Take the 2-minute tour ×
Philosophy Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for those interested in logical reasoning. It's 100% free, no registration required.

It's possible to imagine something, for example a table, we see one everyday and can bring it in front of our minds eye (although it's a moot point whether we can see it - I certainly don't). But of course this is a real object so we have a referent. But we need not have a referent: to imagine a unicorn means we are hybridising our referents.

But to imagine nothing in its proper sense (ie not the lack of something or just space) seems impossible to me, we cannot avoid our sense of ourselves.

share|improve this question
2  
If you are given a pencil and a piece of paper and asked to draw anything you like, you can decide to draw nothing , or draw an alien , or draw a car. Note that returning the paper blank requires you to imagine nothing, or simply, not imagine anything. –  user2411 Jan 7 '13 at 11:23
    
For a majority of your time, I would say you imagine nothing. Unless you imagine everything at every moment, I don't see how imagining nothing is avoidable. –  SAHornickel Jan 7 '13 at 16:05
    
Sometimes, answers are simple. Nothing cannot be imagined because one does not imagine absences of anything, only things (which may lack something, but then you are merely imagining a thing without another thing). @SAHornickel - Not imagining anything is not the same as imagining nothing. Imagining-something is an act with an object, while a lack of imagining-something is not an act, and is not the same as imagining-nothing. –  danielm Jan 7 '13 at 18:34
    
@danielm, it would depend on if imagining is active or passive. If the brain must, at all times, passively imagine something (like the perceived world, for instance), then not imagining anything would, indeed, be imagining nothing. When it comes to it, I think "imagine" has an insufficient definition. Do you think "imaging" would be a better fit for this question? –  SAHornickel Jan 8 '13 at 11:05
1  
Could you explain why the answer to this question might be relevant to philosophy? This particular quirk of neurophysiology--"I can form an emotionally satisfying empty representation, or I cannot"--seems to have more relevance for you and others than other quirks--"I can imagine a room bigger on the inside than the outside, or I cannot". –  Rex Kerr Jan 10 '13 at 1:09
show 4 more comments

12 Answers 12

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Based on your last paragraph, you might be interested in Thomas Nagel's The View From Nowhere. In that, he argues that it is impossible to achieve a completely objective perspective--- what he calls the View From Nowhere. This isn't directly related to your first paragraph, but something you might enjoy.

As to your first paragraph, you might find this book interesting. Locke had some interesting ideas about the limits of imagination. For him, what is imagined is always some manipulation of things actually experienced. So, for example, you can only imagine a Centaur (half-man, half-horse) because you have experience of both a man and a horse--- or at least things relevantly similar.

A similar sentiment is echoed in Descartes's First Meditation. Check out section 6 and the discussion of painters.

As to imagining "Nothing", I'm inclined, along with you, to think that this is impossible. It seems to be no different than thinking about nothing. But then it seems like there is something you are thinking about, namely, nothing!

UPDATE: It occurred to me that given the Ontology tag in your question, and given that my last paragraph is mostly based on my own idiosyncratic views about existence and reference, I should bring in some considerations from the seminal article on ontology, Quine's "On What There Is". Your questions about nothing, and my own reasons for thinking that imagining nothing is impossible, bear a striking resemblance to the problem of negative existentials. Some philosophers, notably the Meinongians, have thought that there are some things that have the property of "not existing". So, they would analyze negative existentials like "There are no unicorns" as expressing the sentence "There is something such that it is a unicorn and it doesn't exist". They could do this because they distinguished between two senses of "there is". One, the one familiar to us from Quine, is to read "there is" as expressing the existential quantifier. Anything that "there is", in this sense, exists. Now, the other sense of "there is" is subsistence. They thought that there are some things (like unicorns, for example) that subsist but do not exist.

Quine thought that this talk of there being things that don't exist was a bunch of nonsense. He held that "there is" only expresses the existential quantifier and that anything there is must exist (as an aside, he famously, but uninformatively, answers the question "What is there?" with "Everything"). But then how did he analyze our earlier sentence about unicorns? He would analyze is thusly: "It is not the case that there exists something such that it is a unicorn" (sorry for the quasi-logic speak, I really want to regiment this in first-order logic a la Quine, but can't seem to get MathJax to work on this SE). For Quine, this sentence carries no presupposition of anything's existence, much less of a unicorn which subsists but does not exist.

