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Why Does the World ExistWhy is there a world rather than nothing at all remains the darkest and most enduring of all metaphysical mysteries Following in the footsteps of Christopher Hitchens Roger Penrose and even Stephen Hawking Jim Holt now enters this fractious debate with his lively and deeply informed narrative that traces the latest efforts to grasp the origins of the universe The slyly humorous Holt takes on the role of cosmological detective suggesting that we might have been too narrow in limiting our suspects to Yahweh vs the Big Bang Tracking down an eccent. “The lower a man is in an intellectual respect the less puzzling and mysterious existence itself is to him” —Arthur SchopenhauerJim Holt has made a career out of tracking philosophy’s Moby Dick or perhaps appropriately the explanatory “superturtle” the uestion of why there is something rather than nothing The secret to existence The riddle of BeingIt’s a uestion that confronted Plato haunted Heidegger religion claims to have answered long ago and so declare Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking has been conclusively settled by physics That it hugs academic borders so closely and is so charged with ideological subtext are surely clues to its significance No other uestion has battled against such a succession of brilliance and come away as unscathedIn Why Does the World Exist Holt deftly navigates the blurred nexus of philosophy and science in search of how deep explanation can go Have we at last solved the foggiest mystery of all Are science’s popularizers on to something or do their assurances as their critics suggest amount to slack philosophy and so much polemical posturing With an appetite for sophisticated conversation and freuent change in scenery he checks in with a cast of preeminent philosophers scientists and literary savants for today’s leading theoriesPivoting from the spiffy Café de Flore in Paris to the regal ambience of Oxford to a brief stint along the uiet Canadian coast Holt sparks vivid dialogues with John Leslie Steven Weinberg Adolf Grünbaum David Deutsch Alexander Vilenkin Richard Swinburne Roger Penrose John Updike and Derek Parfit This roster of genius serve up their strongest and wildest arguments as Holt runs each through an impressive gauntlet of critiue keeping his eyes peeled for a solution that isn’t hobbled by contradiction and doesn’t succumb to the hamster wheel of infinite regress “a point where all the arrows of explanation converge—where every why is absorbed in an ultimate because”Don’t expect winners and losers however This isn’t so much a battle royale among talented minds as it is a formal invitation to a debate that’s been underway for thousands of years And like a bottle of Bordeaux this one only gets better with ageAnd Then There Was TimeMost scientists through the late 20th century accepted the existence of the universe as a brute fact with explanation outside the bounds of scientific inuiry Unpacking its history—from its breathtaking early expansion to uasars and circumstellar disks—continued apace but was regarded as distinct from the project taken up by Holt and his predecessors It was a matter of specialization with science angled toward the how and philosophy shoveling below to the ultimate Whys In response to those who would conflate these projects Allan Sandage one of the fathers of modern astronomy once remarked “As soon as you ask why there is something instead of nothing you have gone beyond science”Just how far can science take us According to most cosmologists the universe has a finite past ultimately traceable to a singularity event roughly fourteen billion years ago Though the precise nature of this event remains murky we can infer from the redshift of distant galaxies and remnant radiation from the early universe the absolute age of all space and all time This spatio temporal boundary dictates what uestions we can entertain In short asking what happened before the Big Bang may be no sensible than asking what’s north of the North PoleWe count this conceit as self evident today but it actually harks back to Leibniz the 17th century polymath who held that time is not absolute but can only exist in a universe in which the relationship between mass and energy changes see relational theory Otherwise put if time is not involved events do not occur If this view is correct the singularity gave rise to time itself beyond which the very concepts of cause and effect break down—along with our known laws of physics Rather like a curtain that conceals the goings on behind it the Big Bang is a comprehensive model whose explanatory scope cuts off at the singularity Horizon or no one does not need a crash course in the Big Bang origin of spacetime to surmise that the singularity stands in need of explanation as well In recent years a number of prominent scientists have gone further in an attempt to fill in the missing details surrounding our universe’s birth Pointing up the latest advances in particle physics and cosmology Krauss Hawking and Michiu Kaku contend not only that our universe indeed came from nothing but that we have pinned down the particular nothing from which it emergedNaturally many of these discussions tend to turn on how one defines ‘nothing’ In A Universe From Nothing Krauss sees it as an unstable vacuum state in which particles and antiparticles dart in and out of existence according to physical laws In The Grand Design Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow use uantum theory to argue for a multiverse where an infinite number of “bubble universes” and the uniue laws to which they are subject are generated simultaneously from an initial gravitational singularityAs critics have pointed out there seems to be a philosophically important gulf between the pre Big Bang “broth” as described in scientific cosmological terms and the simplicity of pure nothingness The physicist David Deutsch gives a strenuous defense of this point in his conversation with Holt When asked whether uantum field theory could shed light on the something from nothing impasse he takes to task Krauss and colleagues who claim that creation ex nihilo now rests securely in science’s wheelhouse“Not the leastuantum theory is too parochial to address the uestion of existence When you talk about a particle and an antiparticle appearing in the vacuum that’s not at all