I am confused about this question. It may have a simple answer of which I have overlooked.

Can something be nothing?

Because I believe nothing must be something, like a fact or idea of no thing existing. Yet even though nothing is something, something is something in itself, and therefore can not be nothing.

This could also apply to "Can something be anything (or everything)?".

  • This is a question for philosophy.SE
    – Mitch
    Aug 19 '13 at 23:44
  • You don't have a good definition for thing, to start with. Is a unicorn a thing? It is something? If unicorns don't exist, are they nothing? What about abstractions like a right triangle? Are they things? Even if they are equilateral? Is an equilateral right triangle a thing, something, or nothing?
    – John Lawler
    Aug 19 '13 at 23:53
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    @BenPiper I don't think it's appropriate to close old questions with an accepted answer as a duplicate of a recent question without an accepted answer. If anything, the new one should be a duplicate of this one.
    – user2953
    Jan 12 '16 at 21:59
  • there's an "empty set" and a "null set", i believe these are different, it may help you to get a handle on your question :)
    – user6917
    Jan 28 '17 at 2:49

I think what has confused you is the usual grammatical role of "nothing." It appears in sentences like:

(1) Nothing is what I got for Christmas.
(2) I gave her everything, asking for nothing in return.

It appears that "nothing" is a subject in these sentences, i.e., a thing about which other things are said. But actually the semantic value of "nothing" (i.e., what "nothing" contributes to the meaning of the entire sentence) is not some object, but a function from sentences to truth-values. "Nothing", like "everything", "no one", "each day", "exactly one", and so on, is a generalized quantifier. Before getting to the particular cases (1–2), let's look at a standard way of giving the semantic value of "nothing":

[[nothing]] = [λf. ¬∃x s.t. f(x)] where f is a function from individuals to {T/F}, and x is an individual.

Here "nothing" is defined as a property of properties, a second-order property. Its arguments are characteristic functions of sets, its values: truth-values. Using it, (1–2) can be analyzed as follows:

(3) There exists no x such that I got x for Christmas.
(4) I gave her everything, and there exists no x such that I asked for x in return.

Each of those x's that these existential quantifiers supply is a thing, a something, an object. Depending on the context, these objects can even be abstract (like numbers, predicates, points in 2D space, etc.). But the negated existential quantifiers ("there exists no x" = "it's not the case that there exists an x") themselves are not, at least in these particular sentences, being talked about, so they're not even treated as objects like those x's are.

In conclusion, I'd like to very briefly de-mystify some of the superficially problematic things you said:

Claim 1. nothing is still something

Understood as: the semantic value of "nothing" is still something, this is true if and only if "nothing" has a semantic value. We know that it does; it's a function from open sentences to truth-values. So yes: the semantic value of "nothing" is something.

Claim 2. something is not nothing

Superficially, this seems to contradict Claim 1. But it doesn't, because from the fact that the semantic value of "nothing" is something , we can't conclude that something is nothing. And lastly:

Claim 3. something can be anything (or everything)

This can happen in worlds where either only one thing exists or everything is identical to every other thing. In either case, the following sentence captures the truth-conditions of this claim: ∃x ∀y (x = y).

For corrections/suggestions/improvements: please leave a comment or simply edit the post.

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    I was going to post this as an answer, but let's see if we can work it into yours: The "concept/idea of nothing" and "nothing" are different things. Nothing is exactly that - not a thing, zero things, the absence of things and stuff. "The concept of nothing" is a concept, and a concept is a thing, in at least some definitions of thing. So "the concept of nothing" is a thing, while "nothing" is not a thing.
    – Ryno
    Aug 20 '13 at 1:53
  • Exactly! I think of the distinction in pretty much the same terms. Aug 20 '13 at 2:05
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    You're on to something with the whole Russellian paraphrase approach, but I think you're maybe a bit too quick to say that "nothing" is a quantifier. "Every" is a quantifier, where "everything" sounds more like a set. Set-like terminology might be quite interestingly used in ways that quantifiers might struggle with. For instance, Barack Obama and Immanuel Kant might have "nothing in common". I personally would like to avoid committing to a realist view of properties; interpreting "nothing" here as discussing empty intersections rather than non-existence might be more helpful.
    – Paul Ross
    Aug 20 '13 at 23:31
  • Of course! Thank you Paul, I'll make the necessary changes as soon as I get home. Aug 20 '13 at 23:51

Generally speaking the law of noncontradiction states that contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time, e.g. the two propositions "A is B" and "A is not B" are mutually exclusive and cannot both be true at the same time. So in your case I would say No nothing cannot be something.


or, perhaps better stated, A is A and therefore cannot be B or C or D or anything other than itself: A.

  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE. Do you think you could stretch out this answer a bit? As is it's unclear how you're resolving the question.
    – commando
    Aug 27 '16 at 21:31
  • the laws of identity/logic: a thing cannot be anything other than what it is ... Aug 31 '16 at 21:15

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