Sunday, February 02, 2014

Why Does The World Exist?

I finished this book, not surprisingly, at a Starbucks. As I rose from the table and put my coat on a lady asked me "So what's the answer?" I looked at her as if I'd just fallen off the cabbage truck. But there was the book still on the table and she was pointing at the cover. "Oh," I said "There really is no answer." She laughed and sat down in my vacated chair, saying "Of course there isn't. That's quite the question."
And she's right. There isn't. And it is.
If you approach Jim Holt's Why Does The World Exist? expecting to find some airtight conclusion on the last page, you're reading it for the wrong reason. The truth is, the answer is indeed impossible, but this makes the question itself all the more relevant. At least this is the opinion of the author. We are a curious species, and Jim Holt must have surely been a cat in a former life, because he is tenacious at clawing his way toward a better understanding of why there is something, rather than nothing. That is the fundamental question asked at every level of this book: 

Why is there something rather than nothing?
Wouldn't it be simpler or more logical for the universe to simply not exist? Isn't "nothingness" a more likely default position than what we know to be the case -- that there is not only "something" but SO MUCH of something, that it staggers the mind?
Holt, a philosopher in his own right, takes us on a thoroughly unbiased journey through the history of ideas on this very subject of existence. He is well-versed and well-researched, and personally interviews a wide range of experts on the topic. Scientists, theologians, philosophers, mathematicians, physicists -- theists to non-theists -- everyone sort of has their say in the book. At one point it is estimated that we are perhaps a century or even two centuries away from really being able to elucidate the "how" aspect of the universe. And even then, the "why" question will probably still exist, unanswered. Really, there is that humbling sense that mankind, given all of our current knowledge, is yet in the infancy stages of understanding why anything is "here" in the first place. Just as vital pieces of the puzzle seem to be fitted into place and expressed in axioms or laws, the very existence of those laws must also be explained, as to their own origins. Vis a vis, even if "God" were posited as the source of these [seemingly] natural laws of nature, [a view the author, not to mention me as a reader, would interpret as being defeatist] well then -- what is the source of "God"?
This is not to give the impression that we are mired in gobbledegook, theory-wise, and should just give up the pursuit. There is definite progress being made, in much the same way as progress has been made in the field of chemistry -- in which, prior to the discovery of the Periodic Table the ancient chemical theory of Thales held sway, based on water alone.
Holt is hopeful that each generation will gain a better understanding of this problem of the fundamental nature of existence. Perhaps our great-great grandchildren [not mine, but yours, by the way…] will be able to look up at the night sky and, as the stars twinkle above, have a greater science-based understanding of why everything is as it is, than we do. In the meantime, it seems to me that the best we virtual Neanderthals can do is read great books like this, and continue to wonder. This book is a testament to the fact that greater minds than the average stunned-faced guy at a Starbucks near you [struggling to find the second armhole of his jacket] are hard at work -- trying to come up with improved theories to apply to the Unanswerable Question.


1 comment:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

My husband is discussing this book this week with his ski-book-club group (weird, I know!) in Aspen. I can't wait to hear what they all have said about it when he gets back; it's a hugely interesting topic!