Paradox of Existence

Why Does the World Exist? Jim HoltI was doing a job at a church and I had to be reminded by my partner not to discuss, you know, theology. This is because the Baptists we were working for might mistake the question I raised with some children as anti-religious. The question: if God created the universe, what created God? This is, of course, the ultimate theological question that all religions try to answer. But I have to admit, most Christians I talk to are so obtuse that they do indeed see the question as more an affront to religion than a basis of it.

One of the children I was speaking to actually gave me a great answer. He smiled and shrugged. That very nimbly sums up my theological thinking. Existence itself makes no sense and I’m quite happy with that.

I just finished reading Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? I wrote my thoughts about this subject before reading it, as a kind of test to see if the book changed my thinking. And it did: I now realize that all of the thinkers who deal with this stuff are deceiving themselves in very clever ways. It is all intellectual folderol designed to hide the great paradoxes that are existence.

There is just something at the base of my being that finds infinite time and spaces and the feedbacks they imply very comfortable. I have no problem believing in an infinite number of universes. There would have to have always been an infinite number of universes because existence has always been. There is no beginning and there is no end. Or the beginning and end are the same thing in some kind of Mobius strip of time and space. Regardless, we are parochial by nature. We are part of the universe and thus can never really understand it.

Why Does the World Exist? is filled with really smart people. But in the end, the only one who speaks to me is Adolf Grunbaum. This is strange, because after first reading him, I hated what he had to say. Basically, he nullifies the very question of why anything exists. He claims that this is just our prejudice. (He doesn’t say this, but I suspect that it comes from the fact that we start out nonexistent—or at least we think we do.) On first brush, I felt that his answer to the question was to not answer the question. But actually, his thinking is more or less the same as mine: it only seems natural that nothing should exist because of our parochial nature.

But there is one thing I got from the book: a quote from Claude Levi-Strauss on a 91st birthday celebration. It gets to the heart of what I have long thought about dying. “Montaigne said that aging diminishes us each day in a way that, when death finally arrives, it takes away only a quarter or half the man. But Montaigne only lived to be fifty-nine, so he could have no idea of the extreme old age I find myself in today.” Exactly! The way I see it is that I am constantly dying. Through the wonders of metabolism, I am always turning into to something else. It is a chemical trick that I think that I am something. Instead, I am a series of related things. And who knows? Maybe the infinite things that I have thought myself to be all still exist and my tiny collection of cells that make up my consciousness is just too focused on chasing some kind of time gradient to notice. Regardless, it won’t be me who dies, because I am not dead.

I wonder if such thoughts bother other people. To me they are a welcome respite from the horrors of politics and all the other trivialities that make up everyday life. As such, Why Does the World Exist? is a fun read for those so inclined. And there are cool things in the book like how one might create a new universe in the lab. I knew I should have taken more chemistry when I was in school!

Afterword

The only other book by Holt that I’ve read is Stop Me If You’ve Heard This. It is a history and philosophy of jokes. Holt is my kind of guy. He clearly understands what is important: existence and jokes!

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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.

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