I received a package in the mail yesterday. I wasn’t expecting anything, so I put my ear to it to listen for ticking sounds. Hearing none, I tore the wrapping and discovered a friend had sent me a book I’d wanted to read for some time: Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt. Holt writes for The New Yorker on subjects such as string theory, time, infinity and a number of other mindboggling topics. His new book questions why everything exists when there could just as well be nothing.
So far, I haven’t gotten beyond page 5, not because the book is boring. Far from it. The work is dense with ideas, so many and so profound that I’m forced to pause between sentences to ponder each new concept. Here for example is the book’s prologue.
Suppose there were nothing. Then there would be no laws; for laws, after all are something. If there were no laws, then everything would be permitted. If everything were permitted, then nothing would be forbidden. So if there was nothing, nothing would be forbidden. Thus nothing is self-forbidding. Therefore, there must be something. QED*
My first thought, being a former English teacher was about grammar. “Suppose there were nothing?” or “Suppose there was nothing?” I think the noun is singular, but I wouldn’t fall on my sword over it, and my Oxford pocket dictionary is silent as to number. In any case, here was my first pause.
My second lay within the syllogism. I looked at the premise and decided to do a word exchange. While it might follow that if there was nothing, there would be no laws, it would also follow that a lot of other objects would also be missing, including teddy bears. I decided to substitute teddy bears for laws. The first and second sentences still made sense but the rest didn’t. So, while the form of the syllogism might be valid, it did not lead to truth. If it did not lead to truth then why should I accept it as proof that something must exist?
I decided that the slow reading of Holt’s book will be much like a puzzle: brain teasing but not revelatory. Why does the world exist? I don’t know and I doubt Hold does either. What I do know is that I exist. I am something. Therefore, it follows as the night the day that I should enjoy myself.
*QED means that which is to be demonstrated
(Courtesy of books.ww.norton.com)