like coming into existence out of nothing The uantum vacuum is a highly structured thing that obeys deep and complex laws of physics It’s not ‘nothingness’ in the philosophical sense at all It’s not even as little as the kind of nothing you have in your bank account when there’s no money in it I mean there’s still the bank account A uantum vacuum is much even than an empty bank account because it’s got structure There’s stuff happening in it” p 128Whatever representation of nothing we might settle on it would have to contain some modicum of properties to germinate the something that is the universe properties that would then oblige explanation Thus whether we accept Krauss’ definition or Vilenkin’s—“a closed spacetime of zero radius” p 143—the uestion lingers whence those constituent properties Who or what determined themWhile the cosmic optimist insists we put the matter on ice while we wait for the long sought and oft vaunted “final” theory of physics sober minded critics are unamused For even a theory of everything would be part of the something to be explained More to the point even if we were able to conclude thanks to a complete understanding of physics that a cosmogonic singularity was inevitable given the fields forces or fluctuations involved we may still ask why do we find ourselves in a universe or multiverse spawned by a vacuum state furnished with the ingredients necessary to wink it into existence Why not a different mixture of ingredients devoid of universe issuing potential or none at all“Indeed such a unified theory might turn out to be the closest we can come to giving a complete physical explanation of why the world is the way it is But the final theory of physics would still leave a residue of mystery—why this force why this law It would not contain within itself an answer to the uestion of why it was the final theory So it would not live up to the principle that every fact must have an explanation—the Principle of Sufficient Reason” p 78Our exhumation of deep time continues to gather empirical steam replete with enough discovery and triumph to jolt Galileo from his grave but does it get us any closer to answering the uestion at the heart of Holt’s book Why does anything existBrute Fact Universe or GodOne way out of this uagmire is to posit a supernatural intelligence that poofed the world into existence If God exists then the answer would be ‘because God did it that way’ This of course is also man’s oldest answer It is valid as concerns the proximate uestion but skirts the one underneath In the same way that positing a multiverse to explain our universe merely kicks the discussion downwind introducing God to explain our universe naturally begs the uestion of God’s existence If the universe needs a cause does God not need one as wellPhilosophers and theologians have tussled with this dilemma in various ways Leibniz and Plotinus invoked the principle of causa sui “cause of itself” to argue that God is self caused among the set of features of an all powerful being is the ability to answer for its own existence Auinas rejected this outright contending that no entity can cause itself because it would have to exist prior to itself—a logical contradiction Instead he adduced the argument from contingency which says that all causes depend on some prior cause and since there cannot be an infinite series of causes they must terminate in a necessary or non contingent being The Thomistic formulation is but another face of Aristotle’s Uncaused Cause known variously as Unmoved Mover Prime Mover or First CauseHolt finds these arguments problematic And he is in good company; Hume Kant and Russell had their suspicions as well though for different reasons Holt’s contention is not so much with the notion of self explanation but that the cosmological argument simply reframes the original uestion trading one conundrum for another Positing an eternal being with no origin to explain the world’s origin is no answer at all ‘Why is there a universe rather than no universe’ becomes ‘Why is there a God rather than no God'“God is a fitting ontological foundation for a contingent world Yet he himself has no ontological foundation His essence does not include existence His being is not logically necessary He might not have existed There might have been no God nothing at all” p 119Whatever logic we apply to God can also be applied to the Universe If the Universe reuires something to create it why not God Likewise if you want to say that God is uncaused and reuires no explanation on what non arbitrary grounds can the Universe not exist uncaused and unexplained as well In the assertion 'X exists as a function of its own essence' neither term comes out obviously ahead Both represent uniue metaphysical claims and both propositions can be derived through logical meansNor does God fulfill the precondition of ex nihilo that is often thrown at the naturalist’s feet Like uantum fields and the laws governing the spontaneous creation of particles from a vacuum God certainly is not ‘nothing’ In both cases we start with ‘something’ to produce another ‘something’ neither of which is ‘nothing’ Whatever new entities we might insert to fill the explanatory void ushers us right back to suare oneThis Great Chain of Regress is the kind of gridlock that prompts Adolf Grünbaum a philosopher of science Holt interviews early on to shoo away the uestion as prima facie incoherent He says there can’t be a reason and that those who demand one are buying into a bit of Christian theology ex nihilo that arose in the second century in order to counter the Hellenistic competition “Don’t worry about why there’s a world” he says “it’s an ill conceived uestion”If we decide to ignore Grünbaum’s counsel and like Holt persist in the astonishment of Being we are left with two options We can throw up our hands reject the aforesaid PSR and accept one or another brute fact the balance of which tends to settle along ideological lines Or we can take solace in the words of Martin Amis who once responded when the uestion was put to him “we’re at least five Einsteins away from answering that uestion” and get on with the huntThe Road to AbstractificationHaving given the less exotic ideas a fair shake Holt ventures off into ever obscure pastures He gestures toward the monistic simplicity of panpsychism—the idea that “mind stuff” is the fundamental constituent of reality—espoused by folks like David