Monthly Archives: May 2014

Review of Jim Holt’s, Why Does The World Exist?

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, June 4, 2014)

Jim Holt’s recent book, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, tackles the question that Martin Heidegger characterized as the greatest in all philosophy and William James called the darkest in all philosophy—why is there something rather than nothing? For many religious believers the obvious answer to this question is god or allah, but this begs the question of how these gods came to be. In response many probe scientific answers, but Holt says that scientific explanations suffer because any physical cause proposed to explain reality is part of reality—hence scientific explanations never show how something came from a true nothing. (The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss rejects this claim in his recent book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing.) We might also say the universe just is, it exists as a brute fact without a cause, perhaps because it is eternal. But this violates Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason, the idea that there must be a reason for every truth. So what answers are available? To find out Holt visits many of the world’s foremost thinkers for answers.

The first person Holt visits is the physicist Andrei Linde who thinks the universe was created in a lab by a physicist hacker. (This suggestion should caution all those who assume the designer of the universe was omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent.) Next he visits the philosopher, atheist, and ardent critic of religion Adolf Grunbaum who thinks the very question is misconceived. The idea that the world needs an explanation assumes that without one nothingness would prevail. But why do only deviations from nothingness need explanations? Why can’t somethingness be the natural state? Grunbaum believes that the idea of nothingness as the natural or simplest state came from the theological doctrine of creation ex nihilo—it is a vestige of early Judeo-Christianity and no longer needed. Furthermore Grunbaum doesn’t believe there is any reason to be astonished by the existence of the world as compared to nothingness. Nothingness wasn’t more likely to be than somethingness, in fact “What could possibly be more commonplace empirically than that something or other does exist?” (Holt, 69) Grunbaum also balks at the idea that nothingness is a simpler explanation or a more natural state of affairs than its opposite—hence there is no need to explain somethingness.

Next up is the Christian apologist Richard Swinburne who argues that the christian god is the simplest and the only adequate explanation for the universe. His argument is that the god of traditional theism is infinitely good and concerned about the world unlike other conceptions of gods. (The objections to this line of thinking are self-evident. If they are so good and so concerned, why is there so much evil?) Swinburne argues that evil is necessary for certain goods to be possible, primarily the good of free will. “Now a good parent allows his children to suffer, sometimes for their own good, and sometimes for the good of other children.” (Holt, 102) (You really have to be determined to believe something like this.) Swinburne concludes by arguing that the existence of his invisible god is a brute fact. Still he claims: “As to why god exists, I can’t answer that question…” (Holt, 106) This is the most humble thing Swinburne says.

Now Holt interviews David Deutsch, a physicist who rejects any foundation for our existence. Deutsch doesn’t think we’ll ever discover an ultimate explanation for everything, since if we did we wouldn’t know why that was the true explanation—hence the problem of the ultimate explanation is insoluble. As Deutsch puts it “I do not believe that we are now, or ever shall be, close to understanding everything there is.” (Holt, 129)

The Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has spent much of his life searching for a “theory of everything.” Weinberg believes that a final theory may shed light on why there is anything at all—maybe the laws of nature dictate it–but still we can ask why the laws are that way and not another. He also argues that belief in a god doesn’t help. If you believe god is something very definite—say loving, kind, or jealous—then you must answer why your god is that way and not another. And if you don’t mean something definite by god then why use the word at all? Moreover Weinberg doesn’t think we know enough about physics to answer these ultimate questions. In the end he says “we’re faced with a mystery we can’t understand.” (Holt, 155) But he also thinks our search for truth in noble. “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.” (Holt, 163)

Next Holt talks with the physicist and mathematical Platonist Roger Penrose. Penrose posits that there are three worlds: the physical world, the world consisting of consciousness, and the Platonic world of pure forms.  Penrose believes there is a connection between the physical world and our minds, which themselves connect us to the Platonic world via mathematics. “It’s out there, the Platonic world, and we can have access to it. Ultimately, our physical brains are constructed out of material that is itself intimately related to the Platonic world of mathematics.” (Holt, 178) Penrose believes this Platonic world is more real than the physical one, and that our world arose from bits of mathematics, although how it did so is a mystery. But Holt doesn’t believe that mathematics gives rise to life or answers the question he has posed; nor does he believe that logic guarantees the existence of the Platonic world or assures us that reality emanates from that world. And no amount of feeling that mathematics has such powers confirms that it does.

