Monday, July 1, 2013

Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? Takes the Reader on a Thought-Provoking Intellectual Journey

When Bill Moyers asked Martin Amis about the origins of the universe, Amis replied,  "I'd say we're at least five Einsteins away from answering that question." Jim Holt took Amis' response as a worthy challenge and decided to look for those Einsteins and glean some insights from them. Holt's book Why Does the World Exist? is a compilation of speculations, insights and hypotheses gathered from some of the world's foremost scientists and philosophers.

Why Does the World Exist? is similar in style to Harold T.P. Hayes' Three Levels of Time--both books tell a personal narrative intermixed with grand thematic narratives and both books largely consist of material gleaned from interviews with prominent thinkers--but the subject matter is different; Hayes focused on how the universe was created, how life began and what humanity must do as a species to avoid extinction, while Holt focused less on "how" questions and much more on "why" questions. Holt describes Why Does the World Exist? as an "existential detective story" and the questions he raises about the nature and meaning of existence are profound.

Holt notes that any purely technical description of the universe's creation is inherently limited: "A scientific explanation must involve some sort of physical cause. But any physical cause is by definition part of the universe to be explained. Thus any purely scientific explanation of the existence of the universe is doomed to be circular. Even if it starts from something very minimal--a cosmic egg, a tiny bit of quantum vacuum, a singularity--it still starts with something, not nothing. Science may be able to trace how the current universe evolved from an earlier state of physical reality, even following the process back as far as the Big Bang. But ultimately science hits a wall. It can't account for the origin of the primal state out of nothing. That, at least, is what diehard defenders of the God hypothesis insist" (p. 6).

Holt mentions that Stephen Hawking's "no-boundary" model of the universe "is completely self-contained, without beginning or end." It does not require a God to start the process of creation. Yet, even Hawking does not find this answer alone to be completely satisfying. Hawking wonders, "What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?"

Atheists are content to just shrug their shoulders and say that the existence of the universe is a "brute fact" that does not require explanation but Holt writes (p. 7) that "intellectually this feels like throwing in the towel. It's one thing to reconcile yourself to a universe with no purpose and no meaning--we've all done that on a dark night of the soul. But a universe without explanation? That seems an absurdity too far, at least to a reason-seeking species like ourselves." Holt rejects the "brute fact" view by invoking Leibniz' Principle of Sufficient Reason (at least one source says that Baruch Spinoza articulated this concept before Leibniz did, though Leibniz is credited with actually naming the principle): Nothing happens without a reason. "And if the Principle of Sufficient Reason is valid," Holt adds (p. 7), "there must be an explanation for the existence of the world, whether we can find it or not."

Leibniz declared that this is the best of all possible worlds, created by God in His infinite wisdom, and that God exists because His existence is necessary. Not everyone was convinced by Leibniz' reasoning; Voltaire's satire Candide is a withering critique of the idea that our world is the best of all possible worlds--and the billions of people who are starving, ill and/or experiencing other forms of suffering also have a right to question if this really is the best of all possible worlds. Frankly, if this is the best possible world, I would hate to see the worst possible world, a world that has horrors worse than those experienced by the victims of the Holocaust.

After outlining the basic questions he will attempt to answer, Holt begins his philosophical inquiry on a light note, examining the cheeky concept that the universe could have been created by a "hacker." Andrei Linde's "chaotic inflation" theory posits that a hundred-thousandth gram of matter is all that is needed to create a universe teeming with billions of galaxies. If Linde is correct--and he readily admits "There are some gaps in my proof"--then, as Linde puts it, "...we can't rule out the possibility that our own universe was created by someone in another universe who just felt like doing it." Holt acknowledges that a religious believer can respond to Linde's speculation by asking, "Who created the physicist hacker?"

Even if Linde is right about a possible method for creating a universe, his theory does not answer the larger question of why there is something rather than nothing; Holt points out that this question reflects a Western way of thinking, deeply influenced by early Judeo-Christian concepts: most of the ancient creation stories/myths described a universe/world that was created out of something and no explanation was provided for the origins of that something--but Christianity posited creation ex nihilo and that idea permeates Western philosophy, leading modern scientists, philosophers and theologians to ponder how it is possible that something could emerge from nothing.

Thinking about this becomes much like the process of opening up a Russian doll only to find a smaller Russian doll inside--except that eventually one can find the smallest Russian doll, whereas each new scientific discovery or philosophical approach only brings to mind more unanswered questions.

Holt's interview subjects run the gamut from defiantly atheistic to deeply religious. Adolf Grunbaum, who Holt describes as "arguably the greatest living philosopher of science," rejects Holt's entire premise: "There is no mystery of existence," Grunbaum declares in a letter to Holt. Holt met with Grunbaum at the University of Pittsburgh and Grunbaum explained his perspective, which Holt cogently summarizes (pp. 68-69):
He was not content to observe that what he called the Primordial Existence Question rested on dubious premises. He wanted to show that these premises were just plain false. There is no reason, in his view, to be astonished, puzzled, awed, or mystified by the existence of the world. None of the virtues claimed for Nothingness--its supposed simplicity, its naturalness, its lack of arbitrariness, and so on--made it the de jure favorite in the reality sweepstakes: such was his conviction. In fact, if we look at the matter empirically--the way modern, scientifically minded people ought to--we'd find that the existence of a world is very much to be expected. As Grunbaum himself put it, "What could possibly be more commonplace empirically than that something or other exists?"

