Review of Sabine Hossenfelder’s, “Existential Physics”

Sabine Hossenfelder is a German theoretical physicistscience communicator, author, musician and YouTuber. She is currently employed as a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies. Her new book, Existential Physics: A Scientists Guide To Life’s Biggest Questions is outstanding. Her simple and clear explanations make even the most complicated issues in physics accessible to the uninitiated. Most importantly she shows how issues in modern physics and cosmology relate to deep existential questions about life’s meaning. In the process, she guides us through questions about how the universe began, and how it will end, whether the past is still real,  whether copies of us exist somewhere, whether physics has ruled out free will, whether consciousness is computable, and whether humans are predictable. She also investigates whether the universe thinks, whether it was made for us, whether it is all mathematics, and whether we can create a universe.

In the Epilogue “What’s The Purpose of Anything Anyway?” she addresses questions of meaning with both insight and humility. She begins by admitting that science doesn’t have, and almost certainly never will have, all the answers to life’s biggest questions. But, in addition to its practical implications, Hossenfelder practices science to make sense of her life. And this leads to the book’s final question “What’s the meaning of life in the universe revealed by modern science?” She believes that each person must answer this question for themselves but she tells a simple story to explain how she thinks about the issue.

When she was young she asked her mother “what’s the meaning of life?” Her mother was a teacher and she replied that for her “the meaning of life is to pass along knowledge to the next generation.” At the time Hossenfelder thought her mother’s answer was “rather lame. [But] Thirty years later I have come to pretty much the same conclusion.” For most of her life, she has studied the laws of nature and still takes great joy in sharing that knowledge with others. She has found that many people want to know how the universe works because we want to make sense of ourselves and our place in the universe.

Ultimately, Hossenfelder writes that she is trying to do her part “to aid the universe’s understanding of itself.” As she concludes, “So, yes, we are bags of atoms crawling around on a pale blue dot in the outer spiral arm of a remarkably unremarkable galaxy. And yet we are so much more than this.”

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8 thoughts on “Review of Sabine Hossenfelder’s, “Existential Physics”

  1. Regardless of what I think about her topic, the paragraph written on her asking her mother the meaning of life is pointed and poignant. It is crucial to civilization that knowledge is passed on from generation to generation. ‘Do overs’ or, starting from scratch are not options. People still engage in debate over what Aristotle knew or didn’t know of physics. If THAT seems lame, it isn’t, if, and only if, it continues discussion or perhaps some-when increases knowledge. A rising star , mentioned before, is an important illustration of trying harder, thinking better and doing the best you can…
    Kudos and hats off to Dr. Hossenfelder.

  2. Addendum:
    What do you think of Schmidt and associate’s assessment of Existential Inertia? Strikes me as one part physics, one part metaphysics and some-part, atheism. My brother and I have gone back and forth and back on metaphysics. He thought first it was a wild-ass guess. I was somewhat near that. Then, my notion switched and I accepted metaphysics as a tool for thinking, ala, Dennett. Brother is closer to that now. It is funny how old terms are recycled, and re-emergences behave as if, if only as if, the term is baby’s bottom new. You often make my day, sir. Your ideas are more pragmatic, less tedious

  3. I only know the bare outline of Schimd’s argument in defense of the EIT after looking just now online. But from what I can gather, and having a layperson’s understanding of modern cosmology (I don’t have the math to understand this like Hossenfelder or Carroll) I would definitely accept the EIT against Aquinas and others. In fact, the idea that a God is needed to keep the universe going didn’t make sense to me even in high school when I first encountered Aquinas’ 5 ways more than 50 years ago. To argue that all change and motion must rely on some immutable, necessary/purely actual being (or however they describe it) strikes me as almost self-evidently absurd. Of course I’m no expert on the topic.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to read and share this review. I’ve come across Sabine’s YouTube videos recently while searching for discussions of quantum mechanics (long story) and I’m not surprised you found her book to be lucid.

    On another note, I came across this paper in the Journal of Controversial Ideas, and thought you might like to see it and review it:

    Ultimate Meaning: We Don’t Have It, We Can’t Get It, and We Should Be Very, Very Sad

    Not one word about evolution in there so it’s not my cup of tea, but I know you like to review these attempts from all sorts of philosophers. Keep it up! And sorry if you’ve already seen this.

  5. Just realized there’s a kindle sale for the book going on, right now, couple bucks. Grabbed the book immediately.

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