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Book Review: Why Does the World Exist? 304

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
eldavojohn writes "For quite some time humans have struggled to answer the question why there is anything rather than nothing. Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? tackles such questions in the form of a journey. After laying a brief groundwork, Holt travels from leading prominent philosopher to curmudgeonly physicist to reserved theologian, visiting each and relaying the juiciest parts of his transcripts to the reader. In doing so, this book takes on an interesting form with a meaty dense center to each chapter (the actual dialogues) surrounded by the light and fluffy bread of Holt's expert writing about the settings, weather and food of his travels. While this consequently lacks the characteristics of a heady hard hitting original philosophical work, these sandwiches should prove quite palatable for most readers. Why Does the World Exist? criss-crosses the etymological, epistemological, theological and philosophical aspects of its title while remaining a fairly easy read." Keep reading for the rest of eldavojohn's review.
Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
author Jim Holt
pages 320
publisher Liveright
rating 9/10
reviewer eldavojohn
ISBN 978-0871404091
summary An existential detective story.
The book's first page is titled "A Quick Proof That There Must Be Something Rather Than Nothing, for Modern People Who Lead Busy Lives" (made for those of you who don't have time to read) and presents a very simple proof about the self-forbiddingness of nothing. The book starts off with a brief prerogative to drive the reader's thirst for why this question is important. Typical of the rest of the book Holt drops a lot of names so I'm not going to mention the names that are brought up in passing. The author tries to cover all his bases by bring up anyone from Roger Penrose to René Descartes to Woody Allen. The veritable name dropping proves Holt has done his homework but at times can be a little overbearing and, in my opinion, reaches borderline ADD-philosophy at a few points in the book. Be warned, you will find Tennessee Williams, John Archibald Wheeler, Marcel Proust, Albert Einstein, Baruch Spinoza and Georg Cantor all mentioned on the same page! The opening few pages select an interesting cast from history as the question arises: Why Does the World Exist?

Holt proceeds from baiting the reader to what he calls a "Philosophical Tour D'Horizon" and, as its name suggests, this chapter blazes through many names — big and small — throughout history that might have contributed to answering this question. I can say this effort is quite readable whereas a more serious effort to be completely comprehensive would be much more lengthy and tedious. I should disclose at this point that Holt played his cards well by mentioning and paying favor to perhaps my most favorite of polymaths: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (and he continues to do so throughout this book).

Following that, the next obvious step is to tackle a definition of "nothing" — our 'null hypothesis' of existence. We exist as something so we know that and so Holt begins by sampling what we have at our disposal to define nothing. Holt briefly recalls the advent of zero in mathematics and moves on to the more refined points of what nothing can be defined as in English, French and a number of other ways. This chapter struck me as needlessly tiresome as the author tackles the inane intricacies of natural languages applied to concepts like nothing. Heidegger's "nothing that noths" question struck me as merely a failure of natural language — not a deep and profound question. Holt correctly switches to logical methods like predicate calculus to better tackle this concept of nothing but this chapter left a bad taste in my mouth as the author never attacks the root problem. You can talk about how the word "nothing" operates in English or how "le néant" operates in French but these human invented definitions and grammars are buggy systems for the task at hand. Why do scientists prefer math to describe systems? Why do computers use true and false versus "maybe" and "probably not"? Logic, predicate calculus and math (although far from perfect themselves) are our tools to arm ourselves to better describe our surroundings and I feel like Holt wasted words on the shortcomings of "Does it make sense to say X about nothing?" Regardless this chapter does present mental exercises to the reader about what nothing truly is and examines the paradox of the null hypothesis in existence. Also, in so many ways nothing is nice and simple so why doesn't the law of parsimony dictate that there should have been nothing instead of what is?

The first person Holt visits in this book is Russian Physicist Andrei Linde (the same Linde that was awarded one of Milner's nin awards) and very little time is spent on Linde since the theory visited here is that we exist because our everything was created in a lab by a "physicist" hacker. The second person Holt interviews is a little more interesting and given many more pages. He also happened to be my favorite character in the quest and one with which I found myself most in agreement: Adolf Grünbaum. Holt calls this man "The Great Rejectionist" and I found that to be an adequate and fair title because their discussions make it clear that it is hard to start with base assumptions when debating this borderline hostile mind. Grünbaum, an atheist, had attacked Freudian psychoanalysis and served as an intelligence officer after escaping Nazi Germany. The one complaint I have of Grünbaum (that would be more prevalent with other philosophers) is that they took no sides on the debate of why there is something rather than nothing and instead required Holt to make statements that could then be either met with concurrence (ha!) or picked apart by someone armed with years of studying. There's a part in this chapter where Holt alludes to Grünbaum disagreeing to the statement that the Null World is the simplest possible outcome (I'm assuming in order to invoke the Law of Parsimony) and even allowing that to go forward Grünbaum says "Why should we think that the simple is ontologically more likely to be true?"

