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Book Review: Schulz on Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?

Let’s take stock of the universe, shall we? From my immediate perspective, there is — well, me, of course. Also: laptop, ear buds, Arcade Fire, coffee. As it happens, I’m on an airplane, so: wing, lift, engine, window, clouds. Below that … where to start? Tides, deserts, Damascus, Dubrovnik, spruce trees, refugee camps, tapestries of unicorns, ice cream, the Internet, home. Beyond that: sun, moon, planets, exoplanets, the starry @ sign of the Milky Way. And then, for most of us, things do get milky, murky—what’s out there, exactly? Black holes, red dwarfs, cosmic background radiation, the rest of the universe, other universes, who knows? And I’ve left out nearly everything: most of creation (human and otherwise), all of time (past and future), all abstract concepts (pi, e, Beauty), and that strange unthinglike thing that is both component and agent of this cosmic inventory: human consciousness.

Mind, matter, abstract ideas: Where does all this stuff come from? Why is the universe characterized by such abundance and complexity? Why does it exist at all? How did it come into being? Could there have been something else instead? Could there have been nothing else—that is, nothingness—instead? Is the human mind capable of resolving these matters? Can anyone do justice to all this in a 279-page book?

I can answer only the last of these questions. Yes, someone can: Jim Holt, in Why Does the World Exist? That title echoes a question famously posed by G. W. Leibniz, a brilliant philosopher, groundbreaking mathematician, and incurable optimist. The bit of optimism he’s best known for (largely because Voltaire made so much fun of it in Candide) is the claim that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” But Leibniz was also an information optimist: He believed there was an answer to every question. “This principle having been stated,” he wrote in 1714, “the first question which we have a right to ask will be, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ ”

Poor Leibniz. He was right about that being a first question, in every sense: primary, fundamental, brilliant. But as for an answer—well, three centuries on, the best we can say is, it’s not for lack of trying. The mystery of why the universe exists still intrigues and defies philosophers, theologians, scientists, and pretty much anyone who’s ever sprawled in a park and stared at the sky. It’s central to the so-called God Wars, in which atheists and believers square off over, among other issues, who owns ontology. It is why some people are at the multiplex this summer watching Prometheus and others are celebrating last week’s presumed discovery of the Higgs ­boson, a fundamental particle whose existence helps explain the workings of the universe. It is drastically suprahuman in scale, yet scarily, unnervingly intimate: We, too, came from nothing and are headed back there. In short, it intrigues us all, affects us all, and—alas—confounds us all. As usual, William James put it best. Of the enigma of existence, he wrote, “All of us are beggars here.”

Holt, an essayist and critic whose previous book was about jokes—make of that what you will—is an unlikely candidate to answer Leibniz’s question. It’s probably wise, then, that except for one brief stab at it, he doesn’t even try. Instead, he pools the beggars’ assets, or maybe audits them. His book features extended interviews with cosmologists, from Adolph Grünbaum (a philosopher and atheist) to Richard Swinburne (philosopher, theist) to Roger Penrose (mathematician) to Steven Weinberg (Nobel Prize–winning physicist). Holt offers additional thoughts in between, but mostly he serves as messenger and mediator. That structure pays oblique homage to the tradition of philosophical dialogues (“It was a beautiful speech, Agathon … ”), but mainly it makes Holt a kind of cosmological Studs Terkel. The voices he records affirm, challenge, refine, mock, and admire each other, and it is this way—conversationally—that Holt brings both complexity and clarity to his subject.

And Holt’s book is conversational in the other sense, too. Why Does the World Exist? unfolds over coffee at Sartre’s beloved Café de Flore and booze pretty much anywhere the author can find it, and, like the conversations I like best, it is deep, absorbing, associative, challenging, and makes you laugh, unexpectedly and a lot. It is also lucid: Holt ably explains some of the hardest material ever served up by physics, philosophy, and math. That’s an impressive hat trick, but I appreciated just as much his instinct not to explain the grace notes. If you catch that flying reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins (yes) or know what “inspissate” means (no)—well, great. If not, whatever; you and he both have bigger fish to fry. All that unexplicated erudition could feel show-offy or obfuscatory, but it doesn’t. It feels somewhere between generous—an act of faith in his readers—and pleasantly oblivious. One gets the happy sense of a smart person writing mostly for himself.

