Why Does the World Exist?

With a lot of attention these days (see here for instance) going to an argument between philosophers and physicists about the “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” question, this is the perfect time for Jim Holt’s new book Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. While the argument between Krauss, Albert and their fellow combatants was mind-numbingly dumb, boring, narrow, petty and ill-mannered, Holt’s discussion of the topic is brilliant, entertaining, and wide-ranging as well as generous in spirit to all points of view. The only unfortunate thing here is that the book won’t be out until July. I’ve checked with him though, and he doesn’t mind if I write about it now, since I just read an advance copy. In July I’ll try to remember to repost this.

Holt first sets the stage by explaining some of the history of the question “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” and why it’s one he finds compelling (as well as explaining why one might reasonably think otherwise…). He first ran across the question as a high school student fascinated by Existentialism and trying to read Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics.

(Personal digression:

Around the same time I was also trying to read that book as a college freshman. I just found my old copy, where I underlined lots of things that seemed of significance at the time, as well as putting exclamation points around the paranoid nationalist ravings that appear at one point. I soon decided Heidegger wasn’t for me, and some years later learned of a personal reason to dislike him, see this from the Wikipedia entry on Heidegger and Nazism:

Heidegger also denounced or demoted several colleagues for being insufficiently committed to the Nazi cause.

On September 29, 1933, Heidegger leaked information to the local minister of education that the chemist Hermann Staudinger had been a pacifist during World War I. Heidegger knew this would cost Staudinger his job. The Gestapo investigated the matter and confirmed Heidegger’s tip. Asked for his recommendation as rector of the university, Heidegger secretly urged the ministry to fire Staudinger without a pension.

Hermann Staudinger was my great-uncle (on my father’s side of the family). Despite Heidegger’s efforts, he managed to keep his job, survived the war, and went on to win a Nobel prize. I never really got to know him since he died when I was rather young, but got to know very well his widow, my great-aunt Magda. Decades later, she was still quite upset by the Heidegger business.

End of personal digression.)

Holt then moves on to contemporary thinker’s takes on the subject, including entertaining descriptions of his trips to visit some of them, starting with some philosophers. These include Adolf Grünbaum who takes the position (to which I’m sympathetic…) that this is a pseudo-problem, and derisively refers to worries about Nothingness as the “ontopathological syndrome”. Another visit is to Richard Swinburne at Oxford, who goes for the “God did it” explanation.

The first physicist he visits is David Deutsch, also at Oxford, and Holt’s description of the experience and account of their conversation is quite wonderful. As you might expect, lots about the deep significance of quantum physics and Many-Worlds. After a discussion of Robert Nozick and his principle of fecundity (“all possible worlds are real”), it’s on to Alexander Vilenkin and the cosmological multiverse mania that has gotten so much attention from physicists in recent years. Here the sort of “something from nothing” that Krauss was discussing in his recent book comes into play.

The most intellectually powerful figure Holt talks to might be Steven Weinberg, who has this to say about the multiverse:

“Vilenkin is a really clever guy, and these are fascinating conjectures,” Weinberg said. “The problem is that we have no way, at present, of deciding whether they’re true or not. It’s not just that we don’t have the observational data – we don’t even have the theory.”

and this about string theory:

When I brought up string theory, a melancholy strain became detectable in Weinberg’s voice.
“I was hoping that with string theory things would fall into place much more rapidly than they have,” he said. “But it’s been rather disappointing. I’m not one of those people who bad-mouth string theory. I still think it’s the best effort we’ve made to step beyond what we already know, but it hasn’t worked out the way we were expecting it would.”

About Susskind’s claims that the Many-Worlds and string theory multiverses may be one and the same, Weinberg is having none of it, describing the two ideas as “completely perpendicular” and saying:

“I found it [Susskind's claims] puzzling too,” he said. “I’ve spoken to other people about it, and they don’t understand it either”… “I don’t agree with Susskind on that,” Weinberg told me, “and I don’t know why he said it.”

The discussion with Weinberg brings up the whole question of a “Final theory”, a truly unified fundamental theory of physics, and what its significance for the question of existence might be. After Weinberg, Holt describes a meeting with Sir Roger Penrose, and explains Penrose’s “Platonism”, the philosophical point of view that mathematical objects actually are real things that exist (in some sense…). Penrose attempts to also bring the question of consciousness into this, which seems to me a mistake, but the questions raised here about the relation of mathematics and our fundamental ideas about the physical world are dear to my heart. To the extent that to me there’s a sensible question behind “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?”, it’s bound up with this great mystery of the origin of the fundamental laws of physics. Mathematics and physics have a completely unexpected and still not understood congruence at their deepest levels, and this mystery seems to me not only a very real one, but one that we can hope to further elucidate. I realized from Holt’s discussion that maybe my own mystical views on this subject are best described as “Pythagorean”. While he does a reasonable job of raising some of these issues, to me he dismisses them too quickly in favor of moving on to other topics much less worth taking seriously. But I would think that, wouldn’t I?