But what of Plato’s idea of the Good? Might it have the creative power to give birth to the world? The philosopher John Leslie believes something like this. Leslie claims there is something rather than nothing because it’s better that there is something. He calls his idea axiarchism, “the view that values rule or explain the natural order. Things are as they are because that is the way they ought to be.”1 Goodness or value create the world from among the infinite number of logical possibilities; the world exists because of a need for goodness. But Leslie is not done: “In my grand vision … what the cosmos consists of is an infinite number of infinite minds, each of which knows absolutely everything that is worth knowing.” (Holt, 200) Leslie claims that our physical universe—and all other logically possible universes—results from the contemplation of just one of those minds.

Naturally this raises the question of why, from an infinite number of possible universes, one like ours exists, with its arbitrary amount of goodness and badness. Why would an infinite mind conjure up a universe as imperfect as our own. Leslie replies with an analogy. The Louvre has paintings of various quality, not just multiple perfect replicas of the Mona Lisa, and this makes the Louvre a more interesting museum. (I don’t think this analogy works, nor does it console us in the face of evil.) But why does goodness give rise to infinite minds in the first place? Why does ought to exist, imply, does exists? Leslie replies: “Goodness is required existence, in a non-trivial sense.” (Holt, 203) The evidence for his view, Leslie claims, is the fact of the existence of the world—an existence which cries out for explanation. Of course this argument is circular—goodness creates the world and the evidence for goodness is the existence of the world. (As for me Leslie’s philosophy too mystical and speculative, and the idea that goodness explains the world seems trivial. Holt appears to agree.)

The last philosopher Holt speaks with is Derek Parfit, one of the giants of contemporary philosophy. Parfit starts by considering that reality could have turned out differently—it could have been like the reality we live in or it could have been a different reality. There are an infinite number of possibilities. Each of these different possibilities Parfit calls a “local” possibility, and the entire ensemble of these possibilities Parfit calls “cosmic” possibilities.2 The cosmic possibilities range from every conceivable reality existing (the all worlds possibility) to no conceivable reality existing (the null hypothesis). In between there are an infinite number of possibilities such as: only good universes exist, only 58 universes exist, only worlds that obey string theory exist, only bad worlds exist, only red worlds exist, etc. Of all these cosmic possibilities at least one of them must obtain. So the question is, which one and why?

Parfit believes the null hypothesis is the simplest and least puzzling since we don’t have to answer the question of why anything came to be. But the existence of our reality contradicts this hypothesis. This leads Parfit to conclude that the all worlds hypothesis is the least arbitrary since with any other hypothesis one has to ask further questions like: why do only good worlds or bad worlds, or worlds that obey string theory exist? As for our own reality, it may be part of the axiarchic or good worlds, or the string theory worlds, or the bad worlds, or some other world. Parfit concludes that the null hypothesis is the simplest, the all worlds hypothesis the fullest, the axiarchic hypothesis the best and so on. Now Parfit wonders if a cosmic possibility obtains because it has a special feature like fullness or simplicity or goodness. Now what if that feature chooses reality? If it does Parfit calls it a “selector.”

Now if the cosmic possibility that obtained was the 58 worlds or the all red worlds that would appear arbitrary. But if the cosmic possibility that obtained was the fullest, simplest, or best that would suggest that this was not due to chance.  Rather the cosmic possibility became reality because it had the feature of fullness, goodness, or whatever. So in such cases reality had to be one way or another as a matter of logical necessity, and the selector just tips the outcome one way or the other. But which selector? With the null selector already dismissed, Parfit proceeds to excoriate the idea that goodness is the selector: “We may doubt that our world could be even the least good part of the best possible Universe.” (Holt, 228) Parfit concludes that the most likely selector for our reality is that we are among the possible universes that are governed by relatively simple laws.

Of course this raises the question of whether there is some deeper explanation of why there is one selector rather than another. Is there a meta-selector and a meta-meta-selector ad infinitum? Parfit acknowledges that the ultimate selector would have to be a brute fact—to stop the infinite regress—but that this is better than no explanation at all. But Parfit also believes that the simplest explanatory possibility at the meta-level is that there is no selector! This does not mean there would be nothingness—that would be a special outcome best explained by simplicity as the selector. Rather no selector leads to a mediocre universe with nothing special about it—the way things turned out would be random. “Reality is neither a pristine Nothing nor an all-fecund Everything. It’s a cosmic junk shot.” (Holt, 236) 

