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Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story

Jim Holt

(Liveright; US: Jul 2012)

I used to enjoy Jim Holt’s end-page science columns in the late, lively academic magazine Lingua Franca. Here, as in his reviews and journalism, Holt takes a brisk clip to survey the earlier attempts at figuring out what Leibniz asked and what for the teenaged Holt Heidegger repeated as the “ultimate ‘why’ question”: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Leibniz’ answer to his own riddle does not please Holt: a self-evident “Well, we have to exist, don’t we?” retort. He then turns to Andrei Linde’s scheme of a clever hacker from another universe for one scenario. Out of a hundredth-thousandth of a gram of matter, a universe can be concocted, and balloon outward.

Mixing his personal quest with philosophers, mathematicians, clergy, theologians, physicists, and some combinations of these professions, Holt uses interviews to bring the bulk of his account into the present-day search for meaning in our origins, not as myths but as “brute fact”. Interludes with his own reflections flash by, and extended chats with experts follow.

The pace of this remains daunting, but as with his readership for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books as well as Lingua Franca, Holt expects a smart audience, able to grasp the history of ideas, tease out allusions to poetry and drama, and to handle quotations left in French. It’s that kind of book, one that in a soundbite, pull-quote age will still find its audience, undoubtedly a self-selecting small one able to take on serious intellectual investigation along with Holt, as he relates the material with wisdom. He applies a steady gaze both to the demise of his dog and the death of his mother.

This compact but deep study moves rapidly (lots of quick citations and parentheses and rapid transitions) for all its citations (endnotes if no bibliography). His interviews tend to be well-edited, but the pace slows in its later stages, as ennui sets in. Holt revives in a final interlude which spirals back to its beginning, as he shifts from “nothing” to “something” as the elusive definition. I leave his denouement for the reader’s reflection, fitting after a demanding encounter with the brightest minds on the planet who grapple with metaphysics, science, and faith. Overall, it rewards reflection, even if it will not solve mysteries.

Steven Weinberg wonders if “part of the human tragedy” remains that despite our efforts to calculate and interpret, a mystery may endure. Holt’s titular question may not reveal an answer. It may elude our understanding, as what Holt phrases typically in his philosophical tone as “epistemic modesty”.

He cites Stephen Hawking’s rhetorical flourish to support his own quest: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to govern? Is it the ultimate unified theory so compelling that it brings about its own existence?” So far, we don’t know (or know if we can know) whether the laws that govern our universe precede this universe. To complicate this situation, perhaps these laws vary in other universes, rather than sustain themselves as eternal, unchanged truths across variations of existence.

Roger Penrose and colleague Hawking assert the Big Bang’s singularity, out of quantum fluctuations, as astrophysicists appear to back this scenario up, as the logical if not “determined” beginning to the universe, without any other cause. Holt opens up another response via Penrose and physicists open to finding a reasonable pattern in creation: that we can examine the universe to solve its own reason, so we need not accept God’s uncaused cause or the self-created but purposeless absurdity of our existence as the polarized choices.

Fittingly, the book’s cover features the hangout for Sartre, Paris’ Cafe de Flore. Early on, Holt reveals the existential shadows of his subtitle. “The life of the universe, like each of our own lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.”

But we seem programmed, as Adolf Grunbaum shows, to seek however vainly that the “why” presupposes a teleological goal set in motion from the start of something even if out of nothing. Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow call this in their recent The Grand Design a “top-down” rather than a cosmologically sophisticated (if maddeningly counter to theologians) “bottom-up” model that explains it all. Grunbaum rationalizes how the universe has “always” existed, even if it may be finite in time. That is, the universe began with spacetime itself, so whatever preceded or engendered it does not logically locate itself within duration. Instead of reverting to a defense of the state of nothingness as the simpler option rather than a state of existence—which many scientists argue that nature or logic prefers—Grunbaum stays unflappable. He refuses to react with surprise to the most puzzling existential condition of all, the subject of Holt’s inquiry and the impetus for its title.

Towards the beginning, Holt explores the counter-state of nothingness, and those who tried to fill in what followed it for us. Plato suggested an “algebra of being” where the elements responsible for forming creation might be rearranged, and mysteries solved. Platonic forms might construct the universe, Penrose avers. Mathematical and philosophical models, as Holt elaborates in dense, knotty later portions that may test the patience of all but the most patient of intellectual fellow travelers, challenge humans to wonder, in turn, about the verity of numbers, theories, and self-identity.

The sheer odds against us, many theologians understandably insist, rule out chance. Facts appear to rule our predicament. Or, faith does. Richard Swinburne’s musings lead him to consider how unlikely God himself is, compared to nothingness. Yet, he believes. This humbling perspective permeates this challenging representation of some of the world’s most intelligent minds facing such perplexity.

Godel, Russell, Anselm, Voltaire, Feynman: Holt’s range of reading meets what one may anticipate. But we also hear from Woody Allen, James Joyce, John Updike, and Gaunilo (a.k.a. “the Fool”).

Do laws themselves, as these authors have debated, require a prime mover, a grand designer? Or, is the universe, as God has traditionally been explained to be, instead its own causa sui, needing no other cause but itself? Is an origin based in “almost nothing” a better rationale concocted from the quantum fluctuations of a “false vacuum”, or does this divert or delay attempts by cosmologists and mathematicians to solve the ultimate question? Holt conveys frustration with all of these as partial evasions, while the state of “nothingness” itself evades our facile conception, of course.

If you take God out of the universal equation that created all we are and all we see, can we substitute the laws of nature? We may reach a “boundary condition” akin to the “event horizon” where time and space compress along with energy and matter into a black hole, the reverse parallel, as Hawking and Penrose discovered in 1970, of how our universe inflated from the Big Bang itself.

David Deutsch here defends the multiverse; Holt sides with others who regard this as too easy a solution, allowing all solutions instead of fixing one for our particular universe, 13.7 billion years ago. Holt’s examination appears, as Steven Weinberg’s bleaker insistence repeats, to lack a single theory we can apply to unify the universe into a tidy cause-effect solution. If “why” can be replaced by “We exist because….”, will this proclamation end the pursuit of cosmic mystery?

Question marks abound in such a book. Here Weinberg, as in his own work, finds no teleology suffices. Holt, however, in a restless search for answers, cannot be satisfied with this refusal to allow for the “why?” of his own title. The wandering, dogged, and sometimes tender results, fueled by both caffeine and Holt’s evident taste for fine wine, may surprise those who rely on science to answer what remains (as we meanwhile “discover” the Higgs Boson this past summer?) the most nagging of questions. Well, that and life after death.


Born in Los Angeles but should have been born in my parental Ireland. Find me at:"Blogtrotter".

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