MAY 4, 2013
JIM HOLT IS AN EXPERT AT NOTHING. He has gone on a world tour of modern philosophers, physicists, theologians, and writers, and asked them a question that is, he writes, “so profound it would occur only to a metaphysician, yet so simple it would occur only to a child.” Why is there something rather than nothing? Holt visited esteemed thinkers — Richard Swinburne, Steven Weinberg, Adolf Grünbaum, and John Updike — in their natural habitats, places like Oxford or Café de Flore in Paris. Holt presents their theories in Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story in a manner a layperson could grasp, and with wit and dry humor a cynic can appreciate. A philosopher, author, and essayist, Holt gives these great minds physical bodies, allowing his readers a glimpse into the lives of our own endangered species — humans that think for a living.
Holt grew up in a religious family, but he “had begun to develop an interest in existentialism” in high school, he writes, because it was “a philosophy that seemed to hold out hope for resolving my adolescent insecurities, or at least elevating them to a grander plain.” His parents and the nuns in his elementary school initially taught him that the world existed because God created it out of nothing. That answer didn’t quite jive with him, but that the world might exist for no reason at all seemed a bit unnerving. So Holt decided to play detective and attempt to make the universe answer for its existence.
Thinking for a living is a luxury few have, and asking the big questions is rare once we leave college. How many of us regularly ponder the reasons for the world’s existence after a full day’s work, doing homework with the kids, paying bills, and arguing with the spouse over whose turn it is to buy groceries? At times, after a long day, nothingness doesn’t look so bad. While nothing is more human than to contemplate our own existence, we just often forget about it when we grow up, leaving it to the metaphysicians, philosophers, and children. To read Jim Holt’s book after our daily minutiae is to remember what it was like, when we were younger, to mull over the question of existence and nothingness.
At the age of eight, this question hit me without warning and knocked me off my feet for a month or two. I was spending July with my father in a house by a lake when it dawned on me — I will die. After I die, will there be nothing? My family wasn’t religious, so nothing seemed to be a logical choice. I cannot say what brought this on. It was the first summer my father allowed me to walk to the little corner market by myself to buy milk, never suspecting that the notion of death would tag along. At night, I stared at the wallpaper with yellow dandelions and tried to wrap my brain around the fact that these dandelions may still be around when I will no longer be. I wished for a tiny peephole that would allow me to see the world without me in it. How could I peek at it out of nothingness? What would nothingness be like? It seemed the questions were there all along, but the lights were suddenly turned on and I was able to read them. The certainty of my future non-being was deeply unsettling.
David Hume, Holt tells us, thought that it was no harder to imagine not existing after one’s death than it is to imagine not existing prior to one’s birth, and Cicero declared that to philosophize is to learn how to die. I was learning. Perhaps the knowledge that some of the greatest minds throughout history wrestled with similar questions would have given me a bit of comfort. I could have imagined the big question — Why Does The World Exist? — as an infinite string of individuals asking: Why do I exist? I would have had company.
Why Does the World Exist? is a comprehensive rundown of philosophers’ and scientists’ views on the topic of being and nothingness throughout history, and at the same time Holt manages to discuss nothingness in the very relatable here-and-now. He describes the experience of riding in the backseat of Grünbaum’s car: the head of the great but tiny philosopher barely reaches above the steering wheel, and he is completely oblivious to traffic and angry honks of surrounding cars. Meanwhile, Holt contemplates his own potential transformation to nothingness as a result of a horrible car crash. But Grünbaum, the great rejectionist, thinks that the question — why is there a world rather than nothing at all — is a pseudo-problem. Grünbaum rejects nothingness as a Christian concept stemming from the idea that God brought the world into existence out of pure nothing. Grünbaum’s family escaped from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and he has a bone or two to pick with God. What could be more commonplace than something that does exist, the tiny philosopher asks? Holt recognizes the wisdom of this formulation, but he will not let nothingness off the hook so quickly. He is on the quest to define and understand it, before ruling it out as a less likely scenario than being.
I had the opportunity to interview Jim Holt, the author of Why Does The World Exist?, when the book was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in the category of general nonfiction. I spoke with Holt on camera at The New School in New York City. We sat down for our talk, the red camera light blinked, and our own faces scrutinized us from a computer monitor in front. A tall blackboard behind us cut off all possible escape routes. So I asked Holt several painstakingly written questions intended to make me sound smarter than I was. He answered, we shook hands, and he walked out. The video recorded, but something misfired, and as far as the sound, there was nothing. I was upset enough not to appreciate the irony.
