Scientists struggle with three really big questions today. How did life begin? How did human consciousness arise? And - oldest and toughest of them all - why is there something rather than nothing?
As a boy, I sometimes lay in bed at night preoccupied with that last one. There can't be an end of space, I thought, because there must be something beyond that. And there couldn't be a beginning of time because there had to be a time before then. The more I mulled over eternity and infinity, the more it bothered me. It wasn't just that I didn't know the answer. I couldn't imagine that there was an answer.
So I pestered my Sunday school instructor. He told me only God could understand, and that He existed outside of space and time. "What does that mean, to exist outside of space and time?" I asked. "And what did He do, just bootstrap Himself into existence?"
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. He seemed perfectly satisfied not knowing. Even at such a young age, this struck me as premature intellectual closure. Today physicists, astronomers and cosmologists are working to understand the origins of the universe. Journalist and essayist Jim Holt came out with an excellent book on the subject last year entitled Why Does the World Exist?
In various publications and for years, I had clipped out book reviews and other articles by Holt on science, mathematics and philosophy. I enjoyed his stuff but was certain I'd never met him. Then one day - out of the blue - my Dad said, "You know, Jane Holt's son Jim writes for The New York Times."
"Jim Holt the writer is the same Jim Holt who lived up the street and went to high school with me, the one whose younger brother Bob used to school me in tennis and ping-pong?" Yep.
I'd noticed in the bio at the end of his pieces that Holt... er Jim... was writing a book on "the puzzle of existence." Billed as "an existential detective story," Why Does the World Exist? tackles the question from several angles - scientific, mathematical, philosophical, and theological - and investigates them all thoroughly. Jim calls it the super-ultimate why question. And he's in good company. The British astrophysicist Sir Bernard Lovell said pondering it "could tear the individual's mind asunder." (Psychiatric patients have been known to obsess over it.) Intellectual historian Arthur Lovejoy said the attempt to answer it "constitutes one of the most grandiose enterprises of the human intellect." Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer insisted the question was so large that no thinking person could ignore it. "The lower a man is in intellectual respect," he said, "the less puzzling and mysterious existence itself is to him."
In the last hundred years, we've learned a lot about the origins of the universe. In 1929, for instance, astronomer Edwin Hubble observed at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California that galaxies everywhere are rapidly receding from us. Run the tape backward and it becomes clear that roughly 13.7 billion years ago the universe was compressed into an almost infinitely dense point. (Yet another explanation that defies imagination.) What happened before that isn't amenable to scientific investigation because it precedes both the fourth dimension of space (time) and the laws of physics.
However, the current model doesn't explain why the universe has the unbelievably precise combination of fundamental physical constants necessary for the formation of stars, planets and, ultimately, life itself. The odds of this happening by sheer chance are so fantastically small that some cosmologists - including Stephen Hawking - hypothesize that our world is part of a multiverse filled with universes, each having its own set of physical laws and at least one - ours - with just the right fine tuning to allow us to be here pondering it.
I'm not alone in believing an unobservable, untestable idea is pretty small beer in the pantheon of "great scientific theories." The late mathematician and science writer Martin Gardner insisted there is not a shred of evidence that there is any universe other than the one we live in. Physicist Paul Davies concurs. He points out that, "invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features we see in this one is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator." Each requires a leap of faith.
So... is the universe the ultimate free lunch? Could everything have sprung from nothing? If not, what was there before? Is there a Creator who created Himself? Maybe the origin of the universe is simply beyond our intellectual pay grade as a species. Perhaps human beings contemplating the riddle of existence are no different than a cat looking at a library or a dog observing an internal combustion engine. There is an explanation. But they're never going to know it.
Even more disturbing, could we live in a rational universe that rests on an irrational foundation? Are we forced to choose between an inexplicable God and the Absurd? Everyone has his own favorite ideas on this subject, of course. (Open a good bottle of wine one night and you may learn them.) But Holt warns us not to fall prey to the philosopher's fallacy, the tendency to mistake a failure of imagination for an insight into the way things really are.
He claims that existential thinkers tend to fall in to one of three camps. Optimists hold that there has to be a reason for the world's existence and we may ultimately discover it. Pessimists believe there might be a reason for its existence, but we'll never know it. And rejectionists believe there can't be a reason for the world's existence and therefore the question itself is meaningless.
Even if the optimists are right, however, no one really believes science will ever explain everything. There will always be a place for philosophy, theology... and disputation. Science, for example, can't validate ethical truths. There will always be a gap between the scientific is and the ethical ought.
For now - and maybe forever - there are no ultimate explanations. There simply isn't a logical bridge from nothing to being. Or, as one wag put it, the universe is the answer. What we still don't know is the question. It comes as no surprise then that neither Holt nor anyone he interviews offers a definitive answer to his question. But he does a fine job of summing up what we do know and how. In my view, he arrives at his best conclusion not at the end of the book but smack in the middle, on page 138:
"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 has, in the course of history, evolved from one state to another. But when it comes to the ultimate origin of reality, they have nothing to say. This is an enigma best left to metaphysics, or to theology, or to poetic wonderment, or to silence."