6 June 2013


John Leslie and Robert Lawrence Kuhn (editors). The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All? Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

The editors of this book have selected extracts from the works of philosophers, physicists and theologians who have tried to consider the question posed in the title. These extracts are presented and discussed under five main headings, so I think it might be helpful to prospective readers of this book to give brief summaries of some of them.
The first solution is 'A Blank is Absurd'. In other words, some philosophers, and some physicists, see the existence of the universe as being logically necessary. As the editors point out, making the distinction between something being logically possible and existing in actual fact can be "surprisingly tricky". In this section there are some brief summaries of philosophical arguments as to why the universe must exist, but the final extract is from The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, who state that M-theory (a development of string theory) is a great triumph in bringing us close to understanding the laws governing us and the universe. "But perhaps the true miracle is that abstract considerations of logic lead to a unique theory that predicts and describes a vast universe full of the amazing variety that we see."

The second section, which quotes from arguments that no explanation is needed, deals with the questions of whether everything that exists must have a cause, and if the universe has always existed, and whether it makes sense to say that it must have a cause. Epicurus argued that something cannot emerge from nothing. David Hume also argued that the universe had no beginning, as everything would have a cause, so that there was never a first event which would have no cause, so that nothing would be left unexplained.

Fred Hoyle's Steady State theory, and more modern cosmological theories, did not require any external cause, but there are of course those who argue that the universe could not come into existence or continue to exist by itself but needs to be created and maintained by God. We are thus given the famous debate which took place between Bertrand Russell and Father F.C. Copleston on BBC radio in 1948.

Copleston could not accept that the universe could come into existence without any cause or that it always existed, as he argued that: "So, I should say, in order to explain existence, we must come to a being which contains within itself the reason for its own existence -- that is to say, which cannot not-exist." Russell replied that he did not accept the idea of a necessary being, and he did not think there was any meaning in calling other beings "contingent". As the two men could not really agree on the basic logic of their arguments, the result was somewhat inconclusive.

The theory that our universe came into existence and developed by chance is discussed by physicists and cosmologists rather than philosophers and theologians. While some cosmologists speculate about many universes with different physical laws and constants, the modern tendency seems -- at least to the casual reader -- to be determined by logic, meaning that the laws of nature can be discovered by solving mathematical equations, and confirmed by observations and experiments.

In the fourth solution, we are firmly in the realm of metaphysics, using axiological principles, which deal with ethics and aesthetics. Thus some philosophers argue that there is something because it is better than nothing. Of course, most of these believe it was created by God. But then we are faced with the problem of evil which the philosophers and theologians have to struggle with.

The fifth solution is mind and consciousness. "Does an infinite mind supply the reason for all other existing things? Or are minds or conscious experiences in some way fundamental to all existence?" I hope it doesn't make me seem too flippant when I remark that if there was no consciousness then there would be nobody to know if anything existed. Also, if I didn't exist then nothing would exist so far was I was concerned. But I think that perhaps I might be getting a bit out of my depth.

I have been able to give only a brief and superficial impression of this book here. If the subject interests you and you want to study it you will be kept busy for quite some time. I certainly recommend it, but it is not the sort of book you would buy to read in the train. -- John Harney

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