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Starting from Scratch

An infinite number of theories of existence.

Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
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In Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, there’s a wistful character named Prendergast, who had been a contented rural curate until he was suddenly beset by  “Doubts”—not about God’s existence, but:  “I couldn’t understand why God had made the world at all.” His bishop tries to reassure him, saying that “he didn’t think the point really arose as far as my practical duties as a parish priest were concerned.” But Prendergast resigns his living and ends up teaching at a dismal school in Wales.  

The ‘grand design’ spiral galaxy, M81

The ‘grand design’ spiral galaxy, M81

associated press

Jim Holt, a writer who hangs out at the intersection of science and philosophy, is vexed by similar doubts. Why is there Something rather than Nothing, which would have been so much simpler? What is the universe doing here? Who invited it? Exactly how did it get here, and why, in this somewhat disheveled condition? But Holt, instead of resigning his living, just writes a book, and it’s far from dismal, despite circling warily around that perennial existentialist fixation, Nothingness, das Nichts, le néant. For Angst and Dread, he substitutes curiosity and a light touch. 

Martin Amis, when asked in an interview how he thought the universe might have come about, said that “we’re at least five Einsteins away from answering that question.” It occurs to Holt that tracking down and interrogating a few contemporary quasi-Einsteins on the question might at least be “an excellent quest.” And so it is—even if the journey ultimately goes, by a circuitous route featuring many breathtaking views of the abyss, nowhere. The point of quests, after all, is not to find the eternally elusive thing you’re looking for, but to have interesting adventures along the way. 

So this book consists of interesting, intellectually adventurous conversations with eminent scientists and philosophers (and one novelist, the late John Updike), touching on the Big Bang theory, quantum fluctuations, infinity, entropy, the ontological status of scientific laws and mathematical entities, the nature of time, the possibility of a multiverse  (a vast array of discrete, mutually inaccessible universes) or an infinite cycle of expanding and collapsing universes, and so on. He includes frequent allusions to the views of other philosophers he wasn’t able to interview, such as Plato, Leibniz, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Gödel, Sartre, and Woody Allen (who gets the last word, just after Schopenhauer, in a survey of pessimistic refutations of cosmic optimism). 

The discussions can be densely technical and hairsplitting, but Holt is an unpretentious and urbane writer, and he regularly brings the reader back down to earth to describe what, between conversational exertions, he had to eat and drink at an Oxford pub or a London club or at Sartre’s old hangout, the Café de Flore in Paris. In fact, drink is a kind of grace that descends from time to time on the author, putting him in a contented-with-Being mood, and he wonders at one point, as he’s served tea yet again by one of his interlocutors, “Why .  .  . did everyone but me seem to find caffeinated beverages more conducive than alcohol to pondering the mystery of existence?” After all, as he says in what seems to me a deeply reassuring passage, quantum theory “decrees that nature, at the most fundamental level, is irredeemably fuzzy.” A couple of beers decree the same thing.

Fundamental fuzziness leaves a lot of room for extravagant speculation. What’s striking about this book is not so much any specific answer to the question posed by its title, but simply the revelation that there’s so much metaphysics going on now, so soon after Logical Positivism and analytical philosophy ordered it (around the mid-20th century) to cease and desist. And some of it is as weird as the most nebulous vapors of German philosophical idealism or American science fiction.

We encounter the Russian-born Stanford physicist Andrei Linde, founder of “chaotic inflation” theory, who thinks Big Bangs must be fairly routine occurrences, coming not out of nowhere but out of a primordial chaos or possibly some guy’s lab in another universe, and the “principle of fecundity” of the late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, which suggests that every conceivable universe actually exists somewhere, including one with nothing in it, one (as Holt says) “containing the Greek gods,” or “made of cream cheese,” and one, presumably, where Nozick’s theory sounds pretty good.

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