The way Grünbaum immediately rejected Holt's premises and the opening exercises discussing nothing led me to a problematic question about what exists outside our universe and what existed before the Big Bang. If it is indeed Nothing (with a capital N) then we mean there are no laws of nature, no Law of Parsimony, not even some semblance of cause and effect. So what particularly bothers me about all this discussion is that we're talking about Nothing using logic that has been developed and rooted entirely here in our world of something. Of course, this would circumvent any discussion or this book to be written so I assume that most philosophers in this realm largely set this aside for the sake of discussion and speculation.

Before jumping to the next stop, Holt arms us with the concepts of finite versus infinite and with good reason. Richard Swinburne is a philosopher of religion at Oxford and I found him to be the most disagreeable person encountered along the way in this book. Holt brings up many good points against the possibility of there being a God. The possibility of God explains away all of our aforementioned problems but I felt like he gave Swinburne a free pass on a lot of these points. I was disappointed that the author embodied an intellectual steel trap for everyone else while Swinburne, when cornered, wasn't pressed further. This chapter sets out to answer a lot of questions but I felt like Swinburne was reaching when he tried to explain that God is actually a very simple concept — maybe even simpler than you or I. And I just don't buy that. I also didn't think that Holt fully utilized the newly established definitions of infinity and nothing to pry apart Swinburne's position. As an example, Swinburne speaks of the "infinitely powerful" and "infinitely good" God but draws that as an analogy to parents watching children. He says that God keeps his distance and that's why we're not permeated with infinite goodness ourselves. I feel like Holt should be tearing this apart because this is illogical to me if I consider these two cases: Case 1) the universe is finite and there is Nothing outside of the universe so God does not exist outside the universe so he exists inside the universe. But if God is infinitely good, there would be no room in a finite space for evil — it would be completely packed with good. Case 2) God exists outside the universe (I believe this was Swinburne's suggestion) with the ability to influence inside the universe. However, we now find ourselves back to the issue that Swinburne and Holt addressed in this chapter and that is answering the questions, "What amount of power and good does God allow into the universe? And why that amount?" These two cases have plagued my mind since I was a child, E=mc^2 dictates that it takes a finite (though large to us) amount of power to create sustenance from nothing. The Christian God has an infinite amount of power and is infinitely good yet allows people to die when a finite amount of power would prolong their lives. From good people to bad people to people who have never had the chance to hear God's word, they die daily when a finite amount of power would save them. But I digress — suffice it to say this was a very disappointing chapter and this is why this book loses a point in my mind. I guess it was necessary to visit this possibility but it wasn't fair to let cordiality intervene with a philosophical swordfight.

On the heels of the visit to Swinburne, Holt discusses some of the finer points of proving God's existence through pure logic. I enjoyed his references to Bertrand Russell and Russell's fall to Anselm's ontological argument. Holt also relays Richard Dawkin's knee jerk dismissal of it and Gödel's more complete analysis of the logic. The next stop on the way is physicist David Deutsch of Oxford. The visit with Deutsch is relatively brief but he seems to maintain safe positions without venturing anywhere problematic. His interest is studying the mutliverse theory but he balks at any attempts to even suggest there might be a principle that explains the foundation of our existence. So there's not much to discuss but the opening of this principle of multiple universes is important to the rest of the possibilities presented throughout the book. Holt also looks at the possibility that our universe exists because of a "quantum fluctuation" as first proposed by Ed Tryon and later given more concrete possibilities by Alex Vilenkin. This leads nicely into Holt's next person to visit: Steven Weinberg.

Weinberg sheds a lot of light on the physical aspects with the question of existence. Weinberg provides a little discussion on string theory and how the scientific aspects might work. I was surprised to learn that Weinberg is disappointed at the slow rate of string theory development and he calls it "the best effort we've made to step beyond what we already know." There is, of course, a careful context to that statement with Weinberg explaining that it hasn't worked out how we initially thought it would. I found one of Weinberg's statements to be surprising when he calls Quantum mechanics an "empty stage" and he further says he thinks that "Karl Popper was wrong to say that a scientific theory must be open to falsification. You can't falsify quantum mechanics, since it doesn't make predictions." We don't have a final theory yet but Weinberg does a great job of explaining what finding one would mean and what it will never be able to answer. Holt follows this up with a lot of information and caveats about the multiverse/megaverse as he transitions to another popular scientist and writer.

I've read a number of Roger Penrose's books and was pleased to read his interaction with Holt. I was a little disappointed with Holt's treatment of Platonism in regards to mathematics — mostly because he treats it as borderline mysticism and I personally enjoy reading that kind of mathematical philosophy. While I feel like it has roots in mysticism, I have enjoyed Penrose's works that reference "Platonic contact." Penrose imagines that there are three worlds: the physical world, the world consisting of consciousness and the aforementioned Platonic world. A very brief explanation is that there is a mysterious connection between this physical world via our minds to the conscious world and in our minds there is now a small part of our conscious (the part dealing with mathematics) that connects us to the Platonic world. So I suppose that triples the question of this book and Holt isn't afraid to call these worlds "miraculously self-creating and self-sustaining." Penrose, calls the Platonic world "eternally existing", "profound" and "timeless" but what of the possibility of the Null World? What about outside our universe? How does it stand up to the Nothing? These questions are never really pressed for some reason. Holt briefly references an extreme Platonist by the name of Max Tegmark and I felt like Penrose didn't leave much progress in our quest to answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Instead, he offers that this Platonic world is prime and the other two exist in its shadows but I was never satisfied or understood why those shadows exist.

