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How can nothing be real? The basic concept of nothing is the lack of something, so in that statement alone it makes it something.

The bible says that in the beginning there was a void and nothing existed, but if god made everything then where did he come from if nothing existed and if he came from nothing then how could nothing as we know it really exist? And if it is possible, then is it possible to create something from nothing? It's a bit mind bending.

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    There was something: God. And according to a modern understanding, we can say that there were no matter, but we can assume that there were energy. In any case, the narration in the Bible is metaphorical. If you want to use "nothing" in a more philosophical sense, you have to try to define it in some way. See e.g. Nothingness. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jun 6 '16 at 6:07
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    "Nothing" is just a word in English language that doesn't mean anything standalone. It make sense only when used in a context. – Ankur Jun 6 '16 at 10:04
  • We have a few questions that are highly related, can you make the question more specific to what philosophical problem you're trying to understand? Are you asking primarily about nothingness itself, or about creation ex nihilo? – James Kingsbery Jun 9 '16 at 18:21
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The bible does not state that in the beginning there was nothing. Genesis begins with:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

I think that the word void in King James Version is meant in the sense of emptiness, not nothingness. Here is the Hebrew source:

בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם

The words without form and void correspond to תֹהוּ (tohu) and בֹהוּ (bohu) respectively. bohu is traditionally translated by religious scholars as desolation or emptiness.

In modern hebrew the two words taken together form an idiom that roughly means chaos.

Interestingly these two words taken alone, correspond roughly to two states of consciousness, namely to wonder or to ponder (lithot) and to stare or to gaze (libhot).

One can find mentions of this relation by searching google for "תוהו ובוהו" together with "תהיה ובהיה" or "תוהה ובוהה", where the later two pairs correspond to the cognitive meanings.

There are also two traditional sources that point out the cognitive sense. One is Midrash Rabah from around 3rd century AD which explains the two words as bewilderment and astonishment. The other is the 1000-year-old Rashi who notes that tohu connotes wonderment.

I personally like to interpret these words to mean that when God first created the universe it consisted of consciousness.


Note: It reminds me of a poem by the physicist Richard Feynman which goes like this:

I wonder why. I wonder why.
I wonder why I wonder
I wonder why I wonder why
I wonder why I wonder!

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    That's interesting. I've never thought that 'tohu' and 'lithot' might be related. Do you have any source for this? – Eliran Jun 6 '16 at 6:39
  • There may be differences between ancient and modern Hebrew. Which of the two are lithot and libhot, and what are their Qal pf 3ms.? – Keelan Jun 6 '16 at 6:55
  • @EliranH, you can find mentions of these relations with a google search for "תוהו ובוהו" together with "תהיה ובהיה" or "תוהה ובוהה". But as I said the interpretation I offered is my personal opinion. – nir Jun 6 '16 at 7:00
  • @Keelan, it is תהה (taha) and בהה (baha) – nir Jun 6 '16 at 7:04
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    @JoWehler, sure. you are on a firm ground with this view. however, as a native hebrew speaker it is difficult for me to ignore the auxilary sense which is completely missing in the translations. Additionally, there is a tradition in Judaism to interpret the Torah on multiple levels called in hebrew pshat, remez, drash, and sod. Given that tradition, Jews love to hear and to come up with various interpretations to the text, and me too. – nir Jun 6 '16 at 20:05
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Nothing is a problematic term; user of this term, considering nothing as a noun, are often at risk to run into linguistic traps.

As you correctly state, the original meaning of the terms nothing is to negate a positive statement. But many languages allow the linguistic possibility to make a noun from words and to form the noun nothing. But the noun nothing is not a noun like other nouns, there is no object to show saying: This object is nothing.

Besides the linguistic question of the meaning of nothing, of course there is the much deeper problem about the beginning of our world.

In my opinion that's an open problem. We have no physical theory which contains the beginning of our physical world. Big Bang is a limit term, it is not part of our physical models.

