Catch up on stories from the past week (and beyond) at the Slashdot story archive


Forgot your password?
Book Reviews

Submission + - Book Review: Why Does the World Exist?

eldavojohn writes: For quite some time humans have struggled to answer the question why there is anything rather than nothing. Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? tackles such questions in the form of a jorney. After laying a brief groundwork, Holt travels from leading prominent philosopher to curmudgeonly physicist to reserved theologian, visiting each and relaying the juiciest parts of his transcripts to the reader. In doing so, this book takes on an interesting form with a meaty dense center to each chapter (the actual dialogues) surrounded by the light and fluffy bread of Holt’s expert writing about the settings, weather and food of his travels. While this consequently lacks the characteristics of a heady hard hitting original philosophical work, these sandwiches should prove quite palatable for most readers. Why Does the World Exist? criss-crosses the etymological, epistemological, theological and philosophical aspects of its title while remaining a fairly easy read.

The book’s first page is titled “A Quick Proof That There Must Be Something Rather Than Nothing, for Modern People Who Lead Busy Lives” (made for those of you who don’t have time to read) and presents a very simple proof about the self-forbiddingness of nothing. The book starts off with a brief prerogative to drive the reader’s thirst for why this question is important. Typical of the rest of the book Holt drops a lot of names so I’m not going to mention the names that are brought up in passing. The author tries to cover all his bases by bring up anyone from Roger Penrose to René Descartes to Woody Allen. The veritable name dropping proves Holt has done his homework but at times can be a little overbearing and, in my opinion, reaches borderline ADD-philosophy at a few points in the book. Be warned, you will find Tennessee Williams, John Archibald Wheeler, Marcel Proust, Albert Einstein, Baruch Spinoza and Georg Cantor all mentioned on the same page! The opening few pages select an interesting cast from history as the question arises: Why Does the World Exist?

Holt proceeds from baiting the reader to what he calls a “Philosophical Tour D’Horizon” and, as its name suggests, this chapter blazes through many names — big and small — throughout history that might have contributed to answering this question. I can say this effort is quite readable whereas a more serious effort to be completely comprehensive would be much more lengthy and tedious. I should disclose at this point that Holt played his cards well by mentioning and paying favor to perhaps my most favorite of polymaths: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (and he continues to do so throughout this book).

Following that, the next obvious step is to tackle a definition of “nothing” — our ‘null hypothesis’ of existence. We exist as something so we know that and so Holt begins by sampling what we have at our disposal to define nothing. Holt briefly recalls the advent of zero in mathematics and moves on to the more refined points of what nothing can be defined as in English, French and a number of other ways. This chapter struck me as needlessly tiresome as the author tackles the inane intricacies of natural languages applied to concepts like nothing. Heidegger’s “nothing that noths” question struck me as merely a failure of natural language — not a deep and profound question. Holt correctly switches to logical methods like predicate calculus to better tackle this concept of nothing but this chapter left a bad taste in my mouth as the author never attacks the root problem. You can talk about how the word “nothing” operates in English or how “le néant” operates in French but these human invented definitions and grammars are buggy systems for the task at hand. Why do scientists prefer math to describe systems? Why do computers use true and false versus “maybe” and “probably not”? Logic, predicate calculus and math (although far from perfect themselves) are our tools to arm ourselves to better describe our surroundings and I feel like Holt wasted words on the shortcomings of “Does it make sense to say X about nothing?” Regardless this chapter does present mental exercises to the reader about what nothing truly is and examines the paradox of the null hypothesis in existence. Also, in so many ways nothing is nice and simple so why doesn’t the law of parsimony dictate that there should have been nothing instead of what is?

The first person Holt visits in this book is Russian Physicist Andrei Linde (the same Linde that was awarded one of Milner’s nin awards) and very little time is spent on Linde since the theory visited here is that we exist because our everything was created in a lab by a “physicist” hacker. The second person Holt interviews is a little more interesting and given many more pages. He also happened to be my favorite character in the quest and one with which I found myself most in agreement: Adolf Grünbaum. Holt calls this man “The Great Rejectionist” and I found that to be an adequate and fair title because their discussions make it clear that it is hard to start with base assumptions when debating this borderline hostile mind. Grünbaum, an atheist, had attacked Freudian psychoanalysis and served as an intelligence officer after escaping Nazi Germany. The one complaint I have of Grünbaum (that would be more prevalent with other philosophers) is that they took no sides on the debate of why there is something rather than nothing and instead required Holt to make statements that could then be either met with concurrence (ha!) or picked apart by someone armed with years of studying. There’s a part in this chapter where Holt alludes to Grünbaum disagreeing to the statement that the Null World is the simplest possible outcome (I’m assuming in order to invoke the Law of Parsimony) and even allowing that to go forward Grünbaum says “Why should we think that the simple is ontologically more likely to be true?”

The way Grünbaum immediately rejected Holt’s premises and the opening exercises discussing nothing led me to a problematic question about what exists outside our universe and what existed before the Big Bang. If it is indeed Nothing (with a capital N) then we mean there are no laws of nature, no Law of Parsimony, not even some semblance of cause and effect. So what particularly bothers me about all this discussion is that we’re talking about Nothing using logic that has been developed and rooted entirely here in our world of something. Of course, this would circumvent any discussion or this book to be written so I assume that most philosophers in this realm largely set this aside for the sake of discussion and speculation.