Holt transitions to the next pieces with a reference to John Archibald Wheeler's "it from bit." As a developer, this is an incredibly tantalizing possibility but I found it to be a bit misplaced in this book. I found the explanation of this to be less than satisfactory (similarly as in my review of Gleick's "The Information") and I wish someone would include more substance to this view of everything arising from information. Holt muddies up the water even a little further by examining the idea that our brains have this "mind-stuff" or property to them that is perhaps built on top of a quantum phenomena. While there are interesting thought experiments about this "mind-stuff" and consciousness, it seems a little out of scope from the grand purpose of this book. Nonetheless it's fun to think about.

One of the final realms to explore is John A. Leslie's own position of an almost "ethical requiredness" or a need for goodness. I found Leslie to be a sound and logical philosopher but I did not enjoy that the bulk of his explanations seemed to hinge on analogies. Perhaps this is far more prevalent in modern philosophy but something inside me objects to using paintings to explain how universes are enumerated. The example I'm talking about is the question of why, if goodness is a prerogative, would there be infinitely many universes conceptually available but only ours in existence (which is of some arbitrary goodness). And Leslie explains this by saying that the diversity of goodness in the universes is analogous to why the Louvre has paintings of various quality instead of having its walls packed with perfect replicas of the Mona Lisa. I understand his premises and his analogy but I don't see the value of arbitrary selection of a universe — this "axiarchic theory." Both Leslie and Holt reference Dawkin's response of calling goodness a piffling concept and noting that cosmologically it's as arbitrary as "Channel Number Fiveness." And this is the premise of Leslie's assertions: that "Goodness is required existence, in a nontrivial sense." Holt notes that Leslie is a sort of modern-day Spinoza.

The last philosopher on Holt's journey is Derek Parfit who, among other things, discusses the idea of a "selector" with Holt. Parfit breaks down our existence into how and why which is an interesting way to look at it when you consider the selector to be a mechanism that selects (or doesn't select) our universe out of all the possibilities. If the selector is something, then you have to explain the selector of the selector or the meta-selector. For example: The null hypothesis (the world of Nothing) has the selector of simplicity and no meta-selector. Also, by some sound logic and reasoning the two come to the conclusion that a selector can't select itself thus looping backwards and explaining its selection. Armed with this, the author tries his hand at proving which of these explanations and meta-explanations are valid and comes to a conclusion. Similar to my earlier complaints, the biggest problem I have with this is that his method is to rule out the combinations of meta-selectors and selectors until he is down to one or two. How does he know that the explanations for his options in this book amount to the entirety of the possibilities of selectors and meta-selectors? To rule out all possibilities but one in order to understand this seems futile since we may not be able to imagine all selectors and meta-selectors possible.

The very last person interviewed for the book is John Updike. Although he had some interesting things to say, this felt more like an intellectual artist's view of why there is something rather than nothing. Updike says he is part of the group that find this existence to be "a kind of miracle" and he calls this a "last resort, really of naturalistic theology." There's a bit of cute wordplay in this last chapter but it felt appropriate to read it near the end of this journey. Updike gets to weave characters into plots and embed the aforementioned logic and views into those stories. And given that background and his interest in this topic, he playfully left me with an "it's not so bad that we don't know" sort of lightheartedness.

The penultimate chapter of this book deals with the question of whether we seriously exist at all. I think it would have been better for Holt to approach this from a nurture versus nature standpoint that's already been heavily discussed before. He does pose some interesting thought exercises like a procedure that replaces diseased brain matter with healthy brain matter that has no recollection or memories but it only does it 1% of my brain matter at a time. At what point would I cease to be me? So there's some interesting ideas in here but the chapter is largely disagreeable with me. I know that every person I meet knows at least one thing I don't and I like to use such a basic pairwise comparison to justify unique existence. I don't find much value in considerations of the self on a transcendental level and that's probably why this chapter didn't have a lot of value to me.

Throughout the book, Holt has been relaying to us his day to day experiences including the death of his dog. He also noted that Updike died fairly suddenly months after he spoke with him. In the final chapter "Return to Nothingness," Holt does a little work of tying what this all means into the context of death. During the writing of this book, his mother passed away and the final pages are devoted to that account and his emotions. If Updike was a jocular relief about existence, this final chapter is a sobering reminder that ultimately we are all mortal. While well written and heavily symbolic, it is a depressing note on which to end this journey.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's composition is a good mix of art and science making it a light read compared to others about the same topic. If you're looking for thought experiments or wish to further ply yourself with a good survey of the current armaments in this debate, you can buy Why Does the World Exist? from Amazon. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews — to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Book Review: Why Does the World Exist?

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  • by newcastlejon (1483695) on Monday September 03, 2012 @04:02PM (#41216217)
    Because.
    • by dargaud (518470) <slashdot2NO@SPAMgdargaud.net> on Monday September 03, 2012 @04:20PM (#41216345) Homepage
      I've heard theologians claim that scientists are arrogant because they want to know the world. But I find somthing a lot more arrogant: people who absolutely want a reason for their existence. You just happened by chance, get over it.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by khallow (566160)

        You just happened by chance, get over it.

