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.
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.
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.