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.
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.