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Why does the world exist? An epic poem by Jim Holt at TED2014

Jim Holt. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Jim Holt. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Philosopher and writer Jim Holt skips right past the dumb quibbling questions and right to the heart of the great existential mystery: Why something, instead of nothing? Why does the universe exist? And why are we in it? The super-ultimate why question.

The greatest thinkers have obsessed over the question of existence: Wittgenstein said it’s not how things are in the world that’s mystical, it’s that there is a world at all. John Archibald Wheeler wondered, how come the universe? How come existence? Schopenhauer said that those who do not wonder about the contingency of the universe are mentally deficient. It is, says Holt, our darkest, most sublime question.

In the 17th century, Leibniz had an easy answer: The universe exists because God created it. Many people today, said Holt, have this same Judeo-Christian answer. There is no mystery. For them, God + nothing = the world. O-o-okay, but even for believers this should be problematic, says Holt, because it requires you to answer the question of why God exists. Jokes Holt, God should still think to himself: “I’m eternal, I’m all powerful … but why am I here?”

So we have: [blank] + nothing = the world. This is actually fine for Buddhists, who believe in cosmic vacuity. Buddhists, Holt says, believe that “if we let our desires melt away, we’ll see the world as it truly is, and we’ll slip into nirvana: just enough life to enjoy being dead.” Big laughs.

How about: science + nothing = the world? A purely scientific explanation like the one posited by physicist Lawrence Krauss goes something like this: Through the laws of quantum field theory, from no space, time or matter, a little nugget of false vacuum can fluctuate into existence and then … universe!

Nice try. Holt rejects this theory, too, as it treats physics like it has some ontological clout — kinda like God. Physics don’t exist outside the world, Holt says. Even a self-contained world like the one theorized by Stephen Hawking is just equations. “But what breathes fire into the equations?” asks Holt.

Okay … let’s get metaphysical then. Maybe one set of rules presides over our world, and all other sets of rules are possible, too — a vastly rich multiverse that encompasses every possibility. So on one side there’s fullness, everything, and on the other, sheer nothingness. In between, says Holt, there’s a bunch of special-case intermediate realities: there’s the most elegant one (as Brian Greene has theorized), there’s the most ethical one, and so on. These all require extra explanations.

And then there’s Holt’s theory, the one that needs no special rules: Surprise! Somewhere in between! He calls it: “A crummy, generic reality that isn’t special in any way.” This reality is random, a mixture of chaos and order, mathematical beauty and ugliness, infinite mediocrity. Is there a deity? Maybe. But it’s not perfect: “maybe it’s 100 percent malevolent but only 80 percent effective.” This reality is an “infinite, arbitrary, pointless reality,” says Holt, to smiles and chuckles, “like champagne frothing out of the bottle endlessly. A vast universe with small pockets of charm and peace.”