Friday, July 29, 2011

Seven Quick Takes (vol. 2): Thoughts about Nothing

Because I am a human and not a machine, I would like to exercise my manly prerogative to think (and write) about nothing today. After all, a computer cannot compute nothing, because nothing cannot ultimately be reduced to a matter of mathematics: it is beyond the limits of science, to paraphrase Fr Jaki. Ultimately, nothing is the one thing (or concept, or whatever) which can be well-defined only in terms of what it isn't. It isn't something (that it, something isn't nothing), it isn't anything, and it certainly isn't everything.

Nothing is not a vacuum. After all, a vacuum is defined by an absence of pressure--and ultimately by an absence of matter to cause pressure. But merely the absence of matter does not cause a vacuum--there must be some matter which is at some pressure to expand into the vacuum for the vacuum itself to be a vacuum. Looked at another way, a vacuum is a volume of space which is lacking matter (and hence pressure). But that's not nothing: it's space.

Which brings me to the next point. Space is not nothing. Space is the thing in which objects sit. It may not be the ether, as was thought a little over 100 years ago, it may not even be spacetime (as is widely thought by physicists today), but space is still not nothing. Actually, space is quite full of "stuff": the cosmic background radiation, for one, and neutrinos for another. It also contains a variety of fields (I suppose you could include the cosmic background radiation in this), such as the the electromagnetic fields which carry light from distant galaxies or even from the sun to earth. So space is not empty, let alone is it nothing--and this is without really even evoking Einstein's Relativity, which says that space (and time) has additional properties like curvature, and thus isn't nothing.

As a sort of lemma to the previous take, there is the space inside of an atom, and for that matter inside of the atom's nucleus. This is also not nothing, but is rather more space. My previous point placed the emphasis on "outer" space, but it's just as valid for "inner" space. This is also filled with electric fields (stronger than in outer space), not to mention virtual particles, and really any force-carrying fields (gravity, nuclear strong and weak forces)--in a sense the space inside of an atom is even more "full" than the space of our solar system, of our galaxy, etc. It is again not nothing. This can be said even before we invoke quantum mechanics in designing atomic orbital states with electron probability distributions:

Shifting gears, death is not nothing. This is especially true (or maybe I should say "obvious") in the Christian framework, since our souls live on after death. But even without positing the immortality of the soul, death is not nothing, but rather is the state in which the body continues after mortal life has ended. Death requires remains of some sort--the body, the ashes, the decomposition, or what have you--and it moreover requires that there previously be life. Death is therefore not something.

Zero is similarly not nothing. Zero is the number which precedes 1. For example, in a scientific experiment we measure "zero amps" and call this a result, which becomes especially obvious when working with AC. Alternatively, if I measure "zero Joules" when I'm trying to calibrate a power meter for use on our laser system, I don't record that I measured "nothing," but rather that I measured 0 J, whatever may be my colloquial way of speaking. Since I started these by musing about computers, let's consider zero again: a computer working with binary information see a series of ones and zeros, but the zeros must be as diligently recorded as the ones if the computer is to function properly--and those as something other than a mere place-holder. Zero itself is a very important invention in general--and nothing cannot be an invention. Indeed, if a "place-holder" cannot be "nothing", then the zero which is more than a mere place-holder cannot be nothing either.

Nothing does not mean any of these things, but rather "nothing." It is not even mere "emptiness," though this is a good--possibly the best--approximation to "nothing." Emptiness itself implies the ability to contain something: and nothing cannot contain something. Thus, we see such phrases as "ex nihilo, nihil fit," we really do mean that nothing can come from nothing. Among other things, this means that the laws of physics cannot cause a single particle, let alone a whole universe, to create itself out of nothing, as Dr Edward Feser among others has diligently explained: after all, the laws of physics aren't nothing either.

Seven Quick Takes Friday is hosted by Mrs Jennifer Fulwiler of Conversion Diary. This particular set was inspired by a post from Mrs Stacy Trasancos of Accepting Abundance; I may perhaps now be able to say that I made her head spin by talking about nothing.

No comments:

Post a Comment