All posts by John Messerly

Cognitive Bias

Chimp Brain in a jar.jpg

I previously linked to a graph of all known cognitive biases and I have recently encountered a short BBC video which nicely captures four of them. It can be found at:

What I found of particular interest was the G.I. Joe fallacy which refers roughly to the idea that knowing is half the battle. But in fact, knowing about, for instance, our cognitive biases doesn’t help much in overcoming those biases. Thus some scholars chose the idea that knowing is half the battle as an idea that must be retired.

As a philosopher, I would say that this shows, among other things, that Socrates and Plato were mistaken in believing that knowledge is sufficient for virtue. As Aristotle knew there is a large gap between knowing the right thing and doing it. In a sense this is depressing. Even if we know that our brains bias us in multiple ways that seems to help little in overcoming those biases. The gap between knowing the good, true, and beautiful and doing the good, seeking the truth, and creating beauty is huge. Still, it seems to me better to know than not. Knowing may not be half the battle but perhaps it is a tenth of the battle. And even that little bit is worth something. In the meantime, we should proceed full speed ahead with rewiring our brains.

Finding Meaning of Life in Prison (Convict 79206)

In 1930 the historian and philosopher Will Durant—who was at that time a famous public intellectual—received a number of letters from persons declaring their intent to commit suicide. The letters asked him for reasons to go on living. In response Durant asked a number of luminaries for their views on the meaning of life, publishing those responses in his 1932 book, On the Meaning of Life.

As the manuscript was being prepared for publication, Durant received a letter from “Convict 79206” at the Sing Sing maximum security prison in New York. The convict had been recently sentenced to life in prison and Durant published the letter as an appendix to the above-mentioned book. Of its contents, Durant wrote: “It is incredible that we should be unable to find any better use for such intelligence than to lock it up forever.”

Convict 79206’s response is too long to print here, but we can highlight a few of its points. He argued that suicide would be permissible for those who found life meaningless, but that he had not yet reached that point. He maintained that life was accidental but not necessarily meaningless. He was not religious and advised against seeking “comfort in delusions, false tradition, and superstition.” He discussed the difference between truth, which is neither beautiful or ugly, and belief  “the idol-worshiping strain in our natures.” He said that “happiness is a state of mental contentment [which] can be found on a desert island, in a little town, or the tenements of a large city.” And he was optimistic about the future:”[Humans are] an integral part of the universe in which [they] live, that universe which is ever-moving forward to some appointed destiny.”

At the end of the letter, before heading back to live what most of us would assume is a futile and meaningless existence, convict 79206 painted a picture with his words. Through them, his dignity, integrity, and strength of character shone forth.

This evening I stood in the prison yard amid other prisoners, with eyes lifted aloft  gazing at that great … airship … as it sailed majestically over our heads. Into my mind came the thought that, just as that prehistoric creature struggled up out of the sea to the land, so is man struggling up from the land into the air. Who dare deny that, some day, up, ever up he will struggle thru the great reaches of interstellar space to wrest from it the knowledge which will enable him to lift his life to a plane as high above this, our present one, as it is above that of prehistoric man?

I do not know to what great end Destiny leads us, nor do I care very much. Long before that end, I shall have played my part, spoken my lines, and passed on. How I play that part is all that concerns me.

In the knowledge that I am an inalienable part of this wonderful, upward movement called life, and that nothing, neither pestilence, nor physical affliction, nor depression, nor prison, can take away from me my part, lies my consolation, my inspiration, and my treasure.

Owen C. Middleton (convict 79206) was a transhumanist before his time and a man of greater depth and humanity than most. How much potential wastes away in our prisons.

Trust in Science

The scale of the universe mapped to branches of science.

What makes people distrust science? Surprisingly, not politics” is an insightful piece recently penned in Aeon magazine by psychology professor Bastiaan T Rutjens.

