For the eighth grade science fair, I decided to go big. None of this Proving Stuff Can’t Burn in a Vacuum or Documenting Planetary Movement for me. No, I wanted to know What Makes Us Die?
I was smart enough to know that sometimes death just deals from without — a bullet to the head, for instance. But what about “slow” death? What makes the brain, or whatever, decide it’s had enough?
For this, in a classroom after school, I placed a mouse in a stoppered beaker with a hose connected to another beaker, in which I slowly boiled some rat poison. But both my science-teacher nun and I had forgotten that heated air expands — in this case, popping the stopper in the second beaker and splashing the poison all over me. After the panicked sister rinsed my face in a janitor’s closet, we found the mouse had concluded the “experiment” alone. No matter. I submitted my essay and won a special prize for concluding — good Catholic boy — that maybe we are not meant to understand some things.
That thought returned to me after finishing Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story. Not because his cosmological/philosophical whodunit fails to produce an answer to that question, but because the answer, which unfolds near the end, in a letter to one of the Big Thinkers he has interviewed, is disappointing.
The question Holt asks a variety of brilliant physicists and philosophers is not that of the title, but a closely related one raised by Leibniz in the 17th century: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” He visits atheists, pantheists and Christians who have tussled with this issue, adducing along the way thoughts from Plato and Aristotle to Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein and Sartre. Surprisingly, many of these sages, even when dismiss their peers’ ideas, arrive at a point at which they admit they can reason no further.
Not Holt. He concludes the universe erupted in “a vast Walpurgisnacht of mediocrity.” The universe is not the best of all possible worlds — Leibniz’s proposal that Voltaire ridiculed in Candide — and it is not Sartre’s little bubble of Being tormented by Nothingness. It is just … meh.
Holt arrives at this after meeting with Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit, who is among those who believe in a “multiverse” of possible realities. Parfit’s principal area of concern is personal identity and the ethics of selfhood, but ontology haunts these issues, too. “This extraordinary question” — Leibniz’s — “may have an extraordinary answer,” Parfit has written. Holt’s middling answer comes in a letter to Parfit in which he tackles Parfit’s idea of “The Selector,” the characteristics of possible universes that make them, well, possible. It’s really a slate of logical actions and consequences rather than a case for or against a divine entity; God doesn’t really entre into it. In his exchange with Parfit, Holt settles on a selecting force that has delivered our unexceptional world of joy and misery.
Much earlier in the book, however, he tips his hand by revealing, in a parenthesized aside, “my own position: that the universe was created by a being that is 100 percent malevolent but only 80 percent effective.” How this relates to the conclusion he arrives at later is left to the reader to figure out.
The reader better acquainted with logic and higher mathematics will have an easier time slogging through some passages than I did, but in general Holt takes on this thorniest of existential conundrums in an approachable manner, leavening passages of heavy assessment with sometimes amusing narratives about his investigatory travels. He braves death on a Pittsburgh freeway, chauffeured by an aging physicist, and he reads Hegel in the Parisian café that counted Sartre and De Beauvoir among its habitués. Twice he leaves Paris for England. His dog dies, pre-empting an interview in Austin. His mother’s last moments allow Holt to speculate on the shutdown I had missed with the mouse.
Some of these tales, though, such as his account of a stay in an upper-crusty London club, are simply annoying. At times I found myself wishing he had listened to that Pittsburgh physicist, an atheist who considers Leibniz’s question the pointless residue of early Christian dogma. But how could something arise from nothing, as physicists believe happened 14 billion years ago, via the Higgs field — you know, the boson? At times Holt’s distaste for “premature intellectual closure” seems as petulant as a child endlessly asking “why?”
His account of a phone conversation with John Updike is among the book’s rare pleasures. Updike, who died less than a year after Holt spoke with him, knew his quantum theory, and proved it in several novels, but his take on Leibniz’s question was literary. “Could God … have suffered boredom to the point that he made that universe?” Updike muses. “That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.”
Maybe my eighth-grade surrender to ignorance was wrong-headed, but I sure prefer Updike’s universe to Holt’s.
WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST? AN EXISTENTIAL DETECTIVE STORY by Jim Holt, W.W. Norton, 279 pages