The Philosophy Of Nothing
The Philosophical Approach To Nothing
The concept of "nothing" or "nothingness" has been a recurring theme in both literature and philosophical discourse for millennia, serving as the fuel for profound metaphysical, ontological, and existential musings across different epochs and cultures. This brief survey aims to illustrate the influence of the notion of "nothing" across key philosophical traditions, from ancient through to contemporary times.
In ancient philosophy, "nothingness" figures prominently in both Western and Eastern traditions.
Parmenides (Western): The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Parmenides was one of the first to tackle the concept of "nothing." He argued that "nothing" doesn't exist because to speak of "nothing" is to speak of something. This argument is encapsulated in his phrase, "what is not, is not," implying that "nothing" could not be discussed coherently.
Buddhism (Eastern): In the East, "nothingness" has been an important concept in Buddhism. It is notably manifest in the concept of "Sunyata" or "Emptiness," which holds that all things are devoid of inherent, independent existence. "Nothingness" here doesn't refer to the absence of existence but rather to the interdependent, empty nature of all phenomena.
Thomas Aquinas (Western): The Christian philosopher Aquinas grappled with "nothingness" from a theological perspective, addressing how God could create the world ex nihilo (from nothing). Aquinas posited that God did not transform "nothing" into "something," but rather, God, being the necessary being, created contingent beings, effectively distinguishing between "nothingness" and "being."
Immanuel Kant (Western): Kant delved into the issue of "nothingness" as part of his investigation of the limits of human knowledge. In the "Critique of Pure Reason," he suggests that we cannot truly know "nothing" because all our knowledge is grounded in experience, and "nothing" cannot be experienced.
Nishida Kitaro and the Kyoto School: Nishida Kitaro (Eastern): Japanese philosopher, proposed the concept of "absolute nothingness." Nishida's "nothingness" isn't a nihilistic void but rather a dynamic field from which all things arise and return, where being and nothingness coexist.
The concept of "Absolute Nothingness" proposed by the Kyoto School, with Nishida Kitaro as one of its prominent representatives, is another example of the unity of "nothing" and "everything." Here, "Absolute Nothingness" isn't mere non-existence but a transcendent reality that surpasses and encompasses "everything" — all beings and non-beings.
Nothingness … is the condition of the possibility of everything.
The field – basho – is “literally nothing, it is not a being at all,” since as a universal, “the field has absolutely none of the characteristics applying to the parts … It is the place, given as an intuition, as a whole, a gestalt, which knowing, saying, analysing, and defining try to specify. They all distort the original unity, take it apart, dissect it, re-structure it for specific purposes. So long as such partial and ripped-out-of-context specification is seen as having its place in its field, no damage is done, and indeed something is actually to be gained … But such advantage is epistemologically sound if, and only if, one returns to the source intuition again and again to re-structure it anew.
Carter, The Nothingness Beyond God, 32
Nishida’s strength is that he did not try to resolve the contradictions of experience, but saw them as inescapable descriptions of the way the world is, as it is known by us. The result is not a synthesis, but a unity-in-contradiction, a unity of opposites … We both live, and at the same time we are dying; or again, everything is what it is, and yet is lined with nothingness; a thing is distinctly what it is, and yet it is (a part of) the One.
Carter, The Kyoto School, 45
For more about Nishida Kitaro read this article about Quotations by or Relating to Nishida
Martin Heidegger (Western): Heidegger's work on "nothing" in "What is Metaphysics?" is pivotal. He shifts the focus from "nothing" as a concept to "nothing" as an experience, emphasizing its role in creating a sense of existential angst and revealing the fundamental nature of being.
Jean-Paul Sartre (Western): Sartre, a leading existentialist, builds on Heidegger, positing that "nothingness" lies at the heart of human freedom. For Sartre, humans are a kind of "nothingness" that separates the world into subject and object, thereby enabling choice, action, and freedom.
Bertrand Russell (Western): Russell, as a logical positivist, had a clear take on the concept of "nothing." He considered "nothing" to be a concept devoid of positive characteristics, and its mention merely indicates the absence of a certain property. This perspective is known as the "zero-denoting" view of "nothing."
Jacques Derrida (Western): The postmodern philosopher Derrida, known for his deconstruction method, addressed "nothing" indirectly. In his notion of "différance," Derrida suggests that all meaning is deferred indefinitely, creating a kind of "nothingness" at the heart of language and meaning.
Contemporary Eastern Philosophy:
Masao Abe (Eastern): Abe, a Zen Buddhist philosopher, further developed the concept of "absolute nothingness" in the Kyoto School tradition. He postulated that "absolute nothingness" is not a negative non-being but an absolute that surpasses both being and non-being.
Physics and Philosophy:
Lawrence Krauss (Western): The physicist and philosopher Krauss, in his book "A Universe from Nothing," revisits the ancient theological concept of "creation ex nihilo" from a scientific perspective. He describes how quantum physics reveals that universes can, and possibly do, emerge from "nothing" – although it should be noted his conception of "nothing" still includes physical fields and laws.