Why can’t we figure out how the universe began? To help answer that question, Holt hauls out the oft-told tale of the cosmological turtle. In case you haven’t heard it, the gist is this. A famous professor is giving a lecture about the nature of the universe when an elderly woman stands up and tells him he’s talking nonsense: The universe, as everyone knows, rests on the back of an elephant. “Oh?” replies the professor. “And what’s the elephant standing on?” “A turtle,” the woman explains. “I see,” the professor says. “And what’s the turtle standing on?” “Another turtle,” she replies. “And what’s that turtle standing on?” he asks. “Ah, professor.” She smiles. “After that, it’s turtles all the way down.”

That is the problem of existence in a tortoise shell. An account of the origins of the universe is called a cosmogony—but no cosmogony can be complete, because they all invoke entities that themselves require explanation. If, for instance, you believe in divine creation, you need to explain the existence of the divine. To argue that God needs no explanation or is an uncaused cause doesn’t solve the problem; it just assigns the name “God” to the mysterious, unsupported turtle at the base of the ontological heap. Science, too, gets stuck here. “A scientific explanation must involve some sort of physical cause,” Holt writes. “But any physical cause is by definition part of the universe to be explained.” Philosophy is similarly stumped. “From nothing to being,” James wrote, “there is no logical bridge.”

There are, however, a lot of illogical bridges, many of which take recognizable forms. You can say A because B, B because C, C because D—but what explains D? If you say A, your explanation is circular. If you say because E because F because G (H, I, J, K … ), your explanation is an infinite regress: a taller stack of turtles. You might, instead, argue that D is explained by X, where X is some kind of necessary truth, a logical deduction or physical law. But this presents an interesting question: How, exactly, do you get a material universe out of a necessary truth? “Are the laws of physics somehow to inform the Abyss that it is pregnant with Being?” Holt asks. “If so, where do the laws themselves live? Do they hover over the world like the mind of God? … How do they reach out and make a world? How do they force events to obey them?”

Got me. Got everybody. Try as we might, we can’t find a way to tell a sound causal story about the origins of the universe. The absence of an explanation is one thing, but the absence of any imaginable form that an explanation could take is something else, and it has caused many cosmologists to throw up their hands. Swinburne believes we should just accept an “intellectual stopping point.” Weinberg thinks “we’re permanently doomed to that sense of mystery.” And Bertrand Russell—not exactly an intellectual pushover—simply said Uncle: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.”

So we are stuck. Yet the very intractability of the problem turns out to have a salutary (and fun) side effect: All the ordinary kinds of answers being impossible, one begins to think in earnest about the extraordinary ones. This is a book that gets us to take seriously, at least for a few pages, the proposition that the universe was brought into being by the abstract idea of Goodness. (Hey, Plato thought so.) Elsewhere, we get a probabilistic, Bayesian case for the existence of God. We hear Heidegger speculate that nothingness is an agent, that noth-ing is a verb (“Das Nichts nichtet,” or “Nothing noths”: shades of Hopkins, for whom the self “selves”); perhaps, then, nothing nothed itself, thereby creating Being. We contemplate panpsychism, the theory that consciousness is a fundamental property, irreducible to physical components and pervasive throughout the universe: that, in the words of the astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, “the stuff of the world is mind-stuff.”

The weirdness goes on. We learn—and I am quoting here because my powers to intelligently paraphrase this are limited—that “a tiny bit of energy-filled vacuum could spontaneously ‘tunnel’ into existence,” and then, bang, expand to become the universe. We learn that a hundred-thousandth of a gram of matter would suffice to generate a universe like ours, which means it’s conceivable that we were created by some extraterrestrial nerd in an extra-universal lab. We entertain the possibility, favored by some physicists, that “nothingness is unstable,” which means something was bound to happen. And we entertain the possibility that everything was bound to happen. That is the principle of fecundity: the idea that all possible worlds are real. Muse on the implications of that one for your personal life—or lives—on your next subway ride home.

Who knows if we have a fecundity of universes. Clearly, though, we have a fecundity of cosmogonies. How, then, are we supposed to adjudicate among them?

