Sunday, August 19, 2012

Book review: “Why does the world exist?” by Jim Holt

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
By Jim Holt
Liveright (July 16, 2012)

Yes, I do sometimes wonder why the world exists. I believe however it is not among the questions that I am well suited to find an answer to, and thus my enthusiasm is limited. While I am not disinterested in philosophy in principle, I get easily frustrated with people who use words as if they had any meaning that’s not a human construct, words that are simply ill-defined unless the humans themselves and their language are explained too.

I don’t seem to agree with Max Tegmark on many points, but I agree that you can’t build fundamental insights on words that are empty unless one already has these fundamental insights - or wants to take the anthropic path. In other words, if you want to understand nature, you have to do it with a self-referential language like mathematics, not with English. Thus my conviction that if anybody is to understand the nature of reality, it will be a mathematician or a theoretical physicist.

For these reasons I’d never have bought Jim Holt’s book. I was however offered a free copy by the editor. And, thinking that I should broaden my horizon when it comes to the origin of the universe and the existence or absence of final explanations, I read it.

Holt’s book is essentially a summary of thoughts on the question why there isn’t nothing, covering the history of the question as well as the opinions of currently living thinkers. The narrative of the book is Holt’s own quest for understanding that lead him to visit and talk to several philosophers, physicists and other intellectuals, including Steven Weinberg, Alan Guth and David Deutsch. Many others are mentioned or cited, such as Stephen Hawking, Max Tegmark and Roger Penrose.

The book is very well written, though Holt has a tendency to list exactly what he ate and drank when and where which takes up more space than it deserves. There are more bottles of wine and more deaths on the pages of his book than I had expected, though that is balanced with a good sense of humor. Since Holt arranges his narrative along his travel rather than by topic, the book is sometimes repetitive when he reminds the reader of something (eg the “landscape”) that was already introduced earlier.

I am very impressed by Holt’s interviews. He has clearly done a lot of own thinking about the question. His explanations are open-minded and radiate well-meaning, but he is sharp and often critical. In many cases what he says is much more insightful than what his interview partners have to offer.

Holt’s book is good summary of just how bizarre the world is. The only person quoted in this book who made perfect sense to me is Woody Allen. On the very opposite end is a philosopher named Derek Parfit who hates the “scientizing” of philosophy, and some of his colleagues who believe in “panpsychism”, undeterred by the total lack of scientific evidence.

The reader of the book is also confronted with John Updike who belabors the miserable state of string theory “This whole string theory business… There’s never any evidence, right? There are men spending their whole careers working on a theory of something that might not even exist”, and Alex Vilenkin who has his own definition of “nothing,” which, if you ask me, is a good way to answer the question.

Towards the end of the book Jim Holt also puts forward his own solution to the problem of why there is something rather than nothing. Let me give you a flavor of that proof:
“Reality cannot be perfectly full and perfectly empty at the same time. Nor can it be ethically the best and causally the most orderly at the same time (since the occasional miracle could make reality better). And it certainly can’t be the ethically best and the most evil at the same time.”
Where to even begin? Every second word in this “proof” is undefined. How can one attempt to make an argument along these lines without explaining “ethically best” in terms that are not taken out of the universe whose existence is supposed to be explained? Not to mention that all along his travel, nobody seems to have told Holt that, shockingly, there isn’t only system of logic, but a whole selection of them.

This book has been very educational for me indeed. Now I know the names of many ism’s that I do not want to know more about. I hate the idea that I’d have missed this book if it hadn't been for the free copy in my mail box. That having been said, to get anything out of this book you need to come with an interest in the question already. Do not expect the book to create this interest. But if you come with this interest, you’ll almost surely enjoy reading it.

26 comments:

N said...

If you're interested in nothing, I would reccomend Frank Close's "The Void".

Really gives you the feelng what nothing is.

:)n.

PTMR said...

