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 proposal that our universe is simply one of those things which happen from time to time.”
(Liveright) - ‘Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story’ by Jim Holt
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.
Michael S. Roth
is the president of Wesleyan University and the author of “Memory, Trauma, and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”