Listen to Holt give it a go. Of the notion that a tiny bit of vacuum arose spontaneously and expanded into the universe: “I had to confess that my imagination bridled.” Of the universe-from-Goodness theory: “I did admire it. But I wasn’t quite moved by it.” And after talking with Grünbaum, who resolutely refuses to find anything mysterious about the universe, Holt descends into gloom. “Okay, it was a mood, not a philosophical argument,” he concedes. “But it filled me with the conviction that Grünbaum’s ontological certitude … could not be the last word.”

Imagination bridles; feeling fails; a mood yields a conviction. These are the kinds of judgments a friend of mine jokingly refers to as “introspective empiricism.” The joke part is the “empiricism”: Surely how an idea feels to us, or makes us feel, should not be taken as evidence for its truth. So why does Holt, plainly a rigorous thinker, succumb to such an iffy strategy? And why do so many of the brilliant cosmologists in his book implicitly or explicitly do the same?

Because, as it turns out, there’s no other kind of empiricism available. The cosmogonies Holt presents are fascinating, illuminating—and, almost without exception, unsupported by evidence. And that’s not even their gravest offense. Weinberg, the physicist, notes that the trouble with cosmogony is “not just that we don’t have the observational data—we don’t even have the theory.” He means we do not have a testable hypothesis, let alone one that has withstood the testing.

This raises questions that have nothing to do with the nature of the universe. Holt’s book is, of course, about cosmology. But it is also, covertly, about ­epistemology—about the nature of knowledge, and the scope and limit of the human mind. Why Does the World Exist? is not just concerned with what we know about a possibly unique and unquestionably mysterious event that took place 14 billion years ago. It’s also concerned with what we can know about that event, and how we can know it, and what “knowing” even means in this context.

These answers, too, are up for grabs. The optimistic position on the capacity of the human mind vis-à-vis the cosmos was nicely summed up by Emily Dickinson. “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—,” she wrote sometime around 1862, a generation before Einstein was born:

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

With ease, eh? I’ve always loved those lines, but after reading Holt, they strike me as the Newtonian physics of poetic expression: sufficient to capture everyday experience, quite possibly wrong when applied on any extra-human scale. Contemporary cosmogony is so difficult to fathom that one starts to side, instead, with the biologist J.B.S. Haldane. “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose,” he wrote, “but queerer than we can suppose.” The sky, in his view, is wider than the brain.

Who knows which entity will ultimately win out in the capaciousness game? The pleasure of this book is watching the match: the staggeringly inventive human mind slamming its fantastic conjectures over the net, the universe coolly returning every serve. In one sense, at least, it’s a game of equals; by broad consensus, the two most enigmatic phenomena around are human consciousness and the origins of the universe. The balance between them—between our curiosity, and the universe’s mystery—is, in every sense, a fine one.

In his epilogue, Holt is in Paris, watching French TV, where a Dominican priest, a Buddhist monk, and a theoretical physicist are debating the origins of the universe. It sounds like the setup to a joke, but we gradually realize it’s the setup to the book: He’s taking us back to the beginning, showing us why there is this particular something rather than nothing. It’s a lovely move, at once serious and prankish. Why does this book exist? Because its author went to a party in Paris, drank some wine, returned home, watched TV. Hey, thanks for the turtles! Where did Paris come from? How do you get a universe from nothing? How do you get a book from a brain?

Nobody knows. And Holt, to his credit, is comfortable with that. So much of contemporary science writing traffics in the illusion of knowledge; it’s quick to close the case, eager to peddle solutions, determined to be useful or profitable to readers. Holt traffics in wonder, a word whose dual meanings—the absence of answers; the experience of awe—strike me as profoundly related. His book is not utilitarian. You can’t profit from it, at least not in the narrow sense. Sometimes you can’t even understand it. And yet it does what real science writing should: It helps us feel the fullness of the problem. This is a book that ends, literally and figuratively, in opacity and incompleteness. Holt is halfway across a bridge, at night, smoking a cigarette—that tiny artifact of human ingenuity, addictive and glowing. In an act of civic irresponsibility but intellectual bravura, he leans over and lets it drop into the darkness. It falls like one final question: How much will we illuminate, before we are extinguished?     

Why Does the World Exist?
By Jim Holt.
Norton. $27.95.

This story appeared in the July 16, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: NASA