The Big Question Pitch
This Big Question was inspired by year 12 students who took part in the UNIQ 2021 programme. In the video below Hattie shares her group's ideas. If you would like to find out more about UNIQ, click here.
(Hattie mentions comments by Dr Tanesha Allen, click here to watch the discussion she refers to).
Before you read any further, take a moment, shut your eyes and see if you can imagine ‘nothing’. Can you do it? Can you describe to a friend what you are imagining? What does it feel like? Does it have a colour? A shape?
What you have just done is attempt to tackle a problem that has been debated by scientists for thousands of years and one that will continue to be debated long into the future: what do we mean by ‘nothing’?
There are lots of competing views among researchers about what constitutes ‘nothing’, and each academic discipline tends to create their own definition that enables them to solve their problems. Look and see if any of your ideas match the ones discussed below.
How do we define nothing?
A good place to begin is by establishing what 'something' is. In other words, that existence exists. Just by observing that you are aware of something proves this. This is one of the true axioms that metaphysics is built on (along with the laws of identity and consciousness).
Metaphysics is the bedrock of philosophy; it is the study of existence and gives us the tools to deal with our reality. Only by establishing a worldview (i.e. that there is something, that existence exists), can we turn our attention to its opposite: nonexistence, or nothing.
Hence, nothing does not exist. It is not something, it has no characteristics, it is simply nothing. It only gains meaning as the denial of something. It has no identity, it is just used in relation to things that do.
Therefore, you could argue that the only way to achieve genuine nothingness would be to remove the entire universe and the laws that govern it! However, when trying to apply this in practice, it is not very useful. Is there a way to define nothing within our physical world?
Astronomers might argue that black holes are the physical manifestation of nothing. They are regions of outer space that consume everything around them. Black holes form as the result of dying stars; they collapse in on themselves and then continue to pull in matter and compress it into smaller and smaller space. Their force of gravity eventually becomes so strong that nothing can escape, not even light. This means that they are invisible! They look like ‘nothing’ – astronomers only know they exist due to the effect of their extremely powerful gravity on the stars and gases around them.
More generally within physics, nothing is defined as a space containing no matter. This is called a vacuum. Outer space is a vacuum, in between the planets and the stars. However, we can create vacuums here on Earth to. It is common when carrying out experiments where the substances involved in the reaction would be affected by particles in the air. Sometimes a pure vacuum cannot be created, so instead the pressure is made so low that any atoms or molecules in the air do not affect the process you’re investigating. Even though we know how to use them, a vacuum is still a hard concept to show. Can you draw one? Can you think of a way to represent this collection of nothingness?
Mathematicians have come up with one answer to this question: they have defined a group containing no elements as the empty set, which is often denoted by this symbol: Ø. But how can you have a set with no elements? Imagine a box that contains 10 balls. If you were to look in that box, you would describe the set of objects as having a size of 10 as there are ten items. If you were then to remove each ball, the size of the set would decrease by one for every ball that you remove. After the final ball is removed, you will be left with a set of items of size zero – this is what mathematicians think of as the empty set.
However, the most common way we interact with nothing in mathematics (and in our day to day lives) is with the number zero! It may not seem that revolutionary, but having a symbol to represent the concept of nothing proved a game changer and has had big impacts on the world you live in today.
A short history of zero
The Sumerians (the first known civilisation to have a number system) developed a system that was positional, but rather than being in base 10 like the one we use, it was in base 60. However, unlike us, they didn’t have a symbol for zero so 2 and 120 (2x60), for example, would look identical as there would be nothing in the end column for 120.
It wasn’t until the Babylonians (who inherited the Sumerian number system) that we first see a symbol being used as a placeholder for nothing. They would put this symbol to signify empty columns within their positional system. Despite this, they didn’t get to the concept of zero as a number.
The Mayans have a very similar story, just 600 years later. They also used a placeholder symbol for zero and used it as part of their intricate long count calendars. But again, despite being a highly regarded mathematical society, this ‘zero’ never appeared within any of their calculations or equations.
As far as we know, the first recorded use of zero as a number dates to 3rd/4th century India. There is an Indian scroll called the Bakhshali manuscript (housed within the Bodleian library in Oxford) that shows a simple dot being used to represent zero not just as a placeholder. It was then China who adapted the dot into an open circle, and that evolved into the 0 we know and use today. Find out more in the video below which features Professor Marcus du Sautoy (University of Oxford) and view the Bakhshali manuscript here.
