We discussed once before that old philosophical puzzler: why is there actually anything at all? Jim Holt’s new book Why does the World Exist? is an entertaining but basically serious assault on this fundamental issue.

Near the beginning he has a splendid chapter about nothing (as it were). He’s a little hard on the Greeks and Romans, suggesting that to them the very idea of zero was inconceivable. That’s surely reading too much into the fact that Roman numerals don’t include a symbol for zero (and you know, the Romans themselves didn’t even use those formal numerals when they needed to do everyday sums, but another system altogether). But his brief history of nothing from Heidegger (‘nothing noths’, apparently) through Bergson to Nozick, and his explanation of the problems that arise from confusing nothing and nothingness, is lively in the best kind of way and stimulating. Could nothing even exist? Holt regards true nothingness as tough to conceive of and spends some time on different ways of attempting the feat. I don’t think I find it that hard myself to think that the world might be null and empty or a Euclidean point (there’s a Greek conception that’s pretty close to zero for you).

That is the question that drives this enquiry, though: why all this stuff? Wouldn’t it be more natural if there was nothing? Much of the book is formed of conversations with selected luminaries, and the first of these, Adolf Grünbaum, simply denies that there’s anything puzzling about the world’s existence. All this stuff about creation of a world out of the void is just a hangover from Genesis as far as he’s concerned. That seems a little too easy. Holt’s second interlocutor, Richard Swinburne, thinks by total contrast that the simplest explanation for the cosmos is, in a word, God, though God himself is inexplicable. That, in a quite different way, seems too easy too.

Holt talks to David Deutsch about a quantum multiverse and Steven Weinberg about Theories of Everything, but both, with refreshing clarity and honesty, deny possessing any ultimate answer to his question. Roger Penrose believes in three separate worlds, but his basically Platonic conception doesn’t seem to offer us anything very new, or to me very satisfying.

With John Leslie things start to get interesting, if bizarre: he believes in axiarchism: the universe exists because of the moral requirement that goodness should exist. There seem to be great difficulties with getting ontology from ethics: attentive observers will have noticed that the moral requirement for goodness doesn’t seem to have much direct causative effect in the real world.

The person Holt is most impressed by is Derek Parfit, who appears (I haven’t read Parfit himself on the subject) to offer not so much a theory as a framework in which all possible universes are theoretically available, but one is actualised by a Selector, a principle which prioritises one. Holt likes this framework and he builds on it a theory of his own. For reasons which were never clear to me, he believes we only need to consider four possible Selectors: simplicity, goodness, fullness/non-arbitrariness, and no Selector at all. Surely there are many more possibilities than that, whatever a Selector is supposed to be (and that’s not quite clear either: for Parfit I suspect it is the kind of intermediate convenience that can be cancelled out of the final solution but Holt seems at times to take it as a metaphysical reality)?  Anyway, Holt decides to arbitrate between the Selectors by using them on themselves as meta-Selectors. He thinks only two emerge from this exercise: Simplicity and Fullness. He concludes that if all selectors or no selectors are going to be applied as a result, we end up with a universe of surpassing mediocrity. That seems to be his final view: the world exists like this because it was the most mediocre option the cosmos could come up with. Amusingly he goes on to ask: what could be the reason for my own existence in such a Universe?

Not a convincing conclusion, then, but an intelligent account of the kind that causes the reader to nod in sage agreement or exclaim in frustration by turns.

Turning aside from Holt’s conversations, let’s see if we can get straight the reasons for puzzlement about why there is anything. Well, isn’t it that Occam’s Razor tells us that entities are not to be multiplied, and so we expect a minimal number of entities in our world. Why does Occam work? I think it really operates on two levels. Strictly Occam is a metatheoretic principle of parsimony: it’s not about reality, it’s about which theory we should prefer. Given any set of facts, there is an unlimited number of different theories which will account for them: we need some way of choosing and Occam tells us to pick the simplest account, or more precisely, the one whose picture of the world contains the smallest and least complex set of things. Strict Occam doesn’t tell us that this simplest theory is absolutely going to be the true one, and sometimes it eventually turns out that it isn’t; but going for simplicity seems the most practical way of picking out one version from the range of possible theories: it may be the only fully comprehensive and consistent principle we can apply. (In practice what we often rely on is not a marginal difference of complexity but a kind of Occamic click: sometimes when a good theory comes along it provides an abrupt and substantial drop in the complexity of our world view: all of a sudden quite lot of different things make sense, and that’s really what makes us think the theory must be true.)

But in addition there is second pseudo-Occamic principle lurking below the surface: things don’t happen/exist for no reason.  Whereas the strict version of Occam is epistemic, this idea is ontological: it doesn’t just tell us what to think it tells us what probably exists, and prompts us to think that the simplest theories are not just the most convenient to adopt, but more likely to be true than any others. It is mainly this pseudo-Occamic idea that leads us to be, not happy as kings (as Robert Louis Stevenson suggested) but puzzled that the world is so full of a number of things. Leslie’s axiarchism seems almost to invert this principle, claiming that good stuff can indeed spring into existence for no other reason than its intrinsic ethical qualities.

We should notice that the pseudo-Occamic principle mainly tells us that things don’t change; so if there were nothing to begin with, nothing could be expected to come of it (a point Holt covers in his discourse on nothing, by the way); but even if there is something, we should expect the universe to be relatively uneventful. So even if it’s easy for Grünbaum to shrug off our Occamic propensity to prefer a theory which gives us a cosmic nothing, he also needs to explain why we seem to be in the midst of a world which has a long complex history and is constantly changing.

