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This past Saturday I saw a video of Mark Gungor’s “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage.” One thing that stood out was his discussion of the difference between the minds of men and women. According to Gungor, a man’s mind can be understood in terms of boxes: we have a box for each thing and each thing has its own box. In contrast, a woman’s mind is like a ball of wires-everything is interconnected and everything is linked to emotions. The highlight of this discussion was the nothing box. As Gungor sees it, each man has a special box in his mind that contains nothing. This box is supposed to be our favorite box and it explains how we men can do nothing and think nothing.

Naturally, Gungor is not the first comedian to note the special connection between men and nothing. Jerry Seinfeld famously had a show about nothing and numerous other comics have bits on the subject. Of course, this is not a blog about comedy, but a philosophy blog. Philosophy, as you know, is a lot like comedy, only less funny.

When it comes to nothing in philosophy, it is natural to think of Martin Heidegger and his work Being & Time as well as Sartre’s Being & Nothingness. Since I have no idea what Heidegger meant and I only understand Sartre while eating croissants, I will simply mention them and move along to the question of whether or not men can think or do nothing.

Like all men, I purport to be able to think nothing. To be specific, if a man is asked by his significant other “what are you thinking”, then the best bet is that he will respond by saying “nothing.” It is, of course, tempting to infer that a man says this because he is aware that saying what he was really thinking will result in a look of disgust, a slap, or both. However, men do claim to actually be thinking of nothing (at least at times). This raises the obvious question of whether or not this is even possible.

On one hand, it does seem possible. First, a man could be involved in a profound consideration of the Nothing and its various metaphysical and theological implications. However, the likelihood of this will vary from man to man (and typically hovers just over nothing). Second, Buddhism puts forth the notion that there is no self and there is no world. The ultimate goal is, of course, Nirvana. If the Buddhists are right, then there are no men to think about nothing, but at least there is nothing to think about. So, perhaps all men are actually Buddhists. Third, maybe men have the ability to actually have their minds literally think about nothing. To use an analogy, think of the mind as a blender and thinking as blending. Now, imagine running the blender with nothing in it. If this analogy holds, which it almost certainly does not, then perhaps the mind can think with nothing to think about.

On the other hand, it might seem to be impossible. First, as Hume noted, the mind always seems to have something going on-some perception or another. Hence, a man is never really thinking about nothing-there is always something in the blender. Second, it could be argued that unlike a blender, a mind cannot engage in its function without some content. Thinking might be more like cutting-while one can make a motion with scissors, they are not cutting unless they have something to cut.

In the case of doing nothing, a man could be doing nothing in the sense that a blender could be blending nothing. Of course, the obvious reply is that while the blender is blending nothing, it is not actually doing nothing. After all, by doing it is doing something. Even thinking about nothing would be doing something, namely thinking about nothing. As such, as long as a man is doing, then he would be doing something-at the very least he is doing. What he is doing, of course, might not amount to much-hence we could be forgiven if we exaggerate and say we are doing nothing.

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  1. Justin Holder

    “Second, Buddhism puts forth the notion that there is no self and there is no world. The ultimate goal is, of course, Nirvana. If the Buddhists are right, then there are no men to think about nothing, but at least there is nothing to think about. So, perhaps all men are actually Buddhists.”

    This. ^

    I gather that you weren’t being altogether serious (at least I hope not) but Buddhist philosophy does have plenty to offer here. The idea in Buddhism isn’t that there is actually nothing in existence, but rather that what we “pick out” as “something” doesn’t have that qualification independent of our perception and judgement – including ourselves. So what Buddhism rejects isn’t existence, but essence. Someone is living in Nibbana/Nirvana when they stop perceiving things as having essences (including their own thoughts). This is the goal of most meditation and is seen as quite possible but extremely, monumentally difficult to maintain.

    So maybe all men are Buddhists to some degree or another. Most aren’t very good at it though.

  2. Having had my emotions get the better of me to the point of feeling all knotted up inside over nothing I’ve learned to not become overly attached to them; so, actually – I think it better to add nothing at all to any of this.

  3. A Few Links of Interest | Theology in the News - pingback on May 31, 2011 at 5:05 am
  4. I’m not sure about thinking nothing, but in my experience men seem to experience the world differently to women, with less intense emotions.

  5. Dennis Sceviour

    The article questions whether gender plays a role in the ability to achieve quiescence. My experience is that some people can do it, and some people cannot or are not interested in trying, and that gender is not important. Here is an interesting short passage from a meditation teacher, Linda Clair:

    Clair claims that her resistance to being feminine prevented acceptance, and thus interfered with quiescence.

  6. Yes I believe I can do it, or should I say it seems as if I can do it; but is is not thinking about nothing it is just not thinking at all. My period of not thinking can only be contemplated afterwards when I allow myself to think. This contemplation reveals to me nothing other than I had a period of no thought. I am conscious but not conscious of anything; consciousness without content?? I was not asleep if someone walked into the room I would know and respond immediately.
    I am reminded of Kant’s slogan here “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” cf concerning this for what it is worth.

  7. Dennis Sceviour

    Did Kant ever consider the meaning of nothingness? As far as I have read Kant, he never considered the null state as a pure form. Kant used the word “nothing” as a method of comparing an exclusive attribute, or as an alternative preposition. For example Kant might say, “Thus the moral law expresses nothing else than the autonomy of the pure practical reason.” This could be translated as “The moral law only expresses the autonomy of the pure practical reason.” Kant’s usage of the meaning of “nothing” does not appear compatible with the current usage and meaning as “not thinking.”

  8. Re Dennis Sceviour June 1st.
    Thanks for your reply. I did mention my reference to Kant was one, for what it was worth, in the hope that perhaps someone might enlighten me further, which you have done. I suspected he did not, as you suggest, refer to nothing merely as not thinking. I first came across the Kantian quotation in John McDowell’s “Mind and World” some years ago; a book which, still defeats my efforts to comprehend it.

  9. Could it be that when men say they are thinking about nothing, what they really mean is that they are thinking about noting in particular, or nothing significant, or nothing worth mentioning? If so, doesn’t it make a huge difference in the way a philosopher or neuroscientist would analyze the assertion?

    Thinking about nothing may well be impossible, but thinking about nothing worth mentioning? That seems not only possible, but quite often true.

  10. Thinking About Nothing | Ned Resnikoff - pingback on June 5, 2011 at 5:32 pm
  11. Dan,

    That is probably the truth of the matter. It also ties nicely into Socrates view of wisdom: it is not so much that he knew nothing, it is that what he knew was so little it amounted to nothing.

  12. Nothing is so interesting that I spent five years researching it. Imagine: 5 years doing nothing!

    I found out about nothing in history, in the arts, in religion and about how we can think about nothing.

    It’s all in my book: “Nothing Matters – a book about nothing” (iff-Books)

    And now I’m going all over the world talking about nothing.

  13. There is a lot to be said about nothing.

  14. …. perhaps the mind can think with nothing to think about. in that sense the mind is actually doing something. great write up

  15. IMHO Your analogy of no-thought as an empty blender is wrong. If we use your analogy of the mind and thoughts as a blender, then you have to think of “nothing” as the blender being unplugged!

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