All or Nothing?

2018.01. 4

Have you ever thought about nothing? If you answer yes, then what were you thinking about? How can you think about nothing when something will always come to mind – even if you try to think consciously about nothing? When something comes to mind, instantly you’re thinking about something, not nothing. It’s impossible to think about nothing and not think of something.

Now you’re in a box – a paradox of consciousness. When you are aware that you’re thinking about nothing, that “nothingness” immediately becomes something – an idea, concept, or, if you like, a meme. In physics, nothingness might mean a perfect vacuum, if such a thing can really exist in nature. In everyday life, however, “nothing” has many different meanings and contexts. In our everyday thoughts and actions, we often think nothing of saying nothing or doing nothing. For example, how many times has the simple question, “What are you doing?” or “What were you thinking?” been answered with “Oh, nothing.”? This response is probably universal and is often heard in many different languages.

In mathematics, the zero is a relatively new invention, at least in the western world. Some trace the first use of the empty place-holder to the medieval Italian mathematician Fibonacci, who is credited with bringing the Arabic decimal system to Europe from the middle east in the 11th. century C.E. It took nearly three centuries for it to replace the zero-less Roman numerals in European culture and commerce. Much later, the empty set symbol “∅”, borrowed from the Scandinavian alphabet, was formally adopted by mathematicians in 1939, and is also represented by “{}”. In geometry, the concept of nothingness is expressed as a point, a location is space with no dimension of its own. But if a point occupies no space, does it even exist? If not, then it has no meaning or is simply “pointless.” Now you’re in another box – this time in a mathematical conundrum.

∞ = ∅?

The opposite of emptiness is, of course, fullness. While the former can be represented symbolically by zero 0, ∅ or the empty set {}, the latter is best represented by the symbol for infinity ∞. Infinity can be expressed in anything without an end, including any figure with a completely symmetrical shape, such as a circle, sphere, square, cube, equilateral triangle, pyramid, etc. Infinity can also be conceived as an endless progression from a starting point; a classic visual example is a painter’s vanishing point in a two-dimensional canvas to create an illusion of depth.

Both of these mathematical absolutes can be expressed metaphorically in philosophy, particularly in religious doctrine. Many religions believe in the concept of eternity; for example, in traditional Islam and Christianity, every person has a “soul” – an incorporate, spiritual entity that lives forever after death in an afterlife. In some eastern religions, people are reborn as new human beings, or even as other species, when they die, thereby attaining a form of immortality. There are countless other concepts of immortality from the world’s organized religions and individual belief systems, far too many to mention here. Any doctrine of human immortality is purely an act of faith, of course, because the existence of an afterlife can never be proved, at least until science undergoes a revolution in understanding death.

What about the idea of nothing in religion? Can nothing exist with eternity? In most religions, there are first-creation stories, such as that contained in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, said to be the beginning of everything, starting with a pre-existing condition, namely “God.” But did God arise from nothing? Or did he (or she or it) always exist, and therefore never had a beginning? If God has always existed, then there can be no such thing as absolute nothing. Have we now reached the ultimate conundrum?

If both infinity and nothing exist in nature as well as in mathematics (and there is no evidence that they don’t), then there is no beginning or end to nature. Its dimensions are what can be measured – lines, planes, solids, durations – but nothing can be measured without determining a beginning A (Alpha) and an end Ω (Omega). Moreover, can it be an accident that two of the most important universal constants, namely π (the ratio between the diameter and circumference of a circle) and c (the speed of light), have their origins at zero and no determined values? In other words, are they universal measurements that have a numerical value that can be expressed symbolically only as ∞?

So, are everything and nothing equivalent? Does ∞ = ∅ = π = c? If so, can there be mathematical proof that deities don’t exist? Or, is there so much mystery in nature that “it” can only be explained by some supernatural force – the very definition of deity in the major monotheistic religions?

My last six sentences are all questions that have no apparent answers. Maybe that’s what reality comes down to – an unsolvable mystery. Philosophers and theologians ponder mysteries. Scientists test hypotheses. Mathematicians quantify abstractions. Artists create beauty or express the essence of nature. Will their work ever be finished? I think not, therefore I wonder. Hey, it’s a wonderful life!

To be continued…

Categories: In Too Deep