A reader contacted me and suggested I read the book “Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story,” by Jim Holt. The author writes for the New Yorker among other things, which implies I’ll enjoy his writing. The book promised to explore the question why the universe exists as opposed to not existing. Why being and not nothingness.
I borrowed the book from the library. I hadn’t considered its main question much before, so it got me thinking about why the universe exists. It’s an interesting question that twists your mind just to think about it. Once you posit that the universe exists with the laws of physics we know, I can see how the Sun, Earth, life on Earth, and humans followed from the big bang, assumingÂ just the right initial conditions. Those things all follow from observing nature today.
But I don’t see how observing anything about nature today tells us about the existence of something rather than nothing. I can’t even grasp the concept of nothing. Empty space isn’t nothing. It’s interesting to intellectually grab or grasp at the concept of nothingness. I can’t get far with it. It’s kind of enjoyable, but since I can’t get anywhere, I stop after a bit.
I liked how the book started, with an overview of how people considered the question of why there is something rather than nothing. Not just any people, but famous thinkers of the western canon and other cultures too. I was glad he suggested a motivation for posing such an apparently unanswerable question, but I didn’t find his motivation compelling — that seeking to answer other apparently unanswerable questions did lead to answers. I found those other questions had some root in observation.
I may be missing something, but I don’t see any access point to understand nothingness when we only have observation of existing things.
I read on, enjoying his stories of how some of the great thinkers and writers communicated their ideas on the topic. I anticipated some new thought, maybe implying there were signs that we were approaching some kind of definitiveness.
I didn’t find the new thought I hoped for.
Each thinker’s thoughts said things about the thinker, but nothing new about why we exist. I concluded I was reading a book not of philosophy or nature, but about philosophy, or rather one part of its history through a specific lens. I found that history interesting at first, but then I found each thinker’s thoughts lacked new evidence. Everybody started their approach based on their personal assumptions and their way of applying logic and drew their conclusions. I kept looking for a conclusion that amounted to anything more than opinion, but found none.
It reminded me more and more of an anecdote in my life — from looking at science after I left graduate school. When I studied physics, we learned to ask only questions we could answer with science. That was fine while we were learning the techniques of physics — theory, experiment, math, etc — but after I left physics I wondered more about questions beyond what science could answer. Since people thinking about systems discovered greater systems beyond the ones they studied — Godel’s theorem and non-Euclidean geometry come to mind — I wondered about that happening in physics. I had stayed friends with one of my professors — one of the smartest guys at Columbia physics, who worked directly with one of the Nobel Prize winners who hired him to work on hard problems — and asked him what he thought about questions beyond what science could answer — what lies outside the universe, what if something moved faster than the speed of light, and so on.
I found his answer surprising, simple, humble, and compelling. He said all his knowledge of physics didn’t give him any greater access to realms outside what he could observe or extrapolate from his observations. He could say nothing more about things beyond his observations than anyone else could. I found it refreshing that someone who could claim his expertise in one area might apply to another didn’t.
I paraphrased what he said into my way of saying it as, “Any person on the street knows as much as the greatest scientist or any other expert about things outside the nature we’ve observed. If I want to know what’s outside the universe or what happened before what our observations extrapolate to, nobody knows any better than anyone else.”
I kept looking in the book for something implying any thinker he wrote about had any greater access to any relevant information inaccessible to anyone else, but found none. Did I miss anything?
I appreciate the mental effort people put into the question, but I wanted some foundation beyond opinion and found none. I could get as meaningful opinions from my grandmother. The book led me to devalue the reputations of people who professed to say something not clearly stating they had no meaningful basis. I guess we could value their arguments aesthetically, like a painting or work of music, but I thought philosophy was supposed to have a functional goal, like to help you improve your life.
I had long considered a major goal of philosophy to answer what makes life good and how can I make mine better. What point is there in doing anything if it doesn’t improve your life? The more I read this book the more I saw philosophy diverge from that direction, offering nothing except entertainment, if that. I value entertainment, but find it irrelevant to answering these great questions and I prefer listening to pop music and watching movies to long-worded answers to questions irrelevant to improving my life.
I wish the book had just said
Nobody knows any more about this question than you. If you want to see what some famous people said, read on. They’ll add nothing to what you could come up with on your own, but you might find it entertaining.
I really wish it said there was something new.