Zero would’ve arrived sooner in Europe if it hadn’t been for the Roman Empire. They opposed the number system brought over by merchants from India and thus didn’t include a zero within their own numeral system. It took until 13th century for this to change.
During his travels, the famous Italian mathematician Fibonacci came across the zero symbol within the accounting systems of Arab merchants in northern Africa. On his return, he proceeded to publish a book called Liber Abaci that finally established the number zero within European society.
The information age we live in now also depends on the number zero as it forms an integral part of the language of computers: binary. We wouldn’t have the internet and laptops and smartphones without zero!
Who knew that ‘nothing’ could be so many different things?
Growing our identities: do we start from ‘nothing’?
Take a look at the video by BBC Radio 4 below to hear what philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) had to say about how our identities form.
If you have a hobby, or a favourite book or movie, or a food you really enjoy, you’ll know your life would seem very different without it. There are lots of things that make our lives happier or more interesting or more exciting.
But what do we actually need in our lives? Put it another way – what, if anything, could we simply not live without?
One of the most famous suggestions about what humans actually need was put forward by American Psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943. He thought that people’s needs could be arranged in a pyramid structure, with the most important things – the things humans need to literally survive, like food and water – at the bottom. Everything else builds on top of those essential things, and helps humans to achieve the best they can.
Maslow thought everyone should be working towards their own individual achievements and striving to reach their full potential. Something which he called ‘self-actualisation’ .Thus, his theory was less interested in how people work and live together.
But not everyone agrees with all of Maslow’s ideas.
“I think the most important thing we need to survive is other people,” says researcher Sophie Berdugo from the University of Oxford. “As long as we have other people, we can never actually have nothing, because in order to survive, we need to have other people and the knowledge that they bring.”
The importance of social learning
Sophie’s research is in a field called Evolutionary Anthropology, which means she looks at how our extinct human ancestors might have evolved and developed. She focuses on how chimpanzees use tools, and thinking about what this might suggest about how humans might have done the same thing millions of years ago. In particular, she watches how chimpanzees use stones to crack open nuts for food – and how they learn to do it. Some mothers in the chimpanzee groups don’t know how to use the stones to do that – so the baby chimpanzees learn from other adults instead (source).
This kind of social learning can still be seen across different cultures today. “Social learning means that we haven't got to individually learn things from a blank slate, every single time,” says Sophie. The do not necessarily have to invent new tools or technology – instead, they can build on what people have done before.
She gives the example of groups who have to go out and hunt and gather their food – depending on where they are in the world, they’ll have very different tools and weapons that they use.
“In Inuit populations, such as the Nuvugmiut , they have very complex technology, because you need to have something that's definitely going to work - if you don't catch that seal, then you're going to come home hungry and in that environment you haven't got anything you can forage to eat instead” (source). Having to individually learn how to make and use these complex tools would be very challenging and so the Nuvugmiut - like many other communities - rely on knowledge gained from their social group in order to gain these skills.
Benefits of staying connected
Not only do we need to learn things from other people but we also also need to stay in touch with our family, friends, and colleagues in different ways. As Sophie says: “You need to be able to keep bonded to people, for all the benefits that incurs.”
After all the lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic (during 2020 and 2021), this is something a lot of people understand differently now. Some people found it difficult to communicate with their loved ones because their internet connection wasn’t good enough, or they didn’t have enough data on their phones, or they didn’t have a laptop to do video calls.
Some people just weren’t keen on staying in touch virtually, and really suffered from not being able to see others in person.
Chimpanzees use grooming as a means to make and maintain social relationships. Although we might not groom each other in the same way as chimpanzees do, being able to hug, shake hands and touch each other is also an important part of human bonding.
“We have these receptors on our skin which releases oxytocin when you're touched and can cause you to feel a surge of positive emotions. For this reason, Oxytocin is sometimes called the happiness hormone,” says Sophie (source).
“During lockdown, we weren't able to do things like go on social runs, play football or hug many of our friends and family. I think that it's been a very hard way to adapt because it took away something that is so core to human nature - the social aspect.” This reinforces Sophie’s belief that humans really need each other – not just to survive, but also to be happy living their lives.
“We're inherently a social species,” she says. “Just from day one of being born, you need other people to survive as a human.”
Do we have zero time to wait?
