November 4, 2012, by Stephen Mumford

Nothing Really Matters

Anyone can see that absence figures just as much in our lives as presence. A deceased loved one causes the greatest sorrow. You see that they are no longer there, in their regular place, doing their regular things. A hole is left in someone’s life.

Other absences impact on us. One might be saddened by the absence of a university degree or honour, long for the partner that life never delivered, and regret an ambition unfulfilled. One is frustrated when keys are lost, or money, and when something gets destroyed. And a good film, book or football match comes to an end. When they cease, we might wish we were still experiencing them.

But how can the absence of something really affect us? An absence would appear to be a nothingness: a lack of something rather than a thing itself. How could such a non-being affect us, or have any causal power on anything at all?

‘Nothing comes from nothing’, said Parmenides, which seems a plausible dictum. Material objects affect others. They have causal powers in virtue of their properties. But an absence of an object ought not to be able to perform any action. It couldn’t gravitationally attract anything, reflect light, smash a window, or pose a threat. Yet there are many cases where this looks to be wrong. Plants can die through absence of water, and so can humans, who would also perish quickly through lack of oxygen. But if we allow such absences to be potential causes of death, shouldn’t we also cite other absences as causes of health? I continue to live due to absence of poison in my body, for instance, and the lack of an angry tiger in the room. Once absences are taken seriously, what is to stop their proliferation?

Yet how could we not take them seriously? I am happy to say that I am not diabetic, I want my food to be meat-free, I define myself as an atheist, I’m pleased  there is no war between the UK and Norway, and that I have no major physical impediments. I see also that absences are very important in counting. Zero is an important number. And when I count to any other number, nothingness always comes into the equation. To say that there are exactly ten people in the room seems to be to say that there are ten and no more. Whenever we ‘total’ a group of things, we are doing so by adding and no more. Perhaps we couldn’t get by without nothingness of some kind. And if anything is created, rather than matter just being perpetually redistributed into different formations, then something must have come from nothing in the first place, contrary to the Parmenidean thesis.

The relation of being to non-being remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of human thought. Our world’s landscape seems shaped by what is not as much as by what is. Can we account for what is not entirely in terms of what there is? It is noble to attempt such a solution but many have tried and failed. In that case, should we allow two kinds of reality: the positive and the negative? Many are suspicious of any such cleavage. Perhaps a first step is to decide just how seriously we should take absences. Every time I think I can dismiss them, however, I see new cases where nothing matters too much.

I have written a little on nothingnesses in my Metaphysics: a Very Short Introduction and a paper on negative truths. I am hoping to write a more serious study in A Book About Nothing, which I have been planning for over a decade. Nothing is stopping me writing it but other things always seem to get in the way.

More on nothingness here on YouTube

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