The later part of the book reverts to the philosophers. For his discussion with John Leslie about “axiarchism”, you can watch the two of them here on Bloggingheads. His final philosophical encounter is with Derek Parfit, in the imposing venue of All Souls at Oxford. Novelist John Updike is his last interviewee, and Updike also isn’t so happy with string theory:

“But this whole string theory business… There’s never any evidence, just mathematical formulas, right? There are men spending their whole careers working on a theory of something that might not even exist.”

Holt ends the book on a personal note, telling the story of the death of his mother and his return to the place he grew up. Throughout the book, he weaves in accounts of time spent in Paris, reading at Sartre’s Cafe de Flore, and wandering the city contemplating aspects of his great philosophical question, as well as life in general. Some might find this distracting and not so serious, but I enjoyed those parts of the book a lot. Of course, this may largely be due to the fact that I’m a sucker for Paris and know well and love the locations he was describing.

If you have even the slightest interest in the “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” question, be sure to get yourself of a copy of this wonderful book when it comes out. My interest in the question has always been rather minimal (I got grief from some of my commenters recently for my dismissive attitude on the topic), but this didn’t keep me from getting a lot out of the book. It’s philosophy of a high level, pursued in an unusual and personal manner, and it’s a pleasure to follow along with the author as he tells a fascinating and thought-provoking story.

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45 Responses to Why Does the World Exist?

  1. pakri says:

    I believe this is nothing but a word-play. None of the writers,
    including Sartre, has had deep insight. Great physicists and
    mathematicians should shun the subject.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    pakri,

    That’s a reasonable take on the question, but I’ll just point out that Weinberg and Penrose disagree with you and thought the subject worth discussing.

  3. Bobito says:

    “Why Does the World Exist?”

    Bad question because it suppose an ill-defined alternative.

  4. anton ymous says:

    >> Heidegger knew this would cost Staudinger his job.
    >> [..]
    >> Despite Heidegger’s efforts, he managed to keep his job

    This does not really fit together?

  5. Neto says:

    “Mathematics and physics have a completely unexpected and still not understood congruence at their deepest levels”

    You can use math to model anything that is scientific reachable. How the use of math to describe natural physics can be “completely unexpected”?

  6. Aidyan says:

    Everyone asks why things ‘exist’ taking for granted that we know what ‘existence’ is. But a honest thought about it would reveal that we really don’t know.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    anton ymous,

    I forget the details, but from what I remember Staudinger was forced to resign his position because Heidegger denounced him to the Gestapo and suggested he be forced out of his job and have his pension taken away. Staudinger did manage to get reinstated, after Heidegger and others in power realized that this would make the university look very bad internationally.

    Neto,

    This is just the usual “unreasonable effectiveness” argument of Wigner, which has accumulated much more evidence for it since his time.

  8. Jeff McGowan says:

    I must say I find it amusing that this is what physicists are busy talking about. Nothing wrong with philosophical discussions, or literary ones, but physics? Perhaps it comes from some deep seated desire for a theory of everything, which unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) Godel proved was clearly impossible quite some time ago. You would think that someone as seemingly smart as Weinberg would understand something that basic. And Peter, gotta say I think you’re wrong and Penrose is right, consciousness is at the heart of it somehow. Check out Newcomb’s paradox.

  9. Igor Khavkine says:

    About this “unreasonable effectiveness”. Some time ago, I watched this video lecture by cognitive scientist (and apparently ex-logician) George Lakoff, recorded at the Fields Institute. In it, he briefly addresses this observation in the question period. His take on it was interesting enough for me to get a copy of his book on the cognitive science of mathematical thought, which is unfortunately still collecting dust in my to-read book pile.

    In my imperfect recollection and rendition of his position, they key to taking the mystery out of this question is the observation that mathematical thought is carried out by the brain, which resides in the body, both of which are physical systems following physical laws. The application of the “(unreasonable) effectiveness” to particular physical process then simply corresponds to the existence of a translation from this process to the physical processes of mathematical thought. These translations Lakoff calls metaphors, I believe. And they are supposed to be documented in detail in his book.

