One of the points I have the most difficulty getting across in my talks is that it is impossible to think of nothing. For some reason, resistance to accepting this is strong. What do I say to those who insist that not only is it possible to think of nothing, but that they can and have done so?

The question, of course, is whether it is at all possible not to think – to not think, in fact. It is claimed that that occurs in Meditation. But do people in Meditation reach a stage of not thinking? Do monks who spend years in caves reach that stage?

In order to qualify for a situation that is non-thinking, one would, presumably, be in a state of non-awareness. But would someone who is in that state be able to claim that he is not thinking? Obviously not, since he would be aware (and thinking) in order to make the claim.

So what do people mean when they say that they have been in a state of non-thinking? Presumably they remember not thinking. But how does one remember a state of non awareness, a period of not thinking?

Well, one thing that people mention as being a state of non-thinking is dreamless sleep. They remember looking at the clock, and when they next looked a couple of hours had passed; that, they say, was a state of oblivion, i.e. not thinking.

Without going into questions as to whether there had been dreams now not remembered, I can accept that the person was unaware through the period of being asleep. There are, though, a number of different points that need to be made regarding the state of oblivion. For a start, it is not a state of thinking about nothing, since oblivion, by its very nature, is not thinking at all. Besides, the very act of thinking is a conscious act that cannot at the same time be a non-conscious state.

But let’s get back to the main point: the contention by people that they do remember being in a state of oblivion. This cannot be so: What they do remember is the time before their dreamless sleep and the time after it. They do not remember what it was like to actually be in the state of oblivion.

Why is this important? Because the point that they are making is that it is possible to imagine a state of Nothing (the absence of everything). This is their response to my point that we cannot imagine what it is for us to not exist. Yes, we can imagine a world without us – but only by us “seeing” the world in which we aren’t present, as if watching a film of a situation without us. But it would still be us watching that film. What we cannot do is to imagine not imagining.

So how does this connect to our being in a state of oblivion when we are in a dreamless sleep?

As already pointed out, we are not aware of being in a state of oblivion. What we are aware of is before and after. What we “see” is afterwards: our being asleep, but not the state we were in while we were sleeping.

All this contributes to the differentiation I make between Nothing (the absence of everything) and nothingness (the absence of something).

Dreamless sleep/oblivion is not an example of Nothing. It is, rather, nothingness; it is the absence of consciousness. And why is it not Nothing? After all, we cannot be aware within a state of unconsciousness, so why is that not equivalent to Nothing at that time?

One of the reasons – actually, the most fundamental – is that we are around to discuss it before and, more importantly, afterwards. And what is the “it” that we are discussing? The absence of consciousness, not the absence of everything. The fact that we wake from a dreamless sleep makes it something. If we didn’t awake, we would not be around to discuss anything, and certainly not Nothing.

And last, but I think certainly not least, is the fact that Nothing cannot produce anything. There isn’t anything that can come after Nothing, in other words. Shakespeare said that nothing comes from nothing. Well… Even that is placing an emphasis where there is no room for one. There isn’t anything that comes from Nothing; even nothing doesn’t come from Nothing!

So every time we wake up, we do so not from Nothing. The alternative is not worth thinking about.



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19 comments on “Is it possible to think of nothing?

  1. John Stabler on said:

    I managed to get my head around the fact that Nothing (absense of everything) is unconceptualisable a while back. Until recently, however, I’d have said that it was interesting that we have managed to have a shared meaning (a word) for an unconceptualisable concept. However, recent books and blog posts have highlighted that perhaps there isn’t a shared understanding of Nothing (I won’t mention any names). Many people when they try to think of nothing conur up images of empty space or some infinite blackness. I have two questions:

    1. Once you realise that you are unable to conceptualise Nothing and that we have no experience of Nothing does it necessarily true that you can’t say anything about it. Is it not a contradiction to say so?

    2. Is there anything else we point to using language that cannot be conceptualised? Anything other than infinity?

  2. Ray Mutch on said:

    Hello Ron… you’ll remember me, maybe… the chap who, at your Liverpool talk a while back now, said that “when I die the world will end”.

    I mentioned Krishnamurti to you. I’ve been interested in him ever since a moment in my life, a good few years ago now, when my thought came to an abrupt end… you are right by the way re. experiencing ‘nothing’; tis silly to say so. It’s a contradiction, an actual contradiction not just a linguistic one. I realised this a good while ago: Though my thought came to an end… correction, when “I” came to an end as a product of that thought, it was such a brief instance (instant?), after which thought started up again, almost immediately. That’s all it took. Well, after reflection, it’s likely that it was in-fact the aftermath of that ‘nothing’ (psychologically speaking) that I actually experienced and, of course, what had preceeded it, rather than the nothing itself, wherein which I was not. The language is so weird. Even I can see that.

