How is it that we can discuss nothingness? How is it that we intuitively know what it grants us? We can define it as a state of non-existence but this only confuses us even more, for it would seem as though everything that exists is ought to interact only with what is similar to it — everything that is also existent in the world. There is a clear contradiction though, as our minds can conceive of nothingness and think up what could possibly be derived from it.
What confuses me most is how non-existence can be attached to every thing that does exist. Every thought is tangled in nothingness. It is through it that we find pleasure in works of art, in music and in conversation. It is because of our conception of nothingness that we are aware of our desires and that we formulate our aspirations.
Take my words lightly. My thoughts are far from certain, but the least I can do is experiment with discussing nothingness as I see it.
In trying to put words to nothingness, a preceding step is understanding how existent objects are conceived by the mind.
The coffee cup analogy
I am seated at my desk. I can see and touch my cup of coffee that is adjacent to my keyboard — this object exists in so far as my senses can perceive it. Then as I come to write about this cup of coffee, a thought is present in me that is no longer reliant on the activity of my senses. Hence a mental image has formed, independent from the existence of the object itself. Prior to forming a mental image of the object, I had to perceive it — only then could I recreate it in my head.
If I divert my thinking to something else now — say what I will be having for lunch that day — I no longer hold this mental image of a cup of coffee within the capacity of my attention. The image can be recalled at another time with the help of my memory.
I can neither deny nor confirm the existence of these mental images as tangible objects but up until now this understanding of how mental images are constructed by means of existent objects seems consistent.
Following this, I take my cup of coffee and I pour what remains down the kitchen sink. I rinse the cup with some water, dry it and then place it on my desk once again. As I am seated, I note that the cup is empty. There is nothing inside. The difficulty here, comes in trying to characterise this nothingness. I am aware that there is nothing, but how do I describe this nothingness?
Similar to the cup of coffee that was full, I can form a mental image of a cup that is empty and note that one of the attributes of the cup is it having nothing inside — much like one of the attributes of the previous cup was it having coffee inside. In my mind, nothingness is conceived as a transparent, void entity that is nonetheless graspable by the mind but not tangible.
I must admit that in trying to communicate this in words, I am confused myself. How can nothingness exist as a mental construct or concept if it is supposed to represent non being?
I can feel the presence of nothingness as long as I believe that to some extent this nothingness could eventually become something. What this thing is I can never be sure — I can only expect that the unfolding of a something is possible.
From this possibility, it is as though nothingness takes over a limitless array of attributes all at once — annihilating any specificities that belong to existent objects.
Nothingness is then everything all at once, from which I can then use the faculty of imagination to derive one of many different possibilities that could possibly conquer the vastness of this nothingness. This is not to say that nothingness is constant — nothingness has the capacity to become something that exists, but at a different point in time.
The Role of Time
In every moment of our being, thought is put face to face with nothingness. Because we can conceive nothingness, we can say that a cup is empty, that a paper is blank, or that there is no music playing. We could say that these momentary facts can, however, change at a later time. We are dependent upon time as a way of bringing about something from nothingness.
If time were treated as the medium through which the universe is unfolding, I doubt we would be able to conceive nothingness. But instead, we treat time as though it is a fact.
Time is thought of as definite — having been and coming to be.
This view of time enables the compartmentalisation of our thoughts and mental images into a linear memory structure.
We can as such tell ourselves that at time -2 our cup was full, at time -1 our cup was half empty, and currently — at time 0 — our cup is completely empty. By comparing these states of the cup, we can then conceive of nothingness.
At time 0, I have access to my memories that tell me my cup was once full but now it is not. We experienced a change in the contents of the cup and we can then expect more changes in the contents of the cup.
By telling ourselves that the present will continue into the future, we are granted the power of forward imagination.
Nothingness becomes possible, as we can compare a state of non being to one of being. There is nothing in my cup at this moment, but this does not stop the cup from having something in it one hour from now.
Emergence from Nothingness
If you give people nothingness, they can ponder what can be achieved from that nothingness — Tadao Ando
Recognizing nothingness then comes as an invitation to envision what our existence may look like at a different point in time. This envisionment is what drives our action and pushes us to initiate change upon everything that is. In my understanding, this is what Jean Paul Sartre meant when he said that man is condemned to be free.
Nothingness breeds a longing for novelty and I am unaware of any living being that is so deeply in love with novelty as mankind is. We seek novelty in what we eat much like we seek novelty in the movies we watch and the partners we accumulate in a lifetime. As a human, it would be insanely tiresome to relive the same day over and over again, even though most other living beings do so.
With this in mind, there are different levels of nothingness we might conceive of that end up guiding human action.
Categorising nothingness into three types
At the elementary level, we can conceive nothingness when using our senses. At this level, we are conceiving a nothingness of something — a lack that would otherwise be perceivable though the use of our sensory organs. To make this more clear, you can pick up a nearby object — a pen for example. You smell this pen and note that it does not have any particular smell. The pen could have had one of many scents — burnt plastic, lead or sweat (but it has none of these). This is an example of sensory nothingness.
At this stage, nothingness is a bit more complex. Nothingness takes over the senses as well as mental processes that involve human activity and thought. Through conceptual nothingness we negate a certain human action, memory or emotion. If in idleness you are asked what you are doing, you might answer by saying ‘nothing’. Similarly, one might ask you what you remember from a night out of heavy drinking — again you could say ‘nothing’.
Conceptual nothingness goes even further when we recognize that something is lacking in our relation to others. Here we might look to alleviate our self image in the eyes of our family, friends and co-workers by noting that we would like to take on a new status or form of power that is currently not part of our identity.
Our longing for novelty here goes further than satisfying our basic needs. Novelty aims at stronger human connections and more influential social positions.
At last, overall nothingness transcends the senses and the mental. To grasp this level of nothingness altogether, is impossible for organic species limited to a small number of sense organs. The nothingness that we do conceive is but a subset of total nothingness.
What this implies is that, if we were we able to take on new ways of experiencing the world, there are yet even bigger infinities of nothingness and emanating possibilities that could unfold.
Overall Nothingness: Can it be conceivable through technology?
Overall nothingness can be best illustrated by recalling the power of our newly formed technologies. A possibility is accumulating new forms and amounts of data that were previously unavailable to us, all through merging with inorganic devices that enhance how we gather data.
Inevitably, with more forms of data, comes more nothingness of data and hence more possibilities. We can assume that the closer we get to technological perfection, the better our conception of this overall nothingness gets.
This is bound to create yet another contradiction. How can we conceive of a total nothingness through technologies that are built upon codes of a limited understanding of the universe and the laws by which it operates? Will merging with technology work to make us gods of creation, yielding anything from total nothingness? Or will it simply put us on a trajectory of action determined by our own creation and independent of our will?
Short Answer: I don’t know.