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The World We (Don’t) Want

Our daughter belongs to a swim club, and swim clubs mean—hooray!—fundraising. Bingo, specifically. I have discovered that one of the (very few) benefits of spending five hours at the Bingo hall on a Thursday evening is the opportunity to catch up on a bit of reading (I was the “pay runner” last week, which meant that I basically sat around waiting for people to yell, “Bingo!” before springing enthusiastically into action). Last Thursday, I brought along a book that had regrettably slipped to the bottom of the veritable mountain of unread books on my desk—Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?

Among my discoveries over the course of five hours last Thursday was that a book about cosmology and science and the philosophy of science is not exactly the easiest book to just pick up where you left off. By about 8:30 pm, after about thirty or so pages of “quantum tunneling” and “mutually isolated bubble universes” and “inflationary cosmologies” and the likelihood of “ensembles of pocket universes” each having potentially different solutions to the equations of string theory, my eyes were starting to glaze over. I was starting to look forward to the cries of “Bingo!” if only to gain a bit of temporary respite from the tortured worlds of physicists and cosmologists.

I am now roughly two-thirds of the way through this book and, while it has been a fascinating (and fascinatingly complex) read thus far, it strikes me that the author is no nearer to the answering the question the title of his book purports to be investigating.  And that he probably won’t get there. Every chapter thus far has included an interview with some famous scientist or philosopher, and the conversations have all tried to peer behind the initial singularity prior to the Big Bang, but no matter how many different approaches are taken—appeals to the “principle of fecundity,” quantum mechanics, string theory, even the existence of eternal Platonic mathematical forms giving rise to existence—the same question lurks in the background. And why that law, that set of constants, that space vacuum? Whatever it was that preceded the coming into existence of our world, why that and not, well, nothing?

Hovering in the background throughout the whole book, it seems to me, are two very simple options. Either the universe was intended or it wasn’t. No matter how complex the story told might be, these seem to be the only two options. Either the “why?” in “Why does the world exist?” points to a purposive someone or something that wanted the world to be, or some combination of time + chance is the brute fact behind the universe. Is the mystery behind the cosmos personal or “natural?” No matter how many impressive sounding words, no matter how many sophisticated arguments set forth by learned scholars, there seems to be no avoiding this basic choice, in my view.

Of course, there is much more at stake in how we answer this basic question than satisfying our intellectual curiosity. If we are open to the former—that there is behind the origin of the universe something like a purposive creative agent who wants something from the world—then this has the potential of making personal demands upon us. A personal creator presumably expects things from the people and the world that was intended into being. If we are closed to this option, the question of how to live and whether or not there is anything like a higher moral order that can make normative claims upon human beings does not present itself as obviously. A personal creator can hold his/her/its personal creations accountable in a way that “nature” cannot.

In The Last Word, NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel famously wrote these words:

ImageI am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

As I continue to make my way through Holt’s book, I can’t help but think that many attempts to “solve” the mystery of existence are little more than (brilliant) expressions of the desire for there not to be a God. It is not as though these thinkers find the existence of unobservable, untestable dimensions of reality unbelievable, after all. The “multiverse theory” in general makes this clear. According to multiverse proponents, the best way to account for the existence of our world with its apparent “fine tuning” and propensity toward bringing about life and consciousness is to posit the hypothetical existence of millions of other universes springing in and out of existence. What looks like purpose and creativity and intent is really just one random option among millions of others. A universe like ours was bound to come along at some point, right?

It is, apparently, no trouble at all to believe in all kinds of incredible, invisible, unlikely things in the cosmos—Stephen Hawking is convinced that each hypothetical universe “splits into copies every second numbering something like 10 followed by one hundred zeros, all of them equally real”—so long as these incredible, invisible, unlikely things do not go by the name “God.” So long as these innumerable invisible universes are “natural” and not in any way personal.

The issue is not, in other words, that the universe couldn’t come from something as strange as a personal God. It’s that we don’t want the universe to be like that. And for me, the question of why we might not want the world to be a certain way is at least as interesting as the question of why it exists at all.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    ” Is the mystery behind the cosmos personal or “natural?”
    …any day now there will be a flood of comments on this one,Ryan. ;/
    This post has me contemplating about how threatened and alarmed we become when our intellect is pressed for a logical realistic investigation of the basis for our particular beliefs in (a) God. From a early age I simply believed(without questioning) what I was told to believe about Jesus and God.This makes me wonder what i would be/believe if I had per chance been born in say China or India or Iraq instead of growing up with the American Jesus. For the past several years i have been going through the process of vetting my beliefs and peeking at the foundation beneath them, initally it’s a very scary exercise,yet my faith in Yahweh and His Messiah remains intact though somewhat “polished”,shall we say.

