Jim Holt’s Conversation With John Updike About the Mystery of Existence

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July 23 2012 2:49 PM

Updike on the Universe

A conversation with the novelist about the mystery of existence.

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“Still,” Updike said, warming to the argument, “there have been other intricate systems in the history of mankind. The scholastics in the Middle Ages had a lot of intricacy in their intellectual constructions, and even the Ptolemaic epicycles or whatever were ... Well, all of this showed a lot of intelligence, and theoretical consistency even, but in the end they collapsed. But, as you say, the evidence piles up. It’s been decades and decades since the standard model of physics was proposed, and it checks out to the twelfth decimal point. But this whole string theory business ... There’s never any evidence, just mathematical formulas, right? There are men spending their whole careers working on a theory of something that might not even exist.”

Even so, I said, they’re doing some beautiful pure mathematics in the process.

“Beautiful in a vacuum!” Updike exclaimed. “What’s beauty if it’s not, in the end, true? Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty.”

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I asked Updike if his own attitude toward natural theology was as contemptuous as Barth’s was. Some people think there’s a God because they have a religious experience. Some think there’s a God because they believe the priest. But others want evidence, evidence that will appeal to reason. And those are the people that natural theology, by showing how observations of the world around us might support the conclusion that there is a God, has the power to reach. Is Updike really willing to leave those people out in the cold just because he doesn’t like the idea of a God who lets himself be “intellectually trapped”?

Updike paused for a moment or two, then said, “I was once asked to be on a radio program called This I Believe. As a fiction writer, I really don’t like to formulate what I believe because, like a quantum phenomenon, it varies from day to day, and anyway there’s a sort of bad luck attached to expressing yourself too clearly. On this radio program I conceded that ruling out natural theology does leave too much of humanity and human experience behind. I suppose even a hardened Barthian might cling to at least one piece of natural theology, Christ’s saying, ‘By their fruits shall ye know them’—that so much of what we construe as virtue and heroism seems to come from faith. But to make faith into an abstract scientific proposition is to please no one, least of all the believers. There’s no intellectual exertion in accepting it. Faith is like being in love. As Barth put it, God is reached by the shortest ladder, not by the longest ladder. Barth’s constant point was that it is God’s movement that bridges the distance, not human effort.”

And why should God make that movement? Why should he have created a universe at all? I remembered Updike saying somewhere that God may have brought the world into being out of spiritual fatigue—that reality was a product of “divine acedia.” What, I asked him, could this possibly mean?

“Did I say that? God created the world out of boredom? Well, Aquinas said that God made the world ‘in play.’ In play. In a playful spirit he made the world. That, to me, seems closer to the truth.”

He was silent again for a moment, then continued. “Some scientists who are believers, like Freeman Dyson, have actually tackled the ultimate end of the universe. They’ve tried to describe a universe where entropy is almost total and individual particles are separated by distances that are greater than the dimensions of the present observable universe ... an unthinkably dreary and pointless vacuum. I admire their scientific imagination, but I just can’t make myself go there. And a space like that is the space in which God existed and nothing else. Could God then have suffered boredom to the point that he made the universe? That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.”

What a lovely conceit! Reality is not a “blot on nothingness,” as Updike’s character Henry Bech had once, in a bilious moment, decided. It is a piece of light verse.

I told Updike how much I had enjoyed the chat. He said he had been almost out of breath at the beginning because he had just come in from playing kickball with his grandchildren. “I find when I play kickball, which I did with ease most of my life, that at seventy-five it’s a definite strain,” he said, laughing. “You listen to your heart beating and hear your own rasping lungs. It’s a good way to keep in touch with what stage of life you’re at.”

A few months later, Updike was diagnosed with lung cancer. Within a year he was dead.

Adapted from Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt. Copyright © 2012 by Jim Holt. With the permission of the Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Also in Slate: Ron Rosenbaum admires Jim Holt’s pursuit of true nothingness.

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.