“Why Is There Anything?” – a Book Review


About a year ago John Zande recommended “Why Is There Anything?, by Matthew Rave. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and not because I’m convinced it’s correct, and not even because I believe it answers the question of the book title.  In fact in the second chapter the author pretty much admits that he can’t completely answer the question (although he thinks we can make it more palatable).  I thought it was great for several reasons:

  1. It was an enjoyable, lightly humorous dialogue between 2 fictional characters (a theist and an atheist).
  2. It is a very easy read and a great introduction to questions about reality.
  3. There were tons of thought-provoking ideas.
  4. It was presented in a way that was respectful of theists, even though the author is an atheist.  A theist who wants to gain an understanding of atheists without being insulted should read this book – there are even some spots where you would be pleasantly surprised.

I would say that this is the best book I’ve read yet in its genre, so many thanks to John for a great recommendation.  If you are the type that doesn’t like to know about the contents of a book before reading it then you need to stop reading this post right now.

So Why Is There Anything (aka the WITA question)?

Matthew’s main answer to the WITA question comes from information theory.  These quotes explain: “the answer to WITA is that there really isn’t anything…not in an informational sense.  Everything exists, which mathematically isn’t that much different from nothing existing at all.”, and “the information content of a collection of things can be much simpler than the information content of a single thing.“, and then “So, if you ever wonder why there’s ‘something’ rather than nothing, you need wonder no more: there is nothing, in the sense that the infinite multiverse contains no information: it is ‘full’.”

I think he’s right though that it doesn’t completely answer the question – there is still the question of why anything at all exists even if it is everything possible.  Of all the “solutions” I’ve read for this question I don’t find any of them (whether it’s theist or non-theist versions) really answer the question.

The rest of the book is a fun dialogue mainly in support of the idea that there are many universes.  The many-worlds view is one of many interpretations of quantum mechanics, and Matthew notes that it is the interpretation which requires the least amount of axioms and thus obeys Occam’s razor (the favorite argument that we all use to support our own views).  You can learn more about the many-worlds theory on the wiki page, or by watching this video:

So I’m Still Skeptical

Even after reading the book (and parts of it 2 or 3 times) I still don’t get the feeling that I can claim that all possible universes exist.  Actually, my reasons are similar to why I reject theism. In fact some of my reasons are the same reasons that some theists have for rejecting the existence of multiverses.  There just doesn’t seem to be hard enough evidence for either idea.  I see this as a valid stance to take.  But somehow rejecting the idea of Gods conjures up all claims of bias among many theists:  “you are rejecting the existence of God because you want to live a life without rules”, or “you are rejecting God because you are not humble.”  Somehow the decision is linked to integrity rather than seen as an epistemic claim just like my claim to doubt the existence of the many-worlds theory.  And the interesting thing is that this lack of hard evidence is actually even more damning to the God option.  If a God really does want a personal relationship with its creation (which multiple universes wouldn’t) then lack of empirical evidence is a much bigger problem for that option.  The fact that “metaphysical” claims have become so entangled with integrity is a troubling aspect of a lot of religions.

Is the Question Even Answerable?

My son asked me several months ago what the biggest number was, and he said he didn’t want me to say infinity because that wasn’t really a number.  Given the axioms of math we know “what is the biggest number?” is not really answerable.  “Why is there anything?” – this question is not as clear given that there isn’t really a consensus regarding the axioms involved.  However, given that both of these questions deal with the problem of infinite regress, I wonder whether both questions are not answerable.

But as I said this book was a delight to read and I recommend it to anyone interested in getting a better grounding on some of the ideas that are shaping current research into reality.


21 thoughts on ““Why Is There Anything?” – a Book Review

  1. The first minute of the video says it all, that reality is a great mystery to science.

    Matthews picks the 18% “many worlds” idea and then proceeds from that bias.

    Yes, bias, not science, not reason, no evidence.

    And then how about this bit of pure nonsense, “the answer to WITA is that there really isn’t anything…not in an informational sense.”

    That everything exists is obvious, and if “in an informational sense,” “there really isn’t anything,” than the “informational sense,” must be rejected for another “sense” which correctly models reality.

