It’s a funny old word.
No, I’m not quoting Mrs Thatcher at her resignation. There’s an ‘l’ missing. It’s not there. It’s absent. There is nothing where it should be. There are no ‘l’s in the word ‘word’.
The word which is funny is ‘nothing’. It’s funny (peculiar) because it is seemingly innocent and carefree enough to be used in a variety of every day, cheery, happy go lucky sentences like ‘there was nothing there,’ ‘nothing can stop us’, ‘nothing you can do can change that’ – okay, maybe they aren’t that happy go lucky – and people find the simple expression of absence of a thing an easy and useful concept. They tend to use it interchangeably with words like ‘nought’, ‘zero’, ‘vacuum’ and ‘empty’. ‘Nought’, spelled differently is indeed a fore-runner of the word nothing when used in the sense of ‘his plans have come to naught’. One online dictionary assures me that it comes from Old English nāwiht, -wuht, from nā ‘no’ + wiht ‘thing’.
But the concept of nothing is far from as comfy as this everyday usage suggests. The ingenious title of Julian Barnes’ memoir Nothing to be frightened of, an extended meditation about the nature and approach of death, exposes this scary duality. Nothing is coming. Be afraid, be very afraid. At the other end of culture, in Marv Wolfman’s 1975 comic ‘Good Lord’ the protagonists kill a hideous alien creature only to realise that they have accidentally assassinated God. It bleeds a black bile of non-existence which spreads across the universe.
The problem of thinking of nothing as mere zero is reflected perhaps in the fact that we haven’t had the number zero much longer than we have had Islam, though in fact it was a Hindu invention (zero, not Islam. I’ll leave that thesis for another day). The Babylonians had earlier used it as a ‘place holder’ so that the ingenious ‘place value’ system which we still all use every day (so that the symbol ‘5’ in the number ‘500’ actually means 5 lots of one hundred) would work, but it was not recognised as having a value itself. This must be because there’s no real reason to have a value which represents a lack of value. Because after all, if you are going to start counting the things you haven’t got as well as those you have, you’re going to be there all day. It would also tend to make you covetous, probably regarded as a bad thing even before Moses popped up Mount Sinai and came back with God’s recipe for a better world. After all, you would have to go: ‘I have got 3 cows, 4 sheep, 1 knife, 0 slaves, 0 wives, 0 concubines, 0 palaces, 0 chariots, 0 empires….’ and so on. Maybe someone would comfort you with ‘Yeah, but you’ve also got 0 dependents, 0 doses of leprosy, 0 lethal scars, 0 damaged internal organs, and 0 graves. So count your blessings instead of your lack of them.’
But nothing is far too tricky a concept to be left to this concept of absence. Like ‘vacuum’ and ‘emptiness’, absence won’t really do. With absence, there’s always something which is being specified as not present. As I write, there are currently no elephants in the room – at least not real ones. It’s not practical, is it, as above, to specify all the other things there aren’t. Lamborghinis, Kray supercomputers, the Rhind papyrus. Not only is there something which is absent, but there is also somewhere where it isn’t. A vacuum, abhorred though it may be by nature, at least occupies space in nature. That part of your vacuum ‘travel mug’ which keeps the drink warm may have nothing inside the inner skin, that nothingness making it impossible for conductive heat to cross it, but it still has a shape, and in principle (though not, we hope in practice) there could be something else inside it. After all, Major Tim Peak can float outside the ISS surrounded by a nothing which is generously affording him with space to move, whilst less generously bombarding him with cosmic rays from which his suit must protect him. So a vacuum, empty or not, is still not nothing.
Nothing is not silence, it is not whiteness, nor white noise, nor darkness nor void. The Buddhist kōan which asks ‘what is the sound of the one hand clapping’ is answered not as Bart Simpson does, by simply slapping the fingers of one hand against its palm. The correct answer (I know, complex metaphysical puzzles have answers. Who’d have thought?) is apparently to stand up, thrust the hands forward and say ‘mu’, which, to the extent that my Western mind can understand it, means ‘unask this meaningless question’ or ‘this is the answer to meaningless questions’. Or something like that.
But it isn’t just religion that ponders the mysteries of nothingness. Hard science considers it too. In Einstein’s cosmological theory, all possible universes have to be a solution of his field equations. The field equations have many solutions however. One solution gives a universe called the de Sitter universe, which is by definition empty. No matter how long a de Sitter universe lasted, be it seconds or trillions of years, nothing of any sort could exist within it, no matter, no energy, nothing. The only thing it would have is space. Now not all of the solutions of the field equations ‘go to the bother of existing’ as Stephen Hawking puts it, but if it did, who would know? In fact, what would it mean for such a universe to exist? This is real ‘tree falls in the forest’ stuff, except it’s not just that there’s no one to hear, there’s no tree, and no forest either. Clearly, such a universe cannot exist, because it has no means of producing with itself anything which can apprehend its existence.
Which brings us finally to Aquinas’ great question, why is there something rather than nothing at all? The question means that the asker assumes that there being nothing is an option. It assumes that the universe, without some (presumably somewhat supernatural) agent, usually God, filling it with things which weren’t there before would simply be an empty space, a de Sitter universe. But that isn’t what nothing is. Nothing is not emptiness, it is not vacuum, it is not absence. It is ‘unask the question’. There being nothing is like what was in our minds before we were born, and what will be in them when we are dead. It is what is North of the North pole and what is inside a Kline bottle. It makes no sense. Nothing is an unstable state. It cannot actually exist.
Which, I suggest, is why we do.