Why Does the World Exist?

08/28/2012 07:04 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2012

I am not a physicist or an astronomer, but the Big Bang theory contradicts my idea of common sense.

The beginning of the universe? Is it like a movie? We are sitting in a dark theater extending infinitely in all directions when suddenly the universe appears like an MGM lion on the screen without precedent or antecedent. That seems almost as myopic to me as the conception of the earth as flat, held up by a tortoise.

Apparently, I am not alone. In Jim Holt's lively, bestselling book, Why Does The World Exist?, the author informs us the very phrase, Big Bang, was coined by a cosmologist, Sir Fred Hoyle, who disagreed with the conception of a universe-creating explosion. The Big Bang beginning, Hoyle felt, was as silly as a party girl popping out of a cake.

The idea of a finite universe with a beginning and an end, while comforting to some, only conjures up further metaphysical conundrums for others. For Holt, the implications of the Big Bang theory ultimately lead him to probe the more fundamental question: Why is there something rather than nothing at all?

It's a mind-numbing question that touches upon the lofty -- quantum cosmology, the existence of God and consciousness -- and yet can also be boiled down to familiar elementary school chicken-and-the-egg analogies. The bitter arguments it has fomented between optimists and pessimists, atheists and believers, has a tendency to get bogged down in semantic imbroglios and rhetorical obscurantism.

Thankfully, Holt is not out to promote a religious or political agenda. Nor is he a physicist with a theory to sell or explain (his chapter, "The Arithmetic of Nothingness" lasts only five pages). He's one of us lay theorists who prefer to ponder big ideas over a glass of wine or while walking the dog. With Holt, an erudite and witty guide, we review some of the classical and enlightenment philosophers' (Aristotle, Descartes, Hegel, and Hume among them, though Democritus is a surprising omission) ideas about nothingness and existence, time and matter. Holt goes on to describe his trips to Paris and Oxford, Austen and Pittsburgh, where he meets with eminent thinkers and scholars in the field today like David Deutsch, Steven Weinberg, and Richard Swinburne.

These "interludes," as Holt calls them, are droll and entertaining. It's fun to rub shoulders with great contemporary muses (and see what their living rooms look like or what crazy drivers they are). It's even more gratifying to witness them scratching their heads the same way we do over questions about, like, the ultimate origin of reality!

About half way into the book, it appears that Weinberg, who won a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on electromagnetic forces and, in 1993, wrote Dreams of a Final Theory (an attempt to outline the search to unify the laws of nature), was Holt's best bet for an explanation as to why things are the way they are in the universe as we know it. But, in the end Weinberg, not surprisingly, throws his hands up in the air. "I think we're permanently doomed to that sense of mystery... It's part of the human tragedy: we're faced with a mystery we can't understand. "

Holt himself admits early on that the question 'why is there something rather than nothing?' may be too unwieldy for science to handle.

"Scientists can account for the organization of the physical universe. They can trace how the individual things and forces within it causally interact. They can shed light on how the universe as a whole has, in the course of its history, evolved from one state into another. But when it comes to the ultimate origin of reality, they have nothing to say. That is an enigma best left to metaphysics, or to theology, or to poetic wonderment, or to silence."

Which begs the question: Why pick up this book in the first place? It can be frustrating reading physicists explain how creation ex nihilo -- something created out of nothing -- is like a bubble forming in a glass of champagne, minus the champagne. Why not just drink the real champagne and dream? That is what it felt like, at the best moments, reading this book. Holt has successfully woven together many fine threads of scientific and metaphysical thought here and he does come up with a "proof" for why something exists. I think. I only absorbed a fraction of it, but all these bits of new information are, like protons and electrons buzzing about my synapses, creating an elixir of imaginative universes to contemplate.