    The above argument would answer a “how” question. “Why” questions are always trickier. However, I think some light could be shed on the corresponding “why” question by answering a related one: When is it possible for any part of a physical system (the universe) to be mapped to (be simulated by) another part of the same physical system (the brain)? Personally, I have no idea what the answer to this question would be, but it seems to me already somewhat better defined than Wigner’s original remark. It even has shades of Turing universality, which has been studied in some detail.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    Jeff and Igor,

    I don’t think either Godel’s or Lakoff’s arguments are relevant. We’re actually very close to a unified theory, with the questions we don’t understand seeming to have no connection to the problems Godel’s theorem raises. The fact that a very non-obvious to the human mind structure (the Dirac equation) explains so much of reality, at the same time that it appears non-obviously in the deepest parts of mathematics (e.g. it’s the fundamental class in K-homology) seems to me to show that something mysterious is going on, and it’s something that has nothing to do with the structure of the human brain, for which both parts of the story are quite alien. This stuff is very difficult for the human mind to understand, it takes quite an effort, and only is successful due to the high adaptability of human thought processes. It’s quite possible, and Holt mentions this possibility, that there is some deep structure going on here, that is as incomprehensible to our minds as calculus is to the mind of a dog. But we have somewhat better abilities than the dog to learn new things.

    This is getting kind of off-topic though…

  11. Jeff McGowan says:

    Peter,

    No question one might get a “unified” theory, my point was that a “complete” theory won’t ever happen. “Theory of everything” implies complete, at least to me. Now I’ll stop…

  12. billy hudson says:

    @JeffMcGowan

    If you haven’t already seen it, you may be interested in the book “Godel’s Theorem: An Incomplete Guide to Its Use and Abuse” by the late Torkel Franzén.

  13. Igor Khavkine says:

    @Jeff, I’ll second billy’s suggestion.

    @Peter: The question you seem to be posing is I think different from the original one posed by Wigner. In that case, I agree that Lakoff’s argument is not particularly relevant.

  14. Jeff says:

    Billy and Igor,

    While I’m sure the book is enjoyable, if I want to revisit Godel I’ll dig out my notes on Turing’s proof, which I always thought was one of the prettiest things in mathematics (despite being a geometric analyst myself…) And Lakoff was never a logician, his Ph.D. is in Linguistics.

  15. Allan Rosenberg says:

    I’m not so sure that the philosphers are entirely convinced that there is something rather than nothing. True, Descartes did argue, cogiter ergo sum, but that leaves open the precise definition of the following words: cogito, ergo, and sum, all disputations subjects in contemporary philosophy. Until those definitional issues are resolved, it’s hard to see how we’ll reach a philosophical consensus as to whether anything exists.

  16. Christian Takacs says:

    “Why does the world (universe) exist?” is begging the question. Kinda like, When did you stop beating your wife? The question presupposes that the universe didn’t exist before it did, and unless you can prove former first, you have no latter ‘creation ex nihilo’ to debate. This is a good argument for why philosophy matters, if physicists would employ basic philosophy and logic before running off with silly ‘interpretations’ of limited data, ( e.g. Copenhagen intrepretation) fewer such houses of cards would be assembled… and have so much prestigious math piled upon them. Heisenberg himself was actually very philosophical (not in a good way)… and a Nazi, as well as working for the German’s on the atomic bomb. His colleague and friend Niels Bohr went to some effort to hide this glaring little truth, probably so his own career wouldn’t be tarnished. So much for the glory of quantum mechanics.

  17. billy hudson says:

    Jeff,

    Do your notes analyze the applicability of the Incompleteness Theorem to “The Theory of Everything”? Section 4.4 of has a nice analysis. From page 88: “The basic equations of physics, whatever they may be, cannot indeed decide every arithmetical statement, but whether or not they are complete considered as a description of the physical world, and what completeness might mean in such a case, is not something that the incompleteness theorem tells us anything about.”

  18. Yatima says:

    > silly ‘interpretations’ of limited data, ( e.g. Copenhagen intrepretation)

    What am I reading. It just becomes silly if esoteric weirdos start to confuse “observer” (which can be an LHC detector) with “conscious observer” (an ill-defined, slightly icky concept if there ever was one). Other than that, it apparently remains the only one that makes consistent sense. For people who accept that probability theory can be extended, that is. Others write endless philosophical drivel on this, which may be necessary to bring in the bacon, granted.

    http://arxiv.org/abs/math-ph/0002049 “It took some time before it was understood that quantum theory is a generalisation of probability, rather than a modification of the laws of mechanics. This was not helped by the term quantum mechanics; more, the Copenhagen interpretation is given in terms of probability, meaning as understood at the time. Bohr has said that the interpretation of microscopic measurements must be done in classical terms, because the measuring instruments are large, and are therefore described by classical laws. It is true, that the springs and cogs making up a measuring instrument themselves obey classical laws; but this does not mean that the information held on the instrument, in the numbers indicated by the dials, obey classical statistics. If the instrument faithfully measures an atomic observable, then the numbers indicated by
    the dials should be analysed by quantum probability, however large the instrument
    is.”

