Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story

Michael Wood writes:

It’s easy enough to prove that the external world exists. Doors, rocks, other people, we keep running into them. But that’s not much of a proof. It doesn’t show that any particular piece of the world exists when we are not there to perceive it, and it doesn’t show why its existence should matter. It’s just in the way. The proof helps us still less with Stephen Hawking’s question, adduced on the first pages of Jim Holt’s book: ‘Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?’ Mattering and bothering are important issues in Holt’s quest, but they tend to be treated as entailments and sidebars, marginalia to the big stuff: the ‘profound … mystery of being’, ‘the deeper question’, ‘the deepest of all questions’, namely, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Holt has a religious temperament, if not a religion, and he thinks the notion of God is a possible explanation of the mystery of being rather than the reverse or the refusal of one. ‘Are we then doomed,’ he says, ‘to choose between God and the deep brute Absurd?’ What if the one were the polite, traditional form of the other? Buñuel said long ago that he didn’t see why we should accept a mystery as the explanation of a mystery. Holt will have none of this. He cites an anti-atheist review of his own: ‘If there is an ultimate explanation for our contingent and perishable world, it would seemingly have to appeal to something that is both necessary and imperishable, which one might label “God”.’

(LRB 21 March 2013)

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