Why Does the World Exist?

 work in progress This article was inspired by a review of the book: Why Does the World Exist by John Holt, which follows.

The most sensible answer I have heard --  I heard about 70 years ago.  From cathechism: "God made the world. Who made God? God is."

I say this with all due respect, and notwithstanding Hawking and Weinberg and Hitchens and Dawkings and whomever.

God is the Prime Mover.  Of course, this is not an argument to support the notion of heaven, immortality, hell, angels, spirits, soul, etc. That is an entirely another argument, and in my opinion totally within the realm of Faith and Religious belief.

It would seem that Faith is a good thing, if it brings hope and joy and purpose; and feels good.

It would seem that Atheism is a bad thing because it is untenable and brings restlessness.

It would seem that Agnosticism is tenable and an honest answer for those who are searching and do not yet know.

The most impressive argument that I have read for the case of a "Prime Mover" is the argument put forth by St. Anselm in the Proslogium. The Proslogium was directed at believers to support their belief system.

The Higgs Boson, or God particle has been found.  'Tis a high energy particle that provides mass for most other particles. The Higgs boson's existence would have profound importance in particle physics because it would prove the existence of the hypothetical Higgs field—the simplest of several proposed explanations for the origin of the symmetry-breaking mechanism by which elementary particles acquire mass. But we are not any closer to understanding creation. There are as many theories as there are genuises working the field. Most theories are inscrutable so they can be set aside as clever mathematical conjectures.

The genius of Einstein was his simple thought experiment in an elevator.

John Holt's book:  "Why Does the World Exist" doesnt answer the question, but it a way begs the question.

Maybe Liebnitz was correct:  "the world is because it is."

I recall my elementary school cathechism:  God is."

A few years back, I took a course at ILEAD on the Philosophy of God by xxxxxx, an acknowledge athiest, and son of preachers. He was writing a book: "Hope to God." In other words, athiests should have Hope that God exists. Made a lot of sense to me. We studied Saint Anselm's Proslogium. A proof of the existence of a prime mover. The Prologium was intended for "believers" to support their FAITH. XXXX said the Proslogium was compelling, but that some philosophers believed it was flawed. I couldn't comprehend the flaws.

Ulysses on this Subject:

Over the years I have listened to cosmologists of considerable distinction try to lecture to kids. You can be absolutely sure the first question that will be asked is: What was there before the Big Bang? Smart cosmologists will answer that they don't know. Kids should learn that grown-ups don't know everything. Some of these lecturers attempt to give an answer. For example: Time and space were created by the Big Bang so there is no "before." This is not an answer that will satisfy a kid, trust me.

Others say, or used to say, that there may be cycles—Big Bangs followed by Big Crunches, followed by Big Bangs. This may have seemed possible when the universe looked to be decelerating, even poised to contract. But now we know its expansion is in fact accelerating due to "dark energy." Even less satisfying is the notion that there are multiple universes, which began at different times and may contain absolutely every possible reality.

ESA, NASA, HEIC and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

The Cat's Eye Nebula, a glowing mass 3,000 light years from earth.

I thought about these matters while reading Jim Holt's book "Why Does the World Exist?" Mr. Holt presents all these possible explanations—and others—in the manner of trial balloons. We are to draw our own conclusions.

The author informs us that the question of why anything exists has been troubling him ever since he was a college student. This book is a series of interviews and reminiscences with notable scientists and philosophers—his interlocutors include Nobel-winning physicist Steve Weinberg, quantum-computing pioneer David Deutsch, even John Updike—attempting to find an answer, or answers, to his question.

Once there was no separation between physics and philosophy—indeed physics was called Natural Philosophy. For Newton the answer to Mr. Holt's question was straightforward: The world exists because God made it, and as for God, He made Himself. Far more of the man's work concerned biblical dating than what we would call science. "Newton was not the first of the Age of Reason," John Maynard Keynes wrote. "He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago." Mr. Holt aims to reunite these two modes of thought, though his scientist and philosopher subjects generally talk past one another.

