In my recent round of talks about “nothing” in the UK and Ireland, the best part, invariably lively, was the Q & A session after each. It was when I could clarify – or attempt to clarify – points that I had mentioned in the talk, or ideas that people had thought of while I was talking. And often questions clarified points for me, or caused me to look afresh at a problem.
One of the most common questions was: “If you/we are talking about “nothing”, then surely it is something.”
It’s a good question. In fact, it is two questions, since it refers to different problems, that of “nothing” and the limitation of language.
My main hypothesis – which I build up and support in my book and, necessarily, more briefly in my talks – is that there is a difference between nothingness (the absence of something) and Nothing (the absence of everything). Once we make that distinction, we are able to tackle the something/nothing dichotomy. In fact, once the differentiation between nothingness and Nothing is understood, it is clear that nothingness is something; we can feel the absence of, for example, a person that we are used to seeeing in a certain place. Nothingness is “it” or “a” or “he”, “she” or any pronoun: nothingness is a thing, the presence of an absence.
The problem is with Nothing (the absence of everything). Is Nothing something because we are talking about it? No. While it is true that I cannot talk about something that cannot exist when I am around (since when I exist there isn’t the absence of everything – I am, after all, something), I can talk about the WORD Nothing. In fact, I have no other way to refer to it, other than through language.
The fact that I can talk about the word Nothing, does not mean that I have created what cannot be created. I do not agree with Wittgenstein’s dictum: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” In the case of Nothing, the fact that we we cannot speak of it, is an extra proof that it cannot exist where we do. Nothing is where we are not – and that includes language that refers to it (and language cannot refer to it, of course).
The solution is not, of course, to not talk about Nothing. To be silent about Nothing would not bring us any closer to understanding what is not. It would simply put up a barrier of silence. But there is a barrier of language, you say. Yes, there is. But the barrier of language helps us understand the problem of getting to Nothing; in that, the barrier has a function.
It doesn’t matter how much we talk about it, Nothing is not something and will not become something. Let’s face it: we should not use “it” or “is” with Nothing. Nothing is not “it”, and Nothing “is” not.
Should we then be silent, as Wittgenstein would say? No. For being silent stops us from glimpsing that we are at the edge of human thought. Being silent does not allow us to see our own limitations. To be limited is part of what we are: to be human.