atom fixated in human thought is equivalent to a miniature solar system: a concentrated point of matter entombed by a nebulous Oort Cloud of electrons. The atomic model is used to help the human mind visualize the particles that underpin the universe. In reality, atoms bear little resemblance to their textbook pictures.
The analogy between the atom and the solar system isn’t completely in vain. Scientists now recognize that atoms are mostly made up of large gaps rather than indivisible units of matter. Like the solar system, the electrons that comprise the atom occupy shells that seemingly revolve around a center of gravity. If the nucleus of an atom were equivalent to a basketball, the electron orbiting the basketball would be approximately twenty miles away. Everything else in-between the nucleus and the electron is empty. Unlike the elliptical path of planets, however, electrons can sporadically “leap” from one shell to the next, emitting quanta radiation or “light” in the process. What we commonly recognize as “solid” has more to do with the fields, rather than the particles, that bind atoms together into various patterns. Matter is mostly empty space.
The equations of quantum mechanics describe the nature of matter at the most fundamental level. But what about the nature of nothing? Some physicists suggest that true nothingness can be summarized by the equations of quantum mechanics, provided one accepts that space and time are relational factors that only exist in the presence of matter. By theoretically removing the particles that make up a field, it is possible to deduce a mathematical equation that describes a state of nothing. For example, a harmonic oscillator equation can represent the behavior of photons smeared throughout an electromagnetic field. The solutions to the harmonic oscillator equation describe a set of equally spaced energy levels, where each level contains one more photo than the previous level. By applying an annihilation operator—a nifty mathematical tool that lowers the number of particles for a given state—it is possible to move down an energy level until one reaches a level devoid of photons and presto! Nothing. No time, mass or anything in-between.
Taking nothing up a notch, some scientists are audacious enough to suggest that the universe itself is made of nothing. The cosmos is comprised of equal and opposite parts: Matter and anti-matter. For everyone proton there is an electron. Positive kinetic energy is balanced by negative gravitational potential energy. Good versus evil. Yahdy-yahda-yah. Whenever these factors are incorporated into theories of inflation, the sum total of energy within the universe is equal to zero. Rather than deriving something from nothing, the universe is nothing; just separated into positive and negative parts. At the moment of the big bang, in a heated cosmic flash, zero peeled itself into positive and negative integers.
Instances of something coming from nothing occur more often in the universe than the average Joe might think. The hick-ups of space-time are constantly burping-off virtual particles. The particles come in pairs, have a negative and positive charge and so, do not violate the conservation of energy. Virtual particles occasionally tango on the horizon of a black hole, teetering on the edge of oblivion. Sometimes, the negative particle falls into the black hole (decreasing the black hole’s volume) and the positive particle radiates outward. The phenomena is known as Hawking radiation and is not just the abstract play work of theoretical physicists, but has been experimentally tested in laboratories. Thus highlights an instance of “something” like nothing producing an actual something! After all, what could be emptier than a three-dimensional hole cut within the fabric of space-time?
Like most audacious remarks, claims that the universe is “the ultimate free lunch” should be taken with a grain of salt. But what about those who purport the previously highlighted types of nothing fail to do justice to the metaphysical nothing? Although the total amount of energy within the universe is equal to zero that does not mean the universe is nothing. That is like saying a bank account with a net balance of zero does not exist! In addition, although the equations of quantum mechanics can suck space dry, what remains is not nothing—but a rich, velvety vacuum infused with energy fields. The tools of physics give us a glimpse into nothing but they do not describe absolute nothingness.
Or perhaps previous ideas about nothingness are outdated. Trying to unlock the “true” nature of nothing is like trying to unlock the nature of a unicorn: While it is easy to imagine a unicorn, the nature of the fictitious beast is invented rather than discovered. Prescriptive rather than descriptive. Although the idea of a unicorn and absolute nothingness are both logically coherent, deciphering the “true” nature of the beasts is best left to literary interpretation rather than empirical investigation.
An arguably more interesting question is whether a metaphysical something rather than a metaphysical nothing is logically coherent. Both the metaphysical nothing and something lack some very basic features—including space, time and mass. Although it is difficult to imagine absolute nothingness, it is much more difficult to imagine a metaphysical being that exists “outside” space, time and matter (whatever that means). For the time being, perhaps the best we can do is try to understand the physical stuff of the world; and by understanding the physical stuff of the world, perhaps we can gain a glimpse into the abyss and not blink.
By Nathan Cranford