Taylor: A column all about nothing

There is no such thing as nothing. Because if there was such a thing as nothing, it wouldn’t be nothing, would it?

Here’s a brain-teaser for you—try to think of nothing.

You can’t.

In fact, there is no such thing as nothing. Because if there was such a thing as nothing, it wouldn’t be nothing, would it?

When the Big Bang happened, 14 billion years ago (give or take a few million years) it was not an explosion of something out into empty space. Rather, scientists say, it was an explosion of space itself. Beyond that bubble of expanding space, there was nothing to expand into.

The same with time. How long did nothing exist before something exploded into existence? It’s a meaningless question, because there was no time, either. Nothing couldn’t have been there forever, because it wasn’t there at all.

We can imagine a vacuum, from which every molecule of anything has been pumped out. But we have to imagine that vacuum existing within some kind of a container.

So we persist in wondering about the boundaries of the universe. What contains it? Answer: Nothing does.

How far does that nothing go? It doesn’t. Because going on forever implies both time and space.

But if there’s nothing there, there’s no time, no space, no matter.

Just nothing.

Our minds cannot imagine nothing. We can only imagine something.

That’s why Anselm of Canterbury, a thousand years ago, defined God as a “being than which no greater can be conceived.”

If we can imagine it, he argued, it can exist. Indeed, it must exist. Because, Anselm went on, we can’t not imagine such a being. If something can be conceived not to exist, then we have imagined something.

Consequently, as a Wikipedia entry puts it: “a thing than which nothing greater can be conceived cannot be conceived to not exist and so it must exist.”

Did you follow that?

I think Anselm was saying that because we can’t imagine nothing, we have to imagine something. We call that something “God.” He saw that as indisputable proof of God.

Sometimes, in my writing classes, I instruct students “Do not think of an elephant!” Of course, the first thing that pops into their minds is an elephant. My students giggle a little, and try to imagine something else. But that silly elephant keeps popping up.

Which is why strident atheism is self-destructive. You can’t keep denying the existence of God (by whatever name) without inviting people to think about God.

I read about an atheist church in London, England. It had huge success its first year of operation. It offered the social benefits of a conventional congregation, without the dogma that many attenders rejected.

But soon it developed a liturgy. It wove music, words, and ritual into a predictable pattern.

And it didn’t take long for it to set up a branch congregation in the U.S., who didn’t take long to disagree with their parent church over what they didn’t believe, and to split off into a new atheist church.

Just as you can’t think of nothing, you can’t believe in nothing. You have to believe in something. Even if it’s not God.

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