Why Does the Universe Exist?
(And, Is this the Right Question to Ask?)
Why is there something rather than nothing? Jim Holt has written a very interesting and readable book on this topic: Why does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. I should say at the outset that while I found the book engaging and interesting, I also found Holt’s insistence on a philosophical answer somewhat frustrating. My own journey leads me to desire an empirical approach, even if that approach leads to an ambiguous answer. This essay is a meditation on Holt’s book as it applies to my journey.
The author points out the question about “something rather than nothing” is a modern question since the ancient creation myths are intended to provide an assurance of purpose rather than a modern explanation. The first mention of ex nihilo creation (creation from nothing) in the West comes in the early Common Era (CE) when theologians posited God’s creation of the universe out of nothing in order to remove any restriction on God’s power by eliminating any reliance of already existing matter. The author traces various answers (and non-answers) to this question over the intervening centuries. The theological, philosophical and scientific answers are punctuated by intriguing tales of the author’s own history and travels to visit the many scholars and writers that he interviewed. Those personal asides keep the reader interested in his quest even if some of the answers provided by such thinkers are less than enlightening. Although the author clearly favors a non-theistic, philosophical answer, he does a fine job of including views contrary to his own.
A key aspect of this book is captured in the subtitle, An Existential Detective Story. The question, “Why does the universe exist?” echoes the question, “Why do I exist?” thereby placing the personal existential question front and center. That is one reason I am interested in this book, but I think the personal existential question (“Why do I exist?”) is more important than the cosmic existential question (“Why does the universe exist?”). My own journey has taken me to more of a scientific view of the universe. I went to school in central Florida shortly after the Soviet Union launched the successful Sputnik satellite. At that time and in that location there was increased emphasis on math and science as the United States sought to catch up with the Soviet Union. I became very much interested in science, especially physics.
My own educational history was not trouble-free, however. Early on in eight grade I missed some classes due to illness and received stern warnings from my history and algebra teachers. I had to intensify my effort, particularly in algebra, in order to get back on track with the rest of the class. I learned to study on my own because I had no other way to learn the material if I did not understand it in class. This habit of studying on my own fed into an intense discipline of self-reliance that has characterized much of my life.
Born into a military family, I moved to a new school district every few years or so. Even though I was an outsider to each new school community, I came to rely on the schools as the one consistent structure in my life as we moved around. So it was very unsettling to me to find that I was in danger of failing in school. But, as I developed the discipline of self-study, I soon began to enjoy the process of learning about subjects that were not fully covered in the classroom. As I progressed through Junior high, I would sometimes find myself spending time at a local science bookstore, perusing books on subjects like Einstein’s theory of relativity.
By the time I was in high school, I was confident that I wanted a career in science. There were still disappointments however. For example, I was not selected to take the new class in calculus. When my friends who were in the class found out that I was studying calculus on my own, they encouraged me to apply for a special exemption and seek admittance by recommendation of the teacher. I did so and the teacher required that I take one of his exams to see if I was really qualified to participate. Fortunately, I easily passed the test and was admitted to the class. As a result of taking calculus in high school, I was able to exempt the standard beginning course in calculus when I started college. I was also told by my physics teacher in high school that I had scored the highest score on the Physics portion of the SAT. So I had good reason to think that a career in science was my purpose for being in the world. That was my first answer to the question, “Why do I exist?” If only life were that simple!
It is one of the main ironies of existentialism that its presentation as a formal philosophy negates its reality. To say that “existence precedes essence” is a statement of essence from which all urgency has been eliminated. Yet, existentialism’s real power comes from its urgency, its immediacy of experience, its emphasis on decision and personal responsibility. Perhaps the best way to understand and communicate the existentialist dilemma is through story rather than philosophy. Ernest Hemingway is reputed to have won a bet that he could write a complete six word story with a beginning, middle and ending. The story is probably apocryphal, but is worth recounting because of its brevity and poignancy. After his betting partners anted up, Hemingway is reputed to have scribbled the following words on a napkin: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Hemingway won the bet.
