Thursday, July 12, 2012

Holt returns

Back in 2006 and 2007, I recommended articles by Jim Holt.  In fact, I see that my enjoyment of his science eriting (usually looking at the big, big questions of life, the universe, and everything) extends at least back to articles in Slate in 2004.  

So it's good to see he has a book out on the basic question Why Does the World Exist? and it's getting some very good reviews.  I like this extract from that last link:

... the very intractability of the problem turns out to have a salutary (and fun) side effect: All the ordinary kinds of answers being impossible, one begins to think in earnest about the extraordinary ones. This is a book that gets us to take seriously, at least for a few pages, the proposition that the universe was brought into being by the abstract idea of Goodness. (Hey, Plato thought so.) Elsewhere, we get a probabilistic, Bayesian case for the existence of God. We hear Heidegger speculate that nothingness is an agent, that noth-ing is a verb (“Das Nichts nichtet,” or “Nothing noths”: shades of Hopkins, for whom the self “selves”); perhaps, then, nothing nothed itself, thereby creating Being. We contemplate panpsychism, the theory that consciousness is a fundamental property, irreducible to physical components and pervasive throughout the universe: that, in the words of the astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, “the stuff of the world is mind-stuff.”

The weirdness goes on. We learn—and I am quoting here because my powers to intelligently paraphrase this are limited—that “a tiny bit of energy-filled vacuum could spontaneously ‘tunnel’ into existence,” and then, bang, expand to become the universe. We learn that a hundred-thousandth of a gram of matter would suffice to generate a universe like ours, which means it’s conceivable that we were created by some extraterrestrial nerd in an extra-universal lab. We entertain the possibility, favored by some physicists, that “nothingness is unstable,” which means something was bound to happen. And we entertain the possibility that everything was bound to happen. That is the principle of fecundity: the idea that all possible worlds are real. Muse on the implications of that one for your personal life—or lives—on your next subway ride home.

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