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O, I’m Onto the Ontological Argument!

September 13, 2012 by Reader's Connection

Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story

I was reading Jim Holt’s new book Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story at work, and I emitted such a clap of laughter that I had to apologize to my cubicle mate.

The ontological argument had tickled my funny bone. I think it’s so dopey. Saint Anselm cooked it up in the 11th century, as a proof of the existence of God. Saint Thomas Aquinas rejected it, and Schopenhauer called it “a charming joke,” but it has had some track time among philosophers. Bertrand Russell once saw in a flash that it was true, then realized later that it wasn’t–but thought it was hard “to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.”

So what’s the argument? Read Holt’s book. He visits Pittsburgh, Paris, Austin, Oxford and New York City, asking philosophers (a theist and a bitter anti-theist) and physicists and a mystical mathematician and novelist John Updike the same question: How come the universe came into existence? Why is there something instead of nothing?

Here’s physicist Ed Tryon:

I offer the modest proposal that our universe is simply one of those things that happen from time to time.

Physicist Alex Vilenkin has been talking about the Big Bang that (in his mind) gave birth to the universe.

So Vilenkin’s calculations appeared to be sound. Yet, in chatting with him, I had to confess that my imagination bridled at his scenario of creation from nothing. Surely the bubble of false vacuum out of which the cosmos was born had to come from somewhere. So, rather impishly, he told me to picture the bubble forming in a glass of champagne–and then to subtract the champagne.

And here’s Updike, with whom Jim Holt has a delightful phone conversation, and whom I can blame for the fact that this blogpost is running on for too long.

. . . when you think about it, we rationalists–and we’re all, to an extent, rationalist–we accept propositions about the early universe which boggle the mind more than any of the biblical miracles do. Your mind can intuitively grasp the notion of a dead man coming back again to life, as people in deep comas do, and as we do when we wake up every morning out of a sound sleep. But to believe that the universe, immeasurably vast as it appears to be, was once compressed into a tiny space–into a tiny point–is in truth very hard to believe. I’m not saying I can disprove the equations that back it up. I’m just saying that it’s as much a matter of faith to accept that.

Holt disagrees, and on they go. I don’t deal well with either physics or philosophy, and I wasn’t sure that this book was for me; but I gradually warmed up to Holt, as he visited sages from various disciplines. You might find him interesting company, even if he never answers his own big question.

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