Updike on the Universe
A conversation with the novelist about the mystery of existence.
“I’ve certainly said that and it did seem to be true,” he said. “I fell upon Barth having exhausted Kierkegaard as a consoler, and having previously resorted to Chesterton. I discovered Barth through a series of addresses and lectures called The Word of God and the Word of Man. He didn’t attempt to play anybody’s game as far as looking at the Gospels as historic documents or anything. He just said, essentially, that this is a faith—take it or leave it. So yes, I did find Barth comforting, and a couple of my early novels—not so early, actually—are sort of Barthian. Rabbit Run certainly presents a Barthian point of view, from the standpoint of a Lutheran minister. And in Roger’s Version, Barthianism is about the only refuge for Roger from all the besieging elements that would deprive one of one’s faith—both science, which Dale tries to use on behalf of the theist point of view, and the watering down of theology with liberal values.”
Was that 10-page scientific account of the origin of the universe from nothingness meant to be convincing?
“Not entirely, and that’s an embarrassment for science. Science aspires, like theology used to, to explain absolutely everything. But how can you cross this enormous gulf between nothing and something? And not just something, a whole universe. So much ... I mean the universe is very big. Ugh! I mean, it’s big beyond imagining squared!”
Updike’s voice rose a register in genuine wonderment.
“It’s interesting,” I said, “that some philosophers are so astonished and awed that anything at all should exist—like Wittgenstein, who said in the Tractatus that it’s not how the world is that is mystical, but that it is. And Heidegger, of course, made heavy weather of this too. He claimed that even people who never thought about why there is something rather than nothing were still ‘grazed’ by the question whether they realized it or not—say, in moments of boredom, when they’d just as soon that nothing at all existed, or in states of joy when everything is transfigured and they see the world anew, as if for the first time. Yet I’ve run into philosophers who don’t see anything very astonishing about existence. And in some moods I agree with them. The question Why is there something rather than nothing? sometimes seems vacuous to me. But in other moods it seems very very profound. How does it strike you? Have you ever spent much time brooding over it?”
“Well, to call it ‘brooding’ would be to dignify it,” Updike said. “But I am of the party that thinks that the existence of the world is a kind of miracle. It’s the last resort, really, of naturalistic theology. So many other props have been knocked out from under naturalistic theology—the first principle argument that Aristotle set forth, Aquinas’s prime mover ... they’re all gone, but the riddle does remain: why is there something instead of nothing?”
I told Updike that I admired the way he had a character in Roger’s Version explain how the universe might have arisen from nothingness via a quantum-mechanical fluctuation. In the decades since he wrote the book, I added, physicists had come up with some very neat scenarios that would allow something to emerge spontaneously out of nothing in accordance with quantum laws. But then, of course, you’re faced with the mystery: Where are these laws written? And what gives them the power to command the void?
“Also, the laws amount to a funny way of saying, ‘Nothing equals something,’ ” Updike said, bursting into laughter. “QED! One opinion I’ve encountered is that, since getting from nothing to something involves time, and time didn’t exist before there was something, the whole question is a meaningless one that we should stop asking ourselves. It’s beyond our intellectual limits as a species. Put yourself into the position of a dog. A dog is responsive, shows intuition, looks at us with eyes behind which there is intelligence of a sort, and yet a dog must not understand most of the things it sees people doing. It must have no idea how they invented, say, the internal-combustion engine. So maybe what we need to do is imagine that we’re dogs and that there are realms that go beyond our understanding. I’m not sure I buy that view, but it is a way of saying that the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain. I have trouble even believing—and this will offend you—the standard scientific explanation of how the universe rapidly grew from nearly nothing. Just think of it. The notion that this planet and all the stars we see, and many thousands of times more than those we see—that all this was once bounded in a point with the size of, what, a period or a grape? How, I ask myself, could that possibly be? And, that said, I sort of move on.”
Updike chuckled softly. His mood appeared to lighten.
“When you think about it,” he continued, “we rationalists—and we’re all, to an extent, rationalist—we accept propositions about the early universe which boggle the mind more than any of the biblical miracles do. Your mind can intuitively grasp the notion of a dead man coming back again to life, as people in deep comas do, and as we do when we wake up every morning out of a sound sleep. But to believe that the universe, immeasurably vast as it appears to be, was once compressed into a tiny space—into a tiny point—is in truth very hard to believe. I’m not saying I can disprove the equations that back it up. I’m just saying that it’s as much a matter of faith to accept that.”
Here I was moved to demur. The theories that imply this picture of the early universe—general relativity, the standard model of particle physics, and so forth—work beautifully at predicting our present-day observations. Even the theory of cosmic inflation, which admittedly is a bit conjectural, has been confirmed by the shape of the cosmic background radiation, as measured by the Hubble space telescope. If these theories are so good at accounting for the evidence we see at present, why shouldn’t we trust them as we extrapolate backward in time toward the beginning of the universe?
“I’m just saying I can’t trust them,” Updike replied. “My reptile brain won’t let me. It’s impossible to imagine that even the Earth was once compressed to the size of a pea, let alone the whole universe.”
Some things that are impossible to imagine, I pointed out, are quite easy to describe mathematically.
Jim Holt is a longtime contributor to The New Yorker—where he has written on string theory, time, infinity, numbers, truth, and bullshit, among other subjects—and the author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He lives in Greenwich Village, New York City.