When we say something is empty, what does it mean? I suppose you could argue that it all depends on the context. Saying that you are holding an empty glass certainly means something different than saying that your words are empty. Yet there are common elements in these two phrases. In both cases, they suggest there is a lack of substance involved, whether it is a lack of some physical substance in the glass or lack of substantial meaning in the words you have uttered. Definitions of empty include the words “containing nothing”, or “vacant”. But if something does not contain something, does that mean it contains nothing? This may seem like a silly question, but it’s worth taking a minute to examine it. Is nothing actually the same as not something? If I say the first cup contains peanuts and the second glass doesn’t, does that also imply that the second glass contains nothing? Of course not. It could contain filberts or walnuts or toothpaste of any other thing that is not peanuts. Or it could simply contain air, which also is not nothing.
Ok, so let’s now suck all of the air out of the second glass. Assuming it doesn’t implode from the air pressure around it, does it now contain nothing or does it contain a vacuum? Scientists will tell us that even if there is a perfect vacuum in the glass, it still contains dark matter. Dark matter has mass, so it is something rather than nothing. Although we can see or measure it, if it didn’t exist, neither would we, so even if we extract everything that we can see, touch, smell, or measure, there is still something in the glass. In the physical case, “nothing” is simply a concept – there is no such thing. The concept of nothing is empty of physical reality.
Looking at the second case, what does it mean that words are empty? Definitions include indicating that the words are insincere or trivial, or that they have no effect. But you could turn this question in on itself and ask whether it is possible to have words that are not empty in and of themselves. How do we judge the sincerity of words? A long-term friend may tell you that he loves you, and you may consider that sincere, but it is meant is a different way than if your spouse tells you the same thing. And what if you hear the same words from an acquaintance, or a complete stranger? Are we really judging the sincerity of the words themselves, or the person who delivers them? What if your good friend tells you he loves you, but says it in a sarcastic tone of voice after you have done something he considers to be stupid? This may seem like a semantic argument, but the point is that the words themselves are always empty. “I love you” can mean virtually anything, depending on the context and the delivery. The words themselves are empty of meaning, except the meaning we assign to them. Yet, the words are not nothing. They are words, sometimes strung into phrases or sentences, but all they are is words.
Yet words seem to convey meaning of some kind, don’t they? After all, language was developed in its various forms in order to communicate, to convey meaning between people. Language is not limited to people, of course. A lot of creatures have developed verbal communication methods that could be considered language, but that discussion leads us afield. What I am really trying to covey in this discussion is the difference between the terms “empty” and “nothing”.
How would you describe feeling as if your life is empty? Would you describe it as feeling nothing? When someone tell you they feel empty, do you assume they don’t feel anything at all? Or do you assume they feel lost and alone? The feeling of your life being empty has been described as the worst feeling possible. We will do anything to try to avoid that feeling. Religions are built on our need to avoid feeling empty, and all of our entertainments and diversions are used to stave off that feeling of emptiness.
So when we talk about emptiness, people have a hard time listening. It’s like talking about death, even though everyone, in the recesses of their being, understands that death is coming. Is death nothing? Once again, religion rushed in to fill that void. So do ghosts and spirits, supernatural beings and reincarnation. We are fascinated with vampires and zombies because, as horrible as that existence may appear to be, it is still existence, immortality. We will carry on, if not as a member of the angelic host, then in the fiery pits of hell, or just by hanging around in the house where we died. We might experience the mindless emptiness of being a zombie, but at least we don’t evaporate into nothingness.
We need to create meaning whether it exists or not. We want to believe there is something more to know, that existence cannot possibly be empty of meaning because that feels too much like it leaves nothing to exist for. But let’s examine that. If existence is empty, in fact if everything is empty, what does that mean?
First of all, emptiness in the sense that Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna talked about it in the first century C.E., is really not well describable in language. Why is that? Because our language is built on subject/object duality and if everything is empty of essence, then there is no such thing as a subject or an object, perceiver or percived. Things simply are as they are. So the subject/object structure of language simply does not allow language to express the true nature of emptiness. This leads to apparent contradictions and paradox, but these apparent problems are simply a problem of language, not concept.
So, what Nagarjuna says is that emptiness means that things do not contain an essence. For instance, if I call something a table, I am simply forming a concept around something that I perceive, and the only thing that is a table is that concept. The thing that I perceive and that I call a table cannot be a table, because if there was an essence of table, it would not have to be labeled. And the concept, the label itself is empty, because my concept of table is not fixed. If I see something else, say a flat rock, that is used as a table, I have just modified my concept of what a table is. Also, if a table is used to sit on, has it now become a chair? Neither the thing I call a table, or my concept of what a table is, has any unchanging essence. So both the thing itself and my concept of the thing are empty. This principle applies to everything, from items to equations to concepts, to space, time, and everything there is. Everything, says Nagarjuna, is empty, including the words we use to explain emptiness. But still, all of these things are not nothing. They are something, but this something is not essential, it is empty. And as I might have said before, empty is not nothing.