By Prof. Dan Lioy
Senior Research Manager
Why does the universe exist? A related question concerns why any of us exists. Expressed differently, why is there something rather than nothing? Just as perplexing, why are we in this “something” we call the cosmos?
The above queries are part of a larger cluster of issues theologians, philosophers, and scientists, as well as laypersons, have deliberated for centuries. More recently, in 2014, American philosopher, author, and essayist, Jim Holt, addressed this issue in a TED talk. It is a distillation of the narrative he presents in his 2013 book, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story.
In Holt’s presentation, he deliberates the “mystery of existence,” along with its “continency.” He regards it as the “deepest and most far-reaching question” people can and should consider. During Holt’s monologue, he first examines the “metaphysical outlook,” particularly the Judeo- Christian view of a Creator-God. In the language of mathematics, the equation would be as follows: “God + nothing = the world.”
Holt observes that inserting “God” into the above equation does not really solve anything. After all, what is the basis for maintaining God’s existence, especially since this premise cannot be established “by logic alone”?
It seems self-evident, then, to Holt that given the deficiencies associated with the metaphysical option, it should be discarded. Doing so is especially attractive to atheists, since they reject outright any notion of God.
Quantum mechanics is next on Holt’s list of options to consider. According to “state-of-the-art physics,” it is “out of sheer nothingness” that a “little nugget of false vacuum can fluctuate into existence.”
Put another way, the so-called “physical laws” of “quantum field theory” are comparable to “divine commands” that have the “ontological power” to cause a vacuous “abyss” to become “pregnant with being.” Next, from the inexplicable “miracle of inflation,” a “huge and variegated” universe eventually arises.
Holt concedes that the above “scenario” is “ingenious” and “fascinating.” Nonetheless, he also admits that the depiction put forward by quantum mechanics is both extremely “speculative” and a “pseudo-religious” ideation.
Despite assertions to the contrary, what specialists refer to as “physical laws” are “generalized descriptions of patterns and regularities” observed using the scientific method. For this reason, it is fallacious to imagine that these “physical laws” are able to bring anything “into existence” de novo.
What about the proposal that there are an infinite number of universes with just as many entirely distinctive assortments of “laws”? Also, how likely is it that “mathematical equations” have a corresponding “physical existence”?
Holt admits that the above attempt to encompass “every logical possibility” to explain the conundrum of the universe’s existence is still a “metaphysical” solution. It is a brute force approach that fails to answer the question in a convincing and satisfying way.
For Holt, then, neither metaphysics (e.g. an all-powerful, Creator-God) nor quantum mechanics (e.g. many-worlds theory) can “resolve the puzzle of existence.” Holt observes that sandwiched between these “two extremes” are all kinds of “intermediate realities.”
By way of example, a “universe” that, when viewed through the prism of abstract, pristine mathematics, appears to be “elegant.” Such a construct excludes the presence of “ugly asymmetries” so that what is left is a perfect cosmos.
Holt, though, remains unconvinced. He even labels the above view as a “pious hope” that is doomed by an excessive number of “arbitrary coupling constraints,” “mass ratios,” and “superfluous families of elementary particles.”
Holt contends that the cosmos is filled with “crummy, generic realities.” Also, none of them are in any sense of the word, “special.” Instead, they are a “random” cocktail of “chaos and order,” along with “mathematical elegance and ugliness.”
In brief, Holt does not have an answer to the question of why the universe exists. All he can do is offer the “crummy generic realities” option as his best attempt to address the “mystery of existence.”
Holt summarizes there are three broad possibilities to choose from, as follows: (1) a completely empty universe; (2) a cosmos that is perfect; or (3) “something in between” the preceding two options. Holt defaults to the third alternative.
According to Holt, we live in one of an infinite number of “random, generic realities.” Also, because he sees this as being both “arbitrary” and “pointless,” it does not need any “explanation.” It simply is the “reality” people are “stuck with.”
Holt steps back from the above to ask why anyone should care about the quandary of existence, whether it involves the entire cosmos or an “infinitesimal” person. As before, Holt does not really answer the question. Instead, he notes that from a computational perspective, the collective and individual “existence” of humanity is “amazingly improbable.”
For Holt, the simple fact is that “we’re here” and we should be “okay” with admitting that observation. As he sees it, the “universe is absurd.” Likewise, the “generic reality” in which people exist is “mediocre.”
Holt advocates that each person “construct” her or his own “purpose in life.” This includes devoting oneself to make the “nasty bits” of existence “smaller” and the “nice bits bigger.” As for the vexing issue as to why there is something rather than nothing, Holt deems the query to be “silly mystery-mongering.” He regards the presence of the cosmos to be a “brute fact.” People should accept it as such and get on with their humdrum, vapid lives.
On one level, I appreciate the candor of Holt’s analysis. Yet, on another level, I find his recommendation to be just as dreary and vacuous as his views about existence.
Thousands of years ago, the author of Ecclesiastes—hereafter referred to as Qoheleth—also wrestled with profound meaning-of-life questions. He admitted that from a secularist perspective, existence appeared to be senseless and useless.
Indeed, the major theme of Ecclesiastes is that when the Creator-God of Israel is left out of the equation, everything in life is ephemeral, frustrating, and pointless. This bleak and jarring reality is conveyed by the Hebrew noun, hebel, which is rendered “meaningless” in the NIV.
For Christians, faith in the sovereign Lord of Scripture is the only viable alternative to the grim outlook voiced by godless humanism. Hebrews 11:6 asserts that anyone who wants to approach the Creator must “believe that he exists,” as well as that “he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”
The preceding statement does not deny that there are times when life feels vague, incongruous, and antithetical. Yet, Qoheleth, in his treatise, argues that when God is excised from human existence, nothing of lasting meaning and enduring value results.
Even atheistic philosophers and skeptics admit that, in their finitude and frailty, they are unable to make sense of the universe. They conclude that the cosmos is an impenetrable fog. It not only remains enigmatic and illusory, but also breeds cynicism and despair.
Against the preceding, churlish backdrop, people of faith look to Scripture for understanding. They especially turn to the incarnate Word, Jesus of Nazareth, to find meaning and purpose in their mundane temporal existence (John 1:1, 14, 18).
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, declared that the Son did not just die on the cross to atone for humankind’s sin. Just as importantly, He rose from the dead so that believers can live with Him forever in heaven. Because of His victory over death, their lives have real meaning, both for time and eternity.