The Fear of Nothing
By Tony Candela
The other day, the NPR show “Radiolab” covered the fascinating (well, at least to me) topic of nothingness. How can something like nothing be fascinating? Being a math maven of sorts, I had a head-start on the answer. Knowing I won’t be able to totally avoid technicality, I’ll try to bring you into the mysterious world of nothingness, knowing I will cause someone’s eyes to glaze over.
It begins with philosophy. Can there actually be nothingness, that state of affairs where there is no “something?” Since everyday experience does not help, we must use our imaginations. Our 3-dimensional world is mainly reachable via our senses which may not be able to register certain somethings, like infra-red or ultra-violet or the ultra-microscopic (like an electron), or the ultra-macroscopic, like a black hole whose absorptive power is beyond direct measurability. But these things are things. They are not nothings.
What is an example of nothing? I know no way of describing nothing except in comparison to there being something. That is why, for example, most people cannot conceive of the universe prior to the Big Bang without positing that there could never have been nothing. Something must have had to be there to explode, most of us would say. When science fails to convince us that there was never nothing, we resort to an external omnipotent being, which, by the way, is probably also not nothing.
However, no matter how philosophically difficult it might be, nothing does live among us. It shows up when we try to quantify or count things. For the longest time, most cultures did not have a value in their counting system that signified nothingness. Then a few did, including the Hindus and Persians and separately we think, native Meso-americans who used the zero as a place-holder for their calendar.
The trick comes when we try to use zero as something other than a place-holder. The number 10 uses the zero as a placeholder (one ten and no ones). An attempt to use zero in a more functional way comes when we need a tool to represent true nothingness like the zeros and ones in computer bits and bytes. There, zero represents no energy output and one represents some energy output. This is how chips know the firing patterns that create numbers, letters, symbols and everything else our computers generate. (Note: Newer quantum methods use a continuum of energy output to immensely multiply computing power. In effect, there is an infinite number of steps between zero and one, so why not use them all?)
Speaking of the infinite, there can be two infinites, the one we all know about even if we can’t conceive of it, where something is infinitely large like maybe the universe. The other is the infinitely small, like when numbers get smaller and smaller, approaching the infinitely small which is zero. These are examples of positive infinities but there can be negative infinities too, like when you divide one by negative one and get negative one.
In both positive and negative infinities, the smaller the bottom number in decimal form, the number by which you are dividing, the larger becomes the result. For example, if you divide one by one trillion (decimal point plus 12 zeros before the one), the result is a trillion. If you divide one by a trillion-trillion (decimal point followed by 24 zeros before the one), you get a trillion-trillion. If we go there, we range into the number of stars in the universe and probably, its vastness. Thus, the smaller you make the denominator until you reach zero, the closer to infinity is the result. That is why mathematicians say an operation with a denominator of zero is “undefined.”
So, there we have it. We are equally unable to conceive of the most infinitely small, that is, zero, as we are the infinitely large, infinity. This is why we fear nothingness. It is inconceivable and of we could, it would make us feel extremely alone. That frightens us into near-paralysis.
I’d like to pose an alternative. Suppose we divide one by zero, but instead of zero being numerical, the zero simply means “nothing?” Then we would be dividing something by nothing which can be interpreted as not dividing it by anything at all. Thus, one divided by zero could be one, because in effect we didn’t divide it by anything.
Why doesn’t this fly? Because what we have done in my hypothetical example is jump out of mathematics into philosophy right in the middle of a mathematical operation and that is forbidden in the world of logic. So, we must always remember that when it is all said and done, we must remain logical even in the face of the inconceivable.
A final word. If you think this essay has thus far been “like Seinfeld” (a show about nothing), you would be right! However, the moral of the story is this: Many things that seem inconceivable at first can come to pass either if we try or if we put our heads in the sand and yield to the enormity of the situation. This includes the destruction of our way of life, including democracy as we know it and which most of us have faith. Zeroing out our most cherished foundation is tantamount to dividing by zero. It will not be innocuous like my hypothetical mathematical/philosophical mix where one divided by zero could simply leave you where you started. No. failing to act affirmatively can lead to something we do not want to think about. So, as mind-bending as it might be, think about it.
Anthony R. Candela, Author
Saying aloud what should not remain silent.
Books by Tony…
Stand Up Or Sit Out: Memories and Musings Of a Blind Wrestler, Runner, and All-around Regular Guy
A memoir about life lessons learned, especially through sports
Vision Dreams: A Parable
A sci-fi novella about how a dysfunctional society forces people to go to extremes, including four blind people who seek out artificial vision.
More About Tony…
Tony Candela has worked as a Rehabilitation Counselor, supervisor, manager consultant and administrator for more than 40 years in the field of blindness and visual impairment. His work has included promoting literacy and employment of blind persons and a special interest in enhancing the career preparation of blind persons who wish to work in the computer science field. He is a “retired” athlete, loves movies, sports, reading, writing, and music, including dabbling in guitar.
Patty L. Fletcher
Bridging the great chasm which separates the disAbled from the non-disAbled