Brain Pickings

John Updike on the Universe and Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing

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“The mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain.”

“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?,” wondered Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time. “Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?”

This inquiry has long occupied scientists, philosophers, and deep thinkers alike, culminating in the most fundamental question of why there is something rather than nothing. That, in fact, is the epicenter of intellectual restlessness that Jim Holt sets out to resolve in Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (public library). Seeking to tease apart the most central existential question of all — why there is a world, rather than nothingness, a question he says is “so profound that it would occur only to a metaphysician, yet so simple it would occur only to a child” — Holt pores through millennia of science and theology, theory by theory, to question our most basic assumptions about the world, reality, and the nature of fact itself, with equal parts intelligence, irreverence, and insight.

Reflecting on his many conversations with philosophers, theologians, particle physicists, cosmologists, mystics, and writers, Holt puts things in perspective:

When you listen to such thinkers feel their way around the question of why there is a world at all, you begin to realize that your own thoughts on the matter are not quite so nugatory as you had imagined. No one can confidently claim intellectual superiority in the face of the mystery of existence. For, as William James observed, ‘All of us are beggars here.’

And while the book is remarkable in its entirety — take a closer look with Kathryn Schulz’s exquisite review for New York Magazine — one of Holt’s most fascinating conversations is with someone one wouldn’t immediately peg as an expert on cosmogony: novelist John Updike, who seems to share in Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”

[T]he laws amount to a funny way of saying, ‘Nothing equals something,’” Updike said, bursting into laughter. “QED! 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.

Taking a jab at the “beautiful mathematics” of string theory, Updike echoes the landmark conversation between Einstein and Indian philosopher Tagore, exclaiming:

Beautiful in a vacuum! What’s beauty if it’s not, in the end, true? Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty.

Holt invites Updike to reconcile the “brute fact theory” of science and the “God theory” of religion:

He was silent again for a moment, then continued. “Some scientists who are believers, like Freeman Dyson, have actually tackled the ultimate end of the universe. They’ve tried to describe a universe where entropy is almost total and individual particles are separated by distances that are greater than the dimensions of the present observable universe … an unthinkably dreary and pointless vacuum. I admire their scientific imagination, but I just can’t make myself go there. And a space like that is the space in which God existed and nothing else. Could God then have suffered boredom to the point that he made the universe? That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.”

What a lovely conceit! Reality is not a “blot on nothingness,” as Updike’s character Henry Bech had once, in a bilious moment, decided. It is a piece of light verse.

The rest of Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story is just as stirringly, stimulatingly uncomfortable — read at your own riveting risk.

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