        Or happened on purpose as the case may be. Without evidence one way or another, there's no point to taking a stand on the issue.

        • by gmuslera (3436)
          Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and purpose too, unless you are specifically speaking about the will of someone. Assigning purpose to something like the existence of the world or universe implies a creator, founder, or builder, with a will. So the question looks more like religious propaganda than worrying about causality, existence or physics. So the idea is to not discuss that there is a god (er... god forbid?), but once you define that must be a god because belgium, then what purpose it had.
        • by canadian_right (410687) <alexander.russell@telus.net> on Monday September 03, 2012 @05:50PM (#41217133) Homepage

          You just happened by chance, get over it.

          Or happened on purpose as the case may be. Without evidence one way or another, there's no point to taking a stand on the issue.

          Currently there is a LOT of evidence that we arose mainly by chance, and no evidence that anything other than natural processes lead to our existence. There is no external reason to your being. I'm quite confident, given our current knowledge of the world, that the only rational position is that we arose by the working of natural, often random, natural forces.

          Taking any other position requires ignoring a vast body of evidence.

          • by khallow (566160) on Monday September 03, 2012 @06:57PM (#41217659)

            Currently there is a LOT of evidence that we arose mainly by chance, and no evidence that anything other than natural processes lead to our existence.

            Except, of course, that there's no natural explanation for existence. Or even a scrap of that "LOT of evidence".

            • by postbigbang (761081) on Monday September 03, 2012 @09:52PM (#41219011)

              That would be the existentialist view. Yet, according to what you see, hear, smell, touch, taste, and grok-- there you are.

              I vote for missing ingredients. Stuff not found yet. Not necessarily hope, not a tasty explanation, but perhaps a formula that explains it all.

              It would seem that things that work are favored, over things that don't work. Our intelligence seems to be favored in this way, a long gestation and youth allows a longer accumulation of cognizance, and fun and mirth along the way. The program that we are, starting out as 23x2, goes through a cycle favored by environment, until we start to exhaust the program, and we go away. 100% of us end up this way. Not 99.9994, or 21.2%, but 100%.

              Why does this happen? We were grunts 10K years+ ago. Only recently did we learn to write, then print, to carry intergenerational intelligence. Now it's all gained lots of energy, but only the science fiction writers have guessed at the endings, or the next steps in the evolution.

              Are we not here? Are part of a Matrix? Are we puppets on a quantum string? Evidence doesn't say that, and evidence is something in lieu of nothing, giving weight towards: we got here. Let's see where we go. I'm hoping it's a "good" place.

          • In all our human experience, laws can only come from legislatures, from humans with minds. No human laws have ever arisen apart from human minds. Is it logical to postulate that all the complex laws of nature came from something other than a mind? The question is whose mind? The vast majority of people on earth believe in some kind of God that created things. Only a small minority of people believe that we are here by chance.

            • by khallow (566160)

              In all our human experience, laws can only come from legislatures, from humans with minds. No human laws have ever arisen apart from human minds.

              Law comes from human minds. Ok.

              Is it logical to postulate that all the complex laws of nature came from something other than a mind? The question is whose mind? The vast majority of people on earth believe in some kind of God that created things. Only a small minority of people believe that we are here by chance.

              So you're saying that one or more *human* minds created the laws that the universe operates under. Do you happen to have a copy of the legislation? It'd simplify scientific endeavors a great deal.

            • by dryeo (100693)

              Legislatures only appeared relatively recently. Some laws always existed. The law of gravity states that if you step off a high cliff, you die. The law about swimming too far also can have death as a punishment. The law about poking a sleeping bear says you better have a good defence or you'll suffer.
              The laws against murder and theft are similar, kill someone and their relatives will show up demanding punishment. Eventually wise people were asked to decide on the punishment, payment or even if the killing w

        • by AK Marc (707885)

          Without evidence one way or another, there's no point to taking a stand on the issue.

          That's silly.

          I have no evidence that while I was at work, a pink elephant didn't break into my house and crap in my toilet, then disappear before I got home (nor do I have any evidence against it). You are claiming that pro-pink is just as valid/reasonable as apinkism. That's so fair and balanced of you, but not a logical requirement, as you imply.

      • by wonkey_monkey (2592601) on Monday September 03, 2012 @04:44PM (#41216537) Homepage

        But I find somthing a lot more arrogant: people who absolutely want a reason for their existence.

        Wanting a reason isn't arrogant; thinking you already know the reason is.

        • What about assuming there is a reason in the first place? (I'm not talking about the usual, causal reasons here...)

          • What about assuming there is a reason in the first place? (I'm not talking about the usual, causal reasons here...)

            You don't have to assume a reason, or lack thereof to be curious. I'm agnostic, but I find this [closertotruth.com] to be an interesting series (intermittently found on PBS, at 4:30 am - way to hide the truth, PBS :) ).

