“The lower a man is in an intellectual respect, the less puzzling and mysterious existence itself is to him.” —Arthur Schopenhauer
Jim Holt has made a career out of tracking philosophy’s Moby Dick, or perhaps more appropriately, the explanatory “superturtle”: the question of why there is something rather than nothing. The secret to existence. The riddle of Being.
It’s a question that confronted Plato, haunted Heidegger, religion claims to have answered long ago, and, so declare Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, has been conclusively settled by physics. That it hugs academic borders so closely and is so charged with ideological subtext are surely clues to its significance. No other question has battled against such a succession of brilliance and come away as unscathed.
In Why Does the World Exist?, Holt deftly navigates the blurred nexus of philosophy and science in search of how deep explanation can go. Have we at last solved the foggiest mystery of all? Are science’s popularizers on to something, or do their assurances, as their critics suggest, amount to slack philosophy and so much polemical posturing? With an appetite for sophisticated conversation and frequent change in scenery, he checks in with a cast of preeminent philosophers, scientists and literary savants for today’s leading theories.
Pivoting from the spiffy Café de Flore in Paris to the regal ambience of Oxford to a brief stint along the quiet Canadian coast, Holt sparks vivid dialogues with John Leslie, Steven Weinberg, Adolf Grünbaum, David Deutsch, Alexander Vilenkin, Richard Swinburne, Roger Penrose, John Updike and Derek Parfit. This roster of genius serve up their strongest and wildest arguments as Holt runs each through an impressive gauntlet of critique, keeping his eyes peeled for a solution that isn’t hobbled by contradiction and doesn’t succumb to the hamster wheel of infinite regress: “a point where all the arrows of explanation converge—where every why is absorbed in an ultimate because.”
Don’t expect winners and losers, however. This isn’t so much a battle royale among talented minds as it is a formal invitation to a debate that’s been underway for thousands of years. And like a bottle of Bordeaux, this one only gets better with age.
And Then There Was Time
Most scientists through the late 20th century accepted the existence of the universe as a brute fact, with explanation outside the bounds of scientific inquiry. Unpacking its history—from its breathtaking early expansion to quasars and circumstellar disks—continued apace, but was regarded as distinct from the project taken up by Holt and his predecessors. It was a matter of specialization, with science angled toward the how and philosophy shoveling below to the ultimate Whys. In response to those who would conflate these projects, Allan Sandage, one of the fathers of modern astronomy, once remarked: “As soon as you ask why there is something instead of nothing, you have gone beyond science.”
Just how far can science take us? According to most cosmologists, the universe has a finite past, ultimately traceable to a singularity event roughly fourteen billion years ago. Though the precise nature of this event remains murky, we can infer from the redshift of distant galaxies and remnant radiation from the early universe the absolute age of all space and all time. This spatio-temporal boundary dictates what questions we can entertain. In short, asking what happened before the Big Bang? may be no more sensible than asking what’s north of the North Pole?
We count this conceit as self-evident today, but it actually harks back to Leibniz, the 17th century polymath, who held that time is not absolute, but can only exist in a universe in which the relationship between mass and energy changes (see relational theory). Otherwise put, if time is not involved, events do not occur. If this view is correct, the singularity gave rise to time itself, beyond which the very concepts of cause and effect break down—along with our known laws of physics. Rather like a curtain that conceals the goings-on behind it, the Big Bang is a comprehensive model whose explanatory scope cuts off at the singularity.
Horizon or no, one does not need a crash course in the Big Bang-origin of spacetime to surmise that the singularity stands in need of explanation as well. In recent years, a number of prominent scientists have gone further in an attempt to fill in the missing details surrounding our universe’s birth. Pointing up the latest advances in particle physics and cosmology, Krauss, Hawking and Michiu Kaku contend not only that our universe indeed came from nothing, but that we have pinned down the particular nothing from which it emerged.
Naturally, many of these discussions tend to turn on how one defines ‘nothing’. In A Universe From Nothing, Krauss sees it as an unstable vacuum state in which particles and antiparticles dart in and out of existence according to physical laws. In The Grand Design, Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow use quantum theory to argue for a multiverse, where an infinite number of “bubble universes”, and the unique laws to which they are subject, are generated simultaneously from an initial gravitational singularity.