    March 7, 2013
    • I’ve wondered similar things, Mike. So much about our worldviews seem contingent upon the accidents of the times and places in which we are born and in which we learn and develop. And yet, people do change their minds, people do refine and reevaluate and, as you say, “polish” their beliefs even if they largely preserve the overall framework. We don’t really seem to have an option of growing up “untraditioned.”

      Which is why I find reducing things to very basic worldview questions helpful occasionally. No matter what tradition we are nurtured in, all of us must come to some conclusion or other about whether or not the world has inherent meaning or purpose, about what that might mean for our lives, and about what our reactions to either of these possibilities might say about the nature of our hopes, fears, preferences, etc. I remain stubbornly convinced that there really are kind of generic human questions that impinge upon all of us, no matter what our background might be and how it might have shaped us.

      March 7, 2013
  2. Larry S #

    Ryan (hey, I haven’t commented for awhile).

    Once I got past the mental image of you sitting in a bingo hall with all the little old bingo ladies who in my imagination are always smoking – I got thinking about the book you were describing and, my musings ran this way….

    why is there something instead of nothing.

    and then I pondered the concept of nothing – which seemed to me to be something in and of itself…..

    that got me tired cause I am not much of a philosopher ….. perhaps it really is turtles all the way down…..

    and then I remembered something NT Wright tells his audience that a taxi-driver once told him, “If Jesus was raised from the dead. All the rest is ROCK AND ROLL”

    cool – I’ll try to hang on to that as we get into Easter.

    blessings and thanks for your blog. Larry.

    March 7, 2013
    • Good to hear from you, Larry!

      You would probably not be surprised to discover that an entire chapter in Holt’s book is devoted to the concept of “nothing” (whether or not it is, in fact, a “something,” how we would be able to analyze and describe “nothing,” etc). And the “turtles all the way down” story made an appearance as well :).

      Love the taxi-driver quote. It’s easy—at least for me—to get lost in all kinds of pretty useless abstract speculations, but the resurrection really is the key. Who cares about the manner in which the cosmos came into being if there isn’t any reason to hope for a newness of life that goes beyond our present experience? I will try to hang on to this as we approach Easter, too.

      (But I’m still gonna finish the book :).)

      March 8, 2013
  3. Tyler #

    Nicely said my friend. The inquisitiveness present in the article is welcomed and refreshing. I agree that what we ask about the universe and how we ask it is shaped by our desire for what we want it to be.

    It is interesting though because what we desire the universe to be can be so similar in some regards and in the same breath vastly different with other regards. Scientific theories and the theory of God both suffer (currently) from infinite regression. My disbelief or lack of faith stems from a) the problem of evil and b) the lack of empirical evidence present in my time. However, empirical evidence is also missing from the main alternative. However, there is phenomena at a certain scale that can scientifcally explained and is relevant to the events in my life, while making limited ethical claims.

    I think I am on a tangent now but I just wanted to say I enjoyed this post and found it to be a very truthful, and therefore appealing, question into the nature of being and existence.

    March 7, 2013
    • One of the things the book is sort of circling back on again and again is that the problem of infinite regress is an intractable one. In other words, it’s not something we might figure out one day—it’s simply impossible for observers from with the system to gain any kind of access point from which to peer outside the system and account for what caused the system itself. All we can do, in a sense, is pick which brute fact about the cosmos seems most plausible given the nature of the system itself.

      Which leads to evil, of course. I can’t count the number of times over the course of my research and reading over the past decade or so when I have been reading some scientific or philosophical argument against God or for materialism, and all of a sudden evil has made an appearance. It’s remarkable to me how often the argument can shift from the scientific, the empirical, the “rational,” etc to the moral—how quickly people can and do move from an argument about how the world is to how it ought to be. I think that for many, many people it is moral arguments against God that precede historical or scientific ones, and often seep into the conversation unaware. In my view, very few people disbelieve in God for purely “intellectual” reasons. Almost always, there is an element of protest involved. We think the world should be better than it is, if there is a God behind it.

      (Of course, why we might have such an expectation and what it might say about us is a different matter, but we’ve talked about that before… )

      Now I’m on a tangent… 🙂

      Thanks for your kind words and your comment. Much appreciated.

      March 8, 2013

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