Bringing this back to the original question about "Nothing". If I put on my Quine Hat, I might say that to imagine nothing is simply for it to not be the case that you are imagining something. But that isn't very helpful, is it? Well, let's suppose (as we seem to be supposing in this example) that imagination is object oriented, so that whenever we imagine, there is some object of our imagination. What this pseudo-Quinean view would hold, then, is that to imagine nothing is simply to not be imagining any particular thing or collection of things. So, for example, a dead person is imagining nothing. I imagine (chuckle) that this view would deny any "objecthood" to "Nothing".

share|improve this answer
add comment

What, precisely, do you mean by 'to imagine'?

The word itself by it's etymology suggests picturing nothing. This of course is absurd: there is nothing to picture, and we don't have ready experience picturing nothing, not even space. (Or do we?)

More generally, we often use 'imagine' to mean to think about what something would "be like". This brings us to the brink of productive inquiry. Obviously, nothingness would almost certainly not "be like" anything we would ever perceive; and as you remark, hiding in the background is your continuing sense of self.

To imagine nothing, you must then as a necessary condition negate those two things: you must imagine not perceiving anything, and in particular not being conscious. And while you may have limited experiences with such mental states, it is certainly possible to lose consciousness to such an extent that you are beyond dreaming, and so that as you start to regain consciousness you regain notions of space and of identity, which you come to realise afterwards that you had momentarily lost. And of course, while so deeply unconscious you aren't perceiving anything, or at least your ignorance of perceiving anything is so complete that if you did perceive anything, you're completely ignorant of having done so later.

So: if nothingness is — subjectively — like anything at all, it is like unconsciousness. This is no more or less than the negation of Descartes' cogito. Of course, with nothingness there can be no subjective position; but unconsciousness is a negation of the subjective position anyway. We can only experience it imperfectly and in degrees, because to the extent that we can experience something, we are conscious, if (again) only imperfectly. But we can get a sense of unconsciousness from our various transitions in and out of consciousness. And that is the closest one can come to imagining nothing: to imagine a state of no perception or awareness — because of course there is nothing to be aware, and nothing to be perceived.

share|improve this answer
    
+1, this is more elaborate than my comment. –  user2411 Jan 7 '13 at 11:26
add comment

But to imagine nothing in its proper sense (ie not the lack of something or just space) seems impossible to me, we cannot avoid our sense of ourselves.

You have tagged this question with "Buddhism," so I'm going to offer an answer that is aware of some Buddhist doctrines concerning the issue.

First, recognize that we're dealing with the edge of that which is semantically meaningful at this point. Immediately, in the true sense we cannot "conceive" of nothing because the act or behavior of conception binds the referent concept. As you say, you cannot escape the self. So, by virtue of sheer semantics, it is impossible to conceive of nothing.

On the other hand, if you consider everything that you are conceiving of at any given moment, I can ask you: what else do you conceive? And the answer is nothing. Now this may at first seem to be a simply trick of semantics (i.e., we have here the same word-symbol used in two different ways), but if you consider that thinking of nothing would require that you think of something without a referent, then it is in fact fair to say that all of that which are you not thinking about is thinking about nothing. In this very real way, it is impossible to NOT conceive of nothing, because you cannot get the lack of a thing out of your mind.

You can see here that the semantics of the problem are inherently weak. You can argue it one way or the other if you so choose, but from the Buddhist perspective, one of the key points of "emptiness" is that it begins to shatter the normal mode of ego-conceptual thought. This is, in fact, analogous to one of the key 'points' (insofar as there are any) to Zen koans.

share|improve this answer
    
+1 for adding the Buddhist perspective. I would have liked to touch on it but lack the background. –  Dennis Jan 7 '13 at 15:41
add comment

Is Nothing actually imaginable?
To imagine nothing in its proper sense (ie not the lack of something or just space) seems impossible to me, we cannot avoid our sense of ourselves.

