Rob Hardy on books


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This Book Is Something



Rob Hardy


I had a friend who was a philosophy major. He said it was an ideal realm of study, for it enabled him to understand such concepts as truth and goodness. He was joking, for everyone has an understanding (however limited) of what truth and goodness are, but philosophy attempts to make such understanding logical or objective, and thereby its practitioners decorate their ivory towers. To heck with truth and goodness; those are teensy modulations of fractions of reality. How about reality itself? In other words, why does the world exist? You can find out by reading Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (Liveright Publishing) by Jim Holt. Holt is a student of philosophy and of science, and has contributed to different publications; his account of the confusions between string theorists created some stir six years ago. He has a great sense of humor; his previous book was about the history and philosophy of jokes. Though the matters here are weighty and have taken up the serious contemplation of great thinkers for centuries, his work is light; since he is a detective on the existence beat, he had to go out into the far reaches to interview cosmologists, theologians, and philosophers, and for this reason much of the work is conversational. It also has deeply personal elements, and makes a fine introduction to big branches of philosophy. It does not at all matter that there is not a firm answer to the question posed by the book's title; I am guessing that there never will be. The question, however, will always be there. 




Why is there something rather than nothing? If you haven't thought about this, it is worth pondering. After all, the simplest of universes (and scientists are always pursuing simplicity) is the one that consists of nothing. A universe full of something is far more complicated, or would take a lot more work. We have all experienced loss, and we know holes and gaps, but these are little samples of nothingness. What about the total absence of everything? You can imagine the world disappearing and the Sun and the universe, all shrinking down to nothing, but you are still left with you doing the imagining. There can't be nothing because, as Buckaroo Banzai reminded us, "No matter where you go, there you are." Some philosophers say such a nothing of a universe would simply be impossible if no one was there to observe it. Others rely on what Holt says is just a "cheap and rather trivial solution: There is something rather than nothing simply because nothingness is impossible. As one contemporary philosopher has put it, 'There is just no alternative to being.'" The question persists; as in most of the queries in this book, you can't expect an answer, but there is a good one quoted here from a late professor of philosophy who was asked by a student, "Professor Morgenbesser, why is there something rather than nothing?", to which Morgenbesser responded, "Oh, even if there was nothing, you still wouldn't be satisfied!" 




Theologians have an answer to the question of why the world exists: because God (or gods) made it. St. Augustine argued that God created the universe ex nihilo, from nothing (but note that God was around so there can be no quibbles about starting out with nothing). God's creation of the universe makes a dandy explanation, except that Augustine and others have arbitrarily drawn a causality line there and declare it illegal to move the line a little further back to ask who made God. Well, God is something special by his nature, the different arguments go. He was not created and he has no beginning, and this answers the question for those who already think God exists, but won't convince doubters. After all, why not just as arbitrarily say the universe was not created and has no beginning? Holt visits a theist philosopher, Richard Swinburne in Oxford, who sees physical signs that God made everything, and that settles it for him because God is the simplest explanation. Swinburne's explanation, others insist, is wrong because there can be nothing simple about any god who makes a universe and, for instance, monitors all the thoughts of people and answers their prayers ("Such bandwidth!" snorts Richard Dawkins). 




Among the cosmologists Holt talks to is physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg who disdains a supernatural explanations, but he also questions whether theoretical physics is going to be able to show any sort of animating impulse for the cosmos. Weinberg has been disappointed in string theory; he won't bad-mouth it, but says, "I was hoping that with string theory things would fall into place much more rapidly than they have." There is also the concept of the multiverse, a conglomeration of perhaps an infinite number of universes including the one in which we happen to live, and maybe even one universe is the outgrowth of another. Maybe a little negative energy, a little bit of matter, and just the right gravitational field (or something) and a technician might create a universe via an artificial big bang in a lab. We can't say for sure that ours didn't start like this. But Weinberg, who clearly enjoys thinking over such cosmological conjectures, says that the problem "is that we have no way, at present, of deciding whether they're true or not. It's not just that we don't have the observational data - we don't even have the theory." Our explanations of what we see out there get better and better, but Weinberg has written, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."  




Among the philosophers Holt visits is John Leslie, who has written many books but says that he would best like to be remembered for his solution to the mystery of why there is something rather than nothing. He concedes that Plato got it before he did, but in a beefed-up version, he maintains that good things have an inherent tendency to exist, and the universe is pretty darned good, so therefore it exists. If you consider that there is a problem that the universe might just be mediocre, however, there is a difficulty, and then if you want to consider the thorny problem of evil, all bets are off. Leslie himself says he hasn't proved the truth of his idea, because nothing of philosophical interest is actually provable. He says of his system, "I'd say my confidence in it is just a little over 50 percent. A lot of the time, I feel that the universe just happens to exist and that's it." 




This accords with Bertrand Russell, who was no intellectual lightweight, but came down on the issue thus: "I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all." It's not a deep enough analysis for those interrogated by the gumshoe Holt, including Roger Penrose and John Updike. He spends a good deal of time meditating in Paris at the Café de Flore, where Sartre used to hang out, Sartre who wrote Being and Nothingness. Holt includes us in pockets of annihilation in his life, the imposed nothing of the deaths of his dog and of his mother. It makes his book an appealingly personal one; he obviously loves these questions and succeeds in conveying them in an entertaining way even when they are theologically, scientifically, or philosophically complex. My money is on science providing the best answers, though Holt quotes the influential American astronomer Allan Sandage: "Science cannot answer the deepest questions. As soon as you ask why there is something instead of nothing, you have gone beyond science."  




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