Rosenbaum: Read Jim Holt’s Brilliant Book About the Origins of the Universe

Scrutinizing culture.
July 23 2012 2:53 PM

Has the Meaning of Nothing Changed?

In his quest to understand the origins of the universe, Jim Holt stands up for the big 0.

Black Hole Grabs Starry Snack.
When most quantum cosmologists say the universe sprang from "nothing," they don't really mean nothing.

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but I care about nothing. Meaning I care about the ongoing argument about the meaning of nothing, not that I don’t care about anything. One has to be careful in discussing nothing.

Anyway, I care particularly about the eternally vexing question: “Why is there something rather than nothing.” In other words, why does the universe exist at all?

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There is a long and strong philosophical tradition examining these questions. Some trace the argument back to pre-Socratic philosophers. Then there is the great Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius, who made a point in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) that "nothing can come from nothing." St. Augustine argued that God created the universe ex nihilo, from nothing, but neglected to explain how God emerged from nothing, arguing instead that He was always there.

And in the modern era, savants from Leibniz to Heidegger have tied themselves in knots over the issue. When the Big Bang theory emerged in the late 1920s, some people figured, "Problem solved." But for purists among the interested physicists, philosophers, and bystanders such as myself, the Big Bang theory has not answered all questions. (For instance, "Where did the Big Bang come from? And how could it have come from pure nothing?”). And now the question of what exactly "pure nothing" is has become the subject of contention.

In the past couple of decades, quantum cosmologists claim to have pulled a rabbit out of a hat and explained "how something came from nothing" with quantum theories of the origins of the universe. But is the nothing these theorists claim to be describing true nothing, capital-N Nothing, the Really Big O, the Ultimate Zero?

Or are the quantum cosmologists peddling a nothing that comes encumbered with more than few somethings: space, time, even the entire conceptual edifice of quantum theory invisibly calling the shots?

Why should you care about nothing? Well, I know what I care most about is the purity of the nothing invoked in this maddening question. Pure nothingness: It’s the last unspoiled, uncluttered concept in the cosmos. I don't believe in God, but I do believe in Nothing, in the sense I want to believe in mysteries beyond the reach of the mind. It makes life more interesting if existence can't yet be reduced to a series of equations.

Which is why I’ve been waiting anxiously for Jim Holt to weigh in on the question of nothing. Now, finally, with the publication of his book, Why Does the World Exist?, which was 18 years in the making, he has. Holt’s book should put nothing on your mind.

You may know of Holt from his work in the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker (where his devastating account of the confusions of string theorists caused a stir in 2006), or as a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review on complex matters of science and philosophy. What you may not know is that his current book is the culmination of years pursuing this ultimate question with the best minds in the realms of quantum cosmology, philosophy, and theology all over the world.

It began, more or less, in 1994, when he published a story in Harper’s with the title “Nothing Ventured.” I’ve been following Holt’s work on the subject ever since, always impressed by the grace, humor, humility, and offhand precision with which he makes difficult mathematical and philosophical questions and concepts accessible in a literate way. In his new book, through provocative interviews with the greatest minds on the planet, he captures the human factor behind the equations, what draws such an impressive array of figures to this line of inquiry, and the abstruse logical theorems the quest entails.

There’s a drama to this pursuit that even some elite physicists acknowledge is not a matter of mere mathematics: Holt quotes the physicist Steven Weinberg saying, “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.”

Yes! That Weinberg can see even his own efforts as being potentially “tragic”—a rare instance of physicist humility—is much to his credit. He understands that the quest to comprehend the universe may never be fulfilled.

Holt is just the man for the something/nothing detective story because he is one of those rare individuals who can speak three distinctive languages fluently: the advanced mathematical language of the quantum cosmologist, the sometimes-indecipherable language of post-modal philosophy and theology, and, oh, right, the third language: English. In fact he can write it with extraordinary subtlety. His prose is both suspenseful—his subtitle is "An Existential Detective Story"—and stringent in an exemplary way.

The new argument that has broken out over the meaning of nothing is one of the most profound and fascinating controversies in modern thought. 

The conflict is certainly more important than the Higgs boson business, because the discovery of the Higgs, the (supposed) Final Particle, the one that gives all other particles mass, just points up how little we know about nothing. It points up once again the true missing piece in our understanding of the cosmos: If the Higgs boson makes matter possible, what makes the Higgs boson possible? How did it come into being from nothing? And if they tell you the laws of physics created it, made it necessary, as some do, then what created those particular laws? And where are they in the midst of nothing? Hovering above, or somehow woven into nothing? But that would imply nothing has a capacity to contain laws, in which case it would no longer be nothing; it would be a vehicle for abstract equations.

And how do abstract laws have what Jim Holt calls “ontological clout”—the ability, just by existing conceptually somewhere (actually nowhere, since nothing has no “where”), to bring something into being from nothing?

And so on in an infinite regress into the abyss of the ancient but still hardy Aristotelian First Cause problem: Any proposed First Cause such as “the laws of quantum mechanics” will presuppose a cause previous to it that caused the purported First Cause. You can never get to nothing by going backward. And you can never get to something by going forward from nothing because you’re back to the big question: How do you (initially) get something, anything, from nothing? This isn’t, by the way, as some who have tried to discredit it have suggested, a “religious” question. It’s a philosophical question. And at its heart, it’s a common-sense question. Don’t let them fool you into thinking you can’t understand it.

So Higgs or no Higgs, we’re back where we started.

I’ve written about this problem before—the “why is there something rather than nothing” problem—which I regard as the second most important unsolved mystery of the cosmos. The first, of course, being love, a similarly unfathomable mystery, one aspect of which I wrote about recently in exploring the implications of a single line by the great poet Philip Larkin (“What will survive of us is love”—survive us where, for instance?). The third greatest mystery, in case you care, is the mystery of consciousness, its origin and locus, mind versus meat (brain).

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