          • by Artifakt (700173)

            Science starts dealing with each phenomenon with the assumption that the phenomenon can be explained. It continues with an assumption that the researchers have a realistic chance of figuring out what that explanation is. By some models of science, at least, it then adopts the assumption that the explanation is a naturalistic one. Assuming that the whole universe (or its origin) fits these assumptions may be arrogant, but if so, then isn't it arrogant for a scientist to assume he or she is smart enough to de

      • by John Allsup (987) <s,chalisque&gmail,com> on Monday September 03, 2012 @04:54PM (#41216635) Homepage Journal

        And where does chance get its random numbers from? Why is reality unreasonably well described by mathematical laws.

        In summary, 'you just happened by chance, get over it' is no better than 'you exist because God created man in verse X of Genesis 1, and you have sin because of Eve's sin in Genesis 2-3.. get over it.' The point of this is that the 'get over it' attitude is unhelpful to those who are unsatisfied.

        Consider:

        Eventually if you don't get over it, if you chase back far enough, abstract enough, you will at least find something that you can label as the Divine (to give it a name other than God.) Either the 'this is the case because X, and X is the case because Y' chain goes back indefinitely, in which case you pick a point, any point, say X and say 'from X backwards we'll call everything divine, and label the totality of divine things The Divine, or God, or whatever name you choose' or else this chain terminates, and where it terminates is, again, the Divine.

        I don't really see the point of this kind of reasoning anymore, but went along these lines in the past.

        If you want to believe in God, there are rational reasons if you look for them, and likewise for if you don't. There is, for sure, never going to be sufficient philosophical foundations to decide. So choose your faith, be it materialistic or theistic or whatever wisely, and accept that you cannot know for sure. This latter point is the one thing where I would play the get over it card: we don't know intellectually, and we can't know intellectually, so get over it.

    • If God forks the Universe every time you roll a die, he'd better have a damned good memory.

      Judging by the state of things (especially our relatively local state) I'd say that's someone's been FORKING [wthax.org] THE UNIVERSE as hard as they can for quite some time now.

    • by slick7 (1703596) on Monday September 03, 2012 @04:49PM (#41216581)

      Because.

      42. FTFY

    • You mean, 'coz.

    • by vigour (846429)

      If you don't already know, there's no point telling you.

      (My wife....)

    • by AK Marc (707885)
      I saw it as "There must be a God, because I prefer to think that my life has real meaning, and I can't get that by doing useless crap like trying to help people or such."

      "I really really want there to be" seems to be the strongest "proof" ever given for God.
  • by Black Parrot (19622) on Monday September 03, 2012 @04:06PM (#41216247)

    why you would consult a theologian regarding questions about reality?

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Because, regardless of what the Slashdot community may think, theology is enjoying a renaissance in the past 20 years or so. Philosophy of Religion is enjoying an influx of young, intelligent people who are producing new and interesting works and God isn't going anywhere any time soon.

        • Is that a faith-based fact?

          Which brings us back to the point: why ask a religious authority about reality? There's an infinite variety of faith-based "facts".

      • Odd, all the data I've seen has pointed to a global decline, led by western nations, for the last 30 years.

      • Theology has been on the decline since the 1600's. Excepting a few small schools in the USA and Madrasah's in the muslim world, theology is a minor subsection of the philosophy department of any good university.

        • by Pseudonym (62607)

          Oh, please.

          In the Stone Age, "music", "art", "culture", "religion" and "medicine" were not distinct concepts, and were often practiced by the same people. These started splitting off into distinct fields during the Classical era. But we wouldn't say that music has been on the decline since the Stone Age just because there's very little medicine in it these days.

          Of course theology is a minor subsection of the philosophy department. Philosophy, like everything, is becoming more specialised as time goes on.

          And

        • Anyone seriously pursuing a degree in theology generally isnt going to go to Berkeley's theology department; theres this thing called "Seminary" for those who actually want to study it seriously.

  • Shame. (Score:5, Funny)

    by gallondr00nk (868673) on Monday September 03, 2012 @04:08PM (#41216263)

    I first read that as "Ask Slashdot: Why Does The World Exist?"

    Imagine my disappointment.

    • by Kittenman (971447)

      I first read that as "Ask Slashdot: Why Does The World Exist?"

      Imagine my disappointment.

      Would be an interesting poll. Especially the CowboyNeal option.

  • Where's Step 1 (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday September 03, 2012 @04:08PM (#41216267) Journal

    I think we need a prequel, where the question itself is studied, and reasons provided for why it is a sensible question to even ask.

    • I think we need a prequel, where the question itself is studied, and reasons provided for why it is a sensible question to even ask.

      I grew up with the mindset that all questions are valid although some are more pragmatic than others. Surely such a question that has caused so much discussion and elicited statements from so many of our greatest thinkers has some value in being asked?

      I bought the book and, obviously, I enjoyed the book so I think it's a sensible question. I also think that the beginning of the book does a decent job for setting the stage for the question and driving the question without need for a prequel that looks

      • by mdenham (747985)

        I guess I would answer your statement with the following (found throughout the book): Is Nothing simple? Would ours be a simpler universe if nothing existed? Then why doesn't the Law of Parsimony (alias Occam's Razor) dictate that a Nothing be in our place instead of our something?