Bee: "you can’t build fundamental insights on words that are empty unless one already has these fundamental insights - or wants to take the anthropic path. In other words, if you want to understand nature, you have to do it with a self-referential language like mathematics, not with English."

I agree about the limits of language, but mathematics is certainly not free of them. It is just a more precise and structured variant of language. At the end every mathematical concept can be described in english, the description be less efficient. In principle any insight made with mathematics could have been made with language alone, in practice most would have been rather hard.

As for why there is something rather then nothing, i would certainly love to know the answer though I'm not sure I would be able to understand it even if some god actually tried to communicate it to me precisely because of limitations of language.

My naive vague intuition is that either the two are equivalent in some sense or nothingness is undefined/impossible in some sense... Yep, not very satisfactory.

I'm afraid we will go extinct without knowing the right answer.

Bee said...

Hi PTMR,

Yes, I agree with you. First, you can rewrite mathematics into English sentences if you like, just that it's rather pointless to do so. If you do so however, the words themselves have no meaning, they're just placeholders for objects with certain properties, that's what I mean. For the same reason, English words in non-rigorous "proofs" are fundamentally meaningless. They rely on context (our knowledge of what the word means) that the argument doesn't actually provide. Second, I don't think that mathematics is really the most fundamental layer, as I've expressed in various other blogposts.

Incidentally, one thing I learned from the book is that I called tongue-in-cheek the "Priniciple of Finite Imagination" (just because humans can't imagine that something exists doesn't mean it can't exist) is more commonly known as the "philosopher's fallacy." Best,

B.

Arun said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paolo said...

By and large, I would have recommended the book, but then I hated the sudden appearance of his mother, which, frankly, has nothing to do with the scientific and philosophical topics of the book. As a matter of "style" I don't think this way of surreptitiously introducing private issues in an essay should be encouraged, even is the editors and the publishers are at fault, not him.

Information Voyeur said...

Nice review - haven't read the book but may do now. Thanks.

I do have to question one thing you say:

"On the very opposite end is a philosopher named Derek Parfit who hates the “scientizing” of philosophy, and some of his colleagues who believe in “panpsychism”, undeterred by the total lack of scientific evidence."

Surely science and philosophy are two different disciplines with two different aims? Unlike good science, philosophical ideas don't require evidence. What they require is a lack of evidence to the contrary, and absolute logical consistency.

In this way, as I see it, philosophy's job is to probe the rough edges of scientific knowledge and suggest logically consistent routes of exploration.

Then in return, as science makes or breaks the ideas of philosophy with evidence, philosophy moves on to new frontiers.

So without commenting on the merits of panpsychism, one can see how the interface between little-understood consciousness and the known physical properties and laws of the universe is an area ripe for philosophical enquiry.

All that's required for such speculation is that the idea is logically possible and that it doesn't contradict the known laws of physics. However, if there were evidence for it, then it would be science, not philosophy.

Which is more important? Science of course, because science separates the philosophical wheat from the chaff. But let's not dismiss philosophy out of hand by misunderstanding it's aims or confusing it's purpose with that of proper science. It could still be a useful tool, especially in times like today when future paths are perhaps unclear.

Matt

uair01 said...

"Unlike good science, philosophical ideas (1) don't require evidence. What they require is (2) a lack of evidence to the contrary, and (3) absolute logical consistency."

While I agree with (1) and (2) I don't agree with (3).

I'm working my way into "media theory" at the moment and I'm starting to see the value of totally illogical even offensively wrong ideas as stepping stones or crowbars toward better metaphors and better understanding.

There's a whole world out there, outside of mathematics, logic and even outside of languge. For example: your body produces a lot of information that can never be translated into these upper layers.

Any philosophy that tries to explore this area "outside of language" cannot avoid being a bit weird.

Christine said...

Henri Bergson treated that matter in the last chapter of his book Creative Evolution. The best treatment I have found about that question, which disturbed me since I was 10 years old, is right there. 