    I like the way Krishnamurti describes thought as a tool for measureing the world, the only world, my world. It accords with my non-experience. When it (thought) ends so does the measurement, time included. This is important. In nothing there is no time, for there is no distance, nothing to measure nor the tools to do so. Nothing. I’m guessing of course… that is all thought can do… predict and test… and hope. Above all, hope.

    Funny how when nothing touches your life, your life is changed forever. Life’s end is a beginning… not religiously but actually. Even reflecting on it, right now… it makes me laugh! “…If you could live your life over, what would you do…?” Well, I’m doing it, and it sure as hell isn’t what I did before!

    Hope this makes sense.

  3. Ronald Green on said:

    John, I have my doubts as to whether there is a shared meaning for most philosphical concepts. If there were, then there would be agreement on everything. There certainly isn’t for “nothing”, which is why I have done my best to demystify the concept by differentiating between Nothing (the absence of everything) and nothingness (the absence of something). You are right that the former is the problematic one, although I need to state that the problem is with the notion of an absence of everything. I say this because it is possible to fluff the concept in order to make it fit into one’s theories, as Krauss has done so as to make quantum mechanics work. If one says that nothing is not really nothing, then that, as far as I am concerned, is a cop out.

    As for your specific questions:

    1. I tried to answer this in my previous blog, “Is ‘nothing’ something?”. It’s possible that you may have missed it, but if there are points I need to clarify better, please ask again, preferably on that particular blog.

    2. I don’t think that there is anything else, apart from Nothing, that has the same problem with language. And that includes infinity. I find no difficulty in discussing infinity and neither do I find it impossible to conceptualise the concept. I also have no problem with discussing things that don’t exist, such as unicorns. If I were to show you a drawing of a unicorn, you would immediately identify it.

    Yes, Nothing is on a league of its own. But of course it isn’t in any league. It just isn’t. And that’s the point. There is no other concept about which talking about its “existence” makes no sense, since in order for it to do so, we would have to not exist. Nothing can “exist” only when we don’t exist, and since we cannot envisage a world in which we don’t exist (imagining not imagining), we reach a point that stops before it gets there. So we can talk about infinity whether we can conceptualise it or not, because we are here doing so and because infinity is part of a world in which we exist. Nothing is not.

  4. Ronald Green on said:

    Yes, I remember you well, Ray. We had an interesting discussion in the Q & A session after my talk. It was brought on when I stated that a world without humans in a nonsensical concept. Without going through it again here – it is dealt with in my book – I can but agree with you that our individual being/existence is what there is for us. In that way, we are immortal, since when we die we won’t know about it. That is why we ALWAYS reach a point in the future. ALWAYS.

  5. Mary Sinanidis on said:

    Very interesting post actually. The interesting thing about meditation is that the goal, for me at least, is not to clear my mind but to enter another realm of consciousness so that I can find oneness with this living, breathing, growing universe. Can nothingness be another realm of consciousness and how does it differ from oneness?

  6. Ronald Green on said:

    Thanks for that, Mary.

    If you are referring to “nothingness” as I do in my book, viz. the absence of something, then I suppose it could be considered another realm of consciousness (although that should really be defined). I don’t know, though, whether this is connected to “oneness”, as I am not really sure that I know what you mean by it. Let me rephrase that: I know what you mean – I just don’t identify with the feeling and the actuality of “oneness”. I am, though, open to enlightenment :)

  7. Gitte Neshomah on said:

    Nothing does not exist. We cannot experience it or fathom it, in spite of the fact that you have spent years researching, writing and now speaking about the subject. What does that mean?

  8. Ronald Green on said:

    Gitte, to say that Nothing does not exist is extremely problematic. (And presumably you are referring to Nothing (the absence of everything), not to nothingness (the absence of something).

    If Nothing does not exist, it means that there is something that does not exist. But Nothing is not something.

    On the other hand, to say that Nothing does exist means that there is something that exists. But Nothing is not something.

    My years of researching “nothing” brought me to the difference between Nothing and nothingness, and the fact that Nothing cannot be experienced. As for discussing Nothing, we have to use language in order to do so; this, though, does not make Nothing something – and I discuss this point in my blog “Is ‘nothing’ something?”

  9. Gitte Neshomah on said:

    In both the Bible and the Quran the world came into existence by the uttering of words. However we are not God and just because we give something a word does not mean that it exists. Nothing does not exist. No matter how problematic the logic or reasoning of saying that is. Is Nothing real because we attempt to fathom Nothing and attribute words to it? You seem to be telling me Nothing is not something. But that is not the same as saying Nothing does not exist.

  10. Ronald Green on said:

    Gitte, I agree that giving something a word does not mean it exists (as I pointed out in my earlier blog). This is precisely the situation with Nothing.

    I repeat: it is impossible to posit that Nothing does not exist, for the reasons I have already given. Nothing does not lend itself to “existence”, however much we would like it to.

