The Idea of Nothing

INTRODUCTION

Nothingness does not exist in its own right. It is the complete absence of anything physical by its very definition.  In a larger sense that one might call spiritual, it also implies the wont of any consciousness or thought process.  But in general terms it simply refers to the complete negation of anything that could be experienced.  And as such it is the antithesis of anything that exists.

SPACE

In geometry or number theory, the concept of a point is a space without dimension.  And since any finite number of points would still occupy no space, individual points don’t actually exist physically. And so we might say that with respect to an actual volume, points are as close to “nothing” as you can get.

But we can imagine an “infinity” of points lined up to create a geometrical line.   And by infinite we simply mean we increase the quantity without limit.   In any event a common representation is to map each member of the set of real numbers to a unique position, or distance from an origin along a line.   And this line is dense in the sense there are no gaps between points.  Also when we say two “infinite” sets are equal, we simply mean we can map each item in one set to a unique member of another set and vice versa.

One counter-intuitive result of this weird definition of “equality” is that a short line has the same number of points as a larger line of any finite length.  And we can extend this to any number of dimensions.   That is to say the points in a space of any shape or dimension have a simple and unique one to one mapping to the points on a short line segment.  No point in one set fails to have a unique partner in the other.   In this sense, the “number” of points in any closed space are precisely equal to the number of those on a line segment from zero to one.

And to continue this perverse conception of things, there are exactly as many integers as there are fractions and exactly as many integers as there are integers that are evenly divisible by one million.

ZERO

Nor is “nothing” the same thing as the number zero. Strictly speaking numbers without units attached are non-physical entities. In a pure sense they are only a place holder between a larger and greater number as in the statement that “Zero is to the right of minus one and to the left of plus one on a number line.”

So numbers are abstract or pure forms that exist only in the minds of conscious beings which incidentally to the extent they have free will must operate in a super-natural sense meaning independent of a strictly deterministic set of natural laws. That is, each choice by a super-natural soul (i.e. above nature and to the extent it actually does exist) is something of a miracle.

THE VACUUM

Unfortunately and all too often, the absolute idea of “nothing” is confused with the real physical entity of a vacuum.  This is simply a “space” which is devoid of matter but which has measurable dimensions and into which we could place something.   But, according to modern physics, space actually has structure and thus can never be truly empty.

The equations of quantum mechanics which are well tested at very small scales, state that space is infused with an irreducible “zero-point” energy which because of the uncertainty principle gives rise to a chaotic “quantum foam”.  This churning sea of particles and antiparticles can be polarized and is actually measurable in hydrogen atom spectra as the “Lamb shift” and as a force between two charged plates in the “Casimir effect.”  On the other hand at very large scales, General Relativity posits a “lambda” term or cosmological constant now thought of as “dark energy” which is used to account for the observed acceleration of the universe.

Interestingly perhaps, calculations of the energy density of space using these two well respected theories differ from each other by roughly 120 orders of magnitude.  So apparently we still have some work to do and is one reason why science is not yet, nor can it ever be, the answer to everything.

According to Einstein’s special relativity, motion through space is undetectable or “Lorenz invariant.”  That is to say there is no way to tell if you are moving or not without an outside reference to something else.  Or stated another way, space has no “wind” that changes the faster you move and which you could detect.  This was an experimental result of Michelson and Morley some years before Einstein.  Another weird effect due to General Relativity is that space can be stretched or compressed or warped and in every case the intrinsic energy density remains the same.

More recently we also believe that all of space is infused with a “Higgs” field responsible for the early explosion of the universe and now responsible for the apparent mass of all matter.

BIG BANG

Also since our best science currently believes in a “Big Bang” origin of the universe, this requires that the universe must have sprung from nothing, i.e. “ex nihilo” as described in the biblical book of Genesis. And this must also have been a supernatural event (i.e. above nature) because it is logically impossible for the universe to have created itself under the sole agency of natural law.

To the extent an act of creation by a super-natural agency implies a Creator necessarily outside of time and space, this requires that “nothing” does not, and cannot, be a description of things even beyond the purely physical.

CONCLUSION

And so the concept of “nothingness” is more complicated than one might suppose on casual perusal.