It's difficult to tell what is being asked here. Your question is if a concept without image ("Nothing") is "imaginable". Abstract concepts do not necessarily appear as images. For example the concept of causality.

share|improve this answer
    
'Imagine' probably originates from 'image', but it now covers more. –  Mozibur Ullah Jan 11 '13 at 2:10
    
Mental representation can represent things that have you never experienced as well as things that do not exist. To instrumentalism, there is the notion that unobservables such as atomic particles, the force of gravity, causation and quantum physics, are useful representation models but don't necessarily exist. Only provide a way of thinking about natural laws, a common mind-independent world, a way of description that relates representation to prediction, expressing truths –  Ricardo Jan 15 '13 at 9:27
add comment

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.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Everything you think of is something (something that you think). In that sense, when thinking about nothing, we must admit that nothing is a kind of something. That's one of the fundamental paradoxes of thinking (and of being in general). So yes, you can think of nothing, just like you can think of anything else.

But the question remains, "When I try to think of nothing, am I truly thinking of nothing, or just something that looks like nothing?" In other words, is the absence of something enough to manifest nothing, or do we need the absence of everything to express nothing?

Well, you could argue that the same problem exists with "everything". Can we think of everything? How would we know if we were thinking of everything, or just something that looks like everything? What if we could think of everything, what would it look like? To have everything in your mind, all at once, complete in a singular whole? One could argue that the singular nature of everything makes it indistinguishable from nothing (which is also singular). This is another way of expressing the paradox, that nothing and everything are equally intangible, and in some meaningful sense indistinguishable.

One way to resolve all this is to think of nothing and everything as properties of something, not complements to it. Every something is just a bit of nothing and a bit of everything combined. To put it another way, anything can look like nothing if there's none of it, or it can look like everything if you have all of it. Nothing and everything are properties of objects comprised of something.

Now, If everything has some nothing to it, are there as many nothings as there are somethings? No, there is just one nothing (singular), and whether you think of it as the absence of one thing or another, it doesn't matter, you are always thinking of the same thing: nothing.

share|improve this answer
    
Why the downvote? –  Greg L Jan 7 '13 at 15:47
    
I'm not the one who downvoted, but I could imagine the downvoter's issue being a lack of clarity and references to the relevant literature. Your answer reads as your thoughts on the matter, which I have no problem with, but I think the community tends to prefer answers to be as non-subjective and non-idiosyncratic as possible. Also, it isn't clear how your thoughts on "everything" are really relevant. Really, it is hard for me to see the relevance the three paragraphs after your second paragraph and they aren't very clear. These are just my thoughts, though, about what I would want improved. –  Dennis Jan 7 '13 at 17:39
    
Ok thanks for the feedback, I'm new to the site and not familiar with the community norms. I just think these types of questions actually suffer from trying too hard to define the words, the concepts can't really be put into a finite string of other concepts, so it's best to take a synthetic approach to the definitions. And I don't know how you can synthesize nothing and something successfully without relying on the much related concepts of anything and everything. Synthetic definitions is an approach that works in mathematics but perhaps not in philosophy. –  Greg L Jan 7 '13 at 18:16
1  
I'd focus more on trying to tie your thoughts into relevant literature. With our answers we often walk the line between subjective and objective, and I think we try to minimize the subjective aspect as much as we can (obviously it can't always be avoided, and this is fine) by referencing relevant literature. It is also a nice thing to do (when possible) because it gives the questioner somewhere to go for further information. –  Dennis Jan 7 '13 at 18:27
2  
I'm the downvoter. My issue was much more direct and simple: I think that ideas such as "Everything you think of is something ... when thinking about nothing, we must admit that nothing is a kind of something" are a confusion of language, and disconnected from the context of the question. Much of what followed seemed to be of a similar character, and I found it not to be constructive. More than making a connection to the literature, it's important to keep the answer pertinent to the question. –  Niel de Beaudrap Jan 9 '13 at 12:44
show 1 more comment

I think we can imagine nothing but it is always within the context of something. For example, I can imagine a block of outer space which is simply nothing. But I see that nothing within the context of the rest of the universe which is something. To actually image nothing would seem to require a lack of consciousness (which then becomes a blocking problem) If you imagine, you are creating something. You are creating whatever it is you are imagining and thus you have created something.

share|improve this answer
    
But 'empty space' is something... –  Mozibur Ullah Jan 8 '13 at 23:49
add comment

As I hear the question and terms used, "imagining" is an intentional mental action, a conjuring of images. Our sense of self is entirely conditioned upon our intentional thought creation (Skt sanskara, Pali saṅkhāra or sankhaara).

So no, one can not intentionally imagine anything (nor nothing) without a sense of self. One who actively imagines anything (whether the concept of nothing or dancing rabbits) does have a sense of self.

