Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why Does the World Exist by Jim Holt

Source of book: borrowed from the library

“‘cause why?”
“Just ‘cause!”

Actually, that is the way every theory about why there is something rather than nothing seems to end. At the end of the speculation, there is some fact that simply must be assumed. (The book refers to them as “brute facts,” the philosophical term for a fact that does not have an underlying explanation. Philosophers debate whether “brute facts” can exist or not.)

Jim Holt is an author, but also a philosophy major. This book straddles the lines between science, religion, and philosophy as it explores contemporary and historical thought about the title question. The existential question.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Or, as Julian Huxley put it (as quoted in the book):

“The clear light of science, we are often told, has abolished mystery, leaving only logic and reason,” Huxley wrote. “This is quite untrue. Science has removed the obscuring veil of mystery from many phenomena, much to the benefit of the human race: but it confronts us with a basic and universal mystery - the mystery of existence...why does the world exist?”

Holt starts by laying out the three ways of approaching the question. The optimist point of view is that there is a reason for the universe, and we may well discover it. The pessimist point of view is that while there may be a reason, we probably won’t discover it. The rejectionist view is that there is no reason for the universe. The universe and the question are both meaningless.

Since there wouldn’t be much of a book without the optimist viewpoint, Holt spends most of the book on various ideas of the reason there is a universe.

To that end, the author discusses the ultimate question with a number of scientists and philosophers, challenging the weaknesses of each position. Holt’s goal is not to draw a conclusion, but to explore the question and its potential answers.

Although this book can be enjoyed by the average educated person, I must say that it helps to have a working knowledge of philosophy, quantum mechanics, and string theory. Especially philosophy, since the language and technique of philosophy permeate the book. I highly recommend the venerable textbook  Socrates to Sartre: A History of Philosophy as a good starting point for neophytes. (It is readily available used for very little cost.)

First of all, there are some things I found annoying about the book. Pretty much all of them are to be expected from a philosophy major (and perhaps philosopher) writing a book of his experiences. The most egregious is the fact that not one, but two scenes in the book involve the author sitting in Sartre’s favorite cafe on Paris’ Left Bank, reading. (Hegel in one case. Surprise. Or not.) Similarly, the book occasionally focuses too much on what read as set pieces, where he thinks about what he discussed, while dropping the name of a pretentious wine he is drinking. (I have a feeling I could easily write like that, so I know the temptation. I excoriate his editor, however.)

The other thing which was disappointing (to me at least) is that he mentions his own philosophy near the beginning, but never goes on to explain it or how he came to that conclusion. (He says he has adopted a variation of the gnostic belief that the physical world was created by a malevolent being, but one that was largely incompetent, thus giving rise to a world that failed at being the worst possible world.) I am curious how he came to the conclusion (particularly in light of the rest of the book.) The only clear clue here is his conversation John Leslie, in which Leslie posits that of all the possible universes, ours was pretty far from the most perfect. However, he opined that, “Still, I think you’d have to go quite far below us to have a world which was not worth having at all.

Those flaws notwithstanding, this was an interesting and worthwhile read. Here are a few that stood out to me:

I did not realize that Edwin Hubble’s theory of an expanding universe that can be traced back in time to a singularity (colloquially known as the “Big Bang”) was initially embraced by Christians, particularly Catholics, as proof of a creator. Or that for the same reason, it was rabidly hated by atheists. Essentially, the idea of a definite beginning implied that something (or nothing) existed before that. An eternal, unchanging universe better suited the premise that there was no need for a creator.

(Personal note here: As a theist, I find the idea of creating the world through a singularity to be great fun. If I could create the universe, I think it would be a gas to use a tiny pill that would expand to make everything - kind of like the best of all possible versions of those expanding foam animals my kids play with. Bang! It would be awesome.)

Also good was the point made by Heidegger that fear has a definite object. Anxiety, in contrast, is directed at the unknowable. The nothing, as it were.

It was also interesting to be reminded that nearly everything in the history of philosophy can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Despite all of the scientific advances that have illuminated so much of the physical world, the two of them asked so many of the great questions - and answered them in contrasting ways that are reflected in philosophy throughout the ages.

The age old ontological proof, first used by Plato in his forms, and best known, perhaps, as stated by Aquinas, rears its head throughout the book. But its flaws are also apparent. (As I stated above, everything boils down to “‘cause!” The competing scientific theories at some point are reduced to a brute fact as well. Perhaps the laws of the universe inevitably give rise to a universe. But why are there laws? “‘cause!” Or perhaps all universes and all laws are possible. But why are they possible? It all eventually goes to the same place, and one must choose what seems to be more likely in view of the fact that there does appear to be a universe, governed by rational and discoverable laws.

Another strong point of this book was the way the author made his various interview subjects come to life. Their conversations are a high point of the book - and much more interesting than the author’s own navel gazing. For example, the interview with the late John Updike revealed a man far more fun and human than I would have expected. He sounded rather delightful to talk to - not always the case with famous authors or celebrities in general.

Or his visit to the house of David Deutsch, who a previous journalist described as “setting international standards of slovenliness.” Holt adds his own memorable description of it as “experiments in indoor composting” and (my favorite) “an adventure in high-entropy housekeeping.” (Some days, my own house could be described as rather “high-entropy...”)