Before jumping to the next stop, Holt arms us with the concepts of finite versus infinite and with good reason. Richard Swinburne is a philosopher of religion at Oxford and I found him to be the most disagreeable person encountered along the way in this book. Holt brings up many good points against the possibility of there being a God. The possibility of God explains away all of our aforementioned problems but I felt like he gave Swinburne a free pass on a lot of these points. I was disappointed that the author embodied an intellectual steel trap for everyone else while Swinburne, when cornered, wasn’t pressed further. This chapter sets out to answer a lot of questions but I felt like Swinburne was reaching when he tried to explain that God is actually a very simple concept — maybe even simpler than you or I. And I just don’t buy that. I also didn’t think that Holt fully utilized the newly established definitions of infinity and nothing to pry apart Swinburne’s position. As an example, Swinburne speaks of the “infinitely powerful” and “infinitely good” God but draws that as an analogy to parents watching children. He says that God keeps his distance and that’s why we’re not permeated with infinite goodness ourselves. I feel like Holt should be tearing this apart because this is illogical to me if I consider these two cases: Case 1) the universe is finite and there is Nothing outside of the universe so God does not exist outside the universe so he exists inside the universe. But if God is infinitely good, there would be no room in a finite space for evil — it would be completely packed with good. Case 2) God exists outside the universe (I believe this was Swinburne’s suggestion) with the ability to influence inside the universe. However, we now find ourselves back to the issue that Swinburne and Holt addressed in this chapter and that is answering the questions, “What amount of power and good does God allow into the universe? And why that amount?” These two cases have plagued my mind since I was a child, E=mc^2 dictates that it takes a finite (though large to us) amount of power to create sustenance from nothing. The Christian God has an infinite amount of power and is infinitely good yet allows people to die when a finite amount of power would prolong their lives. From good people to bad people to people who have never had the chance to hear God’s word, they die daily when a finite amount of power would save them. But I digress — suffice it to say this was a very disappointing chapter and this is why this book loses a point in my mind. I guess it was necessary to visit this possibility but it wasn’t fair to let cordiality intervene with a philosophical swordfight.

On the heels of the visit to Swinburne, Holt discusses some of the finer points of proving God’s existence through pure logic. I enjoyed his references to Bertrand Russell and Russell’s fall to Anselm’s ontological argument. Holt also relays Richard Dawkin’s knee jerk dismissal of it and Gödel’s more complete analysis of the logic. The next stop on the way is physicist David Deutsch of Oxford. The visit with Deutsch is relatively brief but he seems to maintain safe positions without venturing anywhere problematic. His interest is studying the mutliverse theory but he balks at any attempts to even suggest there might be a principle that explains the foundation of our existence. So there’s not much to discuss but the opening of this principle of multiple universes is important to the rest of the possibilities presented throughout the book. Holt also looks at the possibility that our universe exists because of a “quantum fluctuation” as first proposed by Ed Tryon and later given more concrete possibilities by Alex Vilenkin. This leads nicely into Holt’s next person to visit: Steven Weinberg.

Weinberg sheds a lot of light on the physical aspects with the question of existence. Weinberg provides a little discussion on string theory and how the scientific aspects might work. I was surprised to learn that Weinberg is disappointed at the slow rate of string theory development and he calls it “the best effort we’ve made to step beyond what we already know.” There is, of course, a careful context to that statement with Weinberg explaining that it hasn’t worked out how we initially thought it would. I found one of Weinberg’s statements to be surprising when he calls Quantum mechanics an “empty stage” and he further says he thinks that “Karl Popper was wrong to say that a scientific theory must be open to falsification. You can’t falsify quantum mechanics, since it doesn’t make predictions.” We don’t have a final theory yet but Weinberg does a great job of explaining what finding one would mean and what it will never be able to answer. Holt follows this up with a lot of information and caveats about the multiverse/megaverse as he transitions to another popular scientist and writer.

I’ve read a number of Roger Penrose’s books and was pleased to read his interaction with Holt. I was a little disappointed with Holt’s treatment of Platonism in regards to mathematics — mostly because he treats it as borderline mysticism and I personally enjoy reading that kind of mathematical philosophy. While I feel like it has roots in mysticism, I have enjoyed Penrose’s works that reference “Platonic contact.” Penrose imagines that there are three worlds: the physical world, the world consisting of consciousness and the aforementioned Platonic world. A very brief explanation is that there is a mysterious connection between this physical world via our minds to the conscious world and in our minds there is now a small part of our conscious (the part dealing with mathematics) that connects us to the Platonic world. So I suppose that triples the question of this book and Holt isn’t afraid to call these worlds “miraculously self-creating and self-sustaining.” Penrose, calls the Platonic world “eternally existing”, “profound” and “timeless” but what of the possibility of the Null World? What about outside our universe? How does it stand up to the Nothing? These questions are never really pressed for some reason. Holt briefly references an extreme Platonist by the name of Max Tegmark and I felt like Penrose didn’t leave much progress in our quest to answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Instead, he offers that this Platonic world is prime and the other two exist in its shadows but I was never satisfied or understood why those shadows exist.

