The Improbability of Existence

Why Does the World Exist? Jim Holt“Amazement that the universe should have come to contain a being with the unique property of being me is a very primitive feeling,” [Thomas] Nagel observes. Like him, I cannot help feeling somewhat astonished that I exist — that the universe has come to produce these very thoughts now bubbling up in my stream of consciousness.

Yet the astonishment I feel at my improbable existence has a curious counterpoint: the difficulty I have in imagining my sheer nonexistence. Why is it so hard to conceive of a world, without me, a world in which I never put in an appearance? I know, after all, that I am hardly a necessary feature of reality. Still, like Wittgenstein, I can’t think about the world without thinking of it as my world. Although I am part of reality, reality feels like a part of me. I am its hub, its epicenter, the sun that illumines it, the baby to its bathwater. To imagine that I never existed would be like imagining that the world never existed — that there was Nothing rather than Something.

The feeling that the “something-ness” of reality depends on my existence is, I know, a solipsistic illusion. Yet even when it is recognized as such, it retains a considerable grip. How can I loosen its grip? Perhaps by holding steadily before me the thought that the world got on quite happily for many eons prior to that unlikely moment when I was abruptly awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, and that it will get on quite happily after the inevitable moment to come when I return to that night.

—Jim Holt
Why Does the World Exist?

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