Last spring, I offered a harsh assessment of A Universe from Nothing (Free Press, 2012), in which physicist Lawrence Krauss proposed that physicists have finally, probably, maybe, sort of, answered The Question of All Questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? I add the qualifications because Krauss, responding to my post, commented, "I didn’t make any definitive claims… and I get offended when people claim I make such." And yet Krauss was presumably not offended by the afterward of his own book, in which religion-bashing biologist Richard Dawkins declares, "Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?,' shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages." Sounds pretty definitive to me.

In my post, I praised an upcoming book on the same subject, Why Does the World Exist? (W.W. Norton, 2012), by journalist Jim Holt. Holt's book has finally been released, and I just reviewed it for Canada's major newspaper, The Globe & Mail. Here is a modified version of my review:

In 1981, during what I'll call an inner excursion, I figured out the riddle of reality. God—if there is a God—is so overwhelmed by the enormity of his own existence that he creates our weird, wonderful cosmos as a distraction. I've mentioned this hypothesis in a couple of books, but nobody takes it seriously. I'm not sure I do either. But I do take seriously what I like to call The Question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Jim Holt, a journalist who specializes in science, philosophy and mathematics, is as fascinated by The Question as I am. He dates his obsession back to the early 1970s, when he was a "would-be rebellious high-school student" in rural Virginia. Delving into "impressive-looking tomes" on philosophy in his home-town library, he stumbled on a work by Heidegger that posed what Holt calls "the super-ultimate why question."

The Question has haunted Holt ever since. He has read everything he can find on it, by theologians, philosophers, mathematicians and scientists, from Plato and Spinoza to Godel and Einstein. Over the past decade or so Holt also sought out and spoke to a wide range of living Questioners, and he has distilled his investigations and musings into a marvelous book.

Holt divides Questioners into optimists, who have faith that The Question will be answered; pessimists, who harbor doubts; and rejectionists, who view The Question as a meaningless pseudo-question. In one especially fun section of Holt's book, he travels to Pittsburgh to confront the philosopher Adolph Grunbaum, whom Holt describes as "the Great Rejectionist" and "an octogenarian cross between Danny DeVito and Edward G. Robinson." Grunbaum insists that the existence of the world is "utterly unastonishing," a view that I find, well, utterly astonishing.

Another colorful character is the fecund-minded Russian physicist Andrei Linde, who helped popularize the notion that our universe is only one of many in a never-ending "multiverse." Only half kiddingly, Linde confides his suspicion to Holt that a "physicist hacker" in a parallel universe cooked up our cosmos in a laboratory experiment. This hypothesis, Linde suggests, could account for the fact that reality is "far from perfect." Linde, among others, has also conjectured that spacetime could be the inevitable consequence of quantum probability; roll the quantum dice enough times, and sooner or later a whole cosmos will pop out of the void.

Of course quantum mechanics cannot serve as a final explanation any more than God can. As the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg points out to Holt, if you attribute existence to the laws of physics, you still must ask, Why are the laws this way, rather than some other way? "I think we're permanently doomed to that sense of mystery," Weinberg says glumly. (I was pleased when, in his section on Weinberg, Holt quotes my description of him in The End of Science as "a large, dignified elf.")

Holt, who has a knack for treating heavy topics lightly, does not pretend that he or anyone else has definitive answers to The Question. The author of a previous book on the philosophy of jokes, Holt's default style is clever, comic, ironic. But he can be poignant, too--for example, when recalling the death of his mother, who succumbed to cancer in a hospice as Holt held her hand. Death, after all, makes our contemplation of non-existence all too personal.

If we can never answer The Question, what's the point of pondering it? For me and, I suspect, for Holt, the point is to be reminded of just how strange, improbable, even miraculous this world is. Favoring one answer over another—or, rather, claiming that one answer is truer than another, and possibly even absolutely true—strikes me as a category error, akin to arguing that Emily Dickinson is truer than William Blake or James Joyce—or the Bible, for that matter. Even the most scientific responses to The Question, written in the language of mathematics, should be viewed as artistic creations, works of the imagination, which should be judged according to how deeply they move us.

No doubt in recognition of this truth, Holt seeks out the novelist John Updike, whose riffs on The Question are at least as profound as those of the professional logicians and empiricists Holt interrogates. Maybe, says Updike (who died in 2009, just a year after meeting Holt), God concocted the cosmos out of boredom, to pass the time, "almost like a piece of light verse." That's not bad. But I still like my own hypothesis better, because it implies that God, if He exists, is just as stumped by The Question as we are.

Postscript: A reader in Dundas, Ontario, recently sent me a poem he wrote that explores the same topic as the post above.

Something or Nothing

By Brian Greaves-April 1, 2008

Something or nothing, I really don’t know

Something or nothing, I learned long ago

That some people claim, they know the truth

But they’re lacking in logic, and lacking in proof

Ask for the facts, they’ve nothing to show

Something or nothing, I really don’t know

Something or nothing, I’ve wondered so long

Something or nothing, no need to dwell on

It’s fifty percent, so choose what feels better

One or the other, it really don’t matter

Something gives solace, but the feeling’s not strong

I believe in something, but I could be wrong