  2. Many thanks for the review Howie. I feel I ought to buy the book and add it to the ever-mounting pile of others that I tell myself I ‘must read’. o_O

    My admittedly unreliable instinct tells me that the question here is wrongly put, though not merely because it appears unanswerable; rather that we seem to be getting ahead of ourselves in creating such dubieties.

    Perhaps progress can be made on this once we are able to gain a consensus on what consciousness is. But first, the scientific community must establish that it does indeed ‘exist’!

  3. Brilliant summary Howie, and I’m so glad to hear you liked it. Matt is a great person, no doubt a brilliant professor, and I thoroughly respect the way he approaches “reality.” If you don’t mind, I’d like to link this review on his FB page. Is that cool?

  4. Silence: There are several clues that this is science: Matt details ways to falsify the many-worlds hypothesis in his book. It is considered a hypothesis at this point, and he also lists reasons why he thinks it is the best interpretation of quantum mechanics. Heliocentrism remained a very small minority viewpoint in science for a very long time, so the percentage is not a judge of truth or falsity. However I agree that as laypeople it is valid to have doubt about a hypothesis if the current percentage of scientists claiming it is not strong. So I’d just say that your comment seems too strongly stated, but it falls in place with your typical comments I’ve seen before so I can place it in that context.

  5. Oh, I can so relate to the growing pile of books! 🙂 I think that is a good point that knowledge about consciousness may help in a lot of areas. I suppose for now we have to deal with what we’ve got, and make our best effort at it.

  6. Howie,

    If only 18% of scientists believe in the multiverse, it may as well be science fiction.

    Science is 100%. Something is or it isn’t.

    The truth is that science does not understand the nature of reality.

  7. Nan,

    I am not the topic of discussion here but have studied enough to know that presently, philosophy is a better tool with which to grapple with the nature of reality than is science.

    The atheist knows neither science nor philosophy so any venture into the topic will be pure hallucination fueled by personal bias and personal opinion, just like “scientist” Matthews.

  8. Howie,
    I really enjoyed your review. Especially your humor. 🙂

    I think the application of information theory to WITA is interesting but completely ineffectual. Actually, many atheists would argue against this sort of application for the same reason they argue against information theory being applied to DNA (as advanced by Intelligent Design), namely because information implies a cosmic mind, teleology.

    Also, I line up with you on not being convinced by the multiverse. The multiverse is pseudoscience and many-worlds interpretation is even worse pseudoscience. I am surprised that Carroll, who usually delivers strong on intellect, has gone down such a route even suggesting that practicing physicists have not considered many worlds. He sounds like a religious zealot who thinks he can convert all his colleagues in the video. Even the interviewer sounded incredulous.

    I might be able to add something to the general discussion about WITA that seems to be suppressed. Take for instance Jim Holt. I love his TED talk and saw it even before you posted it on your blog. Holt is highly critical of Laurence Krauss (and Stephen Hawking, etc.) for not understanding that WITA is a metaphysical question, it cannot be addressed by empirical science. (Other questions outside of the scope of science include: why do you exist, what is morally good and evil, what has meaning, why is the universe intelligible?) I applaud Holt for getting the part about metaphysics correct. He goes on to reject creational theism (because we magically know it’s false) and goes on to compare our reality with a spectrum of potential realities in a sort of modern mythologizing that amounts to the perfect non-answer, the perfect distraction. So aside from the metaphysical and non-scientific nature of WITA, we can at the very least say that there must be an answer beyond all the hand waving. Saying “It is just is” or rattling off an inane mythic story is giving up and seems anti-intellectual in the same way that the god-of-the-gaps is for science. Rational inquiry extends beyond science, and the no-answer-of-the-gaps mentality only stifles progress.

    Beyond this minimalist notion, it seems that there are features of reality which are unnatural. The questions I just listed above are some unnatural features in addition to freedom and intentionality. It seems that bono fide philosophers who are naturalists recognize this unnaturalness, therefore they must reject these aspects of reality as illusory. Take for example Alex Rosenberg. So, it seems that naturalism, by rejecting freedom, consciousness, morality, meaning, etc. seems to be the most incoherent philosophy one could possibly adopt, but hey, making people angry about religion sells a ton of books.

  9. Great post, Howie. I comment with some trepidation because of the obvious presents of deep thinkers on this blog, and my very limited knowledge, especially of physics.