Bergson was a genius. He had such a clarity of mind and was such a good writer that received a Nobel prize in literature in the 20's. (And I feel puzzled why other contemporary French philosophers are so obscure in contrast). I do not understand why Bergson is not more widely read and cited today, along with the great philosophers, like Kant, Espinosa, etc. He addressed so many important philosophical concepts and yet people nowadays keep looking for them as if they have never been deeply treated already.

I didn't read the book you review, and probably will not, as I tend to notice how superficial such books are. We have not deep thinkers today. Such popularization books look more like magazines to be skimmed at the dentist waiting room.

If you want deep thoughts, read Bergson (and you will need great amounts of focus and thinking and working and re-reading throughout the process—things alien to most people nowadays).

Information Voyeur said...

Thanks for the comment uair01.

I guess when I use the general term "philosophy", I'm actually more specifically referring to metaphysics and philosophy of mind, in the context of this article.

I'm sure there are other areas of philosophy that I'm unfamiliar with where logical consistency is - if not irrelevant - at least dispensable in some senses when searching for the truth using metaphors and language.

Howevere, I must admit I'm unsure what you mean by "For example: your body produces a lot of information that can never be translated into these upper layers."?

Your point actually got me thinking about how one might have expected that past philosophy would have come up with wacky ideas that science goes on to disprove with much more prosaic "down-to-earth" theories later.

Yet, history shows us that in some cases the opposite may be true.

Would philosophers have ever come up with ideas like those we have in quantum mechanics? Would they have seen an idea like superposition as being logically contradictory in a time before science managed to model such physical effects with mathematics?

Food for thought.

Zephir said...

IMO the world exists because the random state is more probable, than any particular state, including the zero state. We can just ask, how this randomness will appear from perspective of one random fluctuation of it.

Thomas Dent said...

Well, the question 'why does the world exist' is certainly not equivalent to the question 'why is there not nothing'.

You can ask why *this* world exists, rather than something completely different (for instance, a universe that only existed for a Planck time). That is a valid and potentially interesting scientific question.

But I'm afraid the very basic question 'why is there not nothing' is not answerable. All the methods of argument or explanation we might bring to bear on it implicitly presuppose that there is some theory or explanatory structure which could be capable of answering the question; but then there's de facto not nothing and you're begging the question.

Of course I would be delighted to hear of a logical mode of proof that successfully excludes the possibility that neither logic nor modes of proof exist ... but I suspect that's impossible.

DocG said...

I agree with Christine about Bergson. But for me the most profound response to this question is provided in Parmenides great poem, where he argues, simply, that it is not possible for anything not to exist. (see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/parmenides/ )

In other words, existence must be understood as axiomatic, as a given, rather than something derived from something else.

Inspired by Parmenides, I wrote a poem of my own on essentially the same topic, as part of a play about the great German poet, Bertolt Brecht. You can find it here, Bee, toward the end of the scene: http://amoleintheground.blogspot.com/2009/02/socialist-hell-part-3.html

If you go to the very end, you'll find the German version, just for you. :-)

Robert L. Oldershaw said...

Two quick comments.

1. The question: "Why is there something rather than nothing"? is obviously not a scientific question. Science starts with the observation that the world exists and attempts to understand that world.

The fact that so many celebrity physicists are taking this archetype of a vacuous question seriously is quite telling.

2. Regarding the contention: "if anybody is to understand the nature of reality, it will be a mathematician or a theoretical physicist", was it a mathematician or a theoretical physicist who discovered the Theory of Evolution?

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Thanks once again for a thought provoking review. “Why does the world exist”, most certainly a loaded question, which many are when it comes to the whys as it suggests there need be an answer. The thing is I’ve often wondered if such an answer ever came to be known how many would be satisfied by it. That is I think this question is rooted not so much in a need to know, yet rather in a longing to have ones personal existence to hold meaning. With that said I will confess my feelings about this turn out to be no different than most and thus I find myself compelled to discover what Holt has to say on the matter.