This story brings the immediacy of human contingency to the center of our consciousness without saying a word about death. In one of Hemingway’s authentic short stories, he deals with the power of nothingness. In “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” two waiters discuss the lone remaining customer in their café as it approaches closing time. The customer, an old man nearing eighty years and deaf, sips brandy while the two waiters discuss his attempted suicide. They surmise that the suicide attempt was over despair about “nothing” since he has plenty of money. The young waiter wants the man to leave because he has a wife waiting at home for him and doesn’t like being kept until closing time. The older waiter is more understanding of the customer and his need for a clean, well-lighted place to drink. At one point, the younger waiter says to the deaf man as he pours another drink: “You should have killed yourself last week.”
Finally, the young waiter drives the customer away, and the two waiters close the café. As the older waiter leaves, he muses to himself about the human condition:
“What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, it was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”
The story is full of answers to the question, “Why do I exist?” The young waiter has youth, confidence, a job and a wife waiting at home. The deaf old man likes to come to a clean café to get drunk. The older waiter is “of those who like to stay late at the café. . . . With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.” But these answers are set over against the nothingness that awaits those who do not fill up their life with activity and purpose.
One answer to the personal existential question is purpose. To use philosophical jargon, purpose is teleology. But a teleological answer is not a very popular approach to the question of the existence of the universe, because it does not usually show causal effect. However, Jim Holt does include a modern-day teleologist, John Leslie, in his book. Leslie believes that there is something rather than nothing because of an “abstract need for goodness.” Holt is incredulous: “You’re actually suggesting that the universe somehow exploded into being out of an abstract need for goodness?” Leslie responds, “Provided you accept the view that this world is, on balance, a good world . . . .” And therein lies the catch. With all of the tragedy, with all of the suffering, with all of the horror, how many can reach the conclusion that the world is, “on balance,” good? Leslie does have an answer and it leads to the nature of consciousness. Jim Holt is clearly not convinced by Leslie’s argument. He calls Leslie’s approach “the ghost of a Judeo-Christian Deity.”
When we ask about the reason for the creation of the universe, we are generally asking for a causal explanation. That is, there exists some event or agent that caused certain things to happen which resulted in the creation of the universe. We focus on causal explanations because we can generally subject such explanations to some kind of objective verification to which we can all more or less agree. Holt tells us that all such causal explanations fail because they all lead us to a first cause for which there is no explanation. I believe that this failure of any causal explanation is the main reason that Holt prefers a philosophical approach.
Holt is ultimately drawn to an abstract philosophical answer that is directly related to the concept of nothingness. The theological approach fails in his mind because there is no explanation for God. The scientific answer fails because there is no explanation for the scientific laws that had to be in effect at the time of creation. Holt’s mentor on this path is Derek Parfit, British Philosopher at All Souls College, Oxford, England. I confess that I could not follow Holt on this path. Part of the problem for me was the very abstract approach to the question. For example, Parfit (and Holt) use such terminology as “meta selectors” and “selectors” when speaking of how our universe came to be out of all the infinitely many cosmic possibilities. Using Parfit as a guide, Holt ultimately comes to the conclusion that whatever selectors may have been active, the most likely selectors would have resulted in a generic, mediocre universe. This would be a universe filled with good and evil as well as large helping of the ordinary. In other words, exactly the universe we do have.
Another problem for me is Parfit’s belief that “personal identity is not what matters” (Holt’s emphasis.) It may be, as Parfit believes, that the person I am today is not the same person as I was yesterday, but that does not diminish my sense of self or my responsibility for what I did yesterday. This point of view diminishes the personal existential question to a footnote to the main discussion on the cosmic question. I have just the opposite view. For me, the personal existential question is primary. I think that is the true meaning of “existence precedes essence.”
