June 29, 2010

Nature of reality - Part II: Nothing

 Well sorry for the long wait. Finally I decided to suck it up and finish this. It’s not that I did not want to, but merely that my mind wanders and I find it difficult to keep it in one place for a long time.

Today I shall follow my post on Infinity, and explore a similar yet very different creature, nothing. Most people would imagine that the concept of nothing is not that new, in fact even to me it seems rather ridiculous that the number 0, was not something people used until the Indians thought it up. However much like infinity, there is a vast difference between 0 the number and the philosophical concept of nothingness. If we were to truly understand reality, I think this is a very important concept, so here is shall explore it.

The concept of zero 

Curiously the best place to start, is the start of the use of the number zero. Why was it that only during aryabatta's time was 0 a number. Why was it that of all the cultures and civilisations before that, no one decided to use 0 as a number. The concept of 0, came about in philosophy and math, due to the Buddhists, who saw it as a requirement to truly describe reality. This is the concept of sunyata शून्यता (shuunyatha; -tha is basically -ness), nothingness. (The number zero is now even in Hindi and other languages some derivation of the word शून्य (shuunya)). The concept of zero at the time was essentially "what do you get when you take something from itself" or in other words "the result of subtracting any given number from itself". In mathematics, this seems to be an obvious concept you will encounter once you start subtracting. This also lead to the use of negative numbers as we know it. Of course the main use of zero was as a place holder in the number system. And up until very recently its true nature was never analysed. However I shall not go into the mathematical details about the exploration of 0 as a number in set theory and calculus. However wikipedia, I am sure can enlighten anyone who wishes to know more. 

At this point however I must explain that there seems to be at least two kinds of nothingness, much like infinity (perhaps more).

  • Zero: The number 0, usually described as (x - x) in mathemematical terms. This concept has, some say, the property that, x/0 is infinity. The concept of x/0 being infinity comes from calculus.
  • शून्य (shuunya): This is the concept of void. As I shall describe below is a little different from the concept of zero above. shuunya cannot be divided, there is nothing to divide, for one.
The latter concept is the one I shall talk about from here on, the former has pretty much been explored to no end by mathematicians.


So how do we speak of shuunyata? It is usually spoken of as a negation, as in "no-thing". Meaning if i do not speak to you at all, i am speaking nothing to you. (This is an odd way of putting it but you will see why in  short while). I feel this is a rather grievous error made by our minds, that are unable to cope with the concept of nothingness. Whilst people may disagree, I shall speak of nothing as a positive concept. Think for a minute about the previous example about speaking nothing, it doesn't make sense to say that i spoke nothing to you, that is different from not speaking to you at all. For example I have not, as of yet, spoken to Barack Obama, can you then say that i spoke nothing with him (this seems to convey the message that I did indeed attempt a conversation but no words were exchanged). 

This becomes important when you consider the concept of universal nothingness. Do we simply keep saying, not this not this, as the later upanishadic writers did? (नेति नेति - neti neti = not (this) not (this)), or do we begin to explore nothing as a concept, very much like infinity but very different at the same time. I chose the latter, the reasons for this will become more and more obvious by the the end of this post or even the next one, but for now, let us just say that it is not usually done, so I decided to try it


The interesting thing about nothing, is that it is...well nothing. As such, it is no-thing. Thus no concept of a finite thing can ever be satisfactory, because, after all, nothing is no finite thing, by definition. 

Let us now consider something that is not usually delved into, the universal nothingness. Nothing is solely defined, since the time of the buddha, as a lack of things. This is very much akin to the concept of zero (c.f. above), as such a localised nothingness. No apples, means a lack of apples, no humans means a lack of humans. Now what happens if i simply say nothing..simply "No *" (* is computer terminology for anything), this is the true nothingness, the universal nothing. First off, we know that no amount of talking can ever describe "No *" since well, it is not anything we know. However, consider this, how do you divide this universal nothing? In mathematics we say that 0/X = 0; however i feel that this is not appropriate for the concept of universal nothingness. Arguably if you have nothing and you are dividing it between 5 people each will not get anything. But this seems to be a mistake people make. As I said before, I shall be considering nothing as a positive concept, and not one of negation. 

Consider also, the fact that if we have a void (universally nothing), there is nothing there to give it dimensions (a concept of space, which is a thing), no time, since time is a thing. And essentially nothing that can be divided, how do you divide something that is not even there? 

All in all the confusion arises from the fact that, nothing, being not-thing, cannot be aptly assigned a property, since well a property must be assigned to something, and there is nothing to assign it to. This is not a hard concept or one borne out of complex philosophy, merely a common sense definition of the words property and something.

Nothingness, has no dimensions. Clearly, like i said, there is nothing there, not even dimensions, it is a 0 dimensional object. It can also be not divided, as i said. However this seems to be similar to the interesting property of true infinity from last time. The plot gets thicker if you consider that neither infinity nor zero are truly finite numbers, they both seem to come up time and time again when you work with the other, and frankly anything that is zero dimensional is pretty much infinite in weight, by mathematical standards. (c.f. division by 0, in modern math). 

Now what will really mess with your head is this: if existence is defined only for things that are finite, and as such, things that are "things" and more specifically things that exist, then nothing does not exist, since it is none of these things that exist. If we take a set of all of that which can be described as a "thing" then nothing, is by definition none of those (it is also none of a lot of other things that may not be included in that set, depending on how you define existence of course, the set could differ), but in order to exist there has to be something to exist.


A true glimpse at nothingness, in my opinion, is a black hole, for at the centre lies something that is unimaginable, a singularity. What is a singularity? A point in space time that has infinite density and 0 volume.  Now most people would consider 0 volume to be enough to describe nothing, in the end it is, but a singularity is a rather dramatic example, and dramatic concepts are often nice to use to convey a point. A black hole is simply that, a hole in space-time. No amount of things being put in there, is ever going to change what it is like. However, this seems to be too close to the concept of true infinity, which, as i demonstrated in the previous post, cannot be changed by addition or subtraction. However it is, something that people think of when thinking of nothing. The singularity, has no dimensions, and as such, can only be (for the most part) be detected by a lack of objects, but a presence is felt(for example there is a gravitational field there, but seemingly nothing to exert it), much like nothingness or even the concept of zero, which is usually spoken of in negation, but still used every single day.

Next Time

I shall leave you today with this, and come back next time, to describe in more details the mysterious connection between shuunyata (universal nothingness) and aditi (true infinity). The whole black hole thing will prove useful then, I am sure. So, please excuse my delay while I once again prepare for another post; "The infinitely nothing".

Creative Commons License
All works on this site by Tejas (Tj) Hariharan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.