Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Jim Holt's "Why Does the World Exist?": Book Review

After reviewing Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's "The Grand Design" a few days ago, and feeling that despite their erudition, they did not satisfy my lifelong curiosity about this Big Question, I awaited Jim Holt's take on Hawking and other thinkers. I am on the wait list for the more cosmologically inclined Lawrence Krauss with his new "A Universe Out of Nothing," but as a decidedly lay reader who finds astronomy and philosophy both challenging to wrap my head around, I figured Holt would prove an assured guide for this "existential detective story".

I used to enjoy his end-page science columns in the late, lively academic magazine "Lingua Franca." Here, as in his reviews and journalism, Holt takes a brisk clip to survey the earlier attempts at figuring out what Leibniz asked and what for the teenaged Holt Heidegger repeated as the "ultimate 'why' question". Leibniz' answer to his own riddle does not please Holt: a self-evident "well, we have to exist, don't we?" retort. Andrei Linde's scheme of a clever hacker from another universe suggests one scenario. Out of a hundredth-thousandth of a gram of matter, a universe can be concocted, and balloon outward.

Mixing his personal quest with philosophers, mathematicians, clergy, theologians, physicists, and some combinations of these, Holt uses interviews to bring the bulk of his account into the present. Interludes flash by, and epistolary ones follow. The pace of this will be daunting, but as with his readership for the "New York Times" and the "New York Review of Books" as well as "Lingua Franca," Holt expects his readers to be smart, able to grasp the history of ideas and quotations left in French. It's that kind of book, one that in a soundbite, pull-quote age will still find its audience, undoubtedly a self-selecting small one able to take on serious intellectual investigation along with Holt, as he relates the material to the demise of his dog and the death of his mother, and Sartre's Café de Flore hangout. It moves rapidly (lots of quick citations and parentheses and rapid transitions) for all its citations (endnotes if no bibliography) and rewards reflection, even if it will not solve mysteries.

Roger Penrose and colleague Hawking assert the Big Bang's singularity, out of quantum fluctuations, as astrophysicists such as Krauss appear to back up, as the logical if not "determined" beginning to the universe, without any other cause. Holt opens up another response via Penrose and physicists open to finding a reasonable pattern in creation--that we can examine the universe to solve its own reason, so we need not accept God's uncaused cause or the self-created but purposeless absurdity of our existence as the polarized choices.

But, we seem programmed, as Adolf Grunbaum shows, to seek that the "why" presupposes a teleological goal set in motion from the start of something even if out of nothing: what Mlodinow and Hawking call a "top-down" rather than a cosmologically sophisticated (if maddeningly counter to theologians) "bottom-up" model that explains it all. Platonic forms might construct the universe, Penrose avers. The sheer odds against us, many theologians understandably insist, rule out chance. Richard Swinburne's musings lead him to consider how unlikely God himself is, compared to nothingness. This humbling perspective permeates this challenging representation of some of the world's most intelligent minds facing such perplexity.

I was pleased to find included Matthieu Ricard. I've profited from this French biologist-turned Buddhist monk's collaborations with his father, French political philosopher Jean-Francois Revel ("The Monk and the Philosopher") and with Vietnamese-born astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Tranh ("The Quantum and the Lotus")--see my reviews. Godel, Russell, Anselm, Voltaire, Feynman: Holt's range of reading meets what I'd anticipated. But we also hear from Woody Allen, James Joyce, John Updike, and Gaunilo the Fool.

Do laws themselves require a prime mover, a grand designer? Is "almost nothing" a better rationale, or a diversion from the ultimate question? Holt appears to be frustrated with this evasion, and "nothingness" itself evades our conception, of course.

David Deutsch here defends the multiverse. Mlodinow and Hawking insist in "Grand Design" that M-theory remains the most logical explanation. Holt's examination appears to, as Steven Weinberg's bleaker insistence repeats, to lack a single theory we can apply to unify the universe into a tidy cause-effect solution. Weinberg, as in his own work, finds no teleology suffices, but this refusal to allow for the "why?" of Holt's title may not please those looking for science to answer what remains (as we "discover" the Higgs Boson?) the most nagging of questions. Well, that and life after death. (Amazon US 7-17-12 in slightly altered form. To PopMatters 10-11-12 in a much expanded form, in-depth and more detailed. See also a NYT interview with Holt here)

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