If you tend to wake up in the wee hours, a great way to get sleepy again is Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt. With the curious capacity to both dazzle and daze, after a chapter or two, you’re ready to go back to sleep.
Holt went round the world consulting physicists and philosophers and in the last chapter, tells of a French TV show in which a priest, a scientist, and a Buddist monk are asked why the world exists.
Priest: because God made it.
Physicist: it sprang into existence out of a quantum fluctuation in the void.
Buddist monk: it’s all illusion.
Which pretty much leaves the reader unscathed. For me, one look at the sky on a clear night, or through a microscope at a water drop is enough .
Holt considers consciousness, mind, self, and infinity, which comes in different sizes. We human beings, fleeting organic bubbles in the ocean of reality, are so habituated to beginnings and endings, we have trouble imagining infinity. As a 12-year-old, my neighbor, Georgie Legnos, who went to Greek School every day after PS 98, said, “If you get in a space ship (we all read Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) and reach the end of space, what’s on the other side of that end?” After that, infinity was easier to imagine than finity.
So what does the Creator do? Create, naturally. Physicists are uncovering evidence—the “many worlds theory” for one—of new universes bursting into existence, and new souls, as Spinoza put it, “tiny regions in an infinite mind.” And each soul can grow before rejoining the Creator, or shrink and wink out, sloughed off like dead cells in a human body. “The wages of sin is death.” Nothing in Jim Holt’s mind-stretching book makes a case against anyone’s personal beliefs. Great book!