Why Does The World Exist? by Jim Holt

Why Does the World Exist?

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story

A philosophical topic if there ever was one. Why does the world exist? is a question I’ve thought about since I was a kid. Neither religion nor science have answered it very well. Philosophy is a third approach. Holt travels to interview some the bright lights of philosophy to see what they think. He also gives a history of the question and how it has been answered throughout time. There is not a lot of math or physics in the book, just enough to explain what is currently known about our universe. Holt covers current scientific ideas like the multiverse and string theory that may help explain the question of existence. Holt takes us on a tour of various theories and ends up developing a theory of his own, a framework, or a set of questions that yields two possibilities. Not surprisingly it is hard to wrap your head around this framework but it seemed to make sense- at least to me. Holt has a nice conversational tone to his writing and has a nice mix of dense philosophy with some personal stories. There are some weak chapters, but Holt needs to cover a lot of ground (and many dead ends) to prepare the reader for his grand synthesis.

321 pages

Excerpts From My Kindle

John Updike channeled his ambivalence about Being into his fictional alter-ego, that blocked, priapic, and despair-prone Jewish novelist Henry Bech. In one Updike story, Bech is invited to give a reading at a Southern girls’ college, where he is regarded as a literary star. At a dinner in his honor after the reading, he “looked around the ring of munching females and saw their bodies as a Martian or a mollusc might see them, as pulpy stalks of bundled nerves oddly pinched to a bud of concentration in the head, a hairy bone knob holding some pounds of jelly in which a trillion circuits, mostly dead, kept records, coded motor operations, and generated an excess of electricity that pressed into the hairless side of the head and leaked through the orifices, in the form of pained, hopeful noises and a simian dance of wrinkles.” Bech has a nihilistic epiphany: “the void should have been left unvexed, should have been spared this trouble of matter, of life, and, worst, of consciousness.” – location 539-46

Nothing is popularly held to be better than a dry martini, but worse than sand in the bedsheets. A poor man has it, a rich man needs it, and if you eat it for a long time, it’ll kill you. On occasion, nothing could be further from the truth, but it is not clear how much further. It can be both black and white all over at the same time. Nothing is impossible for God, yet it is a cinch for the rankest incompetent. No matter what pair of contradictory properties you choose, nothing seems capable of embodying them. From this it might be concluded that nothing is mysterious. But that would only mean that everything is obvious–including, presumably, nothing. – location 700-704

Treating “nothing” as the name of a thing allows one to generate endless paradoxical twaddle, as the opening paragraphs of this very chapter attest. – location 750-51

But this is a fatal concession for the atheist to make. To say it is possible that a celestial teapot is orbiting the sun is to say that in some possible world such a teapot is orbiting the sun. And to say it is possible that God exists is to say that in some possible world there is a God. But God is different from a teapot. He is by definition a maximally great being. Unlike a teapot, his greatness–and therefore his existence–is stable across different possibilities. So if God exists in some possible world, he must exist in every possible world–including the actual world. In other words, if it is even possible that God exists, then it is necessary that he exists. – location 1946-51

Quantum uncertainty also forbids the precise determination of the value of a field and the rate at which that field value changes. (That’s like saying you can’t know the exact price of a stock and how quickly that price is changing.) And, when you think about it, this pretty much rules out nothingness. Nothingness is, by definition, a state in which all field values are timelessly equal to zero. But Heisenberg’s principle tells us that if the value of a field is precisely known, its rate of change is completely random. In other words, that rate of change can’t be precisely zero. So a mathematical description of changeless emptiness is incompatible with quantum mechanics. To put the point more pithily, nothingness is unstable. – location 2354-59

The surface of the sphere disappears completely, and with it spacetime itself. We have arrived at nothingness. We have also arrived at a precise definition of nothingness: a closed spacetime of zero radius. This is the most complete and utter nothingness that scientific concepts can capture. It is mathematically devoid not only of stuff but also of location and duration. – location 2396-98

So the transition from Nothingness to Being, as imagined in the Vilenkin scenario, is a two-stage affair. In the first stage, a tiny bit of vacuum appears out of nothing at all. In the second stage, this bit of vacuum blows up into a matter-filled precursor of the universe we see around us today. The whole scheme would appear to be scientifically irreproachable. The principles of quantum mechanics, which govern the first stage, have so far proved to be the most reliable principles in all of science. And the theory of inflation, which describes the second stage, not only has been a conceptual success since it was introduced in the early 1980s, but also has been triumphantly confirmed by empirical observations–notably, by the patterns of background radiation left over from the Big Bang that have been observed by the COBE satellite. – location 2403-9

Yet it may be that, when q is the fact that there is something rather than nothing, the causing fact p needn’t itself cite anything that exists–any agent or substance or event. The causing fact might just be an abstract reason. And, if there is no additional fact that opposes or undermines this abstract reason, then such a reason could make for an adequate causal explanation. That, indeed, would appear to be the only hope for a noncircular resolution to the mystery of existence. – location 3546-49

And since reality has to be some way or another, one of these cosmic possibilities is bound to prevail, as a matter of logical necessity. There is no conceivable alternative, and hence no need for any sort of “hidden machinery” to ensure that a selection is made. So the Selector, in tipping the outcome, doesn’t exert any force or do any actual work. But what, I wondered, if there is no Selector? – location 3788-91

It displays orderly causal patterns. Moreover, the laws that govern it appear to be, on the deepest level, remarkably simple–so simple that, if Steven Weinberg is right, human scientists are today on the verge of discovering them. Surely these two features–causal orderliness and nomological simplicity–mark off the actual world from the great ruck of messy and complicated cosmic possibilities. This sort of thinking had led Parfit to the tentative conclusion that there might be at least two “partial Selectors” for reality: being governed by laws, and possessing simple laws. And could there be still others that we have not yet noticed? Possibly. – location 3802-7

I found a wonderful book of photo-portraits of the greatest living philosophers, taken by a photographer named Steve Pyke. Parfit was among the subjects. – location 3815-16

But to make faith into an abstract scientific proposition is to please no one, least of all the believers. There’s no intellectual exertion in accepting it. Faith is like being in love. As Barth put it, God is reached by the shortest ladder, not by the longest ladder. Barth’s constant point was that it is God’s movement that bridges the distance, not human effort.” – location 4198-4200


About craigmaas

I do a little web design work and support a couple web sites and blogs. My primary focus is lighting and energy consulting where I use a number of computer tools to help my customer find ways of saving money and improving their work environment. See my web site for more information: www.effectiveconcepts.net
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