The big­gest ques­tion we can ask

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - WHY DOES THE WORLD EX­IST? An Ex­is­ten­tial De­tec­tive Story By Jim Holt Liveright. 309 pp. $27.95 book­world@wash­ Michael S. Roth is the pres­i­dent of Wes­leyan Univer­sity and the au­thor of “Me­mory, Trauma, and His­tory: Es­says on Liv­ing With the Past.

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.

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