Thursday, June 25, 2009

Some Ado About Nothing

Seinfeld famously billed itself as a show about nothing. But all that meant was that it was about nothing “out of the ordinary”: getting up, having breakfast, going to work. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t so much about nothing as about nearly everything. But it does make the philosopher in me wonder what a show truly about nothing would be like. Would it just consist of 30 minutes (say) of a dark screen? But then what is the difference between, say, a TV that was tuned to nothing and a TV that was turned off altogether?

Nothing is quite as hard to think about as nothing itself, as a matter of fact. In fact it may be impossible to think about nothing, since, like the TV example, thinking about nothing seems equivalent simply to not thinking at all. Sure we can think about the word “nothing,” and that’s perhaps what you were doing when I raised the issue of thinking about nothing; but the word “nothing” is something, a word, and not nothing, so thinking about “nothing” is thinking about something.

Indeed, nothing itself does seem like something. We have that word for it, after all, which is a noun to boot -- and don’t words, especially nouns, have meanings by standing for things? “Nothing” definitely seems meaningful, but if it is, then it stands for nothing -- in which case it isn’t meaningful after all. So nothing must be something.

Nothing also seems to have lots of properties. We can say, for example, how much nothing there is in various places: maybe there’s forty light-years of absolute nothing between adjacent galaxies, for example. We can say how long it lasts: that dead air on the radio, in which nothing happened, or that painful silence following your proposal of marriage, each lasted seven seconds, even if the latter felt like an eternity. We can be moved emotionally by nothing: when the medical report comes back with the news that there’s nothing in our abdomen after all, we are relieved, and when our boss neglects to promote us -- she does nothing instead -- we are distressed. Nothing even has causal powers. The passerby who did nothing, instead of alerting you to the oncoming bicycle, was clearly a cause of the collision, as the posted sentry who did nothing to alert his troops of the oncoming attack was a cause of the consequences. But if nothing can have all these properties-- a size, a duration, even causal powers -- mustn’t it be something?

And there are so many different kinds of nothings! Look in the corner: there’s no lizard there (I hope), but also no plutonium, no Franklin Roosevelt, no Prince Hamlet, no space aliens, and, happily, nothing to fear (but also, sadly, nothing not to fear either). Space is a nothing: it’s the absence of anything. And darkness is a nothing; it’s the absence of light. And coldness is a nothing; it’s the absence of heat. But how could there be all these different kinds of nothing, unless they were each something? That dark cold space over there, in that corner, may look like nothing but in fact it’s awfully crowded!

Admittedly, this is a lot of ado about nothing. But thinking about nothing is a lot more complicated than one might think. And that is not nothing. It is the absence of nothing, which is really something. Or is that everything?

Which, in the end, is what Seinfeld was all about.

1 comment:

  1. After reading this, I find that I truly care about nothing.