The Treachery of Being

The concept of nothingness has fascinated me ever since I watched and read The Neverending Story two decades ago. The main antagonist was literally nothingness (aptly named “The Nothing”), gobbling up fantasy worlds and creatures in an ominous cloud of nonexistence. Once it reached something, that thing just…ceased to be. Pretty heavy stuff for a kid to think about.

Yet as I grew older, I came to realize that all of us are utterly incapable of articulating what nothingness is. Wrestle with that for a few seconds – at the end of this sentence, try to picture or describe nothingness.

Did you picture pure blackness? Pure whiteness? A vast landscape of emptiness? Describe it as the opposite of existence?

The problem is that none of those are nothingness. Doesn’t even come close. Absolute blackness is something. Absolute whiteness is something. A thought is something. Even “the opposite of existence” is something because it’s a description of what nothingness is not.

By necessity, nothingness can’t have properties. We can pick up a blade of grass and describe its physical properties, such as color, length, and mass. We can even describe the physical properties of things that aren’t real, such as unicorns or dragons. But we can’t truly imagine, describe, or draw nothingness. Otherwise, we’re attempting the futile exercise of applying a property to something that is without property. And even my attempt to describe nothingness as something without property is a property itself!

It’s pretty neat that humans assigned a word to something we are powerless to further describe beyond that label of ‘nothingness.’ We can’t reach out and touch it, weigh it, represent it, or even think about it in any meaningful sense. Nothingness is our opposite, exposing the most fundamental dichotomy of all: existence vs. nonexistence. Something exists or it doesn’t – there’s no in between.

I love thinking about nothingness, but really it’s just an abstract thought exercise for cognitively-advanced beings. It’s an attempt at philosophical voyeurism, for one side of the coin to imagine what the other looks like. You know that painting of a smoking pipe that reads “This is not a pipe” in French? It’s entitled The Treachery of Images.