He begins with a discussion of Newton's rival, Leibniz, and his Principle of Sufficient Reason—"that explanation goes all the way up and all the way down." He discusses Leibniz's philosophical proof of how something could come from nothing, then turns to what science says—perhaps, some suggest, "nothing" is inherently unstable on a quantum level. But he is troubled by how improbable that seems. A professor in Pittsburgh, Adolf Grunbaum, convinces him that perhaps science's standard of probability does not apply to such a question, and so he sets himself on a quest to find out what criteria could. Back and forth he goes between scientists and philosophers, testing the contentions of one against the theories of the other.

David Deutsch points out that nothingness in the sense of a quantum vacuum which can produce particles is "not nothingness in the philosophical sense at all." Theologian Richard Swinburne believes a God is necessary to explain our universe's particular suitability for life; scientists like Mr. Weinberg believe this can be explained by the existence of a multiplicity of universes, some of which would be less suitable. Philosopher Derek Parfit believes there may be a "Selector," a transcendent criteria determining why one universe exists and not another. By the end of the book, Mr. Holt believes he has found one.

NASA/MAPs Team/Getty Images

The philosophy in this book has a scholastic bent. Mr. Holt frequently discusses the existence of something in terms of symbolic logic, a style of argument that I have always found unconvincing: Insofar as symbolic logic has rigor it is without content. In discussing St. Anselm's proof for the existence of God (if we can conceive of a perfect being, one must exist, as existence is more "perfect" than nonexistence), Mr. Holt writes "For every x, either x is not infinitely perfect, or x does not exist." This does not strike me as an intellectual breakthrough, and though Mr. Holt seems to enjoy such ideas, I cannot tell how seriously he takes them.

Why Does the World Exist?

By Jim Holt


Liveright, 309 pages, $27.95

Some of the science Mr. Holt discusses is close to philosophy. He spends some time discussing the "many world" interpretation of quantum mechanics first put forth in the mid-1950s, without that name, by a Princeton graduate student named Hugh Everett III. It was an adumbration of work begun by the great British physicist Paul Dirac, which he published in 1932, and was then taken up by Richard Feynman as his Ph.D. thesis. In classical physics the evolution of a system follows well-defined trajectories or in some cases orbits. In quantum theory there is no single orbit but an array that have different probabilities. In Dirac's formalism these orbits are weighted by their probabilities. Feynman called these different orbits "paths"; Everett had a slightly different interpretation, and some of his followers began to call them "worlds." "World" is a loaded word because in might suggest these different possibilities are actually multiple universes. As far as I can tell this has no scientific basis at all.

Mr. Holt is a New Yorker writer and as a previous practitioner of the genre I recognize the symptoms. We learned to levitate sticky interviews with little humanizing asides. Here are a couple of examples: "Swinburne knit his tall brow a bit when I asked the question," he writes. "But in an instant it was unknit again." "Swinburne paused to take a cup of tea." Having done this sort of thing for many years, I will bet a Nepalese rupee not all of this is literally true. Nor does it matter. It leavens the mix.

Mr. Holt's interviews, even with familiar subjects, provide some surprises. Judging from the report of his conversation with Mr. Weinberg, he has mellowed a bit from the time when he ended his book on cosmology, "The First Three Minutes," with the statement that "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Having a "point" is a very human category. Indeed one may wonder, and this may be what Mr. Weinberg means, whether it could well be that the universe has no need for us at all. Mr. Weinberg apparently feels that there will be a "final theory" which will answer every question—except, of course, why there is a final theory.

Mr. Holt cheerily refuses to heed interlocutors in his book who tell him his quest for a final answer is misdirected. But here is a story: A hedge fund manager, who has made all the money that he will ever need, reads Mr. Holt's book and decides to search for the meaning of the universe. He discovers a Buddhist monk who lives in a cave in the Himalayas and almost never speaks but, when he does, speaks only the highest wisdom. Our man undertakes a dangerous trek to ask the monk his question: "What is the secret of the cosmos?" The monk goes into a trance and comes out with a single sentence. "He says," the translator reports, "that the cosmos is like a bowl of cherries." Our man is outraged, so angry he even shakes the monk. "How can he possibly say that the cosmos is like a bowl of cherries?" The translator asks, and after a few minutes translates the monk's reply. "He says maybe the cosmos is not like a bowl of cherries."

