While not directly addressing the problem of "imagining nothingness", I'd like to introduce some of Tamar Gendler's fascinating work on imagination. What she calls the "The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance" (first introduced in an essay of the same name), is the following:
The puzzle of explaining our comparative difficulty in imagining fictional worlds that we take to be morally deviant.
We are capable of imagining a vast array of implausible, outlandish, and playful fantasies ("We have no trouble imagining that Sherlock Holmes solved mysteries in nineteeth0century London, that an owl and a pussycat went out to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat, or that a hobbit names Frodo Baggins carried a magic ring all over Middle Earth.") But what happens when we are presented with a story that contains something like the following?:
In killing her baby, Giselda did the right thing; after all, it was a girl.
We find ourselves unwilling to imagine this as truth. We are inclined to say, even within the world of the story, the narrator is wrong. What explains this resistance to make-believe? One hypothesis posits that propositions which we judge to be morally deviant are not make-believable, because they represent an impossible state of affairs. If we believe that infanticide is always wrong in the real world, we simply cannot make sense of what a world would be like if that world is said to be one in which infanticide is always right. We can state "The impossibility hypothesis" thus:
Imaginative Resistance is explained by the following two considerations: (1) the scenarios that evoke imaginative resistance are conceptually impossible; (2) the conceptual impossibility of these scenarios renders them unimaginable.
Tamar Gendler responds by providing examples of "imaginable conceptual impossibilities," that is, concepts we can both 1) imagine easily, 2) hold to be physically (or even logically) impossible. We all know that the following propositions are false, and impossibly so: a) 12 is not the sum of 5 and 7, b) 12 used to be the sum of 5 and 7, but is no longer the sum of 5 and 7, c) 12 both is and is not the sum of 5 and 7.
Now the question is: can we imagine these to be correct? Gendler offers the following story as evidence that we, in fact, can:
The Tower of Goldbach
Long long ago, when the world was created, every even number was the sum of two primes. Although most people suspected that this was the case, no one was completely certain. So a great convocation was called, and for forty days and forty nights, all the mathematicians of the world labored together in an effort to prove this hypothesis. Their efforts were not in vain: at midnight on the fortieth day, a proof was found. "Hoorah!" they cried, "we have unlocked the secret of nature."
But when God heard this display of arrogance, God was angry. From heaven roared a thundering voice: "My children, you have gone too far. You have understood too many of the universe's secrets. From this day forth, no longer shall twelve be sum of two primes." And God's word was made manifest, and twelve was no longer the sum of two primes.
The mathematicians were distraught- all their efforts had been in vain. They beseeched God: "Please," they said, "if we can find twelve persons among us who are still faithful to You, will You not relent and make twelve once again the sum of two primes?" And so God agreed. The mathematicians searched and searched. In one town, they found seven who were righteous. In another, they found five. They tried to bring them together to make twelve, but because twelve was no longer the sum of two primes, they could not. "Lord," they cried out, "what shall we do? If You lifted Your punishment, there would indeed be twelve righteous souls, and Your decision to do so would be in keeping with Your decree. But until You do, twelve are not to be found, and we are destined forever to have labored in vain."
God was moved by their plea, and called upon Solomon to aid in
making the decision. Carefully, Solomon weighed both sides of the issue. If twelve again became the sum of two primes, then the conditions according to which God and the mathematicians had agreed would be satisfied. And if twelve remained not the sum of two primes,again the conditions according to which God and the mathematicians had agreed would be satisfied. How Solomonic it would be to satisfy the conditions twice over!
So with great fanfare, the celebrated judge announced his resolution of the dispute: From that day on, twelve both was and was not the sum of five and seven. And the heavens were glad, and the mountains rang with joy. And the voices of the five and seven righteous souls rose toward heaven, a chorus twelve and not-twelve, singing in harmonious unity the praises of the Lord. The End.
I find this story quite convincing: impossibilities are imaginable. It may in fact be the case that nothing does not exist, or that nothing is an ill-formed concept, or that nothingness is impossibly remote from human experience. None of that suggests that nothingness is unimaginable.