NASA’s Great Observatories Examine the Galactic Center Region. Photo:

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar begins with a conversation. Dimitri wonders, “If Atlas holds up the world, what holds up Atlas?”

“The back of a turtle,” replies Tasso.

“Who holds up the turtle?”

More turtles, of course, until Tasso gives his final reply: “My dear Dimitri, it’s turtles all the way down!”

Popularized by Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time, the turtle tale illustrates the endless search for a first cause to the universe. Why does the world exist? Why is there something instead of nothing?  Or, in the words of atheist Christopher Hitchens, responding to the God-as-final-cause argument, “I’d love to know what came before the Big Bang.”

Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? is a dizzying compendium of philosophical and scientific theories about the origin and nature of the universe. It is gracefully written—full of good humor and funny bits—but it’s denser than any textbook I’ve read, bursting at its seams with people and data and conflicting theories on a profound question. Holt visits and talks with at least eight experts, from distinguished physicist Sir Roger Penrose to eminent philosopher Derek Parfit, and includes more than 170 people—writers, philosophers, mathematicians, cosmologists—in his review of ancient and current knowledge on the question he poses.

Unless we include Molly from James Joyce’s Ulysses  (“Well, who was the first person in the Universe, before there was anybody?”), only one woman has a cameo  (a mocking one) in Holt’s lineup: New England transcendentalist Margaret Fuller. He might have dug deeper.

In the rarefied world of cosmology, there are women with impressive credentials and ideas whose voices deserved to be included. For instance, there’s Dr. Margaret Geller, an internationally acclaimed astrophysicist who is mapping the nearby universe, including the distribution of “mysterious, ubiquitous” dark matter. Dr. Geller teaches and conducts research at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I fell in love with her good humor, understandable style and capacity for wonder (and you will, too) when I viewed her 2010 talk at the Chautauqua Institution—on photographing the near universe—Click! The Universe.” How would she have answered the question “Why does the world exist?”

 Woody Allen rates three mentions for his cosmic pessimism (“Human existence is a brutal experience…”). John Updike’s entertaining conversation with the author is quoted extensively: “Could God then have suffered boredom to the point that he made the universe? That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.”  I imagine an interview with Ursula K. Le Guin, who created her own universes.

A cosmogony, from the Greek cosmos, is a theory about the birth of the universe.  In Greek thought, Chaos became the Cosmos. In the Book of Genesis, God created the world out of chaos. Christian and Jewish thought evolved, and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides “affirmed that God created the world out of nothing.”

In 1714, German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote about the “Principle of Sufficient Reason,” which asserted that there was an answer for every question.  The first question he put forth: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” He answered it: God was a necessary being, not contingent like the rest of us, and God was the answer to the “mystery of existence.”   In the 20th century, everyone I grew up with was brought up with a belief in God; only later did many of us question this.

Since 1714, scientists and philosophers have debated the question Leibniz considered resolved. They are still debating.

• Twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein—who thought the very question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” made no sense—was in awe of existence itself:  “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.”

• British physicist David Deutsch demonstrated, in 1985, the theoretical existence of a “universal quantum computer”—a computer capable of simulating any physically possible reality. Still, Deutsch, who believes in a multiverse (a whole bunch of worlds) told Holt, on the subject of why there’s something rather than nothing,  “I’m not sure I know anything apart from that joke, ‘Even if there was nothing, you’d still be complaining!’” When his tape recorder switched off, Holt notes, “Somewhat depressingly, it had reached the end of Side B of the microcassette without registering a single genuine advance toward a resolution of the mystery of existence.”

• Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick on the “Why is there something rather than nothing?” question: “There isn’t.  There’s both.”

• Cosmologist Stephen Hawking doubts his equations can solve the mystery of existence.  He asks: “Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?”

• Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg famously declared:  “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” As to the sought-after “final theory” of physics, Weinberg has written:  “This may happen in a century or two.” Part of our human tragedy is that “we’re faced with a mystery we can’t understand.”

In Holt’s chapter “Return to Nothingness,” I relived my own youthful encounter with the void, with help from Jean-Paul Sartre and Miguel de Unamuno. Unamuno became known to the world beyond Spain after his impassioned denunciation of the Fascist declaration “Viva la muerte!” at the start of the Spanish Civil War. Holt includes a passage from Unamuno’s work Tragic Sense of Life in which he confesses that he could not “imagine a more authentic Hell than that of nothingness and the prospect of it.”

The existential philosopher Sartre, in his book Nausea (which I read and reread while nannying on the north coast of Spain In 1965), has the character Roquentin say: “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.”  Sartre actually declined the Nobel Prize, denouncing it as bourgeois.

Holt visits Sartre’s daily headquarters in Paris, the Café de Flore, twice in his book, ending with an Epilogue titled “Over the Seine.”  After attending the 90th birthday party of philosopher Claude Levi-Strauss, he turns on the TV and watches a book-chat show in which a Dominican priest, a theoretical physicist, and a Buddhist monk talk about Leibniz’s 300-year-old question:  “Pourquoi y-a-t-il quelque chose plutot que rien?”  Why is there something rather than nothing?

The monk speaks to the Buddhist doctrine of a universe without beginning, for a universe could not come from a vacuum. “The world is like a dream, an illusion.”  Buddhism “resolves the mystery of being.”

As Jim Holt seems to do, I stand with the monk.


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  • Carol Arrington September 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    very thought provoking article on a subject that is endlessly fascinating

  • Kristin Nicole September 20, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    Fascinating article! I tend to agree with the Buddhist philosophy. Sartre, while prolific and thought-provoking, depresses me:) Excellent read!!!!

  • Susanna Gaertner September 20, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Sounds like something I wish I had the time to get to……!

  • b.elliott September 20, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful review!