Holt also gets points from me for his clever use of quotations from The Devil’s Dictionary by the poisonously pithy Ambrose Bierce.

Beyond the stuff that was interesting, thought provoking, or amusing, two additional passages stood out to me.

The first is the chapter (at the end) devoted to the return to nothingness. Death. The author’s mother passes as he watches, and he is forced to confront why death causes us anxiety. Why, after all, can we not make peace with it? Holt notes that (with a very few exceptions), we can imagine a time before we were born, but have great difficulty imagining the universe without us. We understand beginnings, but resist final ends. Why do we “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”? Or, as Ecclesiastes puts it, eternity has been placed in the hearts of men. Holt has no real answers here.

The second passage is one that I find explains a problem that I have been struggling with over many years. Holt interviews Richard Swinburne, an Oxford professor and Eastern Orthodox Christian, (not to be confused with Algernon Charles Swinburne, the poet) who lays out a case for the existence of God. In fact, a pretty good defense of the Gospel is given by Swinburne. I found it interesting that Swinburne came across as remarkably understated. He didn’t claim that he could prove more than he could, acknowledged the weaknesses of his arguments, and didn’t name-call. (A total contrast to Richard Dawkins, the prominent atheist, who commonly resorts to flame-throwing and name calling rather than intellectual proof. Holt quotes him at length, and acknowledges that he is rather a bully.)

The argument made by Swinburne was not revolutionary to my thinking. It built on Aquinas and others, and was interesting.

What has stayed in my head since reading it, is his explanation for why so many philosophers violently rejected the concept of God.

“Many philosophers were brought up in strictly religious households. As adolescents, they found their religion in conflict with things that were obviously true, and they rebelled against it. Then later, when someone shows them a more appealing sort of religion, they’re not going to grasp it.”

I have had conversations with a number of friends about why many of my generation (and the next) have left the Christian faith. This tendency seems to be particularly strong among those who were raised in strict environments. (Such as the Christian Patriarchy movement.)

This explains that, and even more, it explains the struggles that I have had with my faith and my worldview. It explains why those who suffered abuse by their parents in the name of Christ have rejected everything.

When one is told that something is true, when it clearly is utter bullshit, and then told that one is rebellious for not believing it, it is natural to reject the entire worldview.

And then, many within the Church double down by claiming that all those who reject Christianity do so simply because they prefer to sin. In addition to being self-righteous, condescending, and cruel, this statement is false. Obviously false, to anyone who actually has friends who are Christians-turned-atheist, always-atheist, or even atheist-turned-Christian. There are many reasons we believe or disbelieve. Some are intellectual. Some, admittedly, might be moral. But so many more stem from hurt and pain. To tell the child of an alcoholic mother who beat him, while all the time pretending to be a perfect church member that he just “wants to sin” is truly lacking in truth, understanding, or love.

I’ve already written about a few of the patently untrue things I was expected to swallow, and I hope to do more in the coming year.

In summary, this book has flaws, but it is a worthwhile read. I believe it is vitally important to understand the arguments on all sides of this issue, particularly before making moral judgments about the intentions of those who hold to different viewpoints.

(And yes, I still loathe Sartre...)


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  2. I've read and deeply admired Jim Holt's book WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST? I've also read many reviews and commentaries about the book. Although I am emphatically an atheist, I have complete respect for theists of many different stripes, albeit certainly not for all theists. Your blog on Holt's book is one of the most perceptive and thoughtful ones of the literally scores that I've read. Keep up the good work!

    I'm a not too distant neighbor of yours living in Santa Clarita, and a movie & documentary film producer. (I'm not sure what to select for, or what is meant below by "Comment as:" i.e. "Google Account", "Live Journal," " "Anonymous," etc.), but I will gladly join your blog site as a "follower."

    1. I'm not thrilled with Blogger's way of signing in for comments either - it took me a couple of tries too. If you have a Google account - Gmail, youtube, etc., you can just log in using that. Anonymous is for those luddites without gmail...

      Thanks for the kind words. I'll have to check out your site as well.

  3. J have just finished wading through this book by Jim Holt. There were times I almost drowned by being swept away by repetitious currents and quicksand on the banks. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is the fairly exhaustive NOTES at the end: as a philosophy major Holt demonstrates a more than passing acquaintance with many of the major streams of philosophy. Like another reviewer I was disappointed that Holt did not develop his own hint of believing in his youth in some kind of gnosticism involving an evil demiurge hint of a figure. I sometimes wonder if the banishment of Arius from the Council of Nicea was not the very premature closure of a debate only recently brought into public consciousness by the conundrums raised by quantum physics and the big bang discussion. Like some others too I was a bit miffed by the arguably gratuitous inclusion of episodes of quaffing wine in the Cafe Flore where the ghost of Satre still lingers. I also regret that there was not a greater discussion of Wittgenstein's idea that if you clear up the language then philosophical issues tend to clear up too (notwithstanding that Wittgenstein also said strongly that concerning that about which we know nothing we should remain silent.) Good on Holt for not remaining silent but this does not excuse him from even mentioning Wittgenstein in this context. His move towards a sympathetically but very brief allusion to Buddhist philosophy towards the end of the book could well justify another book devoted to this in its own right - I hope so. I am certainly not qualified to comment on the accuracy or otherwise of his summaries of what quantum physics is on about or indeed anything but the most basic scientific concepts.