When I was 12 or so, I asked my father what happens when you travel in space and you keep going. Is there an end, and then what? He responded with a shrug, “I used to ask those questions too, but I don’t anymore. No one knows.”
When Robert Lawrence Kuhn was 12, a similar idea struck him with painful force: “What if everything has always been nothing?” His new book, co-edited with John Leslie, is called The Mystery of Existence: Why is There Anything at All? (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013). Kuhn’s chapter in the volume reveals a rich “taxonomy of possible explanations,” including levels of illusion and of nothing, as well as a full range of nonphysical causes (gods, spirit realms, consciousness, and so many more).
Kuhn, chairman of the Kuhn Foundation, which supports understanding of science and philosophy, and promotes Chinese-American relations, notes at the end of his complex chapter, “If you don’t get dizzy, you really don’t get it.”
When I read about this sort of philosophical question, quantum cosmology, or quantum physics, the narrative sometimes starts off easily enough, so that I get fooled that this time I’ll be able to follow the logic, if not the math (definitely not the math: I don’t even really get why numbers—isn’t that what math is supposed to be?—can represent unseeable things). I find myself being led to hope that I’ll finally grasp at least some of what’s going on inside and underneath everything we see, touch, or experience in any way at all.
The Mystery of Existence is like that, and I’m going to recommend it for those of my readers who love a challenge. The way the book is set up is clear, the writing is for the most part very clear. What’s hard is the problem itself: why the heck is there a universe (or universes) rather than absolutely nothing at all? And as it appears that there IS something rather than nothing, how did that come about?
Though the book is one of those academic compilations of work that was done previously and only collected here, the vague sense of repetition is, in this case, more than welcome. Reading how a variety of top-flight minds of the past and present contend with this persistent question is more helpful to the seeker than just reading one overly confident scientist’s view (and certainly much more helpful than reading what any non-scientifically-minded religious believer has to say).
I suspect humankind won’t ever quit asking such questions, so long as those with closed minds and no curiosity don’t lead us all to some final oblivion.
Click for more about Kuhn’s PBS series “Closer to Truth: Science, Meaning and the Future,” as well as an interview with him.