        Thermodynamic argument against Nothing (and, for that matter, the production of Something from Nothing): the entropy state for Nothing is infinite. (Specifically, negative infinity. It's based on the logarithm - in this situation, it doesn't matter what base you use, though 2 is traditional - of the number of possible states that are identical to the current state based on macroscopic properties, or of the number of bits of information needed to describe the system.)

        Clearly, an infinity is a more complica

        • Thermodynamics explains certain facets of the universe. It may or may not have a damned thing to do with the initial state of the universe (if that is even a meaningful statement).

      • by tulcod (1056476)
        What do you mean by "in our place"? I mean, sure, I know what you intuitively mean, but, what does it /really/ mean, metaphysically? You cannot define "place" outside of a universe, because outside of a universe there are no laws, let alone geometry. The problem is that many important philosophical questions are very hard to make precise, and /this/ is the reason some questions are not "valid" in a logical sense. Disclaimer: I'm a mathematician, so I'm probably pedantic about these things.
      • So I'm assumInv the book doesn't actually broach the subject as to whether the question is even meaningful? I might be interested in the book, but if it is just a rehash of world views I'm already familiar with, then I have a good many other books I would prefer to read first.

    • by John Allsup (987)

      When we get to the prequel to the prequel to the prequel to the prequel to the...

      When does this stop?

      We may as well stop where we are now and answer the question posed without worrying about foundational prequels.

    • I think we need a prequel

      We live in Existence IV. IMO the more recent Existence I-III were real disappointments. Most people seem to like Existence V the best.

      • by Artifakt (700173)

        Your last two sentences are equally accurate if we substitute "Star Wars" for "Existance".

  • Did anyone read the book yet? It seems to me to be a huge exercise in intellectual masturbation... As much as I can enjoy philosophy, I am more interested in what I can do to make our world a little bit better. I for one will not finance the lifestyle of the author. Too many people are still hungry around the world to invest in this. And the answer is 42, every geek knows that!
    • by Crypto Gnome (651401) on Monday September 03, 2012 @04:31PM (#41216427) Homepage Journal

      Pure Intellectual Masturbation?

      You Say That Like It's A Bad Thing - Let me just remind you where you are posting, sir.

      - This Is Slashdot!
      - We're all intellectuals (of one sort or another)
      - if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself

    • Did anyone read the book yet? It seems to me to be a huge exercise in intellectual masturbation

      It's a matter of supply and demand: There are thousands of books that are huge exercises in anti-intellectual masturbation, so they're not newsworthy..

    • Sure Why Not? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohn@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Monday September 03, 2012 @04:35PM (#41216463) Journal

      Did anyone read the book yet?

      Reviewer here and yes, yes I did read the book. I guess you are suspicious that I made all that up on the spot and submitted it to Slashdot so I'll try to make my reviews a little lengthier next time :-)

      It seems to me to be a huge exercise in intellectual masturbation...

      Hmmm, well, I think that some of the topics covered in the book have great worth to society. If you think that Roger Penrose and Steven Weinberg amount to intellectual masturbation then I guess we would find ourselves at odds. Nevertheless, the subject of this book has troubled a great many people and providing a completely sound answer to this question would at the very least make our world a little better in providing knowledge to people who yearn for this answer.

      The worth of this book is best measured by the amount of groundwork that is laid and examined by the author without having to read tome after tome in encyclopedias of philosophy. This particular topic interests me and so I purchased this book.

      I for one will not finance the lifestyle of the author. Too many people are still hungry around the world to invest in this.

      Too many people are still hungry around the world for you to be writing on Slashdot instead of helping them! Burst forth! Run to your nearest soup kitchen and volunteer! Do you own a TV, computer or pay for an internet connection?! Why are you not fencing your unnecessary belongings and helping the poor starving people? Your argument could be used to halt any sort of hobby or interest -- is that a valid position?

      • by gagol (583737)

        It was not a critic of your review, well written and all, I was simply looking forward for other opinions. And yes, I own a small netbook with Internet Access but that's it. Not TV, no big stereo systems, and I do volunteer work at soup kitchens and donate largely to various charities. The big questions are of some interest to me, however I am more interested in fundamental scientific research about what we know about the universe. This book seems to be metaphysical at best, and of no help to me.

        This does

      • If you think that Roger Penrose and Steven Weinberg amount to intellectual masturbation then I guess we would find ourselves at odds.

        Penrose and Weinberg may be brilliant, but that doesn't mean that this particular question is worth pursuing.

        Why are you not fencing your unnecessary belongings and helping the poor starving people?

        Because you can only fence stuff that you stole.

  • Obvious (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fm6 (162816) on Monday September 03, 2012 @04:09PM (#41216277) Homepage Journal

    If the world didn't exist, nobody would be asking why it did.

    • If the world didn't exist, nobody would be asking why it did.

      Oddly enough people have made careers discussing the implication of that observation.

      - Does The World Exist so that someone could ask why?

      - or Does The World Exist because someone asked why (insert schrodinger-eqsue thought experiment and collapsing waveforms here)

      • by fm6 (162816)

        But somehow, they never seem to ask the most important question of all: Does anybody give a shit?

