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(c) Copyright November 28, 2005 by Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D. All rights reserved

A friend who knows my background in philosophy, mathematics, and science sent me a letter asking about a strange topic. He had come to the conclusion that it is impossible for any part of space to be completely empty. That's because no matter how far one might go into outer space, there will always be interstellar dust, gravitational fields, rays of light, neutrinos, etc. He wondered: "Is it possible for any portion of the universe to contain absolutely nothing?" Here's what I wrote (now somewhat improved).

I thought I might send you a reply consisting of an empty envelope. You would argue that it was not filled with nothing, because it actually had air and dust inside. But I would argue that the reply of an empty envelope would be substantially the same as the reply of a blank piece of paper -- in both cases the idea, or concept, or language of the message, would indeed designate or point to nothing. You seem to be focused on (stuck on?) the scientific truth (I'm guessing it is true) that it is impossible for there ever to be a physical space containing absolutely nothing. Perhaps the region surrounding the astronomers' "black hole" comes as close to that as possible -- a point-size zone so massively dense that its gravitational power sucks in everything in its neighborhood leaving nothing in its neighborhood and not even allowing light itself to escape.

But the abstract concept of nothingness is perfectly plausible. And it is very important. Nothing(ness) is extraordinarily powerful.

There's a book by existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre entitled "Being and Nothingness" (1943). But it's not really what you're looking for. Then there's Rene Descartes, who tried to imagine he knew nothing at all, and was immediately struck by the fact that he was thinking; which proved there must be someone doing the thinking; and therefore he knew for sure that he exists. "Cogito ergo sum" -- I think, therefore I am. I'm also reminded of John Locke, who said that when someone is born his mind is a blank slate ("tabula rasa"), waiting to be written upon by physical experiences.

My own viewpoint leans strongly toward some combination of Plato's theory of the Forms, Jewish/Christian/Muslim mysticism, the pure-land Buddhist concept of Nirvana, and Zen/Socratic techniques for discovery/teaching. The idea is that the tangible world of appearances where we are born and live has a deeper reality behind it. That reality is beyond the ability of our physical senses to perceive, but is knowable through hints found in ordinary experiences such as moral choice and aesthetic awareness. But knowledge of the Absolute is ineffable -- any insight or knowledge of the Absolute can never be expressed accurately or taught directly, because words and actions take place in (and are therefore limited to) the superficial world of appearances. A teacher of ordinary subjects (science, history, vocational training) uses ordinary words and actions occurring in the same world of appearances as the right opinion the teacher is trying to convey; but a Master must rely on other techniques to help a student get knowledge of the Absolute -- knowledge as opposed to mere right opinion -- knowledge that lies beyond what words or actions can convey.

Socratic method at its best relies on the fact that a student already has knowledge of the Absolute deep inside his soul. A teacher cannot push that knowledge into him, but can help draw that knowledge out of him by asking questions to help him remember what he has known from birth but has since forgotten because daily life in the world of appearances has covered it over. The title of a poem by William Wordsworth reminds us of this concept: "Ode to Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."

A book by Aldous Huxley, "The Doors of Perception" (1954) says that knowledge of the Absolute is always present but so powerful that constant awareness of it would cripple our ability to survive in this world of appearances. Thus, evolution dictates that the human species has survived only because we have built strong filters that keep out awareness of the Absolute. But we can sometimes catch glimpses of the Absolute when we are dreaming, when we turn off our filters by taking hallucinogenic drugs, or when we have especially profound aesthetic or moral experiences.

Zen Buddhism uses various teaching techniques to help students discover -- nothing. Buddhists seek Nirvana, which will break the cycle of rebirth, producing infinite happiness as the soul stays in oblivion. One famous question for meditating is: what is the sound of one hand clapping? One famous meditation technique is to concentrate all your attention on a single dot (real or imaginary), until the dot itself unexpectedly vanishes from consciousness and you then are in touch with absolute nothing. A Zen metaphor says that a wheel is useless without the hole in its center. Another Zen story tells of a pupil who asks his master on a particularly cold day, "What can you do for me?" The master replies: "If you have a coat, I will give you one. But if you have no coat, I will take it away from you."

The power of nothing is shown by the fact that every religion has meditative techniques to help us be receptive to it. Some monks take vows of silence, hoping profound stillness will allow God's constant whisper to become a roar. Priests in some religions abstain from sex because it is too distracting. But lovers know the exquisite Zen-like moment when total attention is focused, all inhibition is forgotten, we lose control and are swept away beyond all awareness of anything to experience a momentary death in the total oblivion of nothing. Some seekers of wisdom eat no food and drink only rare sips of water for several days at a time. People who go blind say their other senses are heightened. Hawaiian proverbs include "Nana i ke kumu; pa'a ka waha; ho'olohe ka pepeiao" (look to the source; shut the mouth; listen). The idea is to still the senses, quiet the mind, focus on nothing, stop trying, and then, if the Force is with us, ... we are suddenly rewarded by being filled with (nothing).

Before coming to Hawai'i, I knew God as transcendent -- above and beyond this world of appearances. I saw God through the stained glass windows and carved stone of cathedrals, and the uplifting music of their pipe organs. I knew God as the ultimate interdisciplinarian -- the Being who stood above and integrated all abstract concepts -- whose earthly prototype was the hero of Hermann Hesse's book "Magister Ludi" (The Glass Bead Game). The God of Teilhard de Chardin and Evelyn Underhill, the origin and endpoint of cosmic evolution who stands beyond the cloud of unknowing.

Poet Walt Whitman tells us the entire universe is contained in a blade of grass. Others say it's a grain of sand. Coming to Hawai'i I felt God as immanent in the mists, winds, and waves. I heard God's voice in the songs of the Shama and also of Keali'i Reichel and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole; and yes, as the Hawaiians say, even in the voices of the rocks. The evocative primitive music and movements of hula kahiko functioned for me like the questions of a Socratic teacher or Zen master, drawing forth knowledge long buried. I have learned that God is both above and within; that the nucleus and electrons of an atom are similar to the sun and planets, and the galaxies whirling through space. It's all there everywhere all the time; but requires enormous concentration to stop concentrating so we can receive ... nothing.

Remember the song: "I've got plenty of nothing, and nothing's plenty for me." Viewing that sentence in its positive interpretation suggests that nothing(ness) is quantifiable -- you can have more or less of it; a little of nothing or plenty of nothing. This idea, that nothing might have various strengths or sizes, corresponds with the mathematical fact that there are different sizes of infinity. Indeed, there are an infinite number of sizes of infinity. Mathematicians name them aleph sub 0, aleph sub 1, aleph sub 2, etc. (aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet). Nothing and infinity are the alpha and omega of existence; two aspects of one essence.

Notice the great difference between the negative statement "I don't have anything for you" vs. the very powerful positive statement "I have nothing for you." I think you would consider yourself richly blessed if that second sentence were true. What an infinite gift it would be to give nothing and get nothing in return.

This essay has too many words. It is never possible to talk accurately about nothing.

And so I offer you the meaning of life -- the concept contained inside these parentheses: ( )


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