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Why Does the Universe Exist? an Existential Detective Story


The writer Jim Holt explores the fundamental question of ontology. The novelist John Updike playfully responds.

The eternal question of why the universe exists (or how something came from the nothing) is revisited by Jim Holt in his new book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story.

The author approaches this inexhaustible theme through a wide array of perspectives He has a polyhedral vision that takes into account some of the most brilliant minds in history. His book asks the question that is at once “so profound that it occurs to a metaphysicist and so simple that it occurs to a child.”

Among the promotional activities of the book, there’s an interview with John Updike, who responded to the eternal question at length:

One opinion I’ve encountered is that, since getting from nothing to something involves time, and time didn’t exist before there was something, the whole question is a meaningless one that we should stop asking ourselves. It’s beyond our intellectual limits as a species. Put yourself into the position of a dog. A dog is responsive, shows intuition, looks at us with eyes behind which there is intelligence of a sort, and yet a dog must not understand most of the things it sees people doing. It must have no idea how they invented, say, the internal-combustion engine. So maybe what we need to do is imagine that we’re dogs and that there are realms that go beyond our understanding. I’m not sure I buy that view, but it is a way of saying that the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain. I have trouble even believing—and this will offend you—the standard scientific explanation of how the universe rapidly grew from nearly nothing. Just think of it. The notion that this planet and all the stars we see, and many thousands of times more than those we see — that all this was once bounded in a point with the size of, what, a period or a grape? How, I ask myself, could that possibly be? And, that said, I sort of move on.

Updike later aligns himself with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said “It’s not the world that is mystical; it’s us.” The novelist goes on to toy with the idea of a Divine Creator: “Did I say that? God created the world out of boredom? Well, Aquinas said that God made the world ‘in play.’ In play. In a playful spirit he made the world. That, to me, seems closer to the truth.”

Is the universe a mystical game? Maybe indeed. Maybe it’s an infinite game in which you don’t try to win and yet the game continues, keeps on being created until all of the conceivable hands have been played. Or maybe it’s a game in which the invisible board whose reason for being is the game itself (the universe is the cause of the universe). And then… following the same logic, would the creation then be the creator himself?

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