Jim Holt

Jim Holt

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 1 1997 3:30 AM

Jim Holt

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       I live on the ground floor of a gloomy old brownstone just off Central Park on the Upper West Side. It makes the Dakota in Rosemary's Baby look like Ozzie and Harriet's home. Immediately above me resides the reclusive owner of the house, who beguiles the small hours by pounding out Transcendental Études on his grand piano. Above him are two amiable gentlemen in their late 60s, one a retired physicist. They have converted half the floor into a carpentry workshop, where they make devices for bondage-and-discipline rituals. They have tried, in the nicest way, to interest me in carrying on these de Sadean traditions, which, they fear, are dying out. But I tell them this is not really my dish of tea at the moment. Recently I gave them a pair of chirping budgies, named Lucy and Freud, that I had grown tired of keeping over the years. They seem quite delighted with their new pets. I wonder whether they are building very tiny torture tables now.
       At the end of work today I will drive to the country, where I have built a good-taste modernist villa near Mary Tyler Moore's house. It sits on 14 blasted, picturesque acres nestled in the mountains. Last summer I found a wild boar rooting around in my mesclun garden; a neighbor told me it would charge at me only if it was very hungry. There is also a kind of Unabomber shack in the woods on my land. It is occasionally occupied by the eccentric grandson of Hugo von Hoffmansthal, the Wunderkind of fin-de-siècle Vienna. As a student at Harvard, in the late 1950s, he says, he volunteered to take part in a CIA experiment with what turned out to be LSD. He even looks like the Unabomber. The two of us have passed many agreeable but financially ruinous afternoons together gambling with wood elves.
       In the mountains, there you feel free, free to think metaphysical thoughts. Like: Why is there Something rather than Nothing? Why, in other words, should anything exist at all?
       This is a question that has torn great minds asunder, from Leibniz to Wittgenstein. Philosophers seem to have given up on it. When I asked Arthur Danto why there was something rather than nothing, he irritably responded, "Who says there's not nothing?" I then put the question to his colleague Sidney Morgenbesser, the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy emeritus at Columbia. "Even if there was nothing," Morgenbesser shot back, "you still wouldn't be satisfied!"
       Now it is the physicists who are trying to resolve this ultimate "why" question. But in the scientific community, nobody understands Nothing. The laws of physics, they argue, dictate that Nothing is unstable, so it must give rise to Something--i.e., the universe. But where are these laws writ? In the mind of God? Aren't they part of the Something to be explained?
       I have the real explanation for why there is Something rather than Nothing. It is a reductio. Suppose there were nothing. Then, pace the physicists, there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. But if everything is permitted, nothing is forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Nothing, in other words, is self-forbidding. Therefore THERE MUST BE SOMETHING.
       This epiphany came to me while I was shaving on June 14, 1994, the sixteen-billion-four-hundred-twenty-millionth anniversary of the Big Bang.

Jim Holt is the editor of the New Leader, a political biweekly.