”Reason man’s blessing is also his curse; it forces him to cope everlastingly with the task of solving an insoluble dichotomy. Human existence is different in this respect from all other organisms; it is a state of constant and unavoidable disequilibrium. Man’s life cannot “be lived” by repeating the patterns of his species; he must live. Man is the only animal that can be bored, that can be discontented, that can feel evicted from paradise. Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve and from which he cannot escape. He cannot go back to the prehuman state of harmony with nature; he must proceed to develop his reason until he becomes the master of nature, and of himself.”


-Erich Fromm, “Man for Himself” –p40

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Paolo,

I agree with you. Same goes for the dog. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Information Voyeur,

To know whether or not there is "evidence for the contrary" you need to keep track of science. There has to my knowledge not been a single experiment in which an elementary particle demonstrated its possession of consciousness. I would count that as ample evidence for the contrary. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Arun,

yes, Holt mentions this in the passing. Best,

B.

Uncle Al said...

"if anybody is to understand the nature of reality, it will be a mathematician or a theoretical physicist” An undergrad doing scut work (e.g., MgB2, Tc = 39.5 K BCS superconductor). Vilenkin: (Nothing plus Mach's principle) = messy (angular momentum plus gravitation). "a closed spherical spacetime of zero radius" Higher dimensions give rapidly smaller nothings becoming surface not volume. With increasing dimensions: ratio of unit radius hypersphere to circumscribed hypercube volume; hypersphere fractional radius from surface at which 90% of total volume is contained.

Phys. Rev. D 37(4) 885,888,898 (1988)
http://www.mukto-mona.com/science/physics/a_vilinkin/universe_from_nothing.pdf
arxiv:1204.4658, 0110012
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N-sphere#Volume_and_surface_area

"Reality cannot be perfectly full and perfectly empty at the same time." Ullage. "it certainly can’t be the ethically best and the most evil at the same time" Religion, centralized social policies, economics, robotic telephone answering; Batman.

Plato Hagel said...

Hi Bee,

Interesting Book Review and glad you venture outside of your usual.

Bee wrote:.....but I agree that you can’t build fundamental insights on words that are empty unless one already has these fundamental insights - or wants to take the anthropic path. In other words, if you want to understand nature, you have to do it with a self-referential language like mathematics, not with English. Thus my conviction that if anybody is to understand the nature of reality, it will be a mathematician or a theoretical physicist.

As long as I have know of your sight this has been my expressive point of view.....that a scientist does not realize this of them self that having traveled through the language of mathematics the conceptual framework with which they operate is specific.

This is why you have to choose carefully as to what is being said.

Does it's basis of expression lie in the realizations of a understood pattern identification held in mathematics and current science experimentation? You have to know this in order to be at the front of phenomenology do you not? The relevance is a sociological order in society. This is the effect.

As we have touched lightly on the economics and that realization with regard to Benoit and Nassim, this is where I see the phenomenological approach must be grounded, as well as being creative in the ways of testing what it is your trying to proof.

So as you scientist speak, you are speaking from an inherent basis of what is relevant in science.....Qui?

If over the years of association I wish could have come right out and said it, but it has been a process of discovery even with myself.

Best,

Plato Hagel said...

Bee wrote:The reader of the book is also confronted with John Updike who belabors the miserable state of string theory “This whole string theory business… There’s never any evidence, right?

That's the point? You have to begin somewhere and in the definition of nothing you have sealed your fate logically?

Nothingness, by henning genz, pg 179

The energy of the liquid wave is energy associated with gravitation and motion of its molecules; the energy of light is energy pure and simple, associated with every illuminated point in space.



pg180

Back to light: Let's remember that it is tantamount to an oscillation of abstract field quantities in space, not an oscillation of space proper. But the latter exists,too.


I am not of the caliber to question Genz's thought process...but it was tantamount to asking where one should begin and making certain assumptions so a whole world model shapes perspective? You want to be able to see the world in a different light..yes?