    No, I am *not* saying that Nothing is not something. (That would be nothingness, not Nothing). Nothing is not everything. It is important to make the difference between being not something and being not everything.

    I repeat: I am not saying that Nothing does not exist. I am also not saying that Nothing exists. As difficult as that is to digest, it is because Nothing is not only in a class of its own, it isn’t in any class.

  11. Gitte Neshomah on said:

    I apologize for making you repeat yourself.

  12. Christian Fischer on said:

    I like your logic approach, and I want to make a test and see what your comment is on it: Provided that you actually try it, it might clarify some things:

    1) First try to think about your left hand (make an image in your mind of it – you can look at it as well if you want), then stop, now try to put your awareness/focus on the feeling of your left hand (paying attention to what you can feel in the hand, you might feel the blood pumping or tingling sensation). Now try to think about the image of your left hand in your mind and simultaneously have your focus on the feeling/experience of the hand. Once you did that read on.

    You might discover that you cannot focus on both simultaneously, the might must jump back and forth between the two (it might do it in split seconds).

    I think what most people describe as presence/not thinking is aiming your focus not on visual images, but on the feeling of breathing, gravity pulling on you etc. Of course your mind is 100% active, but not focused on a visual thought, but on the neurons in the hand. So I do believe you can have your focus on an experience such as taste and smell (olfactory cells) without making a visual image/thought about it. Your focus and your brain is still 100% active but you are not thinking, you are experiencing, of course you can jump back and make a thought on how the experience is, and I believe the mind can jump back and forth between experience and thought in seconds.

    Rememberr the brain can be categorized into more than 200 different sections most of which automatically regulate feelings and organs in the body fx your taste buds will automatically generate a taste in your mouth, you might then in a millisecond generate the thought “chocolate” but the experience of the taste had to precede the thought.

  13. Christian Fischer on said:

    Also: This first post/answer sums up the important distinguishment between thinking and non-thinking

  14. Ronald Green on said:

    That is extremely interesting, Christian. The point about not being able to do (or think of) more than one thing at a time is an integral part of the book I am writing at the moment.

  15. Matt on said:

    I was expecting to see more than what appears to be a bold attempt at making a statement, maybe references!? I do have periods of not-thinking. In fact, if you read about ADHD–God! I hope I’m not in a space where people “don’t believe in ADHD, let alone mental conditions–you’ll see that not-thinking is a huge part of it, due to a severe impairment of the “mind’s voice” as Russel Burkley puts it. I can speak, and think, and suddenly “stop” It’s not zoning out, because it can go for more than mere seconds. And when I “reengage” my thinking successfully, I struggle to “pick back” from where I was. How am I aware of this? I don’t know. But I do know it took me more than 10 years to be.

    Pondering about this is pointless, as it is a matter that falls out of the realm of philosophy.

  16. Matt on said:

    *Follow up of the previous comment*

    How did I become aware of it? An hypothesis: Before, when the not-thinking happened, it was followed by a dissociation episode, or hysteria-like episode, marked by bodily shaking, palpitations, headaches, etc. I learned to cope with dissociation by meditating. It’s what made me aware of the thought-stopping.

    Back to the question. How am I aware of it? Instead of dissociating when that happens, I “stay” in my body. So, I will be able to blink, maybe, or move my arm, but I will not be able to conjure up any mental imagery, or symbol, or phrase.

    Now, as to why the thought stopping happens…I think–the irony–it’s because I have a trouble with 1. Information retrieval, and 2. Information “holding” Let’s say I feel the urge to eat. Normally, to go about that, you have to a. Know what you want to it b. Know the quantity–and whatnot. Being able to know those things demands of you to recall them; I can’t. So I will sit, staring at the wall or my computer, unmoving. Because my internal voice (thinking) has left me.
    When I manage to recall the 2 variable mentioned above–and it’s a very frustrating process at times–I have to face the second issue of information “holding” Let’s say I want two eggs; the next step is choosing how I want them–boiled, or fried. When I jump to this step, I feel, yet again, paralyzed. Because the previous information–I want to eat eggs–has left me. So back to thought-stopping we go. And I have to, yet again, wait until thought starts back.
    This happens every minute of my day, and calling it a distressing experience would be an understatement.

  17. Dick Atkinson on said:

    I’ve spent a lot of time this month thinking about ‘the empty set’. Does that count? (According to Russell and Whitehead it is the starting point for all counting…)

  18. Ronald Green on said:

    Matt, my book contains many references. As for your periods of not-thinking, how do you know you aren’t thinking? You can’t be aware of not-thinking at the time, since that would entail thinking. And if you struggle to “reengage” as you say, then that struggle is thinking, not happening in a vacuum.

    I appreciate your points, but they do seem to show that something is going on when you claim it isn’t.

  19. Ronald Green on said:

    Yes, the empty set is an interesting thought. And that is the point: it’s a thought. There is no empty set that can be contemplated if there is no one to contemplate it.

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