      • I thought there would at least mention the big bang theory. Did the big bang create the universe? Was it the very first time and only time that the big bang occurred? Will the universe end in the big chill? Will the universe use up all the energy in existence? What is time and did it exist before the big bang? Will time ever cease to exist? As for death, there was an atheist who ask if anyone was worried about the 13 billion years prior to there existence so why worry about the time after death? I d
    • If the world didn't exist, nobody would be asking why it did.

      Unless they thought it existed, and wondered why.

      • by fm6 (162816)

        I'm pretty sure that people who don't exist don't think about much of anything.

        • Gratz, you discovered Decartes "I think, therefore I am."

          • by fm6 (162816)

            I didn't say that people who think exist. I said that people who don't exist don't think.

            I've always thought that Rene should have said, "I think I think, therefore I think I am." I mean, if you're not going to postulate that you yourself exist, why should you postulate that you think?

            • As I understand it, he was questioning whether he existed, or alternatively douting his existence. But the way out of that little mind virus is thus: The very fact that he doubted, proved that he existed, for actions require an actioner, and certainly "to doubt" was an action. You could try to doubt your own doubt, but youre back where you started-- who is doing the doubting, if noone exists?

              Your ending statement is practically a tautology: you cant get away from the problem by essentially saying "why s

    • by artor3 (1344997)

      While that's true, it's not an answer.

      If you wake up one morning and there isn't a cast iron statue of a giraffe in your yard, you wouldn't ask why not. But that's not a reason for the statue to be there.

      • by fm6 (162816)

        That's a bad analogy,. People are not the product of cast iron giraffes. A better analogy is to pretend that you are a cast iron giraffe. So tell me, why are you a cast iron giraffe and not a glass frisbee?

        • by artor3 (1344997)

          Your analogy doesn't fit.

          The question is "Why does the world exist?" not "Why is the world able to support life?"

          There is a real answer to question of why the world exists. We don't know it, and it might not be possible for us to know it, but there is a reason. And that reason is most certainly not "Because humans exist to ask about it!"

          The second question, which is the one that the anthropic principle is meant to address, is down to chance. There was a chance that the universe ended up with the right pa

    • by Khashishi (775369)

      This merely shifts the question to: why is somebody asking why the world exists. It's a step in the wrong direction.

  • by narcc (412956)

    This will be fun. A discussion about pop philosophy centered around a book written for the casual reader presented to an audience that, history has shown, knows absolutely nothing about the subject, yet assumes that they know everything.

    I expect the quality of comments here to be on-par with those found on rapture ready and world net daily.

  • visiting each and relaying the juiciest parts of his transcripts to the reader. In doing so, this book takes on an interesting form with a meaty dense center to each chapter (the actual dialogues) surrounded by the light and fluffy bread of Holt's expert writing about the settings, weather and food of his travels. While this consequently lacks the characteristics of a heady hard hitting original philosophical work, these sandwiches should prove quite palatable for most readers.

    Wow.

    Just wow.

    That is the biggest steaming pile of shit I've ever read.

    • That is the biggest steaming pile of shit I've ever read.

      Well, he did say that it should prove palatable to most readers. "Most readers" watch TV, read bestsellers, watch movies...

  • what exists outside our universe and what existed before the Big Bang.

    Are you using "universe" as a synonym for "spacetime"? Wouldn't something outside of our spacetime still be in the universe?

  • It's "god" not "God," unless you wish to specifically refer to the Christian deity by name as a proper noun. It is mildly upsetting to see, "Do you believe there is a God?" when the intention is to mean any deity because it can leave the reader confused.

    Or, we can keep the rule, and capitalize Spaghetti in every use of the word, even if the intent is not to mean our Great Noodle Overlord the Lord of Pasta.

    • It's "god" not "God," unless you wish to specifically refer to the Christian deity by name as a proper noun.

      "God" isn't that particular deity's name to begin with. It's a germanic word.

  • The world, as we know it, does not exist. What we are experiencing is an illusion or a simulation. The parameters have been set up in such as way that we lack the necessary information to answer some of the deeper philosophical questions.
  • Any claim that the universe exists has to contend with the solipsist argument, exemplified by Douglas Adams' Ruler of the Universe: "What world outside? The door is closed." Of course, the best counter to this is Rene Descartes' argument: Something exists that could reasonably be called "Rene Descartes", because otherwise there would be nothing thinking that they were writing a book.

    • Any claim that the universe exists has to contend with the solipsist argument, exemplified by Douglas Adams' Ruler of the Universe: "What world outside? The door is closed."

      Noone actually believes that, or they would never leave the house.

  • A book about everything that tell you absolutely nothing.
  • Hadn't most of us dealt with this sort of superficially deep question by the end of our sophomore years?

    Oh. Wait.

  • "Why?", is typically considered a religious question. Science yields better and better deductions about how everything came to be, but when you start asking "Why?", you must answer the question yourself, that is your prime function: To experience and react.