Due to this state of affairs, currently we have to leave open the question. Metaphysical principles like ex nihilo nihil fit do not help. Possibly they hold for the range of everyday life. But nobody knows how far their range actually stretches.

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    Yes. I want to double-down on the "linguistic trap" point. "There is nothing there" is, upon analysis, nothing (!) more than a linguistic variant/shortcut for "There is not any thing there." (Two syllables shorter.) Unfortunately, naïve or non-critical language users mistakenly take the language of the former as actually reifying some "thing" called "nothing". Language cannot do that; it's just a "trick". – Jeff Y Jun 6 '16 at 14:37
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Given that there are several senses of 'nothing', we should consider 'nothing' in these different senses.

As A Word

'Nothing' as a word is indeed something. It is a symbol, an utterance, what have you. Now, though it is indeed a something taken as a word in itself, granted that it does not refer to anything, it is seemingly undisputed that unlike words that refer, the word 'nothing' does not contain a positive meaning (granted that it does not have a positive referent).

The meaning of 'nothing' depends wholly on context in other words. We say that there is 'nothing' in light of certain somethings. So we would say that 'there is nothing like a well made strawberry shortcake', where 'nothing' only has meaning in the way that it is used in the sentence, as a way to explicate the satisfaction gained from a well made strawberry shortcake.

As A Metaphysical Consideration

When metaphysicians speak of 'nothing' they typically aren't talking about the word alone, 'nothing'. They're talking about the absence of something. Now, this shouldn't be confused with the absurd suggestion that metaphysicians consider something that is nothing. Just as the word 'nothing' is understood strictly only by context of words that (potentially) have real referents or positive meanings, so too is nothing considered metaphysically only understood in light of that which is real, aka 'something'.

So the very notion of 'nothing' is simply the absence of something.

As A Concept

This is where the trouble starts. Since some philosophers consider 'concepts' as separate mental objects of a Meinongian nature, neither here nor there, 'nothing' is itself taken to be a positive concept.

This confusion can easily be avoided if we readjust our approach to the notion of a concept. Nominalist pragmatists have sought to avoid this problem by postulating the nonexistence of this odd sort of mental stuff, ridding of concepts entirely, restricting all talk of meaning to the way we use our words.

But another solution could be to consider the notion of 'concept' as an action rather than an object. In this analysis, a 'concept' is simply mental activity, the form being comprehended being just whatever is real. That we comprehend 'nothing' has already been found to be possible by the analysis of something, wherein we use peripheral knowledge and imagination to notice the absence of something.

These two differing solutions have their own independent reasons for being favored by philosophers of different breeds and traditions. What is somewhat clear, at least for myself, is that the Meinongian an the modern representative view on semantics in general is failing in quite a few ways, for reasons that your inquiry into nothingness makes clear.

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As others have said the word 'nothing' is a bit troublesome. Unfortunately we live in a universe so complex and so staggering that our language is not accurate enough to describe everything in it's actuality. Language is something we've constructed to 'help' us describe what we see, what we think, what we feel. However it's only an approximation, it cannot probe to precision of reality that would be needed to actually convey what someone really means by 'nothing', it has lots of meanings in different context. Just like our mathematics, our language encounters paradoxes, where it cannot discern the difference from two ideas well enough, and sends you in a loop.

As for your question about 'where did god come from?', the same goes. This logic sends us into an infinite regression. You could ask 'What came before the universe? 'God' 'And before god?' 'God prime.' 'And before..?, and so on. Some ideas in theoretical physics do imply that the math would suggest that maybe the universe could be spawned from nothing, as it was essentially nothing at the point of the big bang, it was a singular point of no dimensions in space-time. Others would suggest that the big bang singularity is similar to a black hole singularity, in this way the universes would self replicate in a 'multiverse'. I realize this is outside of philosophy, but I think the point to make here is that these are theories just as well as the god theory. Since we are beings who exist inside this universe, and there is no way for us to be outside of this universe, there is no way for us to 'know' or to 'experience' absolute nothingness, hence the mind bending. It is simply beyond our comprehension, hence the paradoxes in the language surrounding it.

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