Let mes start by saying that today’s distrust of science is astonishing when you consider that every single moment of your life you benefit from science. From the clean water your drink to the sewer systems that remove waste, from the marvels of modern medicine to wonders of technology, from the bridges you cross to the building you live in, from the phones and TVs you watch to the cars and planes you travel in, all result from the success of science. Half the people reading this post would have died of childhood diseases had they been born just a few generations ago. Before modern science, and the technology that results from it, life was indeed nasty, brutish, and short. Why then is there so much distrust of science?

The article begins by exploring a tentative answer—political ideology must be the culprit.

The sociologist Gordon Gauchat has shown that political conservatives in the United States have become more distrusting of science, a trend that started in the 1970s. And a swath of recent research conducted by social and political psychologists has consistently shown that climate-change skepticism in particular is typically found among those on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

However, research by the cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, as well as research led by the psychologist Sydney Scott, finds no relationship between political ideology and attitudes toward genetic modification and vaccine skepticism. So there must be more to science skepticism than mere political ideology. But what? To answer this question Rutjens and his colleagues recently published multiple studies that investigated both trust and skepticism of science. What they found were

four major predictors of science acceptance and science skepticism: political ideology; religiosity; morality; and knowledge about science. These variables tend to intercorrelate—in some cases quite strongly—which means that they are potentially confounded. To illustrate, an observed relation between political conservatism and trust in science might in reality be caused by another variable, for example religiosity.

Rutjens and his colleagues found that:

a) climate change skepticism was most pronounced among the politically conservative;

b) skepticism about genetic modification wasn’t related to political ideology or religious beliefs, but correlates highly with science knowledge—the more you know about science the less skeptical you are about the safety of, for example, genetically modified food;

c) vaccine skepticism also had no relation to political ideology but was strongest among religious participants and those with moral concerns about the naturalness of vaccination.

As for general trust in science and the desire for more funding for scientific research, the results were clear: it is by far lowest among the religious. The religiously orthodox have the most negative views of science and don’t want to invest federal money in science.

To summarize the findings Rutjens writes that, with the exception of climate-change skepticism, distrust in science isn’t driven by political ideology. Moreover, with the exception of the case of genetic modification, scientific literacy doesn’t seem to remedy distrust in science. Finally, regarding vaccine skepticism and distrust of science, religiosity plays the largest role.

Brief Reflection – I would also propose that poor education combined with our many cognitive biases and bugs undermined trust in science which is both the best way we have to uncover the truth about the world and the only cognitive authority in the world today. Here’s to hoping that we don’t revisit The Demon Haunted World that Carl Sagan wrote about so movingly.

Destroying Higher Education in America

(University of Bologna is the oldest institution of higher education in the Western world.)

“History is becoming more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”
~ H.G. Wells

I just read “How the American University was Killed in Five Easy Steps” by Debra Leigh Scott on her blog Junct Rebellion. The essay outlines how countervailing forces have conspired to destroy higher education. As a lifelong educator and lover of learning, I’m heartbroken knowing that I agree with almost everything in the essay. 

Scott begins with a brief history. After World War II the GI bill and the affordability or free access to college swelled the ranks of university students. By the 1960s

universities were the very heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning, and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times. It was during this time, too, when colleges had a thriving professoriate, and when students were given access to a variety of subject areas, and the possibility of broad learning. The Liberal Arts stood at the center of a college education, and students were exposed to philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, sociology, world religions, foreign languages and cultures. Of course, something else happened, beginning in the late fifties into the sixties — the uprisings and growing numbers of citizens taking part in popular dissent — against the Vietnam War, against racism, against destruction of the environment in a growing corporatized culture, against misogyny, against homophobia. Where did much of that revolt incubate? Where did large numbers of well-educated, intellectual, and vocal people congregate? On college campuses.

However, corporations, war-mongers, racists, misogynists and others hated those who might upset the status quo. They would have loved to shut down the universities, but such action would have been deemed too anti-democratic. So a plan was developed (or slowly emerged) to kill the universities without simply closing them or sending the scholars, intellectuals into “re-education camps”. Here is that plan in five easy steps.