Here was a man who thought Why is there something rather than nothing? was as much of a cheat as the question When did you stop beating your wife?
The laws of physics as currently understood break down at the instant of the Big Bang; there literally is no spacetime prior to the Big Bang, at least not in the sense that we understand/perceive spacetime. Thus, Grunbaum tells Holt that even though the universe is finite in age it has always existed, at least in terms of the spacetime history that we know about. Holt explains how this understanding of cosmology shapes Grunbaum's philosophical world view (p. 75):
If there was never a transition from Nothing to Something, there is no need to look for a cause, divine or otherwise, that brought the universe into existence. Nor, as Grunbaum observes, is there any need to worry about where all the matter and energy in the universe came from. There was no "sudden and fantastic" violation of the law of conservation of mass-energy at the Big Bang, as his theistically minded opponents have claimed. According to the Big Bang cosmology, the universe has always had the same mass-energy content, from t = 0 right up to the present.
Holt calls Grunbaum's reasoning "admittedly formidable" but says that ultimately it "did not leave me convinced that the quest should be abandoned. There is nothing I dislike more than premature intellectual closure" (p. 78).

Richard Swinburne occupies the opposite end of the belief spectrum from Grunbaum, asserting that the universe was created by a God who takes great personal interest in what happens. Perhaps the biggest moral/philosophical challenge to this idea is the daunting presence of great evil in the world but Swinburne tells Holt how he reconciles God's love/goodness with the hate/darkness that exists (p. 102):
I have a theodicy--a view of why God should allow evil to happen. I think he allows it to happen because it's logically necessary if certain goods are to be possible, the goods arising from our possession of free will. God is omnipotent. He can do anything that is logically possible to do. And it isn't logically possible for him to give us free will and yet to ensure that we always use it the right way.
In an abstract sense, that sounds very logical and refined--a perspective that can be debated at a cocktail party over drinks and hors d'oeuvres--but Swinburne's theodicy crumbles in the presence of Auschwitz' crematoria, Cambodia's killing fields and dozens of other atrocities that fill the human race's blood-stained history. How can an all-good and all-powerful being permit innocent children to be slaughtered in the name of the exercise of free will? Perhaps this is philosophically valid at some intellectual level but in the face of immense human suffering such lofty words sound obscene and indefensible; in our legal system, a person who has information about a murder and does not report it is an accessory after the fact, even if he did not directly participate in the crime. What can be said of a being that has the power to prevent millions of murders and does not act? A theologian would reply that the ways of God cannot be understood by people but that answer is not very comforting.

Another perspective about the nature of the universe is provided by Hugh Everett's "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics; this theory proposes that an infinite number of parallel universes branch off every time a quantum wave function collapses: Schrodinger's infamous cat is alive in one universe and dead in another universe. At first glance, this may sound like a joke or a fantasy but the mathematics underpinning the theory are very solid and many eminent physicists support Everett's approach (sadly for Everett, his ideas were ridiculed during his lifetime and have only recently gained traction, many years after he passed away). From this point of view, the reason that there is something rather than nothing is that the collapse of the quantum wave function requires that everything that is possible eventually happens in some universe or other; the problem is that we only have access to our universe and thus there is no way to prove whether or not these other theoretical universes exist (James P. Hogan's novel The Proteus Operation is a fascinating alternate history story that utilizes Everett's theory as a major plot point, though in Hogan's version it is possible to travel back and forth between different timelines).

Perhaps the universe consists of, as Holt describes it (p. 188), "one great relational web: all structure, no stuff. The entities making up the physical world are like the pieces in a game of chess: what counts is the role defined for each piece by a system of rules that say how it can move, not the stuff that the piece is made of." This is similar to the Platonic idea that mathematical concepts are not human constructions but rather essential to the innate nature of the physical universe; Galileo declared, "The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics" and the great logician/mathematician Kurt Godel said, "I don't see any reason why we should have less confidence in this kind of perception, i.e., in mathematical intuition, than in sense perception."

Cosmologist John Leslie believes in what he calls "extreme axiarchism," a term that Holt explains is based on the Greek words axia ("value") and archein ("to rule"). "Extreme axiarchism" is developed from Plato's idea that, as Leslie puts it, "the ethical requirement that a good universe exist was itself enough to create the universe"; Leslie is also influenced by Spinoza and, in Holt's words, "Like Spinoza, Leslie sees all individual things as ripples on the sea of a unified divine reality." Leslie's universe is, Holt writes, "fundamentally made out of consciousness." Holt describes an analogy that Leslie uses (pp. 201-202):
Just as an infinite mind contains many universes, the Louvre contains many artworks. One of these artworks--say, the Mona Lisa--is the best. But if the Louvre contained nothing but perfect replicas of the Mona Lisa, it would be a less interesting museum than it actually is, with its vast number of inferior artworks adding to the variety. The best museum on the whole is one that contains, in addition to the very best works of art, all lesser works, as long as those lesser works have some redeeming aesthetic value--as long, that is, as they are not positively bad. Similarly, the infinite mind is one that contemplates all cosmic patterns whose net value is positive, ranging from the very best possible world on down to worlds of indifferent quality, where the good barely outweighs the evil. Such a variety of worlds, each of which is, on the whole, better by some positive margin than sheer nothingness, is the most valuable reality overall--the one that might leap into existence out of a Platonic requirement for goodness.

