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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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He meets contemporary Platonists, like the English-born Canadian cosmologist John Leslie, who thinks that the universe consists of an infinite number of infinite minds who call an infinite ensemble of perfect and imperfect universes into existence as pure thoughts, because, well, there’s some sort of transcendent ethical imperative to do so. And there is Sir Roger Penrose, who believes that the realm of mathematics is an independent reality, and the physical world is a kind of paint-by-numbers rendering of it mediated through human consciousness, or something like that.

There are champions of a “participatory universe” or “panpsychism,” who argue that consciousness isn’t, as we’ve been led to think, the accidental, belated byproduct of evolution but an essential, collaborative aspect of the universe. Holt himself at one point takes a page from Schopenhauer: “Maybe the part of reality we know indirectly through science, the physical part, has the same inner nature as the part we know directly through introspection, the conscious part”—every rock and puff of cosmic dust, in other words, may have some psychic energy lurking within it. But all this doesn’t answer his question of why there’s something—mind, matter, the tertium quid of William James’s neutral monism, Platonic Forms, whatever—when there might have been nothing.   

Holt, a lapsed Catholic, isn’t inclined to wheel in God as the answer to that question. Still, he listens attentively to the arguments of Richard Swinburne, an Oxford philosopher of Eastern Orthodox faith, and he ponders Alvin Plantinga’s refurbished ontological proof for the existence of God, and he savors the theological tangents of Updike, who would like to think, as Thomas Aquinas did, that God created the world in a playful spirit—intricacy for its own sake, like “a piece of light verse.” 

But most of the scientists, at least, shrug their shoulders at Holt’s question. Adolf Grünbaum, a diminutive but formidable German-born octogenarian and philosopher of science at the University of Pittsburgh, thinks it’s just the ghost of the Christian theological dogma that God created the world ex nihilo. For him, like the ancient Greeks (and, for that matter, like me), nothing could be more natural than the existence of something, and nothing more unnatural and farfetched than pure nothing. He points out that there was no nothing before the Big Bang because there was no “before.” Time and the universe come in the same self-enclosed package. Nothingness, it seems, might just be an abstraction from some aspects (voids, vacuums, absences, negations) of our experience of somethingness, no more scientifically verifiable or plausible than other such abstractions, like heaven and hell. 

The Israeli-born physicist David Deutsch tells Holt, in his cluttered home near Oxford (as his very pretty girlfriend eats macaroni and cheese on the couch), that the laws of physics imply a multiverse, but they can’t tell us how it came into existence because “laws don’t do that kind of work.” And the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg observes that those laws, including Einstein’s general theory of relativity, break down as we get close to the Big Bang, so no scientific explanation can ever elucidate the origins, if any, of the universe: “I think we’re permanently doomed to that sense of mystery. It’s part of the human tragedy.”

As William James put it, “From nothing to being there is no logical bridge.” Let alone an empirical one. That leaves leaps of faith, or of wild surmise—and this book offers the reader plenty of them to try out, including one of Holt’s own devising. But most of us will, after exercising our conjectural muscles a bit, settle (as Holt often does himself) for that sense of mystery .  .  . and a bottle of good wine.  

If Holt never gets across the bridge, logical or illogical, from “nothing to being,” he at least crosses the Pont des Arts one chilly night in Paris, pausing in the middle to light a cigarette and ponder the Seine, like a good existentialist. The book ends there—and its real message seems to be that the small pleasures and attachments of life are what sustain us amid large uncertainties and insoluble riddles. One of those pleasures, not so small, would be books like this one.


Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.

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