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The End of the World Means Nothing (or: a lively unicorn debate)

Take a moment to look around you. You’re probably in your home, at school, maybe out in a coffee shop. There may even be people around you. Now imagine that just like that,

there is nothing.

(Sound effect courtesy of David Keller)

Now, the idea of nothing is vague. I’ll assume you imagined a large black space. A void, if you will. If you didn’t, go ahead and explode everything still left mentally until you have a large black void. I’ll wait a moment.

The concept of capital ‘N’ Nothing in philosophy was first discussed by Parmenides, who said that nothing could not exist because to be able to talk about something, it had to exist. Even though Parmenides’ theory on nothing has mostly been discredited or altered to make more sense, I liked it, if only because the concept assumes that ideas are things.

To explain, think of a unicorn.


You probably thought of something along the lines of this:

Rob Boudon, Unicorn - Full Speed

Rob Boudon, Unicorn – Full Speed ((A real photograph of an imaginary unicorn))

Obviously, unicorns don’t exist, yet you still imagined one. Parmenides said

For never shall this prevail, that things that are not are.

which, frankly, is more confusing than it has any right to be, but I digress. Parmenides meant that when you discuss something (unicorns), you aren’t actually talking about it—you are discussing the idea or concept of it. If a unicorn cannot be, then what must be is your thoughts, or the idea of a unicorn.

This is a roundabout way of saying that ideas are things. While they may not be tangible, they still are, in the same way that you are and a rhinoceros is and Pepsi Salty Watermelon is.

But Jess!, my imaginary version of you is saying. What about the concept earlier? When you discussed the fact that there was nothing!

Well, if you’re still somehow juggling thinking of unicorns, asking me questions, and thoughts on the void, you’ll remember that our concept of nothing was just a black void. If you’ve been keeping track, though (and even I have only barely been able to, so kudos) you may be thinking:

  1. Black is still a thing.
  2. The idea of void is something, because we just decided that ideas are things.

Well, voice in my head/audience, you’ve come to the crux of the issue. To me, nothing is a concept that we cannot fathom, if only because we cannot imagine it. Personally, even the idea that there is nothing is kind of absurd to me, if only because of the following thought, which I’ll walk through:


As the caption clearly states, this is our void. Let’s label it!


So this is our nothing, but if we assume that ideas are things, then would facts and concepts not also be things? As in, the very concept that there is nothing?


So if our lonely little concept, the very concept that there is nothing, is something, then doesn’t that mean that our nothing is now something?


So even if we assume that everything around us is real, then what remains is still that stubborn little concept. Descartes thoughts on nothing were that, instead of beginning with something, as we did earlier, we start with nothing and allow what can be proven to fill the void. The concept of solipsism assumes that you can only be sure that you exist, and everything else is unproven.

So if we do assume that there is at least something, then what does that mean?

It means that nothing is an impossibility. Even in the complete absence of something, there still remains the concept that there is something. So if the world were to end, right here and right now, and it somehow took everything along with it, that would mean absolutely, positively nothing something.


7 Responses to The End of the World Means Nothing (or: a lively unicorn debate)

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  3. Avery C says:

    Great post Jess.

    Something that caught my interest was the lack of distinction between idealogical nothingness and material nothingness.

    What you’ve stated is that the idea of nothing is something; in other words, once we apply a label to an idea/concept it gains something-ness. So, any particular of nothing instantly becomes something because you attach the label of “nothingness” to it.

    On the other hand, this falls short when we come to physical nothing. Let me explain why. Let’s say we have an “area” (not really an area) of material nothingness – no matter, no energy, no space-time matrix (if this is possible, but that’s another issue altogether). If we could observe this nothing, we would apply a label to it so it would become something, right? Not necessarily. While the IDEA in our head of the nothingness would become something, it doesn’t follow that the ACTUAL thing becomes something as well just because it is similar to your mental idea.

    This leads into whether physical objectivity is possible, but that’s another problem. So, my question to you: Do you think that our hypothetical PHYSICAL nothingness is something – and why or why not?

    • Jess says:

      I think that it could very well be something, but I think that such a case could only exist on the edges of the universe. I’m not quite sure where I heard it, but somewhere I heard someone discussing the fact that, if the universe is expanding, there’s the question of what it is expanding into. If we reduce this down into Layman’s terms (and I will because I can’t discuss it in any other way!), let’s say that the universe is constantly expanding out into this physical nothing. If this is true, then we have this universe that is infinitely expanding into and infinite nothingness.

      Except another thing is that, if we were to sit on the edge of our expanding universe and look out into this nothingness, we’d automatically be expanding the universe merely by looking into the nothing—all because we are seeing into it.

      To be honest, that last point wasn’t all that relevant, just interesting. IN SHORT: Yes I think the concept of total physical nothingness could be real, but I don’t believe that it can be tangible anywhere but the edges of the universe. I could get into vaccuums and then light and if the absence of light is a thing, but instead I think I’ll leave it with the edges of space and the concept of nothing/something.

  4. bryanjack says:

    Stellar post, Jess – it’s great to see your energy and written wit brought to bear on such ‘heady’ topics as we’re getting into with Metaphysics! Such was my enthusiasm for more answers to the questions you’re raising about ‘nothingness’ that upon finishing your post I found myself falling into the rabbit hole of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s page on the subject. And in the interest of saving you considerable time (though it is all pretty fascinating, and written with a pretty engaging authorial voice as well), this section on the question “Is there *any* nothingness?” gives an excellent history of the discussion you’re having with Avery here about the edge of the universe, and the possibility of the Void (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nothingness/#TheAnyNot). Brace yourself for the quantum theory, though.

    I’m excited to see where this journey into nothingness takes you! #existentialenthusiast

    Mr. J

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