Leslie had answered one obvious objection to his cosmic scheme: the problem of evil. Our own world is decidedly not the Mona Lisa. It is blemished by cruelty, suffering, arbitrariness, and waste. Yet, even with all its ethical and aesthetic defects, it manages to contribute a little net value to reality as a whole--just the way a mediocre painting by a second-rate artist might contribute a little net value to the collection in the Louvre. Our world is thus worthy to be part of that larger reality: worthy, that is, of contemplation by an infinite mind.
Holt says that in order to support Leslie's "extreme axiarchism" you have to buy three premises: "(1) value is objective, (2) value is creative, and (3) the world is good" (p. 210). Even if one accepts that value can be objectively defined and that such value has the ability to create a universe as the product of a collective consciousness, the third point is problematic for many philosophers. Holt writes (pp. 212-213):
Leslie himself concedes the existence of evil. He admits that "many items in our universe are far from splendid"--ranging from headaches to mass murder to the destruction of entire galaxies through false-vacuum fiascoes. Yet he purports to render the problem of evil manageable by making our world a tiny part of a much greater reality--a reality consisting of an infinite number of infinite minds, each of them contemplating everything of value. As long as the world around us contributes at least a little net value to this infinite reality, its existence is sanctioned by the abstract need for goodness. It may not be perfect, but--with its causal orderliness, its congeniality to life, and its conduciveness to more happy states of consciousness than unhappy ones--it's good enough to merit inclusion in a maximally valuable reality.
Holt admits that it is "tempting to join the sunny Spinoza-Leslie consensus" but he cites a number of thinkers, philosophers and poets who have a much darker perspective (pp. 213-214): 
Schopenhauer said it in the nineteenth century: reality is overwhelmingly a theater of suffering, and nonexistence is better than existence. So did Byron, in his lines, "Sorrow is knowledge: they who know the most/Must mourn the deepest o'er the fatal truth..." More recently, Camus declared that the only genuine philosophical problem is suicide and E.M. Cioran epigrammatized endlessly about the "curse" of existence. Even Bertrand Russell, despite his professed admiration for Spinoza's character, could not accept the Spinozist view that individual evils are neutralized by absorption into a larger whole. "Each act of cruelty," Russell insisted, "is eternally a part of the universe." Today, the most uncompromising opponent of cosmic optimism may be Woody Allen. In an interview he gave in 2010 (to a Catholic priest, curiously enough), Allen spoke of the "overwhelming bleakness" of the universe. "Human existence is a brutal experience to me," he said. "It's a brutal, meaningless experience--an agonizing, meaningless experience with some oases, delight, some charm and peace, but these are just small oases." There is no justice to it, Allen maintained, and no rationality either. Everyone does what one can do to alleviate "the agony of the human condition." Some distort it with religion; some chase money or love. Allen himself makes films--and whines. ("I do get a certain amount of solace from whining.") Yet in the end "everyone goes to his grave in a meaningless way."
What is Holt's worldview? Holt objectively presents the strengths and weaknesses of several different philosophical/religious/scientific perspectives and he does not extensively discuss his personal beliefs but on page 34 he parenthetically notes, "A useful compromise between the Christians and the Gnostics might be my own position: that the universe was created by a being that is 100 percent malevolent but only 80 percent effective." Near the end of the book, Holt approvingly paraphrases some ideas expressed by a Buddhist monk on a French television show (pp. 278-279):
Things don't really have the solidity we attribute to them. The world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid-seeming. This engenders le desir, l'orgueil, la jealousie. Buddhism, by correcting our metaphysical error, thus has a therapeutic purpose. It offers un chermin vers l'eveil--a path of enlightenment. And it also resolves the mystery of being. When Leibniz asked, Pourquoi quelque chose plutot que rien? his question presupposed that something really and truly exists. And that's an illusion.
Why Does the World Exist? is well-edited, with one exception: on page 10 Holt declares that Philo "comes closest to being a stand-in for Hume himself" in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion but when he discusses Hume's Dialogues on page 85 Holt asserts that Cleanthes "comes closest to being the author's mouthpiece."

The "true believers" in a scientific, religious, Platonic or other explanation for why the world exists will not be swayed by any information that Holt presents that contradicts their convictions but any open-minded person who is interested in reading a wide-ranging and well-balanced examination of diverse perspectives about the nature and meaning of existence will enjoy Why Does the World Exist?

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