One possible answer here is some form of the Anthropic Principle: we’re in a world with that long complex history because otherwise it couldn’t contain us. As we know, the anthropic principle comes in a variety of forms: at one end there are unobjectionable versions which say: the fact that we find ourselves in a world that contains enough detail for human beings to be part of it is no more surprising than the supposed stroke of luck that we got ourselves born on a planet with an atmosphere: if it had been otherwise, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it. At the other extreme are scarily idealist versions of the principle which say that our existence actually reaches back in time and reconfigures the fundamental constants of the universe.

Another reason we might want the anthropic principle is to help us whittle down a multiverse. Multiverses of one kind or another seem to be a popular option for helping to explain the world, but again they come in reasonable and less reasonable forms. Parfit seems to have one variety in which slightly different laws or constants operate in different regions of space; but other conceptions have sets of universes which implement everything that isn’t logically contradictory. There are problems with this, not least with the issue of identity across worlds. Multiversians would have it that are universes where I never wrote this post – but there aren’t, because I did: those people who failed to write it are people exactly like me, not me: and it follows that all possibilities are not realised after all, and cannot be, no matter how much the worlds proliferate. Personally I suspect that since the alternative universes make no difference to our world, merely providing an explanatory convenience which they could do even if they didn’t in fact exist, they might as well not exist.

Anyway, what has all this got to do with consciousness? Puzzlement over the existence of the world is partly, I submit, puzzlement over why there are such specific and apparently arbitrary details to it. Why anything, yes, but even if something,why on earth all this? That is strongly related to the questions why me? and What on earth am I? There is a special intractability to questions of this kind: we don’t want the answer to be purely logical because then we would get eternal archetypes, and we’re not that; but we don’t want something random, arbitrary, or notional either because after all we are real. Theories are about generalities, but we’re asking for a theory of the particular. It is haecceity – thisness – that makes us and our qualia so special, but haecceity seems to require an unprecedented kind of explanation that doesn’t exist.

Next time I’ll attempt to give it…



  1. 1. scott bakker says:

    Does he go in depth into Heidegger and the Continental approach to nothingness and consciousness (understood as Being), Peter? So for Sartre, for instance, nothingness is the engine of the Now, and thus existence. For Heidegger, most famously, nothingness is the anchor of authentic existence in the from of Death.

    I’ve always thought it unfortunate the way none of this stuff survived the semantic critiques of early Anglo-American philosophy, and the resulting prohibition against stretching language in an attempt to capture the paradoxes of consciousness. It really robbed English-speaking Philosophers of Mind of an important conceptual resource. As Neils Bohr might have said, they make far too much sense to be possibly right.

    Personally, the thing I find so peculiar and potentially important about nothingness is the way it seems to collapse epistemology and ontology when speaking of consciousness, as in neglect, for instance. There’s nothingness qua nothingness, and then there’s nothingness FOR, nothingness qua ignorance, which for us, *becomes* nothingness qua nothingness. So for me, the way to understand hacceity turns on understanding the informatic closure of the conscious systems of the brain.

    Indexicality, the very anchor of the first person perspective, can be explained in terms of a ‘nothingness qua ignorance.’ A system that cannot represent the performance of its representation *as it represents it* has to, in some peculiar sense, remain ‘self-identical,’ insofar as it lacks any contemporaneous information regarding its global transformation. It can only represent that change *after the fact* – an even still the system remains informatically blind. ‘Thisness,’ on this account, is a function of this fundamental asymmetry between system performance and representation, the way the former drops entirely out of the representational picture for the system, forcing it to always ‘start from square one.’ Why? Because for the system, its performances never actually happen. ‘Nothingness,’ in a weird sense, *becomes identity.* Hacceity is simply the closest the system can get to sniffing its performative neglect. And it is the foundation of the illusion of subjectivity.

  2. 2. DiscoveredJoys says:

    Another possibility is that the reason for ‘stuff’ *cannot* be known. Rather like the quantum world, if we could observe the creation of everything we would inevitably affect the process. Hence the reason why there is anything at all is – unknowable.

    People don’t like unknowable. They are evolving from ancestors who have been driven to establish cause and effect (even if it is made up) because it can be effective in increasing evolutionary fitness. It drives some people into the arms of the supernatural (still unknowable), and some into consumption of recreational drugs. Or some into full time employment speculating why…

  3. 3. Roy Niles says:

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The only feasible answer being that there must always have been something, since logic, by the same token that allows for the possibility of Gods, would not allow the possibly of the nothing that these Gods had supposedly overcome. The universal systems thus needing to have evolved themselves from something that could not conceivably have created itself.

  4. 4. Peter says:

    Scott – he does give both Heidegger and Sartre a bit of space. It’s a journalist’s book overall, not an academic text – we get to hear what he had for lunch quite a lot – but by those standards I would say it’s pretty thorough and well-researched.

  5. 5. Marcus Morgan says:

    I cover this question in nice detail in a book I have recently completed, and you are all welcome to read it (or flip through it to see if you would like to read it). It’s at http://iprimus.com.au/marcus60/1.pdf (it’s 1.2 mb). It’s title is The Human Design (nothing to do with intelligent design) and the issue of nothing arises primarily in the problem of creation ex nihilo, Newton & Plato’s conceptions of infinite space as an emptiness of “viable nothingness” containing matter, compared to Einstein & Aristotle’s view of space constituted only by that matter – meaning our universe expands into “nothing” (what I would describe as a Non-Viable Nothingness – I challenge his cosmology). Enjoy !

  6. 6. ? Recent viewpoints on consciousness and the self « Mostly physics says:

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