There are pleasurable mental states known as jhana in which one is highly concentrated but not imagining (neither nothing nor something). The lower jhana could not be described as nothingness as pleasure is certainly experienced.

I think you are asking "Can one stop the intentional thinking processes?" or "Can one maintain a mental state of nothing?"

Yes.

The abandonment of intentional thinking is achieved in the second jhana. In fact the first jhana maintains a very subtle form of thinking (Pali vitakka) that is firm and directed but not discursive. The Buddha (MN 19) gives the simile of a cowherd in the shade of a tree mindfully aware of his cows after the crops have been harvested. In the second jhana even this subtle vitakka is abandoned (there remains awareness but not 'imagining'). In MN 19, Thanissaro Bikkhu translates: "rapture & pleasure born of composure, unification of awareness free from directed thought & evaluation — internal assurance".

The higher non-material jhanas beyond the fourth (santa vimokkha atikammarupe aruppa) are described by the Buddha with words like 'boundless space', 'boundless consciousness', 'nothingness', 'neither-perception-nor-non-perception'. But again these are not 'imagined' but experienced with liberation from self-creations (including the abandonment of a sense of self) as a goal.

share|improve this answer
add comment

The stuff in our imagination is in domain X the stuff not in our imaginations, is in domain Y.

There is a relationship between X and Y - there is a mapping, but to claim that there is something in Y that is not possible to be mapped to X - is impossible. The act of claiming it puts in X - the mapping has to exist in order to make the claim.

If the claim is that something in Y is mapped to X, but that the mapping lacks a certain quality - say "can be pictured", then sure, we can make that claim.

But then you are claiming "One cannot picture nothing", or "One cannot visualize nothing" - and such a claim is like saying "You can't see invisible things"

share|improve this answer
add comment

1) Is Nothing some sort of concept, a concrete object, or a class of objects?

Nothing is definitively not a concrete object. Also, if it were a class of objects, it would have to be the empty class. There might be certain contexts in which the empty class actually represents Nothing. (It is more the content of the empty class than the empty class itself, which represents Nothing.) The best guess seems to be that Nothing is some sort of concept, which can be represented by different things in different contexts (empty space, empty set, empty list, empty string).

2) Is Nothing an abstract concept, a class of concepts, or a scientific concept?

It should be fine to assume that Nothing is an abstract concept, which doesn't necessarily exclude that it may also be a class of concepts and a scientific concept.


How can we imagine or visualize an abstract concept? A typical way is to look at some representative concrete instances of the abstract concept. What are the properties of the concrete instance of Nothing? For the empty set, the union of any set X with the empty set is again X. For the empty list, the left or right concatenation with any list L is again L. In both cases, there can be at most one object with these properties, but this doesn't mean that an object with these properties (for a given universe of sets or lists) is necessarily the empty set or the empty list.

My conclusion from that is that Nothing can exist in many contexts. There are some context where it is quite possible to imagine or visualize Nothing. However, even so Nothing is unique in each given context, the different Nothings from different contexts are neither identical nor isomorphic to each other. This also means that to imagine Nothing in a specific context is not to enough for being able to imagine Nothing in any context or even imagine "Nothing itself".


If we go back to the empty set again and look at intersection instead of union, then the intersection of the empty set with any set X is the empty set. However, this property is not a good way to characterize or imagine Nothing, because it gives the wrong impression that Nothing and Everything would somehow be the same thing. But Nothing exists naturally in many different contexts, whereas the existence of Everything would lead to inconsistencies in many different contexts (and hence often doesn't exist).

share|improve this answer
add comment

If we say the essence or concept of nothing is that it is totally without predicates, then we could say nothing exists as the subject of its concept.

In conceptual terms that's quite tangible and imaginable.

share|improve this answer
add comment

There's just a basic logical mistake involved here. Think of your question being like, "How do I marry Nobody?" The answer is that you can't marry Nobody because there isn't any such person as Nobody. The capital letter makes it look like "nobody" is the name of a person that doesn't exist. But there aren't any people that don't exist. To marry nobody isn't to marry a special kind of person that doesn't exist, it's just to fail to marry anybody at all. Likewise, to imagine Nothing isn't to imagine something that doesn't exist, it's just not to imagine anything at all.

The underlying issue in both cases is treating a quantifier as a name. For an excellent article (from which I think i've stolen the above examples, see Peter Geach Form and Existence.)

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.