—Mr. Bernstein is the author of the forthcoming "A Palette of Particles."


28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something, July 14, 2012
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This review is from: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (Hardcover)
Reading this book feels like working out in one of the finest philosophical and intellectual gyms in town. In it Jim Holt takes us on a journey which tackles one of the oldest and most profound questions that humans have asked; "Why is there something instead of nothing?". To his credit Holt does not try to answer the question but instead leads us through a set of meetings with some of today's leading philosophers and scientists who all have their own fascinating takes on the problem. Holt starts the book with accounts of different schools of philosophy which have tried to stake out paths from something to nothing. It turns out that it's far from easy to define the existence of "nothing" partly since the very entity defining that nothing is something. Interestingly a few of the philosophical attempts also fly in the face of the latest insights from theoretical physics, and in fact one of the goals of the book is to demonstrate the creative tension between science and philosophy, hinting that both disciplines will continue to learn much from each other. To explain nothingness, philosophers resort to various logical proofs of God and existence while physicists think that the universe could have been a random quantum fluctuation that fed upon itself. Listing various attempts to explain nothing and something, Holt dwells on the work of thinkers like Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer and Leibniz, giving us a sampling of philosophical speculations on the question over the last five hundred years or so.

The heart of the book however involves Holt's conversations with some very smart thinkers even as he criss-crosses the globe and spends his time in French cafes contemplating the quirks and facts of his own existence, sometimes poignantly so as he thinks about the demise of his dog and then even more sadly of his mother (practical instances of the transformation of something into nothing?). Some of the conversations feel like intellectual ping-pong, and Holt's great strength is his ability to ask these people tough questions and spar with them on an equal level; this turns the interviews into exchanges of real substance rather than simple Q&A sessions. Among the cast of fascinating characters that Holt talks to are celebrated scientists, philosophers and writers. For instance there is the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne who thinks that the simplest explanation for the presence of such a complicated universe is that it must be created by God. Then there's the Oxford physicist David Deutsch who is convinced of the existence of multiple universes, a fact which then posits our universe as simply one of many other worlds, albeit one containing sentient humans. An even more bizarre idea comes from the physicist Andre Linde who is sympathetic to the existence of our universe as a simulation created by other sentient beings with awesome powers of matter and energy creation. A healthy antidote to those who seem astonished by the complexities of our cosmos comes from the Pittsburgh philosopher Adolf Grünbaum who thinks there's no reason to be awed by the presence of something and that a fondness for considering nothing to be the "natural" state of the universe is really rooted in Judeo-Christian philosophy which imparts special significance to creation. Many of these thinkers hold diverse and even opposite views of the topic, but it's clearly this variety that makes pondering the question such an intellectual treat.

There are many others who Holt talks to, including the Platonist mathematician Roger Penrose, the writer John Updike and the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. From a scientific viewpoint the cleverest idea seems to come from the physicist Alex Vilenkin who defines nothingness as the result of a sphere of spacetime shrinking to zero radius; presumably the universe could then arise out of this nothingness as a quantum fluctuation. As noted above, Holt's meetings with all these thinkers are interspersed with poignant personal ruminations about life, death and existence, mostly done while lounging around in the French cafe that Sartre frequented. Interludes between conversations cover a smattering of related topics, including various logical proofs for God's existence and Holt's own criticisms of them; in Holt we find a penetrating thinker who is entirely capable of asking the most revealing questions about the topic. In addition many of the discussions are spiced with humor. Ultimately Holt does not find the final answer to the question "why is there something rather than nothing", but I don't think he is disappointed. Neither are we. This is one of those cases where the journey is far more important than the destination; like the traveler in C. P. Cavafy's poem "Ithaca", it's the sights and sounds that we see on the way which really count. The investigation exemplifies the kinds of deep questions that humans are capable of addressing through science, philosophy, literature and poetry. We should all be glad that there are people who think about these questions in such deep and diverse ways, and we can thank Jim Holt for being a patient, witty, insightful and poignant guide on this wonderful journey.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The history and relevance of the Biggest Idea, July 17, 2012
This review is from: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (Hardcover)
After reviewing Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's "The Grand Design" a few days ago, and feeling that despite their erudition, they did not satisfy my lifelong curiosity about this Big Question, I awaited Jim Holt's take on Hawking and other thinkers. I am on the wait list for the more cosmologically inclined Lawrence Krauss with his new "A Universe Out of Nothing," but as a decidedly lay reader who finds astronomy and philosophy both challenging to wrap my head around, I figured Holt would prove an assured guide.