Climate action is becoming increasingly central to many socio-political debates and decision-making processes. After all, can we really function and have anything as humans without a healthy planet? Josh Ettinger (pictured) from the Oxford School of Geography and the Environment considers the claim that nations have zero time to wait in protecting the planet. What do you think?
Can we ever have nothing?
Do you like to shop along your local high street or do you prefer to buy things online? Dr Jonathan Reynolds (University of Oxford) explains how the way we shop has changed over the years and why some people are concerned about our patterns of purchasing…and how much we buy.
Consumerism vs materialism
When did you last buy something? We live in what’s known as a consumer society. This means that, as a group, most of us agree that increasing your consumption, or buying more things, is desirable.
You might also want to buy particular items for yourself for particular reasons; something as small as an item of clothing, or as big as a building. Wanting to own possessions for yourself is called materialism.
“Materialism is a preoccupation with possessions, and the kind of physical or psychological comfort that ownership of physical things brings, whether that's a Rolex watch or a pet or buying your own home or a 55-inch screen TV,” explains Dr Jonathan Reynolds, an expert in shopping and retail.
Just because you live in a consumer society, that doesn’t mean you are necessarily materialistic.
You might not buy many things. You might decide that you don’t need very many possessions in order to live and be happy. Or you might be worried about sustainability: the impact that having lots of belongings has on the environment.
But, overall, you’re still part of a consumer society.
“We [in the UK are] increasingly concerned about sustainability, but we haven't made a societal decision to buy less,” says Dr Reynolds. “As a society we're inching towards a point where we have climate goals, which actually might result in us reducing consumption levels. It's something that transcends [is bigger than] individuals – ‘I opt out but society, as a whole, has determined it as desirable.’”
How did the retail industry in the UK come about?
The history of the UK is very strongly associated with the history of shopping and retail. Many centuries ago, markets were important -- not just for buying things, but where people could meet up and do their own business deals. Goods tended to be made, sold and bought locally; you would know the person who made your furniture, for example. That all changed in the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution when new machinery made it easier to make things in bulk and transport them. People also moved, and towns and cities began to get bigger in a process called urbanisation. With more people there to buy things, retail also got bigger. The idea of the department store was one result of this.
“A great example would be somewhere like Whiteley’s in 19th century London,” says Dr Reynolds. “The founder, William Whiteley, did something very different from what had been done before. Before, you'd see smaller specialist shops selling household goods, or selling food, or selling clothing. He developed the notion of the department store with different departments all under one roof.”
The growth of online shopping
Over the last 50 years, retailers have become bigger and better at understanding what shoppers want. The internet increasingly means that some retailers don’t even have shops you can go to; they just exist online, like Amazon.
Amazon is a good example of a retailer which knows its customers’ shopping habits well. This can be useful, but it can also encourage you to buy things you don’t really need. Its website tells you which other items are often bought with the one you’re already buying, and what other customers are buying. It reminds you of things you might have had a look at in the past but not bought, for whatever reason.
Apart from the encouragement to spend more money and buy more things, lots of people are concerned about shops like Amazon being environmentally unfriendly. Items are excessively packaged in lots of cardboard and plastic wrap, and lots of vans are on the road every day to deliver items, although Amazon is now spending money on thousands of electric vans.
Dr Reynolds suggests, though, that online shopping has some environmental advantages, aside from being cheaper and convenient.
“If I wanted to buy a ladder, I’d need to drive around some DIY stores, and find the product I wanted. I wouldn’t be sure that if I went to B&Q I wouldn’t be able to find a cheaper one in Homebase. And I'd be using fuel and my time to do that,” he says. “Or I can do my research on ladders, read online reviews on Amazon, and have it the next day.”
Something the pandemic showed us
Dr Reynolds says that shopping isn’t just about getting things you need, though. He points to the rush to the UK high street after the end of lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020-2021. People weren’t just wanting to buy things – they also wanted to spend time with their friends and family and get back to normality, and one way they did that was by going to the shops.
So buying and owning things isn’t just about spending money. It’s a bit more complicated than that, particularly when we live in a society that’s decided that, as a group, it’s good to go shopping. If you’re in a consumer society, it’s almost impossible to decide to have absolutely nothing.
But this might not be the case forever. Our society might shift its priorities and decide that having fewer belongings and shopping less is the way to go.
“Society is able to influence government policy,” says Dr Reynolds, pointing to how people have become increasingly aware about the climate emergency in recent years and campaigned for political leaders to take action. “Society’s views change.”