Here's the sort of spoiler alert that irritates me when it pops up in a movie review -- a warning about a giving away of the key plot element that's so close to the spoiler itself, I can't help but see what I'm not supposed to see if I want to keep the movie's meaning a surprise.
Ha-ha! If you read the title of this blog post, it's too late. You know. There's no answer to "Why does the world exist?"
Hope this doesn't ruin your day.
Probably it will, if you're a religious devotee, because likely you think that God is the reason the world exists. It might also be a bummer of an answer if you're a fervent believer in science, because some cosmologists hold out hope that a Theory of Everything could explain, well, everything. Including why the universe exists.
Now, why am I so confident in saying there's no answer? Because I've finished reading Jim Holt's book, "Why Does the World Exist?"
I recommend it highly.
Holt fulfills the promise of his subtitle, an existential detective story. There's lots of twists and turns as Holt travels around, interviewing scientists, religious types, philosophers, and others who have deeply pondered the classic question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?"
As I said recently in a post about Holt's book, I find an exclamatory statement much more interesting. "There is something rather than nothing." I feel this way partly because it seems obvious that no answer is possible to the question why existence?
Who the hell do we puny humans think we are? What makes us think we're capable of fathoming the ultimate mystery of existence? Assuming there's any mystery to fathom, which is another aspect of the mystery: Is there really any mystery involving existence?
Holt doesn't just listen to the people he interviews. Holt challenges them, questions their assumptions, tests the solidity of the foundation their existential theories rest on. In the end, he doesn't find any satisfying answers to "Why does the world exist?"
But it's an entertaining ride to nowhere.
In an epilogue Holt describes a televised book chat show (hosted by Bernard Pivot) he watched while in Paris. The guests were a Dominican priest, a theoretical physicist, and a Buddhist monk. The subject was Why is there Something rather than Nothing?
Holt seems to reveal where his sympathies lie, even if he isn't convinced that any of the answers given is true. I also resonate with the Buddhist monk -- though not completely. (French punctuation marks are omitted in some passages below; deal with it, French speakers.)
The monk, attired in crimson and saffron robes, with bare shoulders and a freshly shaved head, has the most interesting line on the question. He also has the most pleasant demeanor. In contrast to the prim-mouthed Jesuit priest and the irritable old physicist, the monk beams happiness. A smile continuously plays about his lips.
As a Buddhist, he says, he believes that the universe had no beginning. Il n'ya pas de debut. Nothingness -- le neant -- could never give way to being, he says, because it is defined in opposition to that which exists.
A billion causes could not make a universe come into existence out of what does not exist. That is why, the monk says, the Buddhist doctrine of a beginningless-less universe makes the most metaphysical sense. C'est encore plus simple.
Vous trouvez? interjects Bernard Pivot, eyebrow arched.
The Buddhist monk genially protests that he is not evading the question of origins. Rather, he is using it to explore the nature of reality. What is the universe, after all? C'est n'est pas bien sur le neant. It is not nothingness. Yet it is somehting very close: an emptiness -- une vacuite.
Things don't really have the solidity we attribute to them. The world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid seeming. This engenders le desir, l'orgueil, la jalousie.
Buddhism, by correcting our metaphysical error, thus has a therapeutic purpose. It offers un chemin vers l'eveil -- a path to enlightenment. And it also resolves the mystery of being. When Leibniz asked, Pourquoi quelque chose plutot que rien? his question presupposed that something really and truly exists. And that's an illusion.
Ah oui? says Pivot, again skeptically arching an eyebrow.
Oui! replies the monk, smiling radiantly.
I'm pretty sure that Christopher Hitchens had little sympathy for Buddhism, being not only an atheist, but an antitheist. So the philosophical/intellectual credibility of the Buddhist monk's views are bolstered by the blurb Jim Holt got from Hitchens, which is featured on the cover of "Why Does the World Exist?"
What makes you so sure that there's anything?
Somehow I doubt there ever will be a convincing answer to that question, just as Why is there something rather than nothing? likely will remain an eternal enigma.
Holt talks about how some philosophers are repelled by the notion of a Brute Fact. Me, I'm not bothered. Existence is. Nothing more to say. Which reminds me of the ending quotation in Holt's book.
Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.
-- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary