The biggest question we can ask
Jim Holt likes to pursue questions — big questions. And he does so with a sincerity and light-heartedness that draw his readers along for the ride. He’s written for the New Yorker on tough subjects such as string theory and infinity, but his last book was on the seemingly more accessible topic of jokes. In “Why Does the World Exist?” — a finalist for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction — he takes on one of the biggest questions in conversations with philosophers and scientists: What is the origin of everything?
By helping readers understand what some very smart people think an answer to this question might look like, he introduces us to advanced mathematics, theology, physics, ontology and epistemology — just to name some subjects he visits. Holt is usually very good about not losing us along the way, even when the math or the logic gets pretty esoteric.
“The transition from Nothing to Something seems mysterious,” he writes, “because you never know what you’re going to get.” That might be true if one were asking as a disinterested party, but Holt is anything but that. The “Something” he has in mind is us — how did we and our world come to be? He wants to know how nothingness, a state in which absolutely no things exist, gave rise to a universe that includes all the things around us. “Conceptually,” he writes, “the question Why does the world exist? rhymes with the question Why do I
There are two major kinds of answers to these twinned questions. The first kind emphasizes the “how” — how a specific cause leads to a particular effect. Why am I here? Because my parents had sex. The second kind of answer moves from cause to meaning. Did my parents want a child? Do I have a purpose in life? What am I doing here? Some of the intellectuals with whom Holt talks sound as though they believe that if they thoroughly answer the “how” version of the question (the one that details causes), they will have answered the “why” version of the question (the one that provides meaning). Or perhaps they think that an airtight explanation of the emergence of causality will make the meaning question irrelevant.
There are some philosophers, it should be said, who think Holt is just asking the wrong question. Most interesting is philosopher of science Adolf Grunbaum, who cheerfully tries to show our author that his anxious astonishment with the existence of the universe is misplaced. Unexamined religious longing for mystery and a confused sense that we need to figure out why nothingness does not prevail generate a confused question with no rational response: “Go relax and enjoy yourself! Don’t worry about why there’s a world — it’s an ill-conceived question.” But Holt is only briefly deterred, declaring, “There is nothing I dislike more than premature intellectual closure.”
Holt travels in England, France and the United States to talk with some very thoughtful men about some very thorny issues. It’s always thoughtful men. Somehow he didn’t find any women to interview about creation, though at the end of the book he movingly describes his mother’s death. She, a believer, did not think she was passing into nothingness. Respectful, Holt has no closure on this, either.
How can the “first cause” not have a cause? How can one talk about anything prior to the Big Bang, if this event created time itself ? What is the role of consciousness in the universe, and how is that related to simplicity, goodness, beauty? What if our universe is just one of many, many, universes and big bangs are relatively frequent occurrences? These are the kinds of questions that drive Holt back and forth between mathematics and ethics. String theory “builds matter out of pure geometry,” while “Plato thought that the ethical requirement that a good universe exist was itself enough to create the universe.”
So why is there something rather than nothing? “There isn’t,” replies the brilliant and witty philosopher Robert Nozick. “There’s both.” Physicist Ed Tryon, on the other hand, wondered whether the universe was the product of a “quantum fluctuation,” offering “the modest pro- posal that our universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.”
Periodically our despairing guide describes himself as retreating to a cafe for a strong espresso or, even better, a restaurant where he can treat body and spirit with some good food and wine. Lucky readers may find themselves taking breaks to do the same. But it’s worth getting back in the hunt for answers (or just questions) with Holt.
There are many intellectually stirring moments in the book, and I learned more than I would have thought I could about contemporary controversies in quantum mechanics and cosmology. Holt is an excellent translator of complex ideas and issues. But the highlight of his book is his description of rushing home to help his dog Renzo, who was suffering from advanced cancer. Help in this case meant holding the long-haired dachshund for 10 days, and then stroking him while a vet administered a lethal injection. Holt tells us about a mind game he plays with prime numbers to steady himself “in moments of unbearable emotion.” He used the game at the veterinarian’s office. The next day he called a physicist to talk about why the world exists.
When Holt asks why the world exists, he is also asking whether there is any point to our being here. He is struck by the extraordinary contingency of our lives and of our world, and he seeks to address that contingency with theories about the emergence of time, of causality, of something. But contingency is not erased by causal accounts; it is just described in minute detail. Holt recognizes this when the somethings he cares about disappear. His real concern isn’t creation but extinction — why somethings turn into nothings. He knows the causal explanation, but that is not answering his question. Focusing on causes can be a mind game to help us deal with “moments of unbearable emotion.”
Why do we lose those we love? Why do important parts of our world vanish? These are not questions for a detective story, existential or not. But they are the questions to which, in the end, Holt’s wonderfully ambitious book leads us.