Read this article How the Physics of Nothing Underlies Everything
An instability in the vacuum of space could suddenly spawn a rapidly expanding bubble with no interior — true nothingness.
The key to understanding the origin and fate of the universe may be a more complete understanding of the vacuum.
Adolf Grünbaum (Western): Grünbaum criticized the philosophical and theological concept of creation from nothing. He argued that the concept of "nothingness" often harbors conceptual confusions and that creation doesn't necessarily require the pre-existence of anything.
Existentialism and Nihilism:
Friedrich Nietzsche (Western): Nietzsche's philosophy is often associated with nihilism, a perspective that can be seen as centered around the ultimate "nothing." For Nietzsche, the death of God leads to the absence of absolute moral and existential certainties, a kind of "nothingness" that humanity must confront.
Nothing and Everything:
The philosophical relationship between "nothing" and "everything" is a complex and nuanced one. The interplay between these two extremes has given rise to various interpretations and continues to fuel philosophical debates. Some common connections in philosophy are:
Interdependent Origination: This idea, prominent in many Eastern philosophies, posits that everything arises in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions; nothing exists as a singular, independent entity. In this sense, "everything" exists because of its relationships with "nothing." Every 'thing' can only be understood in its relation to and dependence on other things, and in the absence of those relationships, a thing would be nothing. This principle is reflected in the Buddhist concept of "emptiness" (śūnyatā), which suggests that "everything" is "empty" of inherent existence.
Existentialism and Absurdism: In existential thought, particularly in the work of philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, "nothing" (the inherent lack of objective meaning or purpose in life) and "everything" (the totality of personal experiences and choices) are deeply intertwined. Our subjective experiences constitute "everything" we know and are, yet they emerge out of and exist within a context of "nothing" (i.e., a world without inherent meaning).
Metaphysical Unity: Some philosophies propose a unity between "nothing" and "everything." They posit that everything emerged from nothing and will return to nothing, suggesting an ultimate oneness. In the metaphysics of the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, the idea of non-being ("nothing") is rejected, asserting that "what is, is" and "what is not, is not." Here, there's an inseparable connection between "everything" (all that exists) and "nothing" (non-existence), as considering non-existence would still require the recognition of existence.
Process Philosophy: Here, the notion of becoming bridges "nothing" and "everything." Every actual entity emerges from the realm of potentiality ("nothing") and, through its concrete existence, contributes to the totality of the universe ("everything"). Thus, "nothing" and "everything" are not dichotomous but rather represent different moments in the process of becoming.
Quantum Physics & Philosophy: This is a slightly more modern take, but the discussion of "nothing" and "everything" is fascinating in quantum physics and its philosophical interpretations. For example, in vacuum fluctuations, particles and antiparticles spontaneously form and annihilate each other, illustrating a process where "everything" (particles) and "nothing" (their absence) are continually intertwined.
Parmenides and Plenism: The ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides argued that "nothing" doesn't exist, implying that the universe is a plenum (completely full of being), and "everything" is. There's no "nothing," only "everything" — so "nothing" and "everything" are inextricably tied in a monistic metaphysics.
Hegelian Dialectics: In the dialectical process described by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, "nothing" and "everything" are key components. The dialectic process starts with a thesis (which can represent "everything"), is contradicted by an antithesis ("nothing" or negation), resulting in a synthesis that transcends and includes both. In this way, the dialectical process continuously oscillates between "nothing" and "everything."
Process Theology: This philosophical/theological perspective views "everything" as in a constant state of process or becoming, much like process philosophy. God is seen as the ultimate source of potentiality ("nothing") and is also intimately involved in the actualization of the world ("everything"). Hence, God is both "nothing" and "everything" in an ever-unfolding process.
Neoplatonism and the One: The Neoplatonic concept of "the One" is both "nothing" and "everything." It is "nothing" in the sense that it transcends all forms and categories of being we can conceive or perceive. Yet, it is also "everything" in that it is the ultimate source from which all being emanates.
Nihilism and Absurdism: Nihilists, following Nietzsche's assertion that "God is dead," often posit that there's no inherent meaning or value in life, equating life with "nothing." In contrast, Absurdists like Camus acknowledge this inherent "nothingness" but argue for the creation of personal meaning, turning "nothing" into "everything."
Advaita Vedanta: This Indian philosophical school proposes the ultimate reality as "Brahman," an all-encompassing totality that is both "nothing" and "everything." Brahman transcends all dualities and is the substratum of all phenomena, akin to being both the canvas (nothing) and the painting (everything).
From these perspectives, it becomes evident that "nothing" and "everything" are not merely polar opposites but often interlinked concepts that have fueled various philosophical debates throughout history. They serve as tools to examine our understanding of existence, reality, consciousness, and the broader cosmos.