Thinking about Death

Michael Wood

  • Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt
    Profile, 307 pp, £12.99, June 2012, ISBN 978 1 84668 244 5

It’s easy enough to prove that the external world exists. Doors, rocks, other people, we keep running into them. But that’s not much of a proof. It doesn’t show that any particular piece of the world exists when we are not there to perceive it, and it doesn’t show why its existence should matter. It’s just in the way. The proof helps us still less with Stephen Hawking’s question, adduced on the first pages of Jim Holt’s book: ‘Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?’

Mattering and bothering are important issues in Holt’s quest, but they tend to be treated as entailments and sidebars, marginalia to the big stuff: the ‘profound … mystery of being’, ‘the deeper question’, ‘the deepest of all questions’, namely, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Holt has a religious temperament, if not a religion, and he thinks the notion of God is a possible explanation of the mystery of being rather than the reverse or the refusal of one. ‘Are we then doomed,’ he says, ‘to choose between God and the deep brute Absurd?’ What if the one were the polite, traditional form of the other? Buñuel said long ago that he didn’t see why we should accept a mystery as the explanation of a mystery. Holt will have none of this. He cites an anti-atheist review of his own: ‘If there is an ultimate explanation for our contingent and perishable world, it would seemingly have to appeal to something that is both necessary and imperishable, which one might label “God”.’

This tilt makes the book a curious one to read for much of the time, at least for this reader, inclined to believe that the supposed deep question is not a question at all, but an imposing phantom cast up by certain habits of mind. Holt quotes plenty of people who feel this way; he knows that worrying about ‘the mystery of existence’ has ‘seemed a woolly waste of time’ to many philosophers, but clings to his cautious ‘seemed’, and describes this and similar responses as ‘throwing in the towel’, ‘so cavalier’ and ‘a bit too cavalier’. This makes you feel he’s not taking the opposition seriously – after all, people have been carried away by meaningless questions now and then – and accounts for a certain mushy effect in the book.

However, you can’t hold the mush against him because in the end his intellectual curiosity is greater than his metaphysical worry. He can be ironic about ‘the riddle of being’, and he is surely right to ask whether ‘thinkability’ is ‘a reliable test for possibility’, and to criticise our rather shabby ‘tendency to mistake a failure of the imagination for an insight into the way reality has to be’. Even I think Bertrand Russell was being a bit cavalier when he said that ‘the universe is just there.’ And when we hit the very funny chapter called ‘A Brief History of Nothing’, we realise that Holt is an expert juggler of the paradoxes that go with so many kinds of negation. He tells us not to be too hard on nothing because to some people ‘nothing is sacred.’ He cites Through the Looking-Glass, although not perhaps the best line on this subject: ‘“I see nobody on the road,” said Alice. “I only wish I had such eyes,” the King remarked in a fretful tone. “To be able to see Nobody! And at that distance, too!”’ We notice that Holt has begun to turn his deep question in an unexpected direction. ‘Why is there something rather than nothing, because there is, and we’d better find out’ becomes ‘Why isn’t there nothing, since this is such an elegant and plausible option?’ Every poet staring at the beauty of a blank page knows this question, as does every thinker about to ruin a thought by giving it expression. Holt has a wonderful quotation from Leonardo da Vinci: ‘Among the great things which are found among us, the existence of Nothing is the greatest.’

There are moments of backsliding. Holt is willing to refuse a theory because it doesn’t ‘quite speak to [his] existential depths’, and otherwise plausible philosophers are flunked for falling ‘short of complete ontological generality’. But the fun of his quest has to do not only with what he wants to know but with his eagerness for live dialogue, so chapters of philosophical summary alternate with accounts of visits to Adolf Grünbaum in Pittsburgh, to Richard Swinburne in Oxford, to David Deutsch in Headington, to John Leslie in Canada, to Derek Parfit, again in Oxford. He meets Roger Penrose in New York, has phone conversations with Steven Weinberg and John Updike.

These conversations become a way of evoking possibilities as much as seeking answers, and some of these possibilities are fascinating, whatever our scepticism may be about the larger project. Robert Nozick is cited (twice) as producing the elegant suggestion that we don’t have to choose between presence and absence, or between Heidegger’s Seiendes and Nichts, since we could have both, eventually (perhaps ‘the universe is not yet spiritually developed enough for there to be nothing,’ he wrote in Philosophical Explanations). John Leslie, author of Universes and The End of the World, says that in his ‘grand vision’ the cosmos consists of ‘an infinite number of infinite minds, each of which knows absolutely everything which is worth knowing. And one of the things which is worth knowing is the structure of a universe such as ours.’ What this means, Holt tells us, is that ‘the physical universe itself, with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, is just the contemplative product of one of those infinite minds … And the same goes for the inhabitants of the universe – us – and their conscious states.’ So why isn’t the universe, or at least the human part of it, better than it is? It is better than it is, in some of its variations. Leslie concedes that the world we have must be ‘pretty far down the list in terms of overall goodness’. ‘Still,’ he adds, ‘I think you’d have to go quite far below us to have a world which was not worth having at all.’

