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TED2014

Jim Holt: Why does the universe exist?

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Why is there something instead of nothing? In other words: Why does the universe exist (and why are we in it)? Philosopher and writer Jim Holt follows this question toward three possible answers. Or four. Or none.

- Writer and philosopher
Why is there something rather than nothing? In his book "Why Does the World Exist?" Jim Holt dares to ask. Full bio

Why does the universe exist?
00:12
Why is there — Okay. Okay. (Laughter)
00:15
This is a cosmic mystery. Be solemn.
00:18
Why is there a world, why are we in it,
00:21
and why is there something rather than nothing at all?
00:25
I mean, this is the super ultimate "why" question?
00:27
So I'm going to talk about the mystery of existence,
00:31
the puzzle of existence,
00:34
where we are now in addressing it,
00:35
and why you should care,
00:38
and I hope you do care.
00:40
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that
00:42
those who don't wonder about
the contingency of their existence,
00:45
of the contingency of the world's existence,
00:49
are mentally deficient.
00:52
That's a little harsh, but still. (Laughter)
00:53
So this has been called the most sublime
00:57
and awesome mystery,
00:59
the deepest and most far-reaching question
01:01
man can pose.
01:04
It's obsessed great thinkers.
01:05
Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the greatest
01:07
philosopher of the 20th century,
01:08
was astonished that there should be a world at all.
01:11
He wrote in his "Tractatus," Proposition 4.66,
01:13
"It is not how things are in the world
01:17
that is the mystical,
01:20
it's that the world exists."
01:21
And if you don't like taking your epigrams
01:24
from a philosopher, try a scientist.
01:26
John Archibald Wheeler, one of the great physicists
01:29
of the 20th century,
01:31
the teacher of Richard Feynman,
01:33
the coiner of the term "black hole,"
01:34
he said, "I want to know
01:37
how come the quantum,
01:40
how come the universe, how come existence?"
01:41
And my friend Martin Amis —
01:44
sorry that I'll be doing a lot of
name-dropping in this talk,
01:46
so get used to it —
01:49
my dear friend Martin Amis once said
01:50
that we're about five Einsteins away from answering
01:55
the mystery of where the universe came from.
01:59
And I've no doubt there are five Einsteins
02:01
in the audience tonight.
02:03
Any Einsteins? Show of hands? No? No? No?
02:05
No Einsteins? Okay.
02:06
So this question, why is there
something rather than nothing,
02:08
this sublime question, was posed rather late
02:12
in intellectual history.
02:14
It was towards the end of the 17th century,
02:16
the philosopher Leibniz who asked it,
02:19
a very smart guy, Leibniz,
02:21
who invented the calculus
02:23
independently of Isaac Newton,
at about the same time,
02:25
but for Leibniz, who asked why is
there something rather than nothing,
02:28
this was not a great mystery.
02:31
He either was or pretended to be
02:33
an Orthodox Christian in his metaphysical outlook,
02:35
and he said it's obvious why the world exists:
02:38
because God created it.
02:41
And God created, indeed, out of nothing at all.
02:44
That's how powerful God is.
02:47
He doesn't need any preexisting
materials to fashion a world out of.
02:48
He can make it out of sheer nothingness,
02:52
creation ex nihilo.
02:54
And by the way, this is what
02:56
most Americans today believe.
02:57
There is no mystery of existence for them.
03:00
God made it.
03:01
So let's put this in an equation.
03:03
I don't have any slides so
I'm going to mime my visuals,
03:05
so use your imaginations.
03:08
So it's God + nothing = the world.
03:09
Okay? Now that's the equation.
03:15
And so maybe you don't believe in God.
03:19
Maybe you're a scientific atheist
03:20
or an unscientific atheist,
and you don't believe in God,
03:22
and you're not happy with it.
03:26
By the way, even if we have this equation,
03:27
God + nothing = the world,
03:30
there's already a problem:
03:32
Why does God exist?
03:33
God doesn't exist by logic alone
03:36
unless you believe the ontological argument,
03:38
and I hope you don't, because
it's not a good argument.
03:40
So it's conceivable, if God were to exist,
03:43
he might wonder, I'm eternal, I'm all-powerful,
03:46
but where did I come from?
03:49
(Laughter)
03:51
Whence then am I?
03:54
God speaks in a more formal English.
03:55
(Laughter)
03:58
And so one theory is that God was so bored with
04:00
pondering the puzzle of His own existence
04:03
that He created the world just to distract himself.
04:05
But anyway, let's forget about God.
04:08
Take God out of the equation: We have
04:10
________ + nothing = the world.
04:11
Now, if you're a Buddhist,
04:14
you might want to stop right there,
04:16
because essentially what you've got is
04:18
nothing = the world,
04:20
and by symmetry of identity, that means
04:22
