September 2, 2012

Nothing matters

“Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story” by Jim Holt (Liveright Publishing/W.W. Norton & Co., 298 pages, $27.95)

“Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story” by Jim Holt (Liveright Publishing/W.W. Norton & Co., 298 pages, $27.95)

Imagine that you are a 17-year-old in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, brought up in a religious family, but at the rebellious stage in life when you question all established beliefs that impinge on your personal freedom.

You feel a kinship to the existentialist philosophers you have heard about in school, visit the library there, and check out “Introduction to Metaphysics” by Martin Heidegger.

The opening sentence bowls you over: Why is there something rather than nothing? Here beams the beginnings of a quest for truth to replace the dull, dogmatic duties of your parents. Here opens up a vista of intellectual freedom so vast that it promises only to broaden as you read more, learn more, and think more deeply about ultimate matters.

This is what happened to Jim Holt, a journalist who has written widely on a range of topics – time, infinity, truth and physics – for the New Yorker magazine and the New York Times Book Review.

Holt is a genuine amateur (in the root sense of the word) – a spirited lover of philosophy. Whether he is also a lover of wisdom (the meaning of “philosopher”) is another matter.

He frames his book in terms of a “hunger for ultimate explanation.” And he listens to answers from philosophers, physicists and a novelist, challenging them on details; correcting them, if he has drunk enough wine; yet always declining to favor one view over another.

This game plan proves unfavorable in the long run, however, because some of the great minds that Holt converses with have important, non-negotiable things to tell him, ideas that he should take to heart, such as when the eccentric Oxford scientist David Deutsch says, “Anything pretending to be an ‘ultimate’ explanation [of reality] would be a bad explanation, because there would be nothing left over to explain why it was the right one – to explain why reality was that way and not another way.”

Still, Holt writes a warm, humane, funny, gripping and poignant tale about Being and Nothingness in the 21st century, a book that every educated person should read. His “detective story” hides a winsome primer on the big questions of life, which no one – except the most ignorant or self-absorbed – can afford to avoid.

In a television interview, the English novelist Martin Amis proclaimed, “We’re at least five Einsteins away from answering [the] question” of why the world exists. Holt takes Amis at his word, and seeks out the opinions of not five, but eight philosophers and cosmologists at the top of their games, as well as the theologically minded John Updike, the urbane novelist and purveyor of light verse who died a few years ago.

And to ensure that he sufficiently bolsters his arguments, Holt also invokes the works of the American philosopher Robert Nozick, one of his favorites.

Note that none of his subjects represents continental European philosophy, even though some of the brightest stars in metaphysics (or, more precisely, phenomenology) in the past 35 years have shone in France: the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the Roman Catholic Jean-Luc Marion.

Each has advanced novel, invigorating critiques of the concept of Being (and by implication Nothingness) that would require Holt to refashion his quest. Sadly, he appears oblivious to them.

Yet whatever else Holt may or may not do, he certainly travels well, stopping in Paris, London and Oxford several times, before lowering his sights to Pittsburgh and Austin, Texas.

Fine dining and copious amounts of wine seem to lubricate his love for cosmic conundrums; and one has to wonder who is footing the bill for all this “research.”

One also has to wonder just how much philosophy Holt has seriously studied. He makes an off-hand comment in the second half of the book that he was a graduate student in philosophy at Columbia University. Whether he earned an advanced degree there, or anywhere else, remains unspoken.

In any case, he stumbles over some basic blunders right out of the blocks, which put me in a suspicious mood.

The biggest among them is that he didn’t read Heidegger carefully. The same philosopher who raises the question Why is there something rather than nothing? writes that “philosophy is not science,” that it “c an be determined only from out of itself and as itself – comparable with nothing else.

That means that philosophy needs neither cosmology nor religion to do its work, even though Holt incorrigibly hunts down physicists and theistic thinkers to feed his hunger.

What he never seems firmly to grasp is that Being is not God or the universe. It is the this-ness, the what-ness of existing things.

If that sounds a little strange, it should, according to Nozick: “Someone who proposes a nonstrange answer [to the question of why there is Something rather than Nothing] shows he didn’t understand the question.”

The thinkers who agree to help Holt in his quest tend to fall into two camps: those who exude a sense of awe and mystery that the world exists, and those who dismiss such feelings as sentimentality, a colossal waste of time.

Often, the most outlandish antagonists turn out to be the most likeable persons, larger than life, blustering at the gods they don’t believe in.

That’s certainly true of Adolph Grunbaum, “arguably the greatest living philosopher of science,” by Holt’s estimation. Grunbaum, a German Jew whose family emigrated to the United States during the rise of Nazism, claims emphatically that “there is no mystery of existence.” The world doesn’t need explaining, he says; it just is, a brute fact, nothing more.

Grunbaum bristles with energy, enthusiasm, erudition and passion. His favorite form of argumentation (at least when talking with Holt) is the ad hominem fallacy, attacking the person instead of the idea. Hence, a preponderance of phrases like “psychological baggage,” “theological bluster” and “ludicrously fatuous” pepper his remarks.

A more congenial host is the speculative cosmologist John Leslie, who was disappointed to learn that his “original” idea about the nature of reality had already been proposed by Plato 2,500 years ago.

Still, Holt considers Leslie “the foremost authority on why there is Something rather than Nothing.”

So what thunder did Plato steal from Leslie? “That the universe somehow exploded into being out of an abstract need for goodness.” This means that the universe is made out of consciousness, and that “what the cosmos consists of is an infinite number of infinite minds, each of which knows absolutely everything which is worth knowing.”

By far the most uplifting, if fantastic, theory Holt encounters, Leslie’s “axiarchic” outlook (meaning “value rules”) shows the fine line that separates seriously minded scientists from science fiction.

The sweep of other possibilities that Holt considers includes multiple universes; a Platonic realm of Ideas that determine the nature of physical reality (just as Plato said they did); Selectors, who act as celestial gatekeepers, deciding what kind of universe we have, full or null; and God as the simplest, most elegant solution to the origin of Being, more probable that the 1 in a billion billion odds of the accidental emergence of a life-supporting universe.

Again, except for God, the alternatives are all mathematical or cosmological, not strictly philosophical. No wonder Holt has trouble getting a handle on Nothingness.

If we follow Heidegger’s (and Jean-Paul Sartre’s) lead, we wind up saying that nothing must always be nothing: no concept, no noun, no value, no anything. Nada.

Nothing cannot be thought or imagined, because a thought or image is always something, not nothing.

Even the quantum void that physicists love to appeal to, where particles “spontaneously” plop into existence, remains something, not nothing.

Sartre says that “Nothingness haunts Being,” and his metaphor may be as close as we can get to the truth. Here’s why:

When we think about Being, we simultaneously intuit Nothing as Being’s limit. Nothing’s not there, of course, but Being wouldn’t be Being without it.

Is your head spinning?

Remember: A nonstrange answer won’t do.

“Why Does the World Exist?” is awash with existential strangeness. Whether you settle for the universe, Being or God as the primal stuff of reality, Holt’s quest suggests this much: Nothing matters.

And that, as philosophers are wont to say, is really Something.

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