Why Does the World Exist?
A simple question proves thorny in Jim Holt's new book.
(Page 4 of 5)
There is a tendency among many of the thinkers represented here, Holt included, to commit this error – to think, for instance, that we can know just by thinking about it that the universe is more likely to be simple than complex. In Holt's view this is what explains why the existence of the universe is so puzzling. Shouldn't there have been nothing, rather than something, given that nothing is so much simpler than any something? (It's very predictable, for one thing, and takes very little time to describe.) But the idea that the nature of the universe can be known a priori is simply mistaken – a mistake, I can't resist pointing out, that has been well mocked by Douglas Adams, who in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy imagined a "stupendous super computer which was so amazingly intelligent that even before the data banks had been connected up it had started from 'I think therefore I am' and got as far as the existence of rice pudding and income tax before anyone managed to turn it off."Skip to next paragraph
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Holt's objection to the brute-fact view, then – the view, that is, that the existence of the universe as a whole has no explanation, most likely because it has simply always been around – depends on the questionable view that the existence of the universe requires an explanation: the idea that it is somehow surprising that the universe should exist, and that its nonexistence was more reasonable or more likely. Many people in Holt's book share this view, but there is at least one who doesn't: philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum, who, Holt writes, "finds the existence of the world utterly unastonishing. And he is utterly convinced that it is rationalfor him to be unastonished." Holt summarizes this thread of Grünbaum's thinking as follows:
Those who profess puzzlement at the existence of a world like ours – one teeming with life and stars and consciousness and dark matter and all kinds of stuff we haven't even discovered yet – seem to have an intellectual prejudice, one that favors the Null World. Nothingness is the natural state of affairs, they implicitly believe, the ontological default option. It is only deviations from nothingness that are mysterious, that require an explanation.
But this last bit, Grünbaum holds – and for my part, I tend to agree – really is nothing more than a metaphysical prejudice: there is no reason to think that an empty universe is any more likely to exist than one that is full of stuff. Indeed, the way we find out what is probable, and what is reasonable to expect, is by looking at how things are – and when we look at how things are, what we find is most decisively not an empty universe! On this view, the existence of stuff, far from being surprising and standing in need of an explanation, is entirely unsurprising. It's the status quo.
This position, then, is precisely the opposite of that held by Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne, who holds that descriptions of reality can be arranged in order of their simplicity.… On a priori grounds, a simple universe is more likely than a complicated one. And the simplest universe of all is the one that contains nothing -- no objects, no properties, no relations. So, prior to the evidence, that is the hypothesis with the greatest probability: the hypothesis that says there is Nothing rather than Something."