Leslie is quietly confident about his theory, only a little rueful about the fact that Plato got there some time ago, and he sounds ‘almost pained’ when Holt suggests there is something religious about the idea.

I feel constantly embarrassed by the idea that I ought to be attracted to my system because, well, wouldn’t it be lovely if it were true. That is just pie in the sky, and I very much dislike it. I don’t have anything like faith in my Platonic creation story. I certainly haven’t proved its truth. Almost nothing of philosophical interest strikes me as being provable.

Leslie also has a refreshing view of labels. ‘If you want to call me an atheist, that’s fine by me. Words like “theism” and “atheism” and “God”, they’ve moved around so much that they’re practically meaningless. Who really cares?’

Holt prepares for his chat with Derek Parfit by rereading an LRB piece published over two issues in 1998 (22 January and 5 February). ‘Reality,’ Parfit wrote, ‘does not take its least puzzling form. In some way or other, a universe has managed to exist. That is what can take one’s breath away.’ Unlike most thinkers, Holt suggests, who go from why to how, Parfit likes to go from how to why. This allows him to sketch a theory of ‘cosmic possibilities’ and devise the notion of a ‘Selector’, the element which would allow some particular local possibility to come into being. Parfit thinks the notion of nothingness is entirely coherent, even if it is not what we have. It is not, that is, a local possibility, and we can ask why not, especially since nothingness would conveniently abolish our puzzle, leaving us with no universe to worry about, and of course no ‘we’ to do the worrying.

Holt is very taken with this approach, and after his visit to Parfit goes to work on what he calls ‘The Proof’, an answer to the two questions that made up the title of Parfit’s LRB piece: ‘Why anything? Why this?’ I’m not going to summarise Holt’s proof, partly because it is his solution to what his subtitle calls ‘an existential detective story’, and chiefly because much as I enjoyed its swerves and leaps I couldn’t summarise it anyway. Holt quotes from Parfit’s response to the proof after he sent it to him:

Dear Jim,

Thanks for this message, which is very interesting. I shall have to think about it carefully …

Best wishes,

Derek

Between visits, things happen in Holt’s life. He spends some time in Paris, tells us what he eats and drinks, evokes Sartre for us. He takes a trip to Texas in the hope of seeing Steven Weinberg, but his plans are changed by ‘a little eruption of le néant into my life’. The eruption has to do with the sudden illness of his dog, which very soon dies. Holt says he has a ‘good trick for maintaining [his] outward composure’, but he is clearly distressed, and wants to disclose his sorrow without boasting about it. This note is struck even more firmly, and perhaps more sternly, when Holt’s mother dies in a hospice in Virginia, and his deep question, after all its adventures, begins to feel as if it might all along have been a disguise or a displacement for the bewildering non-query we all find ourselves formulating at some time or another: why is there nothing where there used to be someone? We know the answer: its name is death or time or change. But we are still bewildered. What sort of nothing is this? ‘The room had contained two selves,’ Holt writes of his last visit to his mother, ‘now it contained one.’

*

Of course we feel the terminal loss of people we love and spend time with. But much of what they were is still with us mentally, and Holt’s mind ensures that he is not the only self in that room. And what about people we think of often and scarcely see? Or people we don’t know at all but think about because we read what they write or because others tell stories of them? How could the deaths of these sets of people make a difference? It makes all the difference, as death always does, but why? Because they now live only in our minds? What does that ‘only’ mean? That was where they lived before. We need to put a little more pressure, as Peter Godfrey-Smith suggested recently in these pages (24 January), on our rather clunky ideas of what is ‘mental’ and what is ‘physical’.

The question of our own being is related but different. ‘The astonishment I feel at my improbable existence,’ Holt writes, ‘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?’ Roland Barthes was pursuing a similar thought when he said we all know we are going to die but that to feel mortal is ‘not a natural feeling: the natural one is to believe yourself immortal; whence so many accidents due to carelessness’ – including, we might morbidly add, the accident that killed Barthes himself in 1980. This meant, Barthes said, that the middle of life, Dante’s ‘nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’, was not an age or an ‘arithmetical point’, but a ‘semantic point’, the day when crucial meanings begin to change. Barthes was 63 when he gave the lecture from which these phrases are taken, and thought he might be arriving at the middle. He died two years later. Ever since I read these sentences, I have loved (and imagined I had always believed in) the idea that immortality is the natural feeling for us, not an error but a postponement or bracketing of indisputable knowledge, a feeling of uncertain duration but potentially lasting all but a lifetime, until bodily evidence makes it a form of idiocy rather than gaiety. ‘To philosophise is to learn to die,’ Montaigne said after Cicero, and he must be right. But even near the end of the road we could hope to pick up a few other things while we’re learning our lesson, and we might even want to say that learning to die is what we do when we can’t learn anything else.