The final person Holt visits is the novelist John Updike. Updike says “I am part of the party that thinks that the existence of the world is a kind of miracle.” (Holt, 248) Updike says that the ultimate questions are beyond us, as the idea of an internal combustion engine is beyond a dog. But he conveys the feeling that it’s not that bad that we don’t know all the answers. Nothing seems to be a big deal for the contented Updike. He ends his conversation with Holt by telling him how out of breath he gets when playing with his grandchildren. The chapter end thus: “A few months later, Updike was diagnosed with lung cancer. Within a year he was dead.” (Holt, 252)

The final chapter tries to unite this philosophical discussion with the fact of our deaths. Holt admits to dread when thinking of death, and he appears to subscribe to what philosophers call the depravationist theory of death—it is bad because it deprives of us life’s good things. But he admits that other philosophers do not find death troubling, and the Buddhists seem to think of the state of near nothingness as the best state one. Holt concludes that the endpoint of our life’s journey seems to be … nothingness. His book ends, not with subtle intellectual ruminations, but with a moving account of witnessing his mother’s final hours.

My mother’s breathing was getting shallower. Her eyes remained closed. She still looked peaceful, although every once in a while she made a little gasping noise.

Then, as I was standing directly over her, still holding her hand, my mother’s eyes opened wide, as if in alarm. It was the first time I had seen them that day. She seemed to be looking at me. She opened her mouth. I saw her tongue twitch two or three times. Was she trying to say something? Within a couple of seconds, her breathing stopped.

I leaned down and whispered that I loved her. Then I went into the hall and said to the nurse, “I think she just died.”

… I had just seen the infinitesimal transition from being to nothingness…

I would like to thank Jim Holt for his wonderful book.  As for me I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing or whether the question even makes sense. What I do know is what Socrates taught me long ago—that I know very little. We just don’t seem to be able to penetrate this deep mystery. But we should keep on trying.


1. From the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.
2. Parfit’s exact words, open to interpretation are: “It will help to distinguish two kinds of possibility. Cosmic possibilities cover everything that ever exists, and are the different ways that the whole of reality might be. Only one such possibility can be actual, or the one that obtains. Local possibilities are the different ways that some part of reality, or local world, might be. If some local world exists, that leaves it open whether other worlds exist.” ~ Derek Parfit, “Why Anything? Why This?” London Review of Books, Vol. 20 No. 2 · 22 January 1998, pages 24-27

Perhaps Justice is Enough

My most recent post suggested that we must love one another or die. This claim is both too strong and unrealistic. It is unrealistic to expect us to love everyone; and it is too strong because love does not assure our survival nor does it absence assure our destruction.

Instead we might focus on justice, since without justice our chances of surviving diminish. If we are just then we will all live in a better world, one more conducive to our survival. Aristotle famously said that if all people were friends then we wouldn’t need justice, but since they are not friends, justice is necessary. I think he was right.

I have dealt with the issue of the nature of justice in previous posts so we need not rehash those arguments, except to say that society is built upon what E.O. Wilson called “soft-core” altruism. Not on love between family members but on fairness and justice in our dealings with others. If I rent your house, use your land or eat your food, then I should pay you for the privilege–unless you decide to let me use them for free. How do we elicit this cooperation? Again previous posts have discussed the issue.

So here is how I would summarize the essence of the last two posts. We must love one another for all to live best; be just toward one another for all to live well; and not hate one another or we will all die.

W. H. Auden’s, “We must love one another or die.”

Yesterday’s post reflected on Philip Larkin‘s poem “An Arundel Tomb,” especially its haunting last lines, “What will survive of us is love.” But I would be remiss to omit mentioning another of the great English language poets of the last century, W. H. Auden, who also wrote a poignant line about love, “We must love one another or die.”

Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939“—with its obvious reference to the beginning of World War II—begins like this:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

And the poem originally had this penultimate stanza:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Auden famously turned against this stanzas final line, omitting it when the poem was reprinted in Collected Poems (1945). He later wrote that he loathed the poem, resolving to exclude it from further collections, refusing to grant permission that it be reprinted, and calling the poem “trash which he is ashamed to have written.” He eventually allowed the poem to be included in a collection, but only after altering the line to read: “We must love one another and die.”

Clearly the original sentiment—we must love one another or die—suggests that love could save us from war, or even conquer death by granting a kind of immortality. The revised version—we must love one another and die—expresses an existential sentiment. We can love, but it makes no real difference. Life is ultimately tragedy.