STEP 1 – Defund public higher education

If universities are hotbeds of radicalism then the establishment has a reason not to support them. And, since funding for universities comes from state and federal governments,  reducing that funding is crucial to undermining them. (This idea was supported by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” It is now known as the Powell Memorandum and it called for corporations to increase their role in shaping politics, law, and education in the United States.)

This defunding is now pervasive. For example, the University of California system once had free tuition supported by taxes! Today the lack of public support for colleges is pervasive throughout the United States. The lack of funds also allows conservatives to stress vocational skills and attack, among other things, the arts and science curriculum that expands the mind, develops critical thinking skills and helps create an informed citizenry.

STEP 2 – Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors 

There are about 1.5 million university professors in this country, and 1 million of them are adjuncts. Being an adjunct means that you are hired on a short-term contracts, usually one semester at a time, with no job security and no benefits whatsoever. This means that full-time work, if you can find it, will pay about $20,000 a year on average. Oftentimes you can only find a class or two a year in which case you would make much less. As Scott puts it,

All around the country, our undergraduates are being taught by faculty living at or near the poverty line, who have little to no say in the way classes are being taught, the number of students in a class, or how curriculum is being designed. They often have no offices in which to meet their students, no professional staff support, no professional development support. One million of our college professors are struggling to continue offering the best they can in the face of this wasteland of deteriorated professional support, while living the very worst kind of economic insecurity.

Even tenure-track professors make the same, adjusted for inflation, as they did almost fifty years ago. And the competition for those jobs is fierce. A single tenure-track position in a typical state university will elicit hundreds of applications.

Step 3: Move in a managerial/administrative class to govern the university

Similar to how health care in the 1970s was transformed from a non-profit to a HMO and for-profit model something similar has happened to higher education. Scott writes

From the 1970s until today, as the number of full-time faculty jobs continued to shrink, the number of full-time administrative jobs began to explode. As faculty was deprofessionalized and casualized, reduced to teaching as migrant contract workers, administrative jobs now offered good, solid salaries, benefits, offices, prestige and power. In 2012, administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country.

Note too that while teachers salaries have been drastically cut, the money has been re-allocated to administrators, sports coaches, university president salaries, lawyers, and marketing firms. The funds have been redistributed away from the scholars and students’ education itself. ( College presidents salaries “went from being, in the 1970s, around $25K to 30K, to being in the hundreds of thousands to MILLIONS of dollars—salary, delayed compensation, discretionary funds, free homes, or generous housing allowances, cars and drivers, memberships to expensive country clubs.)

Step Four: Move in corporate culture and corporate money

To control how the university is

… a flood of corporate money results in changing the value and mission of the university from a place where an educated citizenry is seen as a social good, where intellect and reasoning is developed and heightened for the value of the individual and for society, to a place of vocational training, focused on profit. Corporate culture hijacked the narrative— university was no longer attended for the development of your mind. It was where you went so you could get a “good job”. Anything not immediately and directly related to job preparation or hiring was denigrated and seen as worthless — philosophy, literature, art, history.

As universities increasingly rely on the private sector for funds corporate money buys influence in both the type of research and the outcome of that research. The result?

Suddenly, the university laboratory is not a place of objective research anymore. As one example, corporations who don’t like “climate change” warnings will donate money and control research at universities, which then publish refutations of global warning proofs. OR, universities labs will be corporate-controlled in cases of FDA-approval research. This is especially dangerous when pharmaceutical companies take control of university labs to test efficacy or safety and then push approval through the governmental agencies. Another example is in economics departments — and movies like “The Inside Job” have done a great job of showing how Wall Street has bought off high-profile economists from Harvard, or Yale, or Stanford, or MIT, to talk about the state of the stock market and the country’s financial stability. Papers were being presented and published that were blatantly false, by well-respected economists who were on the payroll of Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch.