  19. Jeff M says:

    Billy,

    That statement strikes me as a bit of a cop out. “What completeness might mean in such a case” allows for pretty much anything, no? Not saying he’s wrong, since I have no doubt that different people might mean very different things by “completeness” in relation to a physical theory, but to a mathematician completeness is very clear. Perhaps that was really my point – when people start talking about “final theories” it isn’t at all clear what they mean. Then again, perhaps I’m just being a nit-picky mathematician :-)

  20. paddy says:

    And perhaps I am being a nit-picky physicist: “shut up and calculate”.

  21. Anonyrat says:

    “Why is there something instead of nothing?” is an existential question that is meaningful only in the context of religion. This can be seen by thinking about what would constitute an acceptable answer. The prototypical answer to an existential question requires a God that is outside of and independent of the universe, and then “there is nothing” has meaning. Religion seems to have faded away, but it still lingers on powerfully. This shown by the number of people who think “why is there something instead of nothing?” is still meaningful.

  22. billy hudson says:

    Jeff,

    I’m sympathetic with paddy’s statement. In my experience, mathematicians (outside of the field of logic) are no more concerned with completeness than physicists. All of our calculations take place in an incomplete theory, but this doesn’t affect anyone’s practice of mathematics/physics (I’m of the camp that has a hard time distinguishing between the two). In any case, we’ve strayed off topic so I’ll leave it there. Cheers . . . :)

  23. Friend says:

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Perhaps this is just another way to ask what is the purpose of the universe? Or, what is the most general principle that it displays as a whole? Then the answer to those question might answer the “why” of its existence. For example, one might venture to say that the most general thing that the universe does is display a set of consistent facts. Then that could be “why” it exists… to display a consistent set of facts.

  24. Thank you, Peter, for the review. The book sounds as great as I’d hoped! Can’t wait for July!

  25. Thanks for the very interesting review, Peter.

  26. Peter Burnett says:

    Consider the intellectual distance between the knowledge you possess and the problem you’re trying to solve. ‘Why is there anything rather than nothing’ is the question with the greatest distance. But let’s not give up or ignore it just because it’s a long trip. There must be a rational answer to this problem, if not, we might as well give up physics and spend the rest of our lives with our hands down our shorts.
    The best comment I’ve come across is that there are three possibilities: either there is something, or there is nothing, or they are both the same.

  27. Tony Smith says:

    Since I do not have an advance copy of the Jim Holt book,
    my question is whether/how the book might differ with respect to a couple of points in his November 1994 Harper’s article “Nothing Ventured – A bold leap into the ontological void” in which he said:

    1 – about Hegelian dialectic:
    “… At the beginning of Hegel’s famous dialectic is the assumption that
    the Absolute is Pure Being.
    But Pre Being is totally indefinite; it has no qualities; it is utterly empty. It is the same as Pure Nothing.
    You can’t have one without the other; they are dialectical twins.
    And yet, inasmuch as they are also contraries, they can’t coexist very happily.
    Something new must be found that reconciles and supersedes them.
    And that turns out to be: Becoming!
    Becoming is what happens when Being is on the verge of passing into Nothing–or vice versa.
    Thus does the Hegelian dialectic get merrily underway, eventually yielding up human history and culture in all their variegated splendor. …”.

    2 – Jim Holt’s personal argument, thought of while shaving:
    “… If the laws of physics come into being along with the universe, then they can’t explain it.
    If they exist prior to the universe, then there is nothing to account for their existence …
    That is the dilemma of the nothing theorists.
    … there is no need to get impaled on its horns …
    a … way of showing why there is something rather than nothing … goes like this. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that nothing existed.
    Then, in particular, there would be no laws. …
    If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted.
    If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden.
    Therefore, if nothing existed, nothing would be forbidden.
    Therefore, nothing, if it existed, would forbid itself.
    Therefore there must be something. …”.

    Tony

  28. Peter Woit says:

    Tony,

    Sounds like the sort of thing that is in the book, in similar form. Holt is no fan of Hegel, but write a bit about him, along the lines of what you quote.

  29. Friend says:

    Peter,

    Since you have an advanced copy, are you allowed to write a review on amazon.com?