I am not sure why Auden turned against the line so vehemently and publicly. Maybe he was embarrassed by its emotional earnestness, or ashamed of such a public display of sentiment. Yet the line as originally written is at least partly true—unless we become more altruistic, we will destroy ourselves. But can we go further and say that love conquers death? Here we have no answers, we only have hope. The hope that traces of our love will reverberate through time, in ripples and waves that will one day reach peaceful shores now unbeknownst to us.

Is Love Stronger Than Death?

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, May 27, 2014)

Pictured below is the 14th-century tomb effigy in Chichester Cathedral that inspired Philip Larkin’s poem “An Arundel Tomb.” It is the tomb of Richard FitzAlan, 10th Earl of Arundel (1306-1376), and his wife, Eleanor of Lancaster, Countess of Arundel (1311- 1372) Notice how Richard’s glove has been removed so he can grasp the flesh of Eleanor’s hand.


The poem ends with these evocative lines:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Philip Larkin is generally considered one of the greatest English-language poets of the last century. However the last line above is uncharacteristic of Larkin’s typically downbeat poetry.

So what does the line “What will survive us is love” mean? Larkin may be implying that the lovers are joined in death as they were in life, at least until the ravages of time finally erase their stone figures. Maybe the joined hands were the sculptor’s idea and do not reflect a real love at all—perhaps that is the meaning of the line “transfigured them into untruth.” Larkin himself said the tomb deeply affected him, but he also scribbled at the bottom of one draft: “love isn’t stronger than death just because two statues hold hands for six hundred years.” Yet the poem doesn’t say that “love is stronger than death.” It says love survives us, and to survive something doesn’t make you stronger than it.

Still survival is a partial victory. But what might survive? Perhaps it is the enduring belief that love is remarkable, that its appearance in a world of anger and cruelty is so astonishing. Or perhaps it is that traces of our love reverberate through time, in ripples and waves that may one day reach peaceful shores now unbeknownst to us. Maybe love doesn’t disappear into nothingness after all, maybe love is stronger than death.

Should you “Do What You Love?”

Steve Jobs, in his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, argued that we should do the work we love. Here is an excerpt of his main idea:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle…

In the past few days I have encountered four separate articles concerning the question of whether one should (only) do the work they love. Each piece had Jobs’ claims in mind.

In “A Life Beyond Do What You Love,” philosophy professor Gordon Marino argues that doing what we don’t want to do—doing our duty—is more noble and ethical than just doing what we love. He doesn’t take kindly to the physician who quit his practice to skateboard all day. In, “In the Name of Love,”  the historian Miya Tokumitsu says that the “do what you love” ethos is elitist and degrades work not done from personal passion. It neglects that work may develop our talents, be part of our duty, or be necessary for our survival. The socio-economic elite advance the do what you love view, forgetting their lives depend upon others doing supposedly less meaningful work. In, “Never Settle is a Brag,”  the economist and futurist Robin Hanson critiques Jobs’ advice that we shouldn’t settle for unfulfilling work. If everyone followed Jobs’ counsel a lot of needed work would go undone. Note too that the advice works best for the talented, so by advising others to not settle for anything less than work they love, you signal your status. You are bragging. Finally in “Is Do What You Love Elitist?” philosophical blogger Mark Linsenmayer recognizes the flaws in Jobs’ prescriptions but finds in them an obvious truth too—the good life requires that we not be wage slaves in a market economic system. Thus we should change the system so that work can be more satisfying.  

I agree with Marino that doing our duty, even if it doesn’t make us happy, is admirable. And I agree with Tokumitsu and Hanson that elitists, who often do the most interesting work, fail to value more mundane work. But I think that Linsenmayer makes the most important point. We need a new economic system—one where we can develop our talents and actualize our potential. Most of us are too good for the work we do, not because we are better than others, but because the work available in our current system is not good enough for any of us—it is often not satisfying. (I have written about this previously.) As Marx wrote almost two hundred years ago, most of us are alienated from the work we do, and thus ultimately alienated from ourselves and other people too.

Still we do not live in an ideal world. So what practical counsel do we give people, in our current time and place, regarding work? Unfortunately my advice is dull and unremarkable, like so much of the available work. For now the best recommendation is something like: do the least objectionable/most satisfying work available given your options. That we can’t say more reveals the gap between the real and the ideal, which is itself symptomatic of a flawed society. Perhaps working to change the world so that people can engage in satisfying work is the most meaningful work of all.