During the interview, I asked Holt if he thought defining nothing was a futile task. After all, any definition would be confined by language and any name given to nothing would inevitably turn it into something. “Trying to envisage nothingness defeated a lot of great thinkers,” Holt said:
Henri Bergson, a 20th-century French philosopher, tried to visualize nothingness. He could eliminate the people, the matter, space, and time, but he was left with himself. He could never get rid of the observer. Even if there is nothingness, there has to be an observer, so we could never get to an absolute nothingness. Other philosophers said that even when you eliminate all the contents of the universe, you still have an empty stage on which they all were. It’s fun trying to stretch your imagination and make an approximation closer and closer to absolute nothingness. Perhaps you could never get there. But I do think the concept of nothingness is logically consistent. It’s possible that there could have been nothing, so we are lucky there is something. Nothingness is a real threat even if we have problems imagining it.
I couldn’t agree more. A few weeks ago, I was in a car, half-asleep in a fast-food-induced coma when I was jolted awake by a road sign on Vermont’s Route 7. What if you die tomorrow? And about 100 feet later — Ski the Face. The “what if” I had problems imagining, but I knew I’d be forever hesitant about skiing the Face. There was a phone number and an address to a local church on the bottom of the “die tomorrow” sign, but as an agnostic, it held no interest. What if I die tomorrow, then what? Nothingness? I closed my eyes but somehow the black nothingness, which shouldn’t have been black to start with, was adorned with a few yellow dandelions. I swept the dandelions aside, but they left grayish imprints. The prospect of nothingness, tomorrow, refused to materialize. It’s this prospect of nothingness, Holt writes, that induces “certain queasiness,” if not “outright terror.”
“Although my birth was contingent, my death is necessary. Of that I am reasonably sure. Yet I find my death difficult to imagine,” says Holt in the chapter titled “Return to Nothingness.” He describes the death of his mother, the feeling of being by her side in a hospital room and watching her “infinitesimal transition from being to nothingness. The room had contained two selves; now it contained one.” It’s a chapter that examines death in a manner that is both emotional and methodical. Underneath the grief, there is a need to understand, and underneath the need to understand, there is more grief. Steven Weinberg, a renowned physicist Holt spoke to in the course of writing the book, said: “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.”
We come closest to imaging nothingness when confronted by death, especially if we don’t rely on a concept of an afterlife as a reprise or even a postponement. Our relationship with death has changed over the centuries as well. In the book Death: A History of Man’s Obsessions and Fears, Robert Wilkins writes that “today we live longer and death has become more remote, sanitized, and mysterious. With mystery comes ignorance and recoil.” In his book, Wilkins, a psychiatrist, examines the ways in which people throughout history coped with fears of death. The difference, Wilkins argues, is that in the earlier times death was an unwelcomed but common guest at the dinner table. Death was not only a normal occurrence; it was something people lived with on daily basis. Today, “we push down the disturbing reality of our mortality into the eddying nether regions of our subconscious minds.” Death has become more conceptual and intangible, a bit like nothingness.
But even religion is not a sure antidote to nothingness. Holt quotes Miguel de Unamuno’s testimony in the Tragic Sense of Life. What frightens Unamuno most is not the concept of hell: “The truth is that I could not believe in this atrocious Hell, an eternity of punishment, nor could I imagine a more authentic Hell than that of nothingness and the prospect of it.” Holt is impressed with Unamuno’s words, but when I asked him during the interview whose ideas, out of all the great thinkers he spoke with, he found the most compelling, he named John Updike. “Talking to Updike was almost therapeutic,” Holt said:
He knew a lot about physics, but said that he couldn’t wrap his reptile brain around the notion that the entire observable universe, hundreds of billions of galaxies, was a long time ago compressed into the size of a grape. I think that his intellectual humility in the face of science and also his willingness to take the God hypothesis seriously, but not the vulgar God hypothesis that is argued about […] He sees the universe in poetic terms, he conjures the image of God surrounded by nothingness and being bored and summoning the cosmos into existence as a bit of a light verse. And that struck me as very beautiful.
There could have been nothing, perhaps there was, and there will be. In the meanwhile, we are fortunate that there is something.
Jim Holt returned two weeks later for a repeat interview, but suggested that instead we dub the first interview with a new soundtrack, in the fashion of a Fellini film. He answered my questions just as patiently the second time. After all, according to David Deutsch, an Oxford physicist Holt also spoke with, there are multiple parallel universes and multiple realities — why not multiple soundtracks?
As John Updike said in Rabbit, Run, “You do things and do things and nobody really has a clue.”