As critics have pointed out, there seems to be a philosophically important gulf between the pre-Big Bang “broth” as described in scientific-cosmological terms and the simplicity of pure nothingness.1 The physicist David Deutsch gives a strenuous defense of this point in his conversation with Holt. When asked whether quantum field theory could shed light on the something-from-nothing impasse, he takes to task Krauss and colleagues who claim that creation ex nihilo now rests securely in science’s wheelhouse:
Whatever representation of nothing we might settle on, it would have to contain some modicum of properties to germinate the something that is the universe, properties that would then oblige explanation. Thus, whether we accept Krauss’ definition or Vilenkin’s—“a closed spacetime of zero radius” (p. 143)—the question lingers: whence those constituent properties? Who or what determined them?
While the cosmic optimist insists we put the matter on ice while we wait for the long-sought and oft-vaunted “final” theory of physics, more sober-minded critics are unamused. For even a theory of everything would be part of the something to be explained. More to the point, even if we were able to conclude, thanks to a more complete understanding of physics, that a cosmogonic singularity was inevitable given the fields, forces or fluctuations involved, we may still ask: why do we find ourselves in a universe (or multiverse) spawned by a vacuum state furnished with the ingredients necessary to wink it into existence? Why not a different mixture of ingredients devoid of universe-issuing potential, or none at all?
Our exhumation of deep time continues to gather empirical steam, replete with enough discovery and triumph to jolt Galileo from his grave, but does it get us any closer to answering the question at the heart of Holt’s book: Why does anything exist?
Brute Fact: Universe or God?
One way out of this quagmire is to posit a supernatural intelligence that poofed the world into existence. If God exists, then the answer would be: ‘because God did it that way’. This, of course, is also man’s oldest answer. It is valid as concerns the proximate question, but skirts the one underneath. In the same way that positing a multiverse to explain our universe merely kicks the discussion downwind, introducing God to explain our universe naturally begs the question of God’s existence. If the universe needs a cause, does God not need one as well?
Philosophers and theologians have tussled with this dilemma in various ways. Leibniz and Plotinus invoked the principle of causa sui (“cause of itself”) to argue that God is self-caused: among the set of features of an all-powerful being is the ability to answer for its own existence. Aquinas rejected this outright, contending that no entity can cause itself because it would have to exist prior to itself—a logical contradiction.2 Instead, he adduced the argument from contingency, which says that all causes depend on some prior cause, and since there cannot be an infinite series of causes they must terminate in a necessary, or non-contingent, being. The Thomistic formulation is but another face of Aristotle’s Uncaused Cause (known variously as Unmoved Mover, Prime Mover or First Cause).
Holt finds these arguments problematic. And he is in good company; Hume, Kant and Russell had their suspicions as well, though for different reasons.3 Holt’s contention is not so much with the notion of self-explanation but that the cosmological argument simply reframes the original question, trading one conundrum for another. Positing an eternal being with no origin to explain the world’s origin is no answer at all. ‘Why is there a universe rather than no universe?’ becomes, ‘Why is there a God rather than no God?’
Whatever logic we apply to God can also be applied to the Universe. If you want to say that God is uncaused and requires no explanation, there is no reason why the Universe can’t exist uncaused and unexplained as well. If you assert that God exists as a function of its own essence, on what non-arbitrary grounds can you deny this feature to the Universe? Both represent unique metaphysical claims, and both propositions can be derived through logical means.
Nor does God fulfill the precondition of ex nihilo that is often thrown at the naturalist’s feet. Like quantum fields and the laws governing the spontaneous creation of particles from a vacuum, God certainly is not ‘nothing’. In both cases we start with ‘something’ to produce another ‘something’, neither of which is ‘nothing’. Whatever new entities we might insert to fill the explanatory void ushers us right back to square one.
This Great Chain of Regress is the kind of gridlock that prompts Adolf Grünbaum, a philosopher of science Holt interviews early on, to shoo away the question as prima facie incoherent. He says there can’t be a reason, and that those who demand one are buying into a bit of Christian theology (ex nihilo) that arose in the second century in order to counter the Hellenistic competition. “Don’t worry about why there’s a world,” he says, “it’s an ill-conceived question.”
If we decide to ignore Grünbaum’s counsel and, like Holt, persist in the astonishment of Being, we are left with two options. We can throw up our hands, reject the aforesaid PSR and accept one or another brute fact, the balance of which tends to settle along ideological lines. Or we can take solace in the words of Martin Amis, who once responded when the question was put to him, “we’re at least five Einsteins away from answering that question”, and get on with the hunt.
