Spoiler alert – the concluding quote in the book, Why Does the World Exist?, by Jim Holt, is by Ambrose Bierce who always seems to get everything righter than everyone else. Bierce writes, Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing. That is a good summation of this wonderful book and shouldn’t be off-putting to those modern people who can enjoy exploring profound questions and less than perfect answers. Jim Holt interviews many of the most famous living scientists and philosophers, asking them questions probing into various aspects of that Classic Question. It’s not too surprising none of them came up with an answer that will satisfy a True Believer-type personality, but there is much for a conditional believer to appreciate and mull.
A few weeks ago one of my friends was worrying about death and being dead, etc. and I said, “We were dead for some fourteen billion years before now and that didn’t bother us, so why should being dead for another couple of billion years bother us, or forever for that matter?” I said that before reading this book, and so when reading it felt perfectly comfortable with the Universe just being born out of a Quantum fluctuation with a Big Bang. Or on the plethora of other hands, of a God, or a kid with a super chemistry set, triggering our Universe. It was just fine reading for me. Heavy religious overlays of these infinite questions with their pat explanations get a nod, and “equal time”, but mostly because of their ability to generate some great art and buildings, like a view of Notre Dame across the Seine where the book gets its start.
Near the end of the book Holt visits his dying mother at a hospice in his home town, and after she dies he takes a jog through his childhood to the home where his just married parents conceived him. It is a personal journey for him from the Big Bang to his mother’s death, a sub-motif for the book’s main one and an emotional one for me too.
After visiting the great minds and carefully interviewing them, Holt seems to return to Earth favoring what he calls a generic or mediocre reality. In a multiverse of infinite possibilities where there are infinite times infinite realities, each as real as ours, it would seem most reasonable that we are just ordinary folk living in an ordinary universe. Whether we are or are not special, we are what we are and we must live within the structures within which we exist, and the most we can hope for is to get out of life what it offers to us – to live.