Why Does the World Exist?
A simple question proves thorny in Jim Holt's new book.
By Troy Jollimore, for The Barnes and Noble Review
"It has been said," Jim Holt writes in his new book, "that the question Why is there something rather than nothing? is so profound that it would occur only to a metaphysician, yet so simple that it would occur only to a child." I might have reversed the adjectives, but the basic thought that lies behind this - that the child's imagination is, at its core, philosophical and metaphysical, and that the philosopher is the adult who has managed to retain his childhood sense of wonder at the universe - seems to me sound.
And as for this particular question: well, it's a biggie. Why is there stuff - indeed, quite a lot of stuff, as anyone who has walked down Fifth Avenue, visited the Grand Canyon, or simply looked at the night sky, can attest - rather than a whole lot of nothing? (Or would that be a tiny bit of nothing?) Not every question gets, or deserves, its own book, but the question that gives Why Does the World Exist? its title is far too big for any one volume. Holt's book is not meant to be the last word on the matter; it is best seen as an entertaining introduction to a vast range of argument and speculation that would take more lifetimes to master than any of us has at his disposal.
The arguments can get complex but return repeatedly to rest on a couple of basic issues. Here is a question to start with: What, if anything, are we allowed to take for granted when we describe the beginning of the universe? The obvious rejoinder to any proposal that "X caused (or is a reason for) the universe, so the existence of the universe is explained by X" is to say, "Alright, but where did X come from?" (Or, if X is a law or principle, why does X obtain? What makes it true?) This rejoinder is extremely effective when X is, say, God: as Richard Dawkins, among many others, has pointed out, the religious "explanation" of the universe - God made it! - is entirely unsatisfying unless one can also explain who made God. One can hold that God does not need an explanation, of course; but then, why not just say that about the universe itself? As one would expect, there have been attempts to show that God, by his nature, is special and does not need any such explanation; the attempts offered thus far, though, are hopelessly unsatisfying for any questioner not already committed to a religious framework for thought.
But the "So where did X come from?" rejoinder is not only a problem for religious accounts; it also raises issues for any scientifically oriented explanation that aspires to completeness. 'The Higgs boson did it" is as unsatisfying as "God did it" unless we can explain why the Higgs boson and other elementary particles exist at all. (Actually it's not clear that the Higgs boson, if and when its existence is conclusively confirmed, will shed any light on questions of the universe's origins, despite its somehow managing to get itself nicknamed "the God particle.") More seriously, saying that the universe began with the Big Bang doesn't really explain much of anything unless we can explain why the Big Bang happened; if it's just something that came out of nowhere, for no reason, then it can't be counted as a complete explanation. Similarly, a number of physicists have argued that quantum mechanics allows a universe to pop into existence out of something extremely minimal - an energy- packed void, a quantum fluctuation, or something of that ilk. But these accounts still start with something, and so we can still ask where the energy that packed the void came from, or why the laws of quantum mechanics that permit such fluctuations should be as they are. A complete explanation of the universe's existence, as many people understand it, would have to explain those, too.
One might think, then, that a genuinely complete explanation of the world's existence would have to be infinite, since each explaining element would itself need to be explained by something else, something prior. …