I did, however, salvage something important from this part of the book. According to Holt, most thinkers about the cosmic existential question proceed from why the universe exists to a conclusion about how it is. In other words, if you know (or think you know) why the universe was created, you can proceed to describe how it currently behaves in a manner that is consistent with its creation. Parfit’s innovation was to go from how to why, and Holt names two key facts about how the universe is: causality and nomological simplicity. Although this reversal of normal methodology fits well with my approach (which I will describe later), beginning with only causality and simplicity is completely inadequate. For one thing, the laws of physics are not all that simple! A full empirical approach would begin with a much larger set of observations, including observations that point dramatically to an underlying order in the universe.
It turns out that I am what Holt would call a rejectionist. I do not think there is a satisfactory answer to the question, “Why does the universe exist?” Nor I do not think that the cosmic existential question is the most important question. Although I wonder about it and ponder what cosmologists and physicists think about it, I do not consider it more important than the personal existential question. Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to have the personal existential question framed by psychotherapist Viktor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which chronicles his experience in Nazi concentration camps and describes the insights he derived from that experience that led to his form of therapy. Using language typical of the immediate post World War era, Frankl writes (in translation):
“But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true that would have us believe that man is no more than the product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? . . . Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?
“. . . There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even is such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl’s emphasis on free choice is typical of the post war existentialists. The freedom to choose one’s attitude toward the absurdity of existence is a key theme in Camus. Sartre, too, emphasizes the decisional aspect of life. Holt is fond of mentioning Sartre, but seems to focus more on the absurdity of existence over against nothingness (“le néant”, as Holt puts it) rather than on choice. I will later show that decisionality is a power that runs throughout the universe and therefore forms the foundation of my approach to both the nature of the universe and the reason for its existence. That is a position that puts me remarkably close to panpsychism that Holt describes in his chapter on mathematical Platonism. (Panpsychism is the idea that consciousness is present in matter and therefore there is no mind / matter duality. There would be no need for Descartes to say “I think, therefore I am” because thinking and being would be synonymous.) But before I get to that, let me summarize what Holt says about the rejectionists.
Holt names Adolf Grünbaum the “Great Rejectionist.” Grünbaum considers the cosmic existential question a “pseudo-problem,” and if he turns out to be right, Holt’s quest “would be a colossal waste of effort.” Grünbaum was born in Germany in 1923 and was 10 years old when Hitler took power. His family was Jewish and he remembers being attacked by a gang some members of which were shouting, “The Jews killed our Savior.” Quite apart from the experience of antisemitism, Grünbaum became disenchanted with religion and believes that the cosmic question ultimately arises because of a religious presupposition that even atheists don’t recognize. Grünbaum simply believes that the universe is not in need of any explanation.
Holt tries to convince Grünbaum by asserting that nothingness is simpler than existence and therefore should be preferred. If nothingness is preferred, then the existence of the universe is a surprise and really is in need of an explanation. Grünbaum responds that we only know what is natural by what we observe and we have never observed (or don’t have any reason to believe in) the universe’s nonexistence. Holt counters with the Big Bang theory, which he believes means that the universe was created from nothing. Grünbaum dismisses that because even the Big Bang theory predicts that time began at the Big Bang Singularity and therefore there can be no causal explanation (and no reason to assume anything) prior to the existence of time. I think Grünbaum wins this debate and even Holt admits that the Big Bang theory, by itself, does not guarantee that the universe came from nothing.
I am not quite the extreme rejectionist that is Adolf Grünbaum, but I have sympathy for his argument. Personally, my position is closer to physicist Steven Weinberg who prefers to think of the cosmic existential question as part of a bigger question about the nature of the universe. The nature of the universe is important for me because if one is going to satisfactorily answer the personal existential question, then the answer, the purpose and meaning for our life, should be as consistent as possible with the nature of the universe. To do otherwise would be, in my opinion, to risk a premature personal encounter with le néant. And when I encounter le néant, I prefer the refuge of a clean, well-lighted place called empiricism.
In my next post, I will describe panpsychism and my approach to the cosmic existential question.