Connecting it to what I teach
I started developing my material — the foundation for what I write about here — to share what worked for me to improve my life. I considered it important to give people something they could use to act. To enable them to change their lives, actively, predictably. Not just to talk about my opinions.
I soon found people had figured out a lot of what I was coming up with. Not only that, but they’d figured it out thousands of years ago and I already knew their names and had read their work — Aristotle, Laozi, Gautama, etc. I hadn’t noticed because the modern practice of philosophy I was exposed to didn’t get me to empathize and understand these thoughts so much as construct abstract arguments with them and trace how their thoughts evolved and connected with other people’s. And to talk about them at cocktail parties.
I learned about happiness and emotions — and their distinction from knowledge and stuff. I summarized it with the questions
Do we have or know anything that gives us greater access to happiness today than Aristotle, Laozi, or Gautama did?
Are people happier today than in their times?
Would Aristotle revise his works if only he had an iPad?
Since my answer to the third question was “not likely,” I was ready to stop my efforts when I thought I didn’t have much to add beyond what they came up with thousands of years ago. I found myself increasingly valuing things they had then — friends, family, learning, keeping fit and healthy, and appreciating nature — over today’s novelty and material accumulation and found the change improving my life and decreasing my material stuff.
I began to ask
Have we found anything since Aristotle, Laozi, and Gautama’s time that makes us enduringly happier? If so, what?
To my surprise I could think of nothing. At least at first. I could think of things that would make us fleetingly happy, but not enduringly happy, nor happier than they were then. Sure, access to music 24/7 on an mp3 player makes me happy, but I’m sure they valued their access to music just as much then. They didn’t think “Too bad we don’t have the access our descendants will have in two thousand years,” just like we don’t complain we don’t have what our descendants two thousand years from now will have.
And I could think of many things that extended our lives relative to theirs, but a longer life doesn’t mean a happier one.
To my second surprise, I eventually did come up with a few things we have that they didn’t that could give us greater access to happiness.
- The germ theory of disease directed us to reduce physical suffering, which I saw enabling happiness.
- Anaesthesia reduced physical suffering in improving our physical selves, which I saw enabling happiness.
- Understanding nutrition probably helped, but not sure because animals seem to do fine without knowing nutrition.
- Antibiotics helped too.
These things all relate to our physical bodies, though, and I see only an indirect correlation between physical health and happiness — that is, unhealthy people can be happy and healthy people can be unhappy.
Then the big one for me was evolution. Why evolution? Every system of improving your life I knew of had some element of “know thyself” — improving self-awareness — in it and evolution gave us a new billion years of ourselves to know.
I saw lots of philosophy about evolution, but little showing you how you could use it to improve your life. This realization hit me like a calling. I wanted to infuse what these ancients knew with this new knowledge. No one can say for sure, but I’m confident if we could magically speak to Aristotle and asked if evolution would change his thoughts on happiness, he would say yes.
I soon found that perspective gave me new insights I didn’t know from before and suspect people hadn’t worked through. Evolutionary psychology and positive psychology were getting close, but hadn’t reached where I did. And it worked for me in improving my life. I found emotions easier to understand, therefore easier to work with, leading to deeper and more meaningful relationships, greater self-awareness, emotional resilience, understanding meaning, value, importance, and purpose, and skills in creating those things in my life consistently, reliably, and predictably. I came to value emotional reward as opposed to just happiness. Judging others and arguments decreased drastically from my life.
In other words, I found something new in the past few thousand years improved my life relative to what I would have gotten from people’s thoughts on one area of philosophy before those developments. So I was open and eager to find something new in another area. To my dismay, the book showed my nothing.
About halfway through the book I started skimming it for clues of something new. I may have skimmed over something important, but I read the last chapter in more detail. I didn’t find anything new relevant to the question of why we exist.
The book, while entertaining at first, decreased my regard for philosophy removed from observation or any attempt to help people improve their lives and philosophers who pretend knowledge and conclusions beyond what they have. The main benefit of the book to me was to decrease my worries that by not pursuing philosophy more I was missing out on important parts of life.
I remain open to learning new things about why we exist, but this book didn’t help. Its history could help me with cocktail party conversation, but most likely with people I don’t want to converse with. I’m going to stick with the values I found from my work:
- Appreciating the beauty of nature (including delicious food)
- Relationships with friends and family
- Learning and improving myself
- Keeping fit and healthy
Still, if you like following how people’s opinions on a subject evolved or you enjoy playing with logic, you may enjoy the book.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees