The Basic Question: Why Does the World Exist?

From The New York Times:

WorldThere could have been nothing. It might have been easier. Instead there is something. The universe exists, and we are here to ask about it. Why? “Why is there something rather than nothing?” sounds so fundamental a question that it should have perplexed humanity since the dawn of philosophy. Strangely, it hasn’t, or at least it has left no trace on early written literature. Aristotle said that philosophy begins with wonder, and earlier Greek philosophers did wonder what the world was made of. Thales thought its primal substance was water, Anaximenes air, Heraclitus fire. But they didn’t ask why anything was there at all. We find no one haunted by the specter of non-being until Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who wrote in 1714, “The first question which we have a right to ask will be, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ ” For some, the question is not really a question. It is more an expression of philosophical amazement — a way of saying “wow” in the face of existence.

Ludwig Wittgenstein described a feeling of awe that led him to use phrases like “How extraordinary that anything should exist,” but he decided it was better not to say such things. Martin Heidegger decided the other way, and made the Question of Being the foundation for his entire philosophy, becoming, as George Steiner described him, “the great master of astonishment, the man whose amazement before the blank fact that we are instead of not being, has put a radiant obstacle in the path of the obvious.” Other people have treated it as a real question, the kind that might have an answer. And some think they have actually found answers, though these tend to be so different that one can hardly believe they started with the same question. In “Why Does the World Exist?,” Jim Holt, an elegant and witty writer comfortably at home in the problem’s weird interzone between philosophy and scientific cosmology, sets out in search of such answers.

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