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Word games and circles
on January 19, 2013
Winter is the time for reading books about Big Ideas, and certainly there's no bigger idea than very the existence of the universe. Most people, either alone in quiet contemplation or engaged in alcohol-fueled conversations with friends at a bar, have at one time or another considered the question "why should there be something rather than nothing at all?" After all, it seems just as likely that the universe could consist of nothingness rather than be filled with planets, galaxies, cosmic dust and iPads. Author Jim Holt sets out to tackle these grand musings...with very mixed results.
About a third of the book is dedicated to exploring the history of this question as evaluated by the Great Philosophers like Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Heidegger and that lot. A second third is devoted to conversations with a variety of modern thinkers, including philosophers most of us have never heard of and physicists that some of us have--like Roger Penrose, for example. Before science was sufficiently advanced to offer explanations as to the origin of the universe, the territory of universal origin belonged to the philosophers alone. That's changed and it's nice to see that we now have some observational evidence on which to conduct the conversation, rather than fantasy alone. Another third is largely dedicated to reading about what Holt ate and drank as he visited cafes in the cities he visited to conduct his interviews. (I actually found those sections fairly enjoyable as they offered a respite from the book's stream of brain-bending discussions.) Interspersed along the way are thoughts on the existence of a Supreme Being, the causes of consciousness and the nature of death and non-existence. Heady stuff.
This sounds like it should make for thrilling reading. Alas, I found many of the philosophical arguments extremely unconvincing, tedious, tautologoical and even infuriating. Many of the arguments for why the world exists rest on concepts like "goodness" and "necessity" and other ethical concepts...all of which are human notions which, to me are completely unconvincing explanations for the genesis of anything in the physical world. Arguments that the universe simply had to come into existence to satisfy a need for "goodness" are often completely circular and utterly unconvincing, to the point of silliness. Perhaps such arguments satisfy the theologically-minded, but they just made me roll my eyes. The exasperated phrase "word games" popped into my head again and again as I made my way through the book. These aren't explanations, they're linguistic tricks that take advantage of the fact that we simply lack a language capable of fully considering the question. It left me feeling that modern philosophy is nothing more than a game for academics to play, using terms that they've made up which no one outside of their sphere uses.
The scientific side of the exploration was a little more satisfying, but still breaks down completely when the ultimate question of "why this manifestation of the universe and not something else?" is approached. I don't blame anyone for this. The question really is beyond comprehension. In one passage, Holt says that at the moment of the Big Bang, the temperature, density and curvature of the universe all go to infinity. The equations of relativity break down and become meaningless. At that point, we have reached a singularity, a boundary or edge to spacetime itself. If there is a cause for this event, it must transcend spacetime and hence escape the reach of science. There are, however, some doors science can go through to offer some explanations. These usually involve an infinite number of universes, particles popping out of nothingness based on statistical fluctuations and other such weirdness. Fun to think about...but only up to a point since they're ultimately as untestable as faith-based explanations. We can never know.
A warning about Holt's writing style: he really loves the thesaurus. Here's a list of words that I encountered which were completely new to me: lacuna, quiddity, "fons et origo," gelid, sacerdotal, homeletic, aleatory, acidulated, descry, bosky, lapidary, and chary. There are more, but I'll stop there. This violates the general rule of writing that one should use a commonly understood word in favor of an obscure word unless you want to alienate your readers (or prove that you work the Sunday Times crossword on a regular basis).
This book was a tough slog. I finished it because I refused to let it defeat me. It's not really a good reason to finish any book, especially if you have many others on your list waiting for attention. If I were asked for an alternate recommendation for a book that explores those winter-time forays into philosophy, I'd direct you to the far more enjoyable "In Search of Time" by Dan Falk.