So you improve upon or build experiments so as to falsify?

Best,

Plato Hagel said...

I want to appeal to your logic then.

String theory suggests that the big bang was not the origin of the universe but simply the outcome of a preexisting state(Author believed to be Veneziano)

There might be a middle way. String theory's mathematical tools were designed to unlock the most profound secrets of the cosmos, but they could have a far less esoteric purpose: to tease out the properties of some of the most complex yet useful types of material here on Earth.

Both string theorists and condensed matter physicists - those studying the properties of complex matter phases such as solids and liquids - are enthused by the development. "I am flabbergasted," says Jan Zaanen, a condensed matter theorist from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. "The theory is calculating precisely what we are seeing in experiments." See:What string theory is really good for

Using the anti–de Sitter/conformal field theory correspondence to relate fermionic quantum critical fields to a gravitational problem, we computed the spectral functions of fermions in the field theory. By increasing the fermion density away from the relativistic quantum critical point, a state emerges with all the features of the Fermi liquid. See:String Theory, Quantum Phase Transitions, and the Emergent Fermi Liquid

Best,

Information Voyeur said...

Hi B, thanks for the response.

You said:

"To know whether or not there is "evidence for the contrary" you need to keep track of science. There has to my knowledge not been a single experiment in which an elementary particle demonstrated its possession of consciousness. I would count that as ample evidence for the contrary."

I'm no scientist, but I do try to keep up with the latest news, including reading papers on Arxiv (or at least the introductions and conclusions, I fully admit I can't follow most of the maths).

As far as I'm aware though, no experiment has ever been done to test this. I can't even imagine that such an experiment could be done, because depending on viewpoint, it's either nonsensical or hampered by our lack of understanding of what consciousness is.

Although I'm not familiar with the book as I said, I doubt that any philosopher is suggesting that an elementary particle (or anything else at that scale) could literally be conscious.

The most any of these ideas might claim is that whatever is fundamental (be that particles, strings, or something else at the planck scale), might have experiential or proto-experiential properties, that being properties that interface with our conscious experience of what's "out there" (AKA qualia), again, if such a phenomena is real and to be taken seriously.

But I'm not going to attempt to expand on such ideas here - I'm no more a philosopher of mind than I am a scientist! I'll just point anyone interested in the direction of philosophers like David Chalmers:

http://consc.net/papers.html

Once again, I am not claiming this is science, and nor would someone like Chalmers.

These are not evidence based beliefs or beliefs of any kind. They are simply ideas filling *possible* gaps in scientific understanding.

Philosophy of mind is then the tool to critically analyse such ideas using logic. That's all...

For PROPER science, I come to places like this and grateful I am too!

Matt

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Hi Christine, how are you? No blogs, no news, good news? :) Brazil survives USA?

Another devoted Bergsonian can’t remain silent as you mention Creative Evolution. I think what is interesting with his attitude (and very different from this modern free talk) is that there is a link between the “deep answer” to the “biggest” question and (new) knowledge practice to be favoured, where the latter can even be much more definite than the former (and naturally amplify it, in a self-consistent manner). By contrast, with that agonising mechanistic science practice (very vividly denounced yet by Bergson), I am afraid that those “foundational” questions, so much promoted by their rich and pretentious but actually only corrupt “funds” and “super-prizes”, are nothing more than the ultimate witness of the end of that particular (and very special) kind of science (together with actually quite similar issues of “parallel universes”, “hidden dimensions” and other “dark matters”). Doesn’t prevent a particular book from being quite amusing, of course. For those who still can simply amuse…

Giotis said...

The world exists for you to be born and will cease to exist after you are gone...

P.S why you get free copies and I don't?

Bee said...

I don't know - some years after setting up the blog I started getting these offers. I only accept these if I see a reasonable chance that I'll actually read the book though. I suspect basically it's just because I write the occasional review.

Christine said...

Hi Andrei,

I am fine, thank you. I hope you are as well.

Best wishes,
Christine