After reviewing Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's "The Grand Design" a few days ago, and feeling that despite their erudition, they did not satisfy my lifelong curiosity about this Big Question, I awaited Jim Holt's take on Hawking and other thinkers, and the more cosmologically inclined Lawrence Krauss with his new "A Universe From Nothing," but as a decidedly lay reader who finds astronomy and philosophy both challenging to wrap my head around, I figured Holt would prove an assured guide. (I reviewed Krauss in Aug. 2012.)
I used to enjoy Jim Holt's end-page science columns in the late, lively academic magazine Lingua Franca. Here, as in his reviews and journalism, Holt takes a brisk clip to survey the earlier attempts at figuring out what Leibniz asked and what for the teenaged Holt Heidegger repeated as the "ultimate 'why' question."--Why is there something rather than nothing? Leibniz' answer to his own riddle does not please Holt: a self-evident "well, we have to exist, don't we?" retort. He then turns to Andrei Linde's scheme of a clever hacker from another universe for one scenario. Out of a hundredth-thousandth of a gram of matter, a universe can be concocted, and balloon outward.
Mixing his personal quest with philosophers, mathematicians, clergy, theologians, physicists, and some combinations of these professions, Holt uses interviews to bring the bulk of his account into the present-day search for meaning in our origins, not as myths but as "brute fact." Interludes with his own quest, and his own reflections flash by, and extended chats with experts follow.
I was pleased to find included Matthieu Ricard. I've profited from this French biologist-turned Buddhist monk's collaborations with his father, French political philosopher Jean-Francois Revel ("The Monk and the Philosopher") and with Vietnamese-born astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Tranh ("The Quantum and the Lotus")--see my reviews. Godel, Russell, Anselm, Voltaire, Feynman: Holt's range of reading meets what I'd anticipated. But we also hear from Woody Allen, James Joyce, John Updike, and Gaunilo the Fool.
The pace of this remains daunting, but as with his readership for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books as well as Lingua Franca, Holt expects a smart audience, able to grasp the history of ideas, tease out allusions to poetry and drama, and to handle quotations left in French. It's that kind of book, one that in a soundbite, pull-quote age will still find its audience, undoubtedly a self-selecting small one able to take on serious intellectual investigation along with Holt, as he relates the material with wisdom. He applies a steady gaze both to the demise of his dog and the death of his mother.
This brief study moves rapidly (lots of quick citations and parentheses and rapid transitions) for all its citations (endnotes if no bibliography). His interviews tend to be nimbly related, well-edited, but the pace slows in its later stages, as ennui sets in. He revives in a final interlude which spirals back to its beginning, as he shifts from "nothing" to "something" as the elusive definition. I leave the denouement for the reader's reflection, fitting after a demanding encounter with the brightest minds on the planet who grapple with metaphysics, science, and faith. Overall, it rewards reflection, even if it will not solve mysteries.
Roger Penrose and colleague Hawking assert the Big Bang's singularity, out of quantum fluctuations, as astrophysicists such as Krauss appear to back up, as the logical if not "determined" beginning to the universe, without any other cause. Holt opens up another response via Penrose and physicists open to finding a reasonable pattern in creation--that we can examine the universe to solve its own reason, so we need not accept God's uncaused cause or the self-created but purposeless absurdity of our existence as the polarized choices.
But, we seem programmed, as Adolf Grunbaum shows, to seek that the "why" presupposes a teleological goal set in motion from the start of something even if out of nothing: what Leonard Mlodinow and Stephen Hawking call in their recent "The Grand Design" a "top-down" rather than a cosmologically sophisticated (if maddeningly counter to theologians) "bottom-up" model that explains it all. Platonic forms might construct the universe, Penrose avers.
The sheer odds against us, many theologians understandably insist, rule out chance. Richard Swinburne's musings lead him to consider how unlikely God himself is, compared to nothingness. This humbling perspective permeates this challenging representation of some of the world's most intelligent minds facing such perplexity.
Do laws themselves require a prime mover, a grand designer? Or, is the universe, as God has traditionally been explained to be, a "causa sui," needing no other cause but itself? Is an origin based in "almost nothing" a better rationale concocted from the quantum fluctuations of a "false vacuum," or does this divert or delay human attempts by cosmologists and mathematicians to solve the ultimate question? Holt conveys frustration with all of these as partial evasions, while the state of "nothingness" itself evades our facile conception, of course.
David Deutsch here defends the multiverse; Holt sides with others who regard this as too easy a solution, allowing all solutions instead of fixing one for our particular universe, 13.7 billion years ago. Holt's examination appears, as Steven Weinberg's bleaker insistence repeats, to lack a single theory we can apply to unify the universe into a tidy cause-effect solution. If "why" can be replaced by "We exist because....", will this proclamation end the pursuit of cosmic mystery?
Question marks abound in such a book. Here Weinberg, as in his own work, finds no teleology suffices. However, Holt in a restless search for answers cannot be satisfied with this refusal to allow for the "why?" of his own title. The wandering results, fueled by both caffeine and an evident taste for fine wine, may surprise those who turn to science to answer what remains (as we meanwhile "discover" the Higgs Boson this past summer?) the most nagging of questions. Well, that and life after death.