Chalmers Christof Koch and Thomas Nagel He dives under the currents of Platonism and the many colorful interpretations currently jostling for stature such as the notion that math and morality have an external reality as opposed to being mere human constructions Engaging those who push Platonism to radical heights Holt asks how mathematical abstractions—per Penrose’s pure Forms and Max Tegmark’s mathematical universe hypothesis also known as the Ultimate Ensemble—or moral imperatives—vis à vis John Leslie’s extreme axiarchism—could be responsible for summoning a world like ours into existenceNames theories and seminal texts are dropped routinely but not at random It’s all very orderly meticulous in approach and laced with perfectly placed metaphor It would take than a review to do any kind of justice to such intricate theories but Holt’s encyclopedic knowledge of both philosophy and science makes for the ideal inuisitor Some of the answers he fields prove just as mysterious as the uestion itselfFrom Dust to DustWithout a universe there would be nothing to ask and no one to do the asking—no angst no joy no existential weariness Holt wishes to remind us that things did not turn out this way We are here uestions in hand and this fact alone is of unexampled significance As Steven Weinberg once wrote our “effort to understand the universe is one of the very things that lifts human life above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy” It is the absence of answers that drives us forward It is also what compels philosophers like Holt to obsess over the intellectual huntAfter criss crossing the globe and contemplating existence alongside some of the greatest minds past and present even offering a “proof” of his own for why Being prevailed over Nonbeing the sun sets not far from where we began Holt remains content to bask in this greatest of mysteries coveting a verdict yet wary of relinuishing his skepticism prematurely Perhaps our human perspective limits our ability to ask the right uestions Or as eually disconcerting for someone who expects reimbursement for their intellectual labors perhaps not every uestion has an answerAlas if there is ever to be an ultimate explanation of reality how would we know we had found it As Deutsch laments to Holt the vexing why this way and not another would always keep the ball in play hence rendering the matter “forever insoluble” p 125 Why Does the World Exist is a seeker’s memoir at turns stimulating and saturnine The intellectual rigor is interrupted as Holt grieves the death of his dog and later the loss of his mother only to be picked up over lavish dinners at the local brasserie His transitions from abstract argument to the definite realities of his own existence make this than a pallid retread of ideas Holt’s refreshing humility wit and sheer elouence breathe new life into this ancient mystery Like riding shotgun to Sherlock Holmes on a midnight caper he doesn’t guide you to one conclusion or pull you away from another but instead revels in the chase itselfIn the end Holt’s ambitious book should be appreciated for effectively demonstrating that the titular uestion is not to be flippantly dismissed and has not been answered with any degree of precision It’s less about making genuine strides toward resolution than about clarifying the problem capturing the nuance and lending a sympathetic ear to those brave enough to hazard a hunch And given the ultimacy of the uest before us is that not as much as we could expectNote This review is republished from my official website
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Download ´ Why Does the World Exist? 100 Ó Why is there a world rather than nothing at all remains the darkest and most enduring of all metaphysical mysteries Following in the footsteps of Christopher Hitchens Roger Penrose and even Stephen Hawking Jim Holt now enters this fractious debate with his lively and deeply informed narrative that Rse coolly returning every serve 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 And yet it does what real science writing should It helps us feel the fullness of the problem” Kathryn Schulz New York Magazine Jim Holt leaves us with the uestion Stephen Hawking once asked but couldn't answer ‘Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing’” Ron Rosenbaum Slat. An exuberant romp of a book Holt ponders that most enduring impossible of uestions why is there something rather than nothing All well good I enjoyed the ride even though one should know from the outset that nothing will be decided The author won't even get to the bottom of what exactly nothing IS But that's to be expected doesn't diminish the pleasure of the uest Midway through the book however I began to wonder why all the philosophers scientists or simply very smart people the author consulted conversed with were white males pretty exclusively North American or British perhaps a few Frenchmen since the author does journey to Paris a few times he does at least mention Buddhism at the very end of the book It's not like there aren't very smart women non English or French speaking women men in the world who might have contributed some interesting thoughts on the subject The author seems very willing to travel since he crossed the Atlantic to Paris London several times So he wasn't forced by lack of funds time or physical disability from seeking answers further afield Even if he were limited to New York City his home base there must be a goodly supply of female thinkers in that city alone I have to assume that an exclusionary principle operated at the level of personal inclination or disinclination as it were Such thoughts did spoil the fun a bit I must admit
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Ric Oxford philosopher a Physics Nobel Laureate a French Buddhist monk who lived with the Dalai Lama and John Updike just before he died Holt pursues unexplored angles to this cosmic puzzle As he pieces together a solution one that sheds new light on the uestion of God and the meaning of existence he offers brisk philosophical asides on time and eternity consciousness and the arithmetic of nothingness“The pleasure of this book is watching the match the staggeringly inventive human mind slamming its fantastic conjectures over the net the unive. The author considers all possible perspectives a strategy which makes the discussion a bit vague and directionless in my opinion