By Jim Holt
Liveright (July 16, 2012)
Yes, I do sometimes wonder why the world exists. I believe however it is not among the questions that I am well suited to find an answer to, and thus my enthusiasm is limited. While I am not disinterested in philosophy in principle, I get easily frustrated with people who use words as if they had any meaning that’s not a human construct, words that are simply ill-defined unless the humans themselves and their language are explained too.
I don’t seem to agree with Max Tegmark on many points, but I agree that you can’t build fundamental insights on words that are empty unless one already has these fundamental insights - or wants to take the anthropic path. In other words, if you want to understand nature, you have to do it with a self-referential language like mathematics, not with English. Thus my conviction that if anybody is to understand the nature of reality, it will be a mathematician or a theoretical physicist.
For these reasons I’d never have bought Jim Holt’s book. I was however offered a free copy by the editor. And, thinking that I should broaden my horizon when it comes to the origin of the universe and the existence or absence of final explanations, I read it.
Holt’s book is essentially a summary of thoughts on the question why there isn’t nothing, covering the history of the question as well as the opinions of currently living thinkers. The narrative of the book is Holt’s own quest for understanding that lead him to visit and talk to several philosophers, physicists and other intellectuals, including Steven Weinberg, Alan Guth and David Deutsch. Many others are mentioned or cited, such as Stephen Hawking, Max Tegmark and Roger Penrose.
The book is very well written, though Holt has a tendency to list exactly what he ate and drank when and where which takes up more space than it deserves. There are more bottles of wine and more deaths on the pages of his book than I had expected, though that is balanced with a good sense of humor. Since Holt arranges his narrative along his travel rather than by topic, the book is sometimes repetitive when he reminds the reader of something (eg the “landscape”) that was already introduced earlier.
I am very impressed by Holt’s interviews. He has clearly done a lot of own thinking about the question. His explanations are open-minded and radiate well-meaning, but he is sharp and often critical. In many cases what he says is much more insightful than what his interview partners have to offer.
Holt’s book is good summary of just how bizarre the world is. The only person quoted in this book who made perfect sense to me is Woody Allen. On the very opposite end is a philosopher named Derek Parfit who hates the “scientizing” of philosophy, and some of his colleagues who believe in “panpsychism”, undeterred by the total lack of scientific evidence.
The reader of the book is also confronted with John Updike who belabors the miserable state of string theory “This whole string theory business… There’s never any evidence, right? There are men spending their whole careers working on a theory of something that might not even exist”, and Alex Vilenkin who has his own definition of “nothing,” which, if you ask me, is a good way to answer the question.
Towards the end of the book Jim Holt also puts forward his own solution to the problem of why there is something rather than nothing. Let me give you a flavor of that proof:
“Reality cannot be perfectly full and perfectly empty at the same time. Nor can it be ethically the best and causally the most orderly at the same time (since the occasional miracle could make reality better). And it certainly can’t be the ethically best and the most evil at the same time.”Where to even begin? Every second word in this “proof” is undefined. How can one attempt to make an argument along these lines without explaining “ethically best” in terms that are not taken out of the universe whose existence is supposed to be explained? Not to mention that all along his travel, nobody seems to have told Holt that, shockingly, there isn’t only system of logic, but a whole selection of them.
This book has been very educational for me indeed. Now I know the names of many ism’s that I do not want to know more about. I hate the idea that I’d have missed this book if it hadn't been for the free copy in my mail box. That having been said, to get anything out of this book you need to come with an interest in the question already. Do not expect the book to create this interest. But if you come with this interest, you’ll almost surely enjoy reading it.