the world = nothing. Okay?
04:23
And to a Buddhist, the world
is just a whole lot of nothing.
04:25
It's just a big cosmic vacuity.
04:28
And we think there's a lot of something out there
04:31
but that's because we're enslaved by our desires.
04:33
If we let our desires melt away,
04:36
we'll see the world for what it truly is,
04:39
a vacuity, nothingness,
04:42
and we'll slip into this happy state of nirvana
04:44
which has been defined as having
04:46
just enough life to enjoy being dead. (Laughter)
04:48
So that's the Buddhist thinking.
04:51
But I'm a Westerner, and I'm still concerned
04:53
with the puzzle of existence, so I've got
04:56
________ + —
04:58
this is going to get serious in a minute, so —
05:00
________ + nothing = the world.
05:02
What are we going to put in that blank?
05:05
Well, how about science?
05:06
Science is our best guide to the nature of reality,
05:08
and the most fundamental science is physics.
05:12
That tells us what naked reality really is,
05:15
that reveals what I call TAUFOTU,
05:18
the True And Ultimate Furniture Of The Universe.
05:20
So maybe physics can fill this blank,
05:23
and indeed, since about the late 1960s or around 1970,
05:26
physicists have purported to give
05:31
a purely scientific explanation of how
05:35
a universe like ours could have popped into existence
05:38
out of sheer nothingness,
05:41
a quantum fluctuation out of the void.
05:43
Stephen Hawking is one of these physicists,
05:46
more recently Alex Vilenkin,
05:48
and the whole thing has been popularized
05:50
by another very fine physicist and friend of mine,
05:52
Lawrence Krauss, who wrote a book called
05:54
"A Universe from Nothing,"
05:57
and Lawrence thinks that he's given —
05:59
he's a militant atheist, by the way,
06:01
so he's gotten God out of the picture.
06:03
The laws of quantum field theory,
06:05
the state-of-the-art physics, can show how
06:07
out of sheer nothingness,
06:09
no space, no time, no matter, nothing,
06:10
a little nugget of false vacuum
06:12
can fluctuate into existence,
06:16
and then, by the miracle of inflation,
06:18
blow up into this huge and variegated cosmos
06:20
we see around us.
06:23
Okay, this is a really ingenious scenario.
06:25
It's very speculative. It's fascinating.
06:28
But I've got a big problem with it,
06:31
and the problem is this:
06:33
It's a pseudo-religious point of view.
06:35
Now, Lawrence thinks he's an atheist,
06:37
but he's still in thrall to a religious worldview.
06:39
He sees physical laws as being like divine commands.
06:41
The laws of quantum field theory for him
06:46
are like fiat lux, "Let there be light."
06:48
The laws have some sort of ontological power or clout
06:51
that they can form the abyss,
06:55
that it's pregnant with being.
06:57
They can call a world into existence out of nothing.
06:59
But that's a very primitive view of what
07:02
a physical law is, right?
07:04
We know that physical laws are actually
07:06
generalized descriptions of patterns and regularities
07:09
in the world.
07:12
They don't exist outside the world.
07:13
They don't have any ontic cloud of their own.
07:15
They can't call a world into existence
07:17
out of nothingness.
07:19
That's a very primitive view
07:21
of what a scientific law is.
07:22
And if you don't believe me on this,
07:24
listen to Stephen Hawking,
07:26
who himself put forward a model of the cosmos
07:28
that was self-contained,
07:32
didn't require any outside cause, any creator,
07:33
and after proposing this,
07:37
Hawking admitted that he was still puzzled.
07:39
He said, this model is just equations.
07:41
What breathes fire into the equations
07:44
and creates a world for them to describe?
07:47
He was puzzled by this,
07:50
so equations themselves can't do the magic,
07:51
can't resolve the puzzle of existence.
07:55
And besides, even if the laws could do that,
07:57
why this set of laws?
08:00
Why quantum field theory that describes
08:02
a universe with a certain number of forces
08:05
and particles and so forth?
08:06
Why not a completely different set of laws?
08:07
There are many, many mathematically
consistent sets of laws.
08:10
Why not no laws at all? Why not sheer nothingness?
08:13
So this is a problem, believe it or not,
08:16
that reflective physicists really think a lot about,
08:18
and at this point they tend to go metaphysical,
08:21
say, well, maybe the set of laws
08:24
that describes our universe,
08:26
it's just one set of laws
08:28
and it describes one part of reality,
08:29
but maybe every consistent set of laws
08:31
describes another part of reality,
08:34
and in fact all possible physical worlds
08:36
really exist, they're all out there.
08:40
We just see a little tiny part of reality
08:42
that's described by the laws of quantum field theory,
08:45
but there are many, many other worlds,
08:47
parts of reality that are described
08:49
by vastly different theories
08:51
that are different from ours in ways we can't imagine,
08:53
that are inconceivably exotic.
08:56
Steven Weinberg, the father
08:59
of the standard model of particle physics,
09:01
has actually flirted with this idea himself,
09:04
that all possible realities actually exist.
09:07
Also, a younger physicist, Max Tegmark,
09:11
who believes that all mathematical structures exist,
09:14
and mathematical existence is the same thing
09:18
as physical existence,
09:20
so we have this vastly rich multiverse
09:22
that encompasses every logical possibility.
09:24
Now, in taking this metaphysical way out,
09:28
these physicists and also philosophers are actually
09:31
reaching back to a very old idea
09:34
that goes back to Plato.
09:36
It's the principle of plenitude or fecundity,
09:38
or the great chain of being,
09:41
that reality is actually as full as possible.
09:43
It's as far removed from nothingness
09:47
as it could possibly be.
09:48
So we have these two extremes now.
09:51
We have sheer nothingness on one side,
09:54
and we have this vision of a reality
09:57
that encompasses every conceivable world
09:59
at the other extreme: the fullest possible reality,
10:03
nothingness, the simplest possible reality.
10:05
Now what's in between these two extremes?
10:08
There are all kinds of intermediate realities
10:11
that include some things and leave out others.
10:13
So one of these intermediate realities
10:16
is, say, the most mathematically elegant reality,
10:18
that leaves out the inelegant bits,
10:23
the ugly asymmetries and so forth.
10:25
Now, there are some physicists who will tell you
10:28
that we're actually living in the most elegant reality.
10:30
I think that Brian Greene is in the audience,
10:34
and he has written a book
called "The Elegant Universe."
10:37
He claims that the universe we live in mathematically
10:40
is very elegant.
10:43
Don't believe him. (Laughter)
10:44
It's a pious hope, I wish it were true,
10:46
but I think the other day he admitted to me
10:49
it's really an ugly universe.
10:51
It's stupidly constructed,
10:54
it's got way too many arbitrary coupling constants
10:55
and mass ratios
10:59
and superfluous families of elementary particles,
11:00
and what the hell is dark energy?
11:03
It's a stick and bubble gum contraption.
11:05
It's not an elegant universe. (Laughter)
11:09
And then there's the best of all possible worlds
11:13
in an ethical sense.
11:15
You should get solemn now,
11:17
because a world in which sentient beings
11:18
don't suffer needlessly,
11:21
in which there aren't things like
11:23
childhood cancer or the Holocaust.
11:25
This is an ethical conception.
11:27
Anyway, so between nothingness
11:28
and the fullest possible reality,
11:30
various special realities.
11:32
Nothingness is special. It's the simplest.
11:34
Then there's the most elegant possible reality.
11:36
That's special.
11:39
The fullest possible reality, that's special.
11:41
But what are we leaving out here?
11:43
There's also just the crummy,
11:45
generic realities
11:48
that aren't special in any way,
11:49
that are sort of random.
11:52
They're infinitely removed from nothingness,
11:54
but they fall infinitely short of complete fullness.
11:56
They're a mixture of chaos and order,
12:00
of mathematical elegance and ugliness.
12:03
So I would describe these realities
12:07
as an infinite, mediocre, incomplete mess,
12:09
a generic reality, a kind of cosmic junk shot.
12:13
And these realities,
12:16
is there a deity in any of these realities?
12:18
Maybe, but the deity isn't perfect
12:21
like the Judeo-Christian deity.
12:23
The deity isn't all-good and all-powerful.
12:25
It might be instead 100 percent malevolent
12:29
but only 80 percent effective,
12:32
which pretty much describes the world
we see around us, I think. (Laughter)
12:34
So I would like to propose that the resolution
12:40
to the mystery of existence
12:43
is that the reality we exist in
12:45
is one of these generic realities.
12:49
Reality has to turn out some way.
12:51
It can either turn out to be nothing
12:54
or everything or something in between.
12:56
So if it has some special feature,
12:59
like being really elegant or really full
13:03
or really simple, like nothingness,
13:05
that would require an explanation.
13:07
But if it's just one of these random, generic realities,
13:09
there's no further explanation for it.
13:12
And indeed, I would say
13:14
that's the reality we live in.
13:15
That's what science is telling us.
13:17
At the beginning of the week,
13:20
we got the exciting information that
13:21
the theory of inflation, which predicts a big,
13:24
infinite, messy, arbitrary, pointless reality,
13:27
it's like a big frothing champagne
13:31
coming out of a bottle endlessly,
13:35
a vast universe, mostly a wasteland
13:38
with little pockets of charm and order and peace,
13:40
this has been confirmed,
13:44
this inflationary scenario, by the observations
13:46
made by radio telescopes in Antarctica
13:49
that looked at the signature of the gravitational waves
13:51
