Jim Holt: Why does the universe exist?

I did a post a few weeks ago explaining why I’m not much of a fan of the “Why is there something rather than nothing?” question.  So, when this TED talk popped up later, I resisted watching it, thinking it would just be a rehash of the standard hand wringing.  I guess you could still characterize it as a rehash, but Jim Holt makes it very entertaining, and finishes with what I think is an excellent summation of the issue.


11 thoughts on “Jim Holt: Why does the universe exist?

  1. No cell phone! That must be the quirky philosopher in him coming out 🙂

    Funny that he says if we live in the mediocre in-between we no longer have to worry about where we came from. I would think just the opposite. I didn’t get that point.


    1. I think he was trying to say that the pointlessness and randomness of our universe seems to make it less epistemologically necessary that we come up with an explanation for it. I agree that it may be a different matter whether it’s emotionally necessary, since many struggle with the idea of reality having a lack of purpose or direction.


  2. I read his book and enjoyed it, although there is perhaps a little too much waffle about various cafes and wines and snacks he ate as he went about meeting philosophers, theologians and physicists. It may be his style, but it kind of seemed like he needed to bulk out a book on a topic he didn’t really have enough material on.

    Also, he more or less dismisses the MUH without much of an argument other than that it’s a fringe idea and he doesn’t seem to find it terribly compelling. He gives it fewer pages than ideas I think are much less worthy.

    My problem with his conclusion in this speech is that a typical universe in a reality where everything exists will observe mediocrity, and therefore the fact that we observe mediocrity is no reason to suppose that existence is not actually at its fullest.

    Furthermore, I don’t think his logic works where he says that were there some rationale behind what exists (nothing exists, everything exists, or the most elegant reality exists) we would need some kind of explanation, whereas if it’s just arbitrary then we don’t. Personally, I am equally happy with the idea that nothing exists and that everything exists — both of these descriptions problematise the concept of existence by reducing it to a meaningless property which from an objective point of view draws no distinctions. Existence is therefore explained by deflating it. It’s the middle of the spectrum that draws distinctions, and it is those distinctions that need explanations. If what exists is arbitrary, then there needs to be some meta-law which governs how the arbitrariness is decided, much as we have quantum mechanics and chaos theory that describe how randomness arises in our universe. Saying “it’s just like that” is not an answer, it’s giving up. It’s also needlessly complicating the picture without evidence. Rejecting the distinction for which we have no evidence is more parsimonious.


    1. Thanks DM. I didn’t realize Holt had a book on this. I may have to read it when I’m in more of a metaphysical mood again.

      I suspect part of the problem with the MUH is in getting people to think about it long enough to realize that it’s not about the symbols, notation, and nomenclature of mathematics, but the underlying patterns and relationships described by that notation. Tegmark probably contributes to this by insisting on the phrase “the universe is mathematics”. I know when I first saw him describe it on the Science Channel, that was my initial intuition, and I reacted against it, only starting to see it as plausible when I read his book and your blog post.

      I wonder if the phrases “everything exists” and “nothing exists” are productive. It’s a bit like the people who insist that reality is an illusion. Well, if it’s an illusion, then the illusion is all we’ve ever known; it *is* our reality. If everything exists or nothing exists, then the word “exist” seems to have become unproductive, and we need to redefine it to something that gives it back its original utility. So, rather than existence meaning instantiation somewhere in reality, maybe we should just understand it to mean instantiated in observable reality.

      Anyway, all that aside, I agree that it’s not productive to fold our arms and declare that things are the way they are. If we can understand the reasons, we won’t achieve it with that attitude. I think we should search for possible explanations, but eliminate all the testable ones before getting too comfortable with more metaphysical ones.


      1. “So, rather than existence meaning instantiation somewhere in reality, maybe we should just understand it to mean instantiated in observable reality.”

        Exactly what I mean by problematising the term, SAP. The concept of existence is problematic and needs to be deflated or redefined. Your definition is fine, but by that definition the universe itself doesn’t exist.


        1. I suppose using my definition (which I’ll admit was something I just threw out for discussion and hadn’t rigorously examined) you might say that the universe that exists is the observable universe. I’m suddenly reminded of Tegmark’s definition of our universe being the observable universe, and that it’s a definition many astronomers seem to follow, which makes me wonder if they worked themselves into this same corner.

          But if we ever do succeed in detecting and analyzing primordial gravitational waves from an era of cosmic inflation, enabling insights into the universe far beyond the current limits of our observations, will that mean that suddenly new swaths of the universe now exist? Obviously there would have been no ontological change, only an epistemic one. (Although I suppose an idealist might argue otherwise.)



          1. Right, so in my mind the solution is to recognise that existence is not an objective property. Ontology is relative. What exists to me is not what exists to an observer in a different universe. Neither universe is objectively more real than the other, not least because there is no objective viewpoint from which to judge it.

            Similarly, ontology is subjective or semantic. If you don’t hold mathematical objects to exist, that’s perfectly fine — you’re working with a different concept of existence than I am and yours is just as valid. We use different ontologies, neither is any more correct than the other

            With that clarified, I hope you can see how the MUH is compatible with both “nothing exists” and “everything exists”, because on the MUH existence as an objective property is pretty meaningless. It’s the middle ground where distinctions are drawn that pose problems.


          2. I do see the compatibility between the MUH and those things.

            Existence is a tough nut. I care very much whether the rock falling toward my head exists, but that’s physical existence, and matters get more complicated when we start talking about things like mathematical objects, democracy, and baseball. All of those things exist in at least some sense, but democracy and baseball’s existence seem tied to human thought, although I suppose you could argue that their patterns always existed waiting to be discovered, and since we’re all patterns… Sigh, metaphysics.

            BTW, if you haven’t read Redshirts by John Scalzi, you might find it interesting. (I can’t tell you why you might find it interesting without spoilers.)


          3. “I care very much whether the rock falling toward my head exists, but that’s physical existence”

            Even physical existence is relative. That rock does not physically exist from the perspective of an observer in another universe (or else it does, depending on how you choose to define physical existence).

            This doesn’t matter too much as what you care about is that it physically exists from your perspective.

            I’ll look up Redshirts, thanks!


          4. This is starting to feel like the relativity of simultaneity in special relativity. It makes me wonder if there could be any interactions between the different frames of reference. I suspect the answer might be that there could for some family of universes, but not all. The question is which kind we might live in?


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