Holt transitions to the next pieces with a reference to John Archibald Wheeler’s “it from bit.” As a developer, this is an incredibly tantalizing possibility but I found it to be a bit misplaced in this book. I found the explanation of this to be less than satisfactory (similarly as in my review of Gleick’s “The Information”) and I wish someone would include more substance to this view of everything arising from information. Holt muddies up the water even a little further by examining the idea that our brains have this “mind-stuff” or property to them that is perhaps built on top of a quantum phenomena. While there are interesting thought experiments about this “mind-stuff” and consciousness, it seems a little out of scope from the grand purpose of this book. Nonetheless it's fun to think about.

One of the final realms to explore is John A. Leslie’s own position of an almost “ethical requiredness” or a need for goodness. I found Leslie to be a sound and logical philosopher but I did not enjoy that the bulk of his explanations seemed to hinge on analogies. Perhaps this is far more prevalent in modern philosophy but something inside me objects to using paintings to explain how universes are enumerated. The example I’m talking about is the question of why, if goodness is a prerogative, would there be infinitely many universes conceptually available but only ours in existence (which is of some arbitrary goodness). And Leslie explains this by saying that the diversity of goodness in the universes is analogous to why the Louvre has paintings of various quality instead of having its walls packed with perfect replicas of the Mona Lisa. I understand his premises and his analogy but I don’t see the value of arbitrary selection of a universe — this “axiarchic theory.” Both Leslie and Holt reference Dawkin’s response of calling goodness a piffling concept and noting that cosmologically it’s as arbitrary as “Channel Number Fiveness.” And this is the premise of Leslie’s assertions: that “Goodness is required existence, in a nontrivial sense.” Holt notes that Leslie is a sort of modern-day Spinoza.

The last philosopher on Holt’s journey is Derek Parfit who, among other things, discusses the idea of a “selector” with Holt. Parfit breaks down our existence into how and why which is an interesting way to look at it when you consider the selector to be a mechanism that selects (or doesn’t select) our universe out of all the possibilities. If the selector is something, then you have to explain the selector of the selector or the meta-selector. For example: The null hypothesis (the world of Nothing) has the selector of simplicity and no meta-selector. Also, by some sound logic and reasoning the two come to the conclusion that a selector can’t select itself thus looping backwards and explaining its selection. Armed with this, the author tries his hand at proving which of these explanations and meta-explanations are valid and comes to a conclusion. Similar to my earlier complaints, the biggest problem I have with this is that his method is to rule out the combinations of meta-selectors and selectors until he is down to one or two. How does he know that the explanations for his options in this book amount to the entirety of the possibilities of selectors and meta-selectors? To rule out all possibilities but one in order to understand this seems futile since we may not be able to imagine all selectors and meta-selectors possible.

The very last person interviewed for the book is John Updike. Although he had some interesting things to say, this felt more like an intellectual artist’s view of why there is something rather than nothing. Updike says he is part of the group that find this existence to be “a kind of miracle” and he calls this a “last resort, really of naturalistic theology.” There’s a bit of cute wordplay in this last chapter but it felt appropriate to read it near the end of this journey. Updike gets to weave characters into plots and embed the aforementioned logic and views into those stories. And given that background and his interest in this topic, he playfully left me with an “it’s not so bad that we don’t know” sort of lightheartedness.

The penultimate chapter of this book deals with the question of whether we seriously exist at all. I think it would have been better for Holt to approach this from a nurture versus nature standpoint that’s already been heavily discussed before. He does pose some interesting thought exercises like a procedure that replaces diseased brain matter with healthy brain matter that has no recollection or memories but it only does it 1% of my brain matter at a time. At what point would I cease to be me? So there’s some interesting ideas in here but the chapter is largely disagreeable with me. I know that every person I meet knows at least one thing I don’t and I like to use such a basic pairwise comparison to justify unique existence. I don’t find much value in considerations of the self on a transcendental level and that’s probably why this chapter didn’t have a lot of value to me.

Throughout the book, Holt has been relaying to us his day to day experiences including the death of his dog. He also noted that Updike died fairly suddenly months after he spoke with him. In the final chapter “Return to Nothingness,” Holt does a little work of tying what this all means into the context of death. During the writing of this book, his mother passed away and the final pages are devoted to that account and his emotions. If Updike was a jocular relief about existence, this final chapter is a sobering reminder that ultimately we are all mortal. While well written and heavily symbolic, it is a depressing note on which to end this journey.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s composition is a good mix of art and science making it a light read compared to others about the same topic. If you’re looking for thought experiments or wish to further ply yourself with a good survey of the current armaments in this debate, you can buy Why Does the World Exist? from Amazon. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews — to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
This discussion was created for logged-in users only, but now has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Book Review: Why Does the World Exist?

Comments Filter:

"The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception a neccessity." - Oscar Wilde