On Nothing

Term: Fall 2009

Subject Code: GLIB

Course Number: 5526

This course examines ideas of nothingness, void, and the abyss and their significance in Western thought. We look at angst about the void, starting with the oldest text there-The Epic of Gilgamesh-and proceeding to Pascal, nihilism, and 20th-century existentialism. In metaphysics, we begin with the paradoxical and intriguing pre-Socratic Parmenides, who argued that one cannot "think of what is not," and Plato's response. We consider the question raised by Leibniz: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" This puzzle has been interestingly discussed by some of the liveliest recent philosophers, including Robert Nozick and Derek Parfit, and we look at their treatments and at theological answers. We also look at the role of nothingness in the systems of various modern philosophers, including Sartre, and at the debate among contemporary analytical philosophers on the question of whether a "null universe" even makes sense. In the history of science, we examine medieval and early-modern debates about the possibility of a vacuum, and today's cosmologists's concept of a vacuum in quantum mechanics. Lastly, we look at the development of zero and the history of the idea of nothingness.

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