The result of all the corporate money is that academia is no longer an independent institution. It can no longer value the intellectual, emotional, and psychological, creative development of its students, and the contributions of the scholar to society. It is now like the corporation; it is almost exclusively concerned with profit which “depends on 1) maintaining a low-wage workforce and 2) charging continually higher prices for their “services” is what now controls our colleges. Faculty is being squeezed from one end and our students are being squeezed from the other.”

Step Five – Destroy the Students

This is done in two ways. First

you dumb down and destroy the quality of the education so that no one on campus is really learning to think, to question, to reason. Instead, they are learning to obey, to withstand “tests” and “exams”, to follow rules, to endure absurdity and abuse. Our students have been denied full-time available faculty, the ability to develop mentors and advisors, faculty-designed syllabi which changes each semester, a wide variety of courses and options. Instead, more and more universities have core curriculum which dictates a large portion of the course of study, in which the majority of classes are administrative-designed “common syllabi” courses, taught by an army of underpaid, part-time faculty in a model that more closely resembles a factory or the industrial kitchen of a fast food restaurant than an institution of higher learning.

The second thing you do is make college unaffordable to all but the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families. Anyone else who attends will be saddled with monstrous debt that will follow them for a good part of their lives. Borrowing is actually encouraged as part of the alliance between lending institutions and the Financial Aid Departments of universities. Scott’s reflections on all this are particularly chilling:

Within one generation, in five easy steps, not only have the scholars and intellectuals of the country been silenced and nearly wiped out, but the entire institution has been hijacked, and recreated as a machine through which future generations will ALL be impoverished, indebted and silenced. Now, low wage migrant professors teach repetitive courses they did not design to students who travel through on a kind of conveyor belt, only to be spit out, indebted and desperate into a jobless economy. The only people immediately benefitting inside this system are the administrative class – whores to the corporatized colonizers, earning money in this system in order to oversee this travesty. But the most important thing to keep in mind is this: The real winners, the only people truly benefitting from the big-picture meltdown of the American university are those people who, in the 1960s, saw those vibrant college campuses as a threat to their established power. They are the same people now working feverishly to dismantle other social structures, everything from Medicare and Social Security to the Post Office.

Unfortunately, Scott believes the opponents of higher education have won. Of course, they won’t declare victory. Instead, they perpetuate the myth that college is necessary for happiness and a middle-class life. In the meantime, their intellectual opposition remains impoverished, and students remain uneducated, indebted and docile.

It’s a win-win for those right wingers – they’ve crippled those in the country who would push back against them, and have so carefully and cleverly hijacked the educational institutions that they can now be turned into part of the neoliberal/neocon machinery, further benefitting the right-wing agenda.

Can anything be done about all this? Perhaps Scott says,

But only if we understand this as a big picture issue, and refuse to allow those in government, or those corporate-owned media mouthpieces to divide and conquer us further. This ruinous rampage is part of the much larger attack on progressive values, on the institutions of social good. The battle isn’t only to reclaim the professoriate, to wipe out student debt, to raise educational outcomes—although each of those goals deserve to be fought for. But we will win a Pyrrhic victory at best unless we understand the nature of the larger war, and fight back in a much, much bigger way to reclaim the country’s values for the betterment of our citizens.

Scott’s essay exemplifies the good critical thinking that results from a quality higher education.

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?



“Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Tractatus logicophilosophicus, 6.44.

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—why is there something rather than nothing? To investigate this question Holt consulted many of the world’s foremost thinkers. Here, in brief, are their 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 speaks with the philosopher, atheist, an 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.

David Deutsch is 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 is 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 apparently 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 justify 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 an explanation. Of course, this argument is circular—goodness creates the world and the evidence for goodness is the existence of the world. (I find Leslie’s philosophy too mystical and speculative, and the idea that goodness explains the world unsatisfying and 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. In fact, nothing seems to bother 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 ends 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—death is bad because it deprives 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.