I used to enjoy his 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". Leibniz' answer to his own riddle does not please Holt: a self-evident "well, we have to exist, don't we?" retort. Andrei Linde's scheme of a clever hacker from another universe suggests 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, Holt uses interviews to bring the bulk of his account into the present. Interludes flash by, and epistolary ones follow. The pace of this will be daunting, but as with his readership for the "New York Times" and the "New York Review of Books" as well as "Lingua Franca," Holt expects his readers to be smart, able to grasp the history of ideas and 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 to the demise of his dog and the death of his mother, and Sartre's Café de Flore hangout. It moves rapidly (lots of quick citations and parentheses and rapid transitions) for all its citations (endnotes if no bibliography) and rewards reflection, even if it will not solve mysteries.

Roger Penrose and colleague Hawking assert the Big Bang's singularity, out of quantum fluctuations, as astrophysicists such as Krauss appear to back 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.

But, we seem programmed, as Adolf Grunbaum shows, to seek that the "why" presupposes a teleological goal set in motion from the start of something even if out of nothing: what Mlodinow and Hawking call a "top-down" rather than a cosmologically sophisticated (if maddeningly counter to theologians) "bottom-up" model that explains it all. Platonic forms might construct the universe, Penrose avers. The sheer odds against us, many theologians understandably insist, rule out chance. Richard Swinburne's musings lead him to consider how unlikely God himself is, compared to nothingness. This humbling perspective permeates this challenging representation of some of the world's most intelligent minds facing such perplexity.

I was pleased to find included Matthieu Ricard. I've profited from this French biologist-turned Buddhist monk's collaborations with his father, French political philosopher Jean-Francois Revel ("The Monk and the Philosopher") and with Vietnamese-born astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Tranh ("The Quantum and the Lotus")--see my reviews. Godel, Russell, Anselm, Voltaire, Feynman: Holt's range of reading meets what I'd anticipated. But we also hear from Woody Allen, James Joyce, John Updike, and Gaunilo the Fool.

Do laws themselves require a prime mover, a grand designer? Is "almost nothing" a better rationale, or a diversion from the ultimate question? Holt appears to be frustrated with this evasion, and "nothingness" itself evades our conception, of course.

David Deutsch here defends the multiverse. Mlodinow and Hawking insist in "Grand Design" that M-theory remains the most logical explanation. Holt's examination appears to, 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. Weinberg, as in his own work, finds no teleology suffices, but this refusal to allow for the "why?" of Holt's title may not please those looking for science to answer what remains (as we "discover" the Higgs Boson?) the most nagging of questions. Well, that and life after death.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Best - Ever., July 13, 2012
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This review is from: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (Hardcover)
This is, quite simply, the best book that addresses the fundamental ontological question of "Why is there Something rather than Nothing?" that I have ever read. The author has a good grasp of the relevant science as well as of the philosophic arguments. He interviews an impressive collection of contemporary thinkers, and his writing style is both clear and deeply moving. Toward the end, he presents his own carefully considered approach to the problem. This is clearly the product of an intellectual labor of love. Bravo, Jim Holt.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "BRILLIANT, IMPRESSIVE, POWERFULLY MOVING!", July 13, 2012
This review is from: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (Hardcover)
Jim Holt takes the reader through an interesting, thought-provoking tour of real science, and philosophy and autobiography inter-weaving with real-life significance. He delivers an intelligent perspective on arguments, theories, and ideas about creation of the universe and all of its mystery. A refreshing and enjoyable read from beginning to end. Highly Recommended!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Holt is the Holmes of Existential Detectives, July 21, 2012
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This review is from: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (Hardcover)

Oh, sure, it's brilliant, elegantly written, and jaw-dropping in its scope, but what is the most valuable part of Jim Holt's writing is that it gets you to examine your own views with more vigor and clarity. The book is just stunning.

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