Philosophers have deliberated for centuries about whether nothing exists. If nothing does exist, one argument goes, then it is paradoxically something. Otherwise, how can we say that it exists?
This is a topic where language begins to break down and trip us up pretty quickly, because if we then say that nothing does not exist, we come out to mean that it must somehow be something, since a double negative cancels itself out (as in the phrase, “It’s not that I don’t want to go,” for example). However, note that when a double negative is used consciously, and grammatically, the meaning does not always exactly equate to its positive counterpart. After all, most of us do recognize that there is some difference between “It’s not that I don’t want to go,” and “I want to go.” In the latter case, it’s a simple affirmative; in the former, we are hedging, hesitating, and saying that we would want to go, but something (perhaps our own real feelings, which we may prefer not to share) is keeping us back from doing so. And to make things even more complicated, the phrase “I don’t not want to go” may perhaps have yet another shade of meaning.
But we probably ought to admit up front that most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about nothingness, until and unless our own mortality, or that of a loved one, comes into play. What I am suggesting is that the thing that terrifies us most about death is this very concept of nothingness, more than any sort of suffering in an afterlife, the nature of which Dante so graphically depicted in his Inferno. Indeed, Dante lays out an entire world of pain for those accused and convicted of everything from lying to lust, from gluttony to avarice, from anger to sullenness, violence, thievery, and to those labeled as panderers, seducers, and even simoniacs, schismatics, and heretics. But where is his nothingness? All of his poor, suffering souls indeed possess full consciousness. Could it therefore be that even Dante was unable to imagine a horror worse than the utter loss of everything, including the very consciousness of being?
But let us think for a moment, if there truly were to be nothing at all after death, then does it not follow logically that there would also be no one there to witness it? Because, to experience nothingness, something must be there, if nothing other than our very selves. As such, could it be that what people fear most about death is not nothingness, since no one would be there to know its emptiness, but aloneness? Perhaps the greatest fear that humans can envision is that of being alone for all eternity.
Still, all this is not getting us very far in regard to the idea of nothingness. All we have seen so far is that the concept is most confusing. Perhaps we ought to approach it another way. What if nothingness were so empty, so void, so without form, shape, content, or limitation whatsoever that it actually impinged upon somethingness? This may seem ironic, not to say oxymoronic, but I bring it up because the very definition of nothingness appears to be brushing up against the limits of somethingness.
Take space itself, as an example. We know it “contains” all the stars, the planets, the countless galaxies, as well as myriad and untold amounts (if that is the proper word) of both dark matter and dark energy. But even if these things did not exist, even if we could imagine a universe empty of them, would there still not be space, as much as we might think of it as emptiness, the limitless void? In fact, it is true that, so far as we know at least, space has no borders. There is no center to it, and it contains no edges “out there” somewhere. Although there are physicists who posit that spacetime is both finite and without boundaries, a concept I frankly find difficult to wrap my head around. If something is boundless, it seems to me, what else could we say about it other than that it simply goes on and on, as it were, endlessly and infinitely? And does that not begin to sound a little like what we were saying above about nothingness?
It would appear that there are no good answers to the question of whether or not nothing, or nothingness, if you prefer, exists. Maybe nothingness is a corollary of somethingness, similar as we were saying to the difference between the use of a positive and a double negative in grammar, whereby the one seems somehow to contain at least some of what its normal antithetical opposite would suggest. If you remember, in grammar, a double negative (properly used, as it were) does not necessarily mean the binary opposite of its antecedent. Instead it can take what the positive form would be, twist it around a bit, and add a different shade of meaning (e.g., “I like him,” is not fully the same as “I don’t not like him”).
Is there, then, a yin-yang kind of complementarity, a bit of nothingness in what we think of as something, and a little of somethingness in nothingness? After all, speaking from the somethingness point of view, do we not all enter into nothingness every night in the utter unconsciousness of deep and dreamless sleep? And from the opposite side, scientists now believe that quantum particles can and regularly do appear out of nothing.
It could also be that there are no final answers to these kinds of questions. That we do not understand, nor will we ever experience, the true meaning of nothingness. Precisely perhaps because it has no meaning? Or is it just that we cannot currently imagine such a meaning? After all, just because we cannot see something in our minds, picture it, or in some way conceptualize it, does not mean that it doesn’t exist. Again, though, we are smacked up against the notion that nothingness cannot exist, because if it did exist, then it would (by definition) be something.
Which brings us more or less back to where we came into this motion picture in the first place. A mystic might say that there is no contradiction in any case. That is because God, Infinite Intelligence if you will, is surely both manifest and unmanifest. He (She, It, whichever ultimately inappropriate pronoun you may wish to choose) is surely capable of both form and no form, of material manifestation and unmanifest Spirit, of discernible and indescernible, of visible and invisible, of somethingness and nothingness.
Personally, I do not count on nothing, either at death or any other time. Unless by that we mean the nothingness which is beyond the manifestation of something, but which in the end it also contains, at least in potential. I think of Krishna saying to Arjuna: “Who, holy in act, informed, freed from the opposites, and fixed in faith, come to Me; who cleave, who seek in Me refuge from birth and death, these have the Truth.” I think, too, of William Butler Yeats, who in his Celtic wisdom writes:
“Birth-hour and death-hour meet.
Or, as great sages say,
Men dance on deathless feet.”