    There are two prime "forces" acting in reality -- Chaos and Order. The Universe is both Order and Chaos, and life is the ultimate expression of Order within the Universe. It is the nature of matter that a replicating process can form, and in the right circumstance such replication will out compete random distribution forces -- The order will create more order, structure will form more complex structures using bits of the chaos. I have witnessed this in my own quantumly randomised automata experiments -- From random bonds and repulsions a chain reaction that feeds on the surrounding units to duplicate can emerge. Once this occurs it will dominate the environment. Such reactions require external forces, heat, radiation, etc to fuel the reaction: Food. The most basic chain of replicating amino acid "eats" the environment to produce more of itself. Mutations lead to competition and natural selection among the chemical chains, thus life begins to evolve -- I have witnessed it countless times under a myriad of parameters, albeit a simplified simulation Life happens within it: I believe this tells me something of the nature of the Universe itself.

    I am made of the Universe, and I control much more of it than merely my body. My self does not end at my skin, I can sense and affect action far beyond my body: Behold my mind control powers as I duplicate these thoughts into your own brain... Now that part of my order is inside you, you must react to it. My function is to improve existence and create even more significant and stable types of order from the chaos that has birthed us. This world is a collective extension of our selves; It exists for the purpose we all give it. Currently that purpose is to expand experience and order as much as we possibly can. Why? Because that is our nature -- We were born of the copy, the most fundamental and basic property of life; We mutate and improve copies. But Why is that the nature of the Universe? It must be so in order for us to exist within it.

    All worlds harbouring life for a significant number of generations have the above purposes. However, I feel that this world, Earth, has a much different purpose than all others. I think the Earth is unique in that it exists to test the utmost extreme limit of irony possible in the Universe: Arising from chaos We are the Universe experiencing itself purely via reaction and replication, and yet we continue to increase the restrictions of our own freedom to duplicate ideas and information. Hence my understanding of the saying, "Life is a Joke", is quite literal.

    Sometimes I fear that if we were to ban artificial scarcity of information, and abolish copyrights & patents our great hilarious experiment would be over. We could then either join the ranks of the other worlds and their higher order beings, or the simulation may be turned off...

    In conclusion: That we have not seen aliens and that we yet exist while ridiculous ideas are wide spread, such as the restriction to spread an idea or data, leads me to believe that irony must actually be Why this world Exists.

    • by Genda (560240)

      We are children decrying the silliness of being a child. We are at our social infancy, barely toddling out of own gravity well, and still dumping in our ecological diapers. This is not deep. We have all the complication of an 18 month old and our species has barely distinguished itself from others that still walk on their knuckles. If we haven't seen extraterrestrial life, its because they don't want to shatter our cultural evolution.

      Among galactic civilizations (and they almost certainly exist), we rank a

    • "Chaos and Order. The Universe is both Order and Chaos..."

      Chaos and order can only exist because there is this thing we call “time”. All actions in this universe are bounded by a finite amount of time. Whether we call these actions “chaos” or “order” is immaterial. If you can tell what time is, only then can you define chaos and order.

      The beginning of the collection of 66 books written by 40 different authors, commonly known as the Bible begins with this majestic sentence

  • It seems to me that when people ask why the universe exists they are using the word "why" in a unique and problematic way and that the reason we have so much trouble answering it is that it's not clear to the asker what he means when he asks the question.
  • This approach is completely theoretical and thus useless.

    I believe in non-duality.
    In fact, the reality is just an illusion, and there are ways to experience it with certainty, but the experience cannot be shared or described.
    I'd like to recommend this simple approach (which doesn't rely on God):
    http://www.sriramanamaharshi.org/downloads/who_am_I.pdf [sriramanamaharshi.org]

    • by rajafarian (49150)

      Aye. Fellow non-dualist here, although Buddhist.

    • In fact, the reality is just an illusion, and there are ways to experience it with certainty, but the experience cannot be shared or described.

      Incorrect. Imagine a neural network more complex than your own made of machines... Now, that mechano-electric being creates a replica of itself. Then it copies the structure of its electrical states into the other machine mind. Tada! You're wrong.

  • No one knows the answers to questions like this.

    Philosophers and theologians prove exactly what they assume, no more.

    These questions are a complete mystery.

    Get Used to it.

  • If the world didn't exist, I'd have nowhere to keep all my stuff!
  • by MindPrison (864299) on Tuesday September 04, 2012 @12:31AM (#41219817) Journal

    ...but it's chasing the answer that IS the answer to that question.

    I have been asking myself, why am I here every time I get bored, and when these thoughts arise:

    - Has everything interesting been invented already?
    - Why should I do this, it's been done already...
    - There's too much to learn to invent something revolutionary...
    - Is this it? I'm getting older, seeing kids make the same mistakes I did, making the mistake of trying to tell them that...
    - Been there, done that. Yes....I'm old.

    But so many has been old before me, so many lives has been lived. What if we accumulated ALL of that knowledge, put it into ONE mind, would we have the answer? 42.... no, I do like his books though, but joking aside, have YOU lived today?

    And more importantly, how do YOU chose to live the rest of YOUR life? What do you intend to do?

    Why not start with this day, what if this day was your last, what would you do today?

  • by Anarchduke (1551707) on Tuesday September 04, 2012 @02:02PM (#41226135)
    “The story so far:
    In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

    Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

God may be subtle, but he isn't plain mean. -- Albert Einstein

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