Why Existence?

Why Does the World Exist? Jim HoltWhile preparing my earlier article about Ayn Rand, I came upon the following quote about a talk by uber-Randian Leonard Peikoff. (Actually Peikoff is far more reasonable than Rand.) The article noted that he said Obama was not a socialist but rather an egalitarian nihilist. It then describes this as “the form of Kantianism that gave us non-objective art, quantum mechanics, and progressive education.” So society is going to hell because of “liberal” science like quantum mechanics. See why I call Objectivism a religion? In this case, the writer doesn’t even seem to be an Objectivist—just a conservative. And this drives me crazy: if the loyal opposition is going to dismiss the last 80 years of physics because they have ontological problems with it, we are doomed.

Make no mistake: I am despairing today. And when I despair, I reach out for something I can grab onto—something that I have some control over. So I picked up Jim Holt’s new book, Why Does the World Exist?. It promises to provide me with insight into the only question that really matters, “Why does anything exist rather than nothing?” Actually, although I’d be happy with an answer to that question, I have a more fundamental question: do I exist. This is not as silly a question as you may think, and I’m sure that I will address it in various forms for as long as I “exist.”

Holt starts his book with a cheeky prologue, “A quick proof that there must be something rather than nothing, for modern people who lead busy lives”:

Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all, are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there were nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding.

Therefore, there must be something. QED

I will explain why this proof is invalid by way of explaining what I think about this question. I figure I should get my basic thoughts down before reading the book. That way, I can see how my thinking has changed. So stay tuned!

I have problems with the God debate. Postulating God as the reason for everything simply pushes the problem back one step. It naturally raises the question, “How God?” And this puts believers in the same place as the non-believers: God is self-created or some variation thereof. This is the argument that Lawrence Krauss makes in A Universe From Nothing. But the believers and non-believers alike seem not to understand that they have not answered the question.

If God or the universe[1] just sprang into being, that “nothing” from which it sprang must have had properties (or laws) that allowed it. And that begs the question: how was a nothingness that allowed something created?

In fairness, serious thinkers on both sides understand this problem.[2] But neither have any good answers. They are all basically definitional. On the theological side they define God as some kind of mechanism that allows existence. On the scientific side they define the problem away. (Really, Krauss seems to think that “nothingness is unstable” is something other than an evasion.)

In the end, I think, we are left with a paradox. And so what?! I have no problem with that. We exist and yet we shouldn’t. I think this says a whole lot about how the brain works and a whole nothing about how the universe works. We know via Godel that even some deductive systems can be shown to be incomplete or inconsistent. Is it such a leap to suggest that the universe is the same way? That we are trapped by our perceptions to see problems where none exist?

And that brings us back to Holt’s cheeky proof: it is self-consistent. But everything we know about existence indicates that the universe does not feel obliged to follow Aristotle’s teachings. What’s more, at bottom, the proof is no more helpful than, “I exist therefore something much exist!” Although that is more or less what I believe.


I think that humans want to make sense of all things. But a lot of things just don’t make sense. And I think that’s a good thing. The universe would be a sad place if it were explicable. In conclusion: wow!

[1] I don’t mean to confine this discuss to our universe. Think of this as shorthand. I don’t see any reason why a single universe is any more likely than literally an infinity of universes. I say this because our universe seems to be around 14 billion years old. But that can’t be true of existence itself. (Or nonexistence, if you prefer.)

[2] Unfortunately, just about every believer and non-believer you’ve heard of does not fall into this category. I know the non-believers better, so let me name a few: Krauss, Dawkins, Hitchens.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Why Existence?

  1. I liked, in "Philosophy Bites" (just finished it), Don Cupitt, who essentially states that our concepts of a higher power are infantile and if such a force or forces exist certainly no familiar iconography or Bronze Age oral traditions are capable of representing such.

    If there is a higher power, the fact that humans who claim revelation from it describe those revelations in terms which seem increasingly ludicrous with each passing year would seem to me indisputable proof that no higher power has ever given concrete, verbatim, "transcribe this, jerkass" revelations to anyone, anywhere. I mean, I like Shakespeare, you like other contemporaries more. But we both enjoy old drama. Why does that stuff seem better than most religious revelation writing?

    Surely GAWD would be at least as skilled as old Shakes, or Marlowe/Johnson/the Greeks, and find a way to inspire words and works which have timeless import and affect? Oh, wait — He (and it’s always He) wants us to be confused, and choose from a heavenly-sized host of options, many of which are better written than His.

    I’m with Cupitt. Any power capable of instigating the universe is way beyond our comprehension, and way beyond our anthropomorphic means of description. We can’t understand it any more than an ant gets an anteater — or antimatter, for that sake.

