Sunday, 28 October 2012

Holt, J. (2012) Why Does the World Exist? An existential detective story, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation

Many years ago when I was still in the sixth form at school, I was given as a birthday present (from a suggestion) an edition of George Gamow’s Mr Tompkins in Wonderland and Mr Tompkins Explores the Atom gathered together as Mr Tompkins in Paperback. Although I was studying physics at A level, with a view to reading it at university, and also owned such fine books as Herman Bondi’s introduction to relativity, nothing captured my imagination like Gamow’s book. The combination of a simple and rather old fashioned narrative frame (the staid and somewhat nerdish Mr Tompkins’ romance with Maud) with a serious if very simplified attempt to summarise both relativistic and quantum theoretical physics in everyday terms (Mr Tompkins repeatedly falls asleep and dreams about travelling at light speed or playing billiards with tiny particles) appealed to me neither as fiction (it isn’t very good) nor as popular science but as something that, perhaps, symbolised a rapprochement of both. I say ‘symbolised’ because I don’t think that I simply judged the book in its own terms but as something representing some broader possibilities for understanding the world.

I was reminded of this whilst reading Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? An existential detective story. The main theme of the book is quite simple. It addresses the title question (with world construed very broadly to mean everything that is), drawing on both philosophy and physics, or cosmology. But it is not an academic philosophy book (it is aimed at an intelligent general reader) nor a popular science book (since it is not covering science outside its very particular focus) but, rather, something distinct. Its question is very specific - why is there something rather than nothing - but general, since that question is of the widest possible significance or import, yet the treatment is also very personal. We read of Holt’s particular quest to talk to the right philosophers and physicists to try to find an answer. I will say something about both elements. 

As Holt says on more than a couple of occasions, the question of why there is something rather than nothing divides philosophers. Some, like Heidegger and the author of the Tractatus, seem to think it the most quintessentially philosophical question. It runs deep since its nature puts severe limits on what might legitimately be appealed to without begging the question. Pretty much anything that might serve as the explanans (ie the fact or thing invoked to do the explaining) will be a something and hence will beg the question of why there is something (ie the explanandum: the thing or fact to be explained) in the first place. But, perhaps because of that, many or most practising philosophers take no interest in it. (In the book, Holt talks to Adolf Grunbaum who takes such a line.)

As a professional philosopher, I fall, I realise, into the latter camp. I have read nothing on the question as part of my academic life. Thus I read Holt’s summary of the history of the question with practical interest. It is a very broad philosophical overview aimed at readers with no knowledge of the subject (ie either this question or the discipline) which is, nevertheless, entirely serious and engaging. Someone with an interest in philosophy but no background should be able to follow the discussion and get lots out of it.

What seemed odder to me, despite this also being an issue for Holt too and so something he does discuss, is the relation between the philosophers’ attempts to answer the question and physicists’ attempts to answer a question asked using the same words. Suppose that in the actual empirical world, the laws are such that a full size universe (!) can inflate out of a tiny universe and that a tiny universe can spring into being from nothing, under some interpretation of that term. Does that address the philosophers’ question? After all, the possibilities read back into the kind of nothingness in question seem cherry-picked to lead to this full sized universe. Could there have been a nothing which supported no laws that might lead to either stage of inflation? And if so, are we not just begging the question by selecting the right substantive sort of nothing with which to begin? I would have liked more to link the philosophical and physicist readings of the question.

But in fact, why I really liked the book was the almost breathtaking series of encounters with philosophers, physicists and novelists made all the more striking by the fact that they appear as characters in a kind of autobiography. We read that Swinbourne was ‘wearing a nicely tailored dark suit and a sweater, which was tucked into his pants’ [ibid: 95] and that Updike called having been playing ‘kickball with his grandchildren’ [ibid: 252]. Parfitt is generous with his time and offers lunch but does not go on the record. Grunbaum is a dreadful driver. David Deutsch lives amid piles of rubbish. None of these details really helps with the discussion and yet they help to set the abstract inquiry into a concrete world of real inquirers.

Holt himself does not escape unscathed, either. First, a visit to talk to Steven Weinberg (one of my own heroes when I was reading Mr Tompkins) in Austin is interrupted by news of the death of his dog. Later, his mother dies. Both of these details might have been used, clunkily, to make the question of existence more pressing. But I think that that is neither the effect nor the aim. Rather, if anything, they make the quest seem a little more absurd. And yet, having joined him on it over 250 pages, that absurdity does not block our interest or his. We ask because we cannot help it even though no plausible answer seems likely.

I wonder whether this would be a perfect Christmas present.

Holt, J. (2012) Why Does the World Exist? An existential detective story, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation