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

5 thoughts on “Review of Jim Holt’s, Why Does The World Exist?

  1. Wow, that was a long post but I read it all.

    While I slave away trying to get software patents for big corporations, you read the most fascinating and beautiful books, and then take the time to distill them for me (and other readers).

    I think life is largely mysterious and we’ll probably die without getting even close to fully understanding the larger context behind the universe (if there is one). This might change if there is a friendly intelligence explosion – but it might not (if there’s nothing to grasp, even a super-AI can’t grasp it).

    One way I think about this is: think about all the ways the world could be different? What if we had 12 fingers, instead of 10? Or 5 sexes, instead of two? Or lived for five seconds? What if we had 15 senses, instead of roughly 5? Or 10 limbs? Or a moral map that made torturing babies fun? The kinds of different possible worlds is practically infinite, and there is no apparent reason why we live in this one, rather than another one. There is no contrastive explanation, at least not one available to us.

    We just have to deal with this fact. I think of life kind of like a video game, I enjoy the challenge, and I try to score as many happiness points as I can (or, in other words, make the journey as comfortable as possible). You’d be surprised how much comfort-chasing and law-abiding correlate with each other. You don’t have to be a devout Jesuit to be a good citizen and neighbor.

    The exciting thing is that a lot of exponential super technology is around the corner. We’re close to tipping points in virtual reality, life extension tech, and artificial intelligence. The future could be very good, or very bad, but it will definitely be very interesting.

  2. Brian Greene, a famous physicist, says that if ten thousand great minds, over the course of recorded history, have tackled the question, “What is the meaning of life?” and come up empty-handed (empty-headed?), then it is reasonable, here in the 21st century, to conclude FIRMLY that the question cannot be answered satisfactorily, and one should obviously stop asking.

    I find that a most helpful perspective. It has made my life slightly better.

  3. I mostly agree. However I’m not sure we should stop trying. Many questions take persistence. Some never thought we would have heavier than air flight too. Also intelligence augmentation and artificial intelligence may help us solve what for know are, as you point out, insolvable questions. Thanks for the comments.

  4. The gods did not reveal from the beginning
    All things to us; but in the course of time
    Through seeking, men find that which is the better.

    But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
    Nor will he know it; neither of the gods,
    Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
    And even if by chance he were to utter
    The final truth, he would himself not know it;
    For all is but a woven web of guesses.

    – Xenophanes

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