    If such a thing exists, and if the spiritually/existentially inclined wish to identify it, then I guess I have no issue with them describing the mysteries of unsolved science as "the mind of God" in the way Einstein and Hawking have done — as something far beyond our current level of comprehension.

    When the ignorant use admitted gaps in modern scientific knowledge to say, "see! Your machines are run by magical elf-power, and all is as written in ancient days of yore" then I want to bang my head against a wall. Believe in something "other" if it comforts one. Believe in organized religious dogma if one is mentally and emotionally damaged, sometimes beyond repair.

    Here’s a thing I ask crazy creationists sometimes. Do you believe in radar? Does radar work? When a cop pulls you over for violating the speed limit, does that violate your religious beliefs? Because the science of radar (spectrum shift) is the same which tells us how far away stars are, and that science tells us the universe is unfathomably millions and millions of years old.

    Again, neither radar nor any other aspect of modern science disproves the notion of an inconceivable higher power (or powers . . . why should there only be one?) It just means fundamentalism is fundamentally insane. Cheers, Mr. Happy . . . JMF

  2. @JMF – I’m kind of with the theists on this one: I don’t think it is a matter of if. God (for lack of a better term) exists (for lack of a better term). In this way I would consider myself a pantheist, except that I wouldn’t stop with the universe. But if I had to put it in more concrete terms, I would liken it to a regressive equation–one that feeds back on itself: f(f), or more accurately f(f(f(f(…)))).

    That’s an excellent example with radar. I often grouse that Christians "believe" things like light bulbs and central heating but conveniently disregard the same science when it brushes against their religion. I just don’t understand: what is the good of religion if it constrains what you think? Isn’t religion also about the search for knowledge. That’s a whole long conversation…

    I must take exception with you regarding Shakespeare! It isn’t that I like any of those writers more or less than him. They are all rather accomplished. My problem is not with Shakespeare himself, but rather the Shakespeare industry that has shoved him down our throats for the last 300 years (no one really noticed him for the first 100 years). And I have political problems with this as well. The number one reason everyone "loves" Shakespeare (or at least knows that they are supposed to love him) is the British Empire. As it is, Shakespeare isn’t that big in countries where the Brits didn’t rule. Again, this doesn’t mean he isn’t good. It does mean he isn’t anything like his reputation.

    Consider this: Shakespeare is often praised for writing more naturalistic dialog than Marlowe. This we are supposed to applaud. But if we wanted to, we could do the opposite: isn’t Marlowe great! He’s so much more poetic than Shakespeare! This is the kind of special pleading we always get for him. He’s more poetic than Fletcher and Middleton, therefore he’s better. Because Shakespeare is [i]always[/i] better. He is a perfect combination of poetry and naturalism. And that aggravates the hell out of me!

    Also note that Shakespeare was kind of a hack. They all were, of course. But for being a hack, he didn’t write much. And his comedies are almost without exception dreadful. He did do some really solid work there later part of his career. But what was his breakthrough play? Henry VI! I find it surprising, because to me, it was weak even by the standards of that time. Marlowe was doing infinitely better work at that time. But in his defense, he did improve–a lot. And I’m not at all sure that Marlowe would have gone on to do greater work. But who knows? Regardless, based upon all the writers of that time, Shakespeare only stands out for being over-done. And I think that is a disservice to him as much to anyone.

  3. There is little on Earth as pleasant as sitting alone and slowly, quietly reading an old work like Shakespeare, piecing out the meaning for oneself through the bits of archaic language, appreciating the moments of genius and grinning at the clunkers.

    There is little on Earth as unpleasant as watching a Shakespeare comedy with an upscale theater audience, listening to them titter knowingly, making it clear to each other that "we are SO educated."

    Good actors can emphasize the parts of an old work they feel most drawn to and glide over the duller bits, making the meaning clear through their performances. And I keep an eye out for those good actors doing this — on PBS. Never live. (Shudder.)

  4. @JMF – One thing I often talk about is how Shakespeare has benefited from the greatest editors, directors, and actors of the last 300 years. I love the opening speech of [i]Richard III[/i], but it ends horribly:

    [quote]About a prophecy which says that G
    Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be[/quote]

    Oh my! But I have rarely heard that line in a filmed version. Most everyone is smart enough to know that it just has to go. Anyway, that information is provided by Clarence in the same scene.

    Unlike the Victorians, however, I do think Shakespeare (and the others) are best performed. I take a great delight in seeing how different actors approach different parts and speeches. I have the highest degree of respect for them.

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