Thursday, August 23, 2012

Nothing as the Absence of Something: An Existential Review on Jim Holt's “Why does the World Exist?”

Book Cover showing en empty French cafe around closing time

Why is there something rather than nothing is the question that Jim Holt sets out to investigate in his philosophical book Why does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story. Along the way, he encounters, talks about and to various philosophers and scientists dead and alive. Holt weighs, filters and digests ancient and modern ideas to reach a satisfying and rational answer to the existential question of the creation and sustenance of the universe. He leaves no (philosopher's) stone unturned and even enters, boldly and confidently, into the unstable and volatile world of quantum mechanics.

It is a wild ride indeed that will make your head buzz with thrill and excitement with its revolving universal doors that contain possible worlds to infinite degrees. Holt approaches nothingness as if it were something to behold and looks at it from any possible angle he can get his hands on. He spins and twists the Ferris wheel of thought and speculation to shed some light on the origin and purpose of our existence in this endlessly vast spacetime that is doomed for a Big Crunch, Chill, Bounce or what-have-you.

As I was reading Holt's book, I was accosted by a host of ideas and counterclaims that I wished to make, yet somehow the author had the ability, like a grandmaster or a psychic, to foresee my own objections; he even made allusion to one of my principal allegories I wish to demonstrate here, i. e. apples.

Apart from their flesh, in certain accounts, having tempted Adam and Eve with the “curse” of knowledge, and apart from the fact that they also had a say and unofficial credit in Newton's discovery of gravitation, apples are used here to show both something and nothing at the same time.

Here it goes. Let us say, you have two apples, and you eat one of them. You are left with one. And then, because of their intrinsic delicious properties, you cannot help yourself and end up with no apples whatsoever. Zero. Zilch. We went backwards here from something concrete in your hand, two scrumptious green apples, to their nonexistence, no apples at all. But how can you have or possess no apples? How do you know for a brute fact that you have no apples?

Certainly, you can make an inventory and check that you have peaches but the variable “apple” is not there, hence empty, and you add to your shopping list that you need to buy more apples. But in its absence, an apple has no particular shape or form whatsoever. In fact, no apples may easily be the equivalent to no oranges. While in their presence (something) they look different, in their absence (nothing) they “look” the same; put differently, they are identical when not being there. In short, (no) apples = (no) oranges. Somehow that does not make a whole lot of sense. 
That brings me to my second allegory, a parade of some sorts. Last weekend, we went to a parade that was supposed to start at 11:30 am. We got there, due to my German upbringing a land in which one breathes and eats punctuality, ten minutes before it was supposed to start. The street was buzzing with regular traffic; no one was sitting at the sidewalk; no trace of any possible parades was to be seen. We were early.

So we waited. More than half an hour passed and still no sign. Nothing. We got to feel restless. The expectation of finding something, a parade in this case, exasperated us when we found nothing but cars driving by and people who lived gleefully unaware, not to say ignorant, of any such event. From a purely phenomenological point of view, my world was filled with the expectation of a parade and its nonexistence disappointed me; nothing else would replace or console that desire, at least for that time being.

I had stumbled upon the existence of this parade a year ago, accidentally passing by and seeing what we have termed the Hare Krishna parade, perhaps due to the persistent and accompanying chant of Hare Krishna. Last year, we were thrilled to find something that we did not expect to see whereas its absence this time around disappointed us. Our expectation comes to color our definition of something versus nothing. (If interested, it turned out that the parade lasted less than ten minutes; how life disappoints those who expect something specific to happen!)

To go back to Holt's book, it comes down to a matter of perspective. My answer is, again he predicted it too, that nothing is the absence of something, the same way darkness is the absence of light. We need something to be able to distinguish it from or to contrast it with nothing. Yet I suspect that nothing and something are intricately embedded within each other, just like the yin and yang of Taoism. 

So those who set out to find nothing will do so, while others with the expectation of something will find and see something, following the uncertain principle of Heisenberg, the good-old speed versus position riddle of quantum physics. That is where our rational thinking hits an impasse and God bless quantum physics for that!

In fact, my previous assumption of one apple and one apple equaling two apples might be wrong in the first place. Every apple is different in its shades, taste, and looks. Objects like apples are unique in this world, made of individually discernible particles, so no two apples are ever identical even if they happen to look similar. You merely end up with one example of apple A and another one of apple B; you cannot add up apples with oranges. (Question: What happens to my apple when I move backwards in time?)

To conclude, Holt is asking the right questions and looking at the right places for an adequate and appropriate answer, particularly when dipping his philosophical fingers in the particular fountainhead of quantum physics – but alas he comes out with his hands empty – or rather full of nothingness – for which evidently neither he nor his hands ought to be faulted due to the vast complexity and wondrous simplicity of his topic. 

However one thing is certain: this book is definitely not a waste of spacetime. If I had to choose between something, the existence of this book and nothing, its nonexistence, there is no doubt in my mind: I would take the book!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The only major point that I get from your column is that you like Jim Holt's book. I don't understand what point you're trying to make in bringing up the two "analogies" that you discuss; i.e. two apples and couple of parades. You say these analogies, depending on whether they exist or not, and what we expect in this regard, are somehow related to the issue of "something" versus "nothing." Would you please explain clearly and in detail, exactly what you mean, because after reading your blog twice, I haven't even the slightest idea what your point is or what you're trying to say. (Please don't take offense.) Thanks. — Julian