The Road to Abstractification
Having given the less exotic ideas a fair shake, Holt ventures off into ever more obscure pastures. He gestures toward the monistic simplicity of panpsychism—the idea that “mind-stuff” is the fundamental constituent of reality—espoused by folks like David Chalmers, Christof Koch and Thomas Nagel. He dives under the currents of Platonism and the many colorful interpretations currently jostling for stature, such as the notion that math and morality have an external reality as opposed to being mere human constructions. Engaging those who push Platonism to radical heights, Holt asks how mathematical abstractions—per Penrose’s pure Forms and Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis (also known as the Ultimate Ensemble)—or moral imperatives—vis-à-vis John Leslie’s extreme axiarchism—could be responsible for summoning a world like ours into existence.
Names, theories and seminal texts are dropped routinely, but not at random. It’s all very orderly, meticulous in approach, and laced with perfectly placed metaphor. It would take more than a review to do any kind of justice to such intricate theories (see the supplemental reading below), but Holt’s encyclopedic knowledge of both philosophy and science makes for the ideal inquisitor. Some of the answers he fields prove just as mysterious as the question itself.
From Dust to Dust
Without a universe, there would be nothing to ask and no one to do the asking—no angst, no joy, no existential weariness. Holt wishes to remind us that things did not turn out this way. We are here, questions in hand, and this fact alone is of unexampled significance. As Steven Weinberg once wrote, our “effort to understand the universe is one of the very things that lifts human life above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” It is the absence of answers that drives us forward. It is also what compels philosophers like Holt to obsess over the intellectual hunt.
After criss-crossing the globe and contemplating existence alongside some of the greatest minds past and present, even offering a “proof” of his own for why Being prevailed over Nonbeing, the sun sets not far from where we began. Holt remains content to bask in this greatest of mysteries, coveting a verdict yet wary of relinquishing his skepticism prematurely. Perhaps our human perspective limits our ability to ask the right questions. Or, as equally disconcerting for someone who expects reimbursement for their intellectual labors, perhaps not every question has an answer.
Alas, if there is ever to be an ultimate explanation of reality, how would we know we had found it? As Deutsch laments to Holt, the vexing why this way and not another would always keep the ball in play, hence rendering the matter “forever insoluble.” (p. 125)
Why Does the World Exist? is a seeker’s memoir, at turns stimulating and saturnine. The intellectual rigor is interrupted as Holt grieves the death of his dog and later the loss of his mother, only to be picked up over lavish dinners at the local brasserie. His transitions from abstract argument to the definite realities of his own existence make this more than a pallid retread of ideas. Holt’s refreshing humility, wit and sheer eloquence breathe new life into this ancient mystery. Like riding shotgun to Sherlock Holmes on a midnight caper, he doesn’t guide you to one conclusion or pull you away from another, but instead revels in the chase itself.
In the end, Holt’s ambitious book should be appreciated for effectively demonstrating that the titular question is not to be flippantly dismissed and has not been answered with any degree of precision. It’s less about making genuine strides toward resolution than about clarifying the problem, capturing the nuance and lending a sympathetic ear to those brave enough to hazard a hunch. And given the ultimacy of the quest before us, is that not as much as we could expect?
Q&A: Jim Holt on Why the World Exists
Sean Carroll: Did the Universe Begin?
- Ron Rosenbaum’s review at Slate covers the high-profile feud that played out across the pages of the NY Times and The Atlantic between Krauss and philosopher-cum-physicist David Albert.
- “There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible.” —Summa Theologiae I.2.3.
Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles I.22.6, in which he writes: “If, then, something were its own cause of being, it would be understood to be before it had being–which is impossible…”
- David Hume: “How, therefore, shall we satisfy ourselves concerning the cause of that Being, whom you suppose the Author of Nature…? Have we not the same reason to trace that ideal world into another ideal world, or new intelligent principle? But if we stop, and go no further; why go so far? Why not stop at the material world? How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum? And, after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progression? Let us remember the story of the Indian philosopher and his elephant. It was never more applicable than to the present subject. If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world…
“To say, that the different ideas which compose the reason of the Supreme Being, fall into order of themselves, and by their own nature, is really to talk without any precise meaning. If it has a meaning, I would fain know why it is not as good sense to say that the parts of the material world fall into order, of themselves, and by their own nature. Can the one opinion be intelligible, while the other is not so?”
—Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779, pp. 63-64
Thomas Nagel, echoing Hume: “…it is surely incongruous to postulate a first cause as a way of escaping from the coils of an infinite series. For if everything must have a cause, why does not God require one for His own existence? The standard answer is that He does not need any, because He is self-caused. But if God can be self-caused, why cannot the world itself be self-caused?”
— Nagel, “Philosophical concepts of atheism”, 1959, p. 7, reprinted in P. Angeles (ed.), Critiques of God: Making the Case Against Belief in God, Prometheus Books, USA, 1997, pp. 3-18