Lazy Luddite Log


The Opposite Of Nothing

In this post I will show that I think radically differently from the rest of you. Or maybe I will just show that I have a penchant for stating the bleeding obvious. It concerns two related concepts underpinning so much of how we think (or how we communicate what we think). Those two concepts are ‘negative numbers’ and ‘opposites’. I deny that they exist. Let me elaborate…

I touched on my dismissal of negative numbers in passing some time ago. Here however I express my refusal to accept reality at full tilt. And I betray the fact that I have never entirely abandoned childish notions. One such notion is that zero represents nothing and my assertion is that you cannot have less than nothing! Others have moved on and understand that zero stands in for all sorts of things.

Sometimes zero is the useful yet arbitrary temperature at which water freezes. But we know that it gets a lot colder than that and that you cannot get colder than zero movement of all things. You cannot have less movement than none at all. Hence I reject negative temperature.

Sometimes zero is what you have if what you own and are owed is exactly the same as what you owe. But there is never a moment in which a person possesses less than nothing. Rather there is another person who wishes they had more so that they could then pass it onto them. Hence I reject negative monetary values.

Sometimes zero describes the neutrally-charged state of an atom with the same number of protons as electrons. But a negatively charged atom is still there and just behaves differently. And while in the atomic realm I may as well move onto opposites.

Matter is composed of atoms and in each the nucleus has a positive charge while the electrons have a negative charge. Anti-matter reverses this in that the nucleus is negatively charged while the positrons are what that name suggests. Things are kind of inside-out. Is that what constitutes ‘opposite’? If so then is an invertebrate with an exoskeleton the opposite of a vertebrate with an endoskeleton? Or are they simply different?

Life as a kid watching science-fiction derived cartoons can be confusing. My original encounter with the concept of anti-matter came from something in which anti-matter was the stuff of another mirror universe in which everything was in reverse and somehow sinister. The above description of anti-matter atoms however makes them mundane by comparison even if they are exotic. But we do tend to think of opposites in terms of opposing or rival forms constructed to be in eternal rivalry and with this in mind we use the term far too often.

A lot of the time all it takes to talk of opposites is to have two alternative variations of the same basic thing. Take my instance of vertebrates and invertebrates – we are just two major branches of Animalia and have far more in common than those things that distinguish us.

And what if we only think we have two variations of a particular thing because we are ignoring further variations? In my younger days I would assert that men and women were simply variations on a theme rather than ‘opposite genders’ but now I’m aware we have more than two such concepts. What use then is the word ‘opposite’ in this context? And if we abandon the word then do we also abandon the related notion of ‘opposition’? Whither then goes the 'battle of the sexes' amusingly explored in 60s romantic comedy films? The answer is that it was always bullshit (and sometimes bullshit can be fun).

Sometimes supposed opposites are the presence and absence of something – consider light and darkness. Sometimes they are phenomena that are as different as they can be (or as different as we can imagine them) – north and south are ‘opposite directions’ but then they are still both directions and on a sphere may still bring us to the same location. Sometimes they are just two things that act in particular ways – this takes us back to electrical charges and the attraction or repulsion behaviours they exhibit.

Now I’m sure you all understand everything I say here. I’m sure you recognize that these words have many definitions. And you may be wondering why I feel the need to labour the point. My hunch is that while we move into adulthood accepting the intellectual definitions of the many different kinds of negative and the many different kinds of opposite we nonetheless on some emotional level hold onto the simplistic notions that these words originally conveyed to us.

We then go onto classify all sorts of things as good or bad and other things as wins or losses. If we look at them another way we may find that they are just different things and that each and every time we have to make value judgements on those things. What is the opposite of this blog post I wonder. I reckon it will be less-than-nothing because this post sure is something.