from just before the Big Bang.
13:54
I'm sure you all know about this.
13:56
So anyway, I think there's some evidence
13:58
that this really is the reality that we're stuck with.
14:01
Now, why should you care?
14:04
Well — (Laughter) —
14:07
the question, "Why does the world exist?"
14:09
that's the cosmic question, it sort of rhymes
14:12
with a more intimate question:
14:14
Why do I exist? Why do you exist?
14:15
you know, our existence would
seem to be amazingly improbable,
14:18
because there's an enormous number
of genetically possible humans,
14:22
if you can compute it by looking at
14:26
the number of the genes and the
number of alleles and so forth,
14:28
and a back-of-the-envelope calculation will tell you
14:30
there are about 10 to the 10,000th
14:32
possible humans, genetically.
14:34
That's between a googol and a googolplex.
14:36
And the number of the actual
humans that have existed
14:40
is 100 billion, maybe 50 billion,
14:41
an infinitesimal fraction, so all of us,
14:44
we've won this amazing cosmic lottery.
14:46
We're here. Okay.
14:48
So what kind of reality do we want to live in?
14:50
Do we want to live in a special reality?
14:53
What if we were living in the
most elegant possible reality?
14:55
Imagine the existential pressure on us
14:59
to live up to that, to be elegant,
15:02
not to pull down the tone of it.
15:03
Or, what if we were living
in the fullest possible reality?
15:05
Well then our existence would be guaranteed,
15:08
because every possible thing
15:10
exists in that reality,
15:12
but our choices would be meaningless.
15:14
If I really struggle morally and agonize
15:16
and I decide to do the right thing,
15:19
what difference does it make,
15:21
because there are an infinite number
15:22
of versions of me
15:24
also doing the right thing
15:25
and an infinite number doing the wrong thing.
15:26
So my choices are meaningless.
15:28
So we don't want to live in that special reality.
15:30
And as for the special reality of nothingness,
15:32
we wouldn't be having this conversation.
15:35
So I think living in a generic reality that's mediocre,
15:37
there are nasty bits and nice bits
15:44
and we could make the nice bits bigger
15:46
and the nasty bits smaller
15:47
and that gives us a kind of purpose in life.
15:50
The universe is absurd,
15:53
but we can still construct a purpose,
15:54
and that's a pretty good one,
15:56
and the overall mediocrity of reality
15:57
kind of resonates nicely with the mediocrity
15:59
we all feel in the core of our being.
16:02
And I know you feel it.
16:04
I know you're all special,
16:06
but you're still kind of secretly mediocre,
16:07
don't you think?
16:09
(Laughter) (Applause)
16:11
So anyway, you may say, this
puzzle, the mystery of existence,
16:13
it's just silly mystery-mongering.
16:17
You're not astonished at the existence of the universe
16:18
and you're in good company.
16:22
Bertrand Russell said,
16:24
"I should say the universe is just there, and that's all."
16:26
Just a brute fact.
16:30
And my professor at Columbia, Sidney Morgenbesser,
16:31
a great philosophical wag,
16:34
when I said to him, "Professor Morgenbesser,
16:35
why is there something rather than nothing?"
16:37
And he said, "Oh, even if there was nothing,
16:40
you still wouldn't be satisfied."
16:42
So — (Laughter) — okay.
16:44
So you're not astonished. I don't care.
16:47
But I will tell you something to conclude
16:50
that I guarantee you will astonish you,
16:53
because it's astonished all of the brilliant,
16:55
wonderful people I've met at this TED conference,
16:58
when I've told them, and it's this:
17:00
Never in my life have I had a cell phone.
17:02
Thank you.
17:07
(Laughter) (Applause)
17:09

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About the speaker:

Jim Holt - Writer and philosopher
Why is there something rather than nothing? In his book "Why Does the World Exist?" Jim Holt dares to ask.

Why you should listen

In his 2012 book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Jim Holt creates a narrative out of one of the biggest questions we can ask -- and how modern scientists and philosophers are asking it. Can answers be found in many-worlds theory, in quantum mechanics, in a theology? Traveling around North America and Europe, he talks to physicists, including David Deutsch; philosophers, including Richard Swinburne; and the novelist John Updike. Why? Because as he tells Vanity Fair, "To me it’s the most sublime and awesome question in all of philosophy and all of human inquiry."

A longtime contributor to the New York Times, Slate and the New Yorker, Holt has written on string theory, time, infinity, numbers, humor, logic, truth and bullshit, among other topics. Holt studied mathematics at the University of Virginia, and was a faculty fellow in the philosophy department at Columbia. He is now at work on a book about free will, weakness of will, self-knowledge and happiness.

More profile about the speaker
Jim Holt | Speaker | TED.com