  30. Tony Smith says:

    Just for fun, here is a silly thought about the Hegel quote:
    Absolute Something = PURE BEING
    Nothing = PRE BEING
    Absolute Something – Nothing = PURE BEING – PRE BEING = U
    So, U = YOU are what distinguishes Something from Nothing.
    (?a version of cogito ergo sum?)

    Tony

  31. Peter Woit says:

    Friend,

    I think Amazon has a program to get people advance copies of books in exchange for writing reviews. I’m not part of that, my copy didn’t come from them. Whether or not I could post a review there, I think I’ll stick to just doing this on the blog.

  32. arjun says:

    Dear Peter,

    Could you please expand on this statement that you make:

    “The fact that a very non-obvious to the human mind structure (the Dirac equation) explains so much of reality, at the same time that it appears non-obviously in the deepest parts of mathematics (e.g. it’s the fundamental class in K-homology) seems to me to show that something mysterious is going on …”

  33. Peter Woit says:

    arjun,

    This is a very long story. I think there is quite a bit about it in my book.

    An oversimplified way of stating it is that the most powerful theorem telling you about the relation of analysis, geometry and topology is the Atiyah-Singer index theorem (and you can abstractly express it using K-theory). In some sense it says that the Dirac equation is a “generator”, everything else can be written in terms of that. Atiyah and Singer actually rediscovered the Dirac equation for themselves in the course of their work on the index theorem.

  34. Tom Whicker says:

    I think we have a strong aversion to the contemplation of non-existence, because
    contained there-in must be the admission of our own personal non-existence. It is
    very real and soon to happen to each of us. We try to laugh or to say it is uninteresting, to say there is no useful math or physics there, which is true. But
    the topic itself is deeply disturbing.

  35. Anonyrat says:

    Luboš Motl:

    “We use the term string theory for everything that is connected by equations to what we previously called string theory. That’s why we will simply use the term “string theory” for every consistent corner of quantum gravity we may discover in the future. With this convention – which was adopted in recent decades – the uniqueness of string theory as a consistent theory of quantum gravity is a tautology. ”

    Elevated from the comments here.

  36. Peter Woit says:

    Anonyrat,

    Thanks, but the philosophical issues raised by the existence of Lubos Motl and the fact that prominent string theorists guest post on his blog and put his endorsement on their books are greater mysteries than that of existence in general, and best left for another time…

  37. paddy says:

    PW:
    Your LM post left me laughing til I went into a coughing fit. ‘Twould be indeed better if LM were capable of seeing the humour.

  38. prianikoff says:

    Hegel was an idealist.
    A materialist would define nothing as the anwer to the question.
    “What’s a Greek urn?”

  39. clauderains says:

    Why does anything exist? Because it’s easier than not existing. And we exist within it to satisfy a statistical outlier on the universe’s ability to ‘spontaneously’ create toasters…

  40. tulpoeid says:

    A little bit off-topic (but only a little bit), this is a chance for a comment I’ve meant to leave here for some time now. In case you (or any readers) enjoy good science-fiction, you might want to have a try at Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. You’ll find it touches on issues related to this blog!

  41. Peter,

    Can you suggest any readable but mathematically detailed discussions of your point about the Atiyah-Singer Index Theorem?

    I managed to figure out for myself (maybe “guessed by myself” would be more accurate!) this idea that the Dirac equation is at the base of the Index Theorem.

    But, I cannot find a discussion of the theorem that actually explains this clearly and in detail. I am in the frustrating position that I understand (I think) the details of various proofs (Sobolev spaces, Chern characters, etc.) without really understanding the proofs.

    And, thanks for the book review. Unlike you, I suspect the question is meaningful, but I must admit to a sneaking suspicion that it is not. Needless to say, I found Weinberg’s comments the most sensible among those you quoted.

    Dave

  42. Dan says:

    The idea of origin brings with it a simple but profound bit of baggage: causality. Simply put, “something” must exist, and be transformable into “something else”. In this context, the problem arises because we must now substitute “nothing” for “something” with the absurd transformation of “nothing” into “something else”. How is “nothing” transformable? It is simply not logical.

    There are various ways to try to beat this problem:

    1. There never was a state of “nothing”. The universe (as a transformable substrate) has unbroken temporal existence. It is either “temporally closed” (going in circles) or “infinite” (going going going …..)
    2. The transformation of “nothing” into “something” is a false dilemma because you just ain’t smart enough to understand such an abstract transformation. Now shut up and calculate.
    3. God did it. And he needs some money. (of course, don’t ask where God came from as this might invalidate the solution)

    Please add to this list if you can think of any other options.

  43. Grep Agni says:

    On a much lighter note, this SMBC comic is apropos.

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