Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Why Does the World Exist?

That’s the question posed by Jim Holt in his new book by that title. He goes around interviewing physicists and metaphysicians, and lots of nonsense gets scattered here and there, along with some intriguing insights and speculations. 

However, Why questions are seldom worth asking (as my dad always said). We’d be better off asking, “What is the world?” Or better still, “Why do I exist?”

“Why” questions are really concerned with one of two things. They’re concerned with motivation or with explication, and the former can usually be transformed to the later without much difficulty. I might ask someone, “Why did you put that CD by the Cocteau Twins on the stereo just now?” Was it simply to irritate me? Perhaps not. Perhaps you actually like this stuff. If so, then the question becomes, “What do you hear? What draws you to this sound?” I hear the music, but evidently I’m not really hearing it. What is really going on here?

To suggest that the question Why Does the World Exist? is a hunt for motives would be to suggest that someone made the world and we want to know why he or she did so. It carries obvious theological overtones. 

In fact, when this question arises, it’s usually simply a way of expressing the dumfounding realization that there is no real reason for all this stuff we see and engage and live through. There is no motive behind it. There might just as easily have been nothing as something.

Such thoughts tickle the fancy of some. In others they strike a note of unspeakable terror. Yet others at least occasionally become rapt in awe at the situation they find themselves in—alive amidst an inexplicable universe. I would put myself in the last category.

It seems to me that most religious sentiment arises as a very imperfect means to express the marvel of existence, both personal and cosmic. Yet in so far as such sentiments become encoded in holy books and liturgical texts, they tend to take on a mindless rhetorical quality. They lose their luster.

Does the fact that the universe exists prove that God exists? I think that argument could be made convincingly, though many of the voices in Jim Holt’s book would, I suspect, reject such an inference. It would probably be closer to the truth to say that God is the universe than merely to say that he or she made the universe. But in the end, the argument is less important than the feeling underlying it. It’s a love feeling—me and the universe—and the challenge lies in expanding and extending it before it fades of its own accord or becomes institutionalized and loses its luster.

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