Thursday, December 25, 2014

A History of Existential Angst

Why Does the World Exist?
An Existential Detective Story
Jim Holt
Liveright, 2013

Philosophy, so says Neil DeGrasse Tyson, is useless. I wonder if he means it the way it sounds, because, as a scientist, or even just a thinking human being, you can't really get away from it. The most basic questions that a scientist has to ask are bound up in philosophy. Consider, for example, this question: Why do I bother? No matter what your speciality is, you will have colleagues who are up against it: problems so tough they are apparently beyond current human ken, and there is no evidence that the situation is likely to change.

Why do they bother?

Why not accept what Abu Hamid al-Ghazali said five hundred years ago - along with many Christian scholasticists in earlier centuries: That what happens is the will of God. If a fire burns, it's because God wills it. If you find DNA in flies is similar in important ways to the DNA in humans, it's because God wills it. If you find that the rotation of galaxies doesn't seem to obey the laws of gravity that we're familiar with, it's because God wills it.

Why bother looking further?

The very process of answering that question is one of philosophy.

I suspect the main reason why Dr. Tyson doesn't like philosophy is because you cannot easily stick one of these questions under a microscope or aim a particle accelerator at it to see if the answers you picked hold up to further investigation. Mostly, the answers lead to more questions, more philosophy. It's an intensely dissatisfying position to be in, for a scientist.

One of the most basic questions we've been asking ourselves, at least for all of human recorded history, is how the world got to be. I mean, not just the way it is - why is water wet, or why do elephants have trunks, or why is the sky blue - but why is there anything at all? All human cultures that we know of, and that either bothered writing it down or were around long enough for anthropologists to ask them about it, have stories about the reason for our existence.

Only some of them are similar to the Abrahamic legends of creation. Many of the other stories are far more chaotic, describing struggles among supernatural entities that produced our world by mere accident. A few others suppose that the world as such always existed. (That one seems to be a difficult concept for the human mind to wrap itself around.)

So what is the current state of knowledge about the origin of our universe? Jim Holt goes and chats with a number of his philosopher colleagues. If you thought that modern philosophy was a field where all the answers are pat, you'd be surprised. Holt talks with philosophers who have various theistic or deistic notions, others who have a more naturalistic bent, and some who think the the problem isn't really one that we should spend all that much time on. Holt has his own thoughts on the topic, of course, and after talking with about a dozen people he spends some time laying out his own arguments.

In addition to the origin of the universe Holt also spends a little time at the end of his book on the question of our own existence. It's question that in most people's minds is probably not related to the question of existence, but Holt points out that if there has to be a reason for the existence of the entire universe it's not unreasonable to ask if there is a reason beyond brute biological facts for our own existence.

Holt's tone throughout is intimate and personable. There's never a hint that here's a philosopher of some accomplishment laying things out. It's a voyage of exploration. Holt chooses locations in France and England to make his exploration more visceral. This isn't a dry lecture hall with students in rows trying not to fall asleep.

So if you've been wondering why the world exists, or even if you think you know, give this book a whirl. Maybe Holt will stir a new notion, or maybe he'll help you organize how you think about one of life's knottiest questions.

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