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:
I 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.