Thursday, April 11, 2013

Something Rather Than Nothing

The first thought I had upon starting to read Jim Holt’s book, Why Does The World Exist?  An Existential Detective Story (Liveright, 2012), was that my working class father and other men of his generation worked and lived through their days without this question ever crossing their minds.  It was irrelevant because you did exist, and it was sink or swim.  There was no time for thinking about how you came to be in the water paddling for your life.  You were born, you went to school, you found a nice girl, married and settled down, had children, and in my father’s case, you worked ten hour shifts at the brewery seven days a week to keep bread on the table for your growing family.  Then, you retired at 65, and in retirement, depending on what had happened in your life, you might wonder what it all meant.  So Holt’s questioning might be seen as a tad bit precious, but it’s not.

Outside of the academy, it is rare for any human being to put as much contemplative thought into this question—Why is there something rather than nothing?—as Jim Holt does.  Most of us today are still, like my father’s generation, just trying to survive.  But Holt tugs at you and shakes you up; the ethereal nature of the ideas he presents, well, there’s the mind candy.  He brings science, philosophy, and theology to bear on the question, and presents credible and intriguing theories about the nature of existence even though absolute answers remain elusive 309 pages later.  The book is well worth the trip, and the journey is its own reward.

His trinity of science, philosophy, and theology is necessary and integral to the discussion.  These disciplines also present a broad discussion for a single book.  Holt dives into select theories in each field with skill and precision, and there is something for everyone here.  If you are lost in discussions of physics and string theory, then Holt offers up Sartre working in philosophy or John Updike hard at it in literature in an interview only days before he died.  He also includes snippets of history, biography, and anecdotal stories, and these brief interludes are just as interesting as the deeper thinking.

We see Sartre scribbling on his tablet at the Café de Flore in Paris during the war, writing Being and Nothingness.  He ordered tea with milk, Holt tells us, and gathered cigarette butts of departing patrons to “stuff into his briar pipe” and smoke.

In his travels to London, Paris, and the U.S., he interviews scientists, philosophers, and theologians, and they are presented as fully drawn, multi-layered characters who have equally intriguing theories about why we are here.

Admittedly, the terrain can be challenging, but Holt is an able guide.  He takes great pains to parse apart the origins of this world.  “Science may be able to trace how the current universe evolved from an earlier state of physical reality,” he writes, “even following the process back as far as the Big Bang.  But ultimately science hits a wall.  It can’t account for the origin of the primal physical state out of nothing.”

The crux of Holt’s investigation is that even an empty container has the form of the container itself.  It is not nothing, so it must be something.  Absolute nothingness, if it can be imagined, would then be something.  Imagining brings into existence, even if it is only a diagram or an equation on paper.  This plays with the notion of cause and effect.  If a science fiction writer can imagine human beings exploring other planets using nuclear powered vessels, it is as if we have the answer and now must work backward to solve the problem of how to create such a vessel.  And this has been proven out time and again when a writer, artist, or even a scientist imagines, and later the fruits of his imagination become reality.

This is relevant to the study of death and the afterlife.  Death is the absence of life.  Yet, if a body decays, is that not a life process in itself?  Are not the microbes and bacteria that break down organic matter alive?  Does this mean one kind of life is swapped out for another?  I am reminded of Walt Whitman’s line that we should look for him under the soles of our boots.

Holt quotes Cicero’s famous dictum, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”  He writes, “It is not the prospect of unending nothingness as such that makes death terrifying; it is the prospect of losing all the goods of life, and losing them permanently.”  So our fear of death is a fear of lost material goods, all the trappings of this world separated from us at the moment of our departure.  Yet Holt knows firsthand it is also about losing the people we love.  He recounts in vivid images the death of his mother who passed during the research and writing of this book.  At the moment of her departure, while Holt stands next to her bed, her eyes “opened wide, as if in alarm.”  She stares at her son and appears to try to speak.  “Within a couple of seconds, her breathing stopped,” he writes, and she is gone.

Just like that, we pass into nothingness.  Only theology tells us otherwise.  And to have faith means to believe the gods will deliver on their promises.  Existence is infinite and only the stages shift.  But what are these stages?  Other dimensions?  Some constructed new reality, a sliver of the multiverse that is the product of physics?  Whatever the next life will be, there has always been something, and there will always be something more.  But as nothingness cannot begat something, something cannot be reduced to nothingness.

“The world is like a dream,” Holt concludes with a dash of poetry, “an illusion.  But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid seeming.”

One of Holt’s memorable interviews is with physicist Steven Weinberg.  He quotes from Weinberg’s book, The First Three Minutes (Basic Books, 1993):  “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.”

Why do we exist?  Because we do.  Why does the world exist?  Because it does.  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Because there is.

These are end of journey questions.  Right here, right now, we simply need to live well and look to the conjugation of the verb to be for a simple, clear answer:  I was, I am, I will be.  Past, present, future.

In short, we keep traveling.


  1. i'm incredibly intrigued, paul, and i have to say i've enjoyed your review much more than the one posted in the new york review of books. thank you for this.


  2. Thank you, Erin. That is a high compliment and much appreciated. Hope you are well.

  3. Another insightful column, Paul. Now I want to read the book, and you did that. I struggle to make it through life & probably have no time to probe deep questions, myself, but I do. Can't help myself.

    Keep 'em coming my friend. You're an excellent writer & I always gain something from reading your stuff.

    J. Guy

    P.S. I liked your words, "mind candy."

  4. Actually, the day to day hassles of living often take us out of the reflective mode. We survive, we don't thrive as intellectual reflective human beings. I, too, must force myself to think about things, and often I am too much "in my mind." I can miss what is happening in the now. It is a delicate balance. We need to take time every day for reflection and thinking to keep us sane.

    Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment on two separate posts.

  5. Coincidently, I read those lines of Whitman two or three days ago. Having lost a friend, back in December, I found them comforting. Made me think that there is something rather than nothing although it often doesn't feel like it with all the swimming or sinking.

    Fine post, thank you.

  6. Thank you for reading and commenting, Jonathan. And I am sorry to hear about your loss. I have found a measure of comfort in Whitman and also Frost's poetry, especially "Nothing Gold Can Stay" and "The Sound of Trees." Poetry is the great peacemaker, the great healer of all sorrows. Take care.


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