    From what I’ve read, however, I certainly lean to the mulitverse hypothesis, and as I understand, theoretical physics has made some strides in modeling such a reality.

    Interestingly enough, however, I’ve found one of the main objections to a godless universe offered by the Intelligent Design crowd is its fine tuning of matter necessary to produce life (and even stars and planets, for that “matter” :D), from among countless possible permutations.

    With brane/mulitverse reality, given an infinity of time, the improbability of such a “fine tuning” would certainly become a statistical probability–even a certainty.

    Still, as you say, even though it may destroy the ID argument, it does not “explain the brane.”

  10. Hey Brandon,

    Sorry for the late reply, but I wanted to watch the video again to make sure I wasn’t stating things wrong.

    First the easy part. Yes WITA seems to me to be a metaphysical question and Matthew agrees and notes it in his book, so we’re all on the same page there. He does think science can at least shed some light indirectly on it though, which I think is fair enough. What I do however see even in some your comments elsewhere is the suggestion that theism has a better answer for WITA, but that I think is very wrong. To me it’s just as you mentioned in your comment – saying “it just is” isn’t really an answer. It looks a bit worse to me though – a mind that knows every fact seems way more complex to me than some set of physical laws along with energy that then developed naturally to what we see today. So I actually think naturalism has the more satisfying “answer”, but only comparatively speaking. As I mentioned I don’t think there is a satisfying answer because it deals with infinite regress and that is a big conundrum. No matter what entity we may come across there will always be the question of explaining that entity. I don’t see a way around that problem.

    Pseudoscience sounds to me overstated (which would totally mis-place it in a category with things like telepathy which have been experimentally falsified but yet are stated very strongly as truth by followers), especially for multiverse, which as you know is different yet similar from many-worlds. Cosmic inflation is currently a respected hypothesis, and I’ve read from several sources (some even leaning toward theism) that with cosmic inflation it’s highly likely that there is a multiverse. As far as many-worlds, it seems clear to me that it is currently a hypothesis which needs confirmation. Matthew details several reasons he thinks it beats the other interpretations. There were points I wondered if he was over confident, but that’s hard to tell for some like me who’s not in the thick of the research.

    Carroll may have been overly confident, but actually when I watched the video again I saw several things that showed that religious zealot is way out of the ballpark. He mentioned that they need experiments to see which of the different interpretations are correct (and didn’t even express favoritism to his view when saying that). At the end he mentioned that whichever interpretation is correct that physicists need to take seriously the unpalatable consequences of that interpretation (again he mentioned several not showing favoritism). Also the part you mentioned he stated was just his opinion and actually his explanation matched my own experience in studying quantum mechanics in several courses in college. I don’t think there is a need to defend Carroll because he’s just one physicist but I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding by theists that cosmologists who support multiverse or many-worlds are like religious zealots, and that doesn’t look correct to me.

    So I think it’s far to say that multiverse and many-worlds are currently hypotheses. They have not been confirmed nearly enough through experimentation to put it higher and they have also not been falsified. Claiming zealotry or pseudoscience doesn’t seem to fit to me.

    Multiverse isn’t something theists need to fear, and I sense that a lot of theists do, but there are many theists who are quite fine with multiverse, and some even think that if the God they believe in is the ultimate creator then it makes sense that he would have created a multiverse. My hope is that we don’t let our theistic or atheistic bents keep us from continuing to come up with many different mathematical models and objectively test them to see which ones are confirmed.

  11. Hey Max. Thank you, and no need for trepidation. All of us here, including myself, are hacks at cosmology and not experts in the field.

    The fine tuning argument for theism has a lot of issues which make it unconvincing and multiverse is not the only one, although it is certainly a significant one. I can’t remember if you read it but here is a link to my fine-tuning post.

  12. Hey Howie, we agree on several things here like WITA is a metaphysical question, theists do not need to fear multiverse cosmology, and we should not hinder theoretical modeling of the universe. We also have tensions which I think are worth exploring.

    You said, “. . . a mind that knows every fact seems way more complex to me than some set of physical laws along with energy that then develop naturally to what we see today.”
    The problem with this comparison is that it does not peel the layers back far enough. Why do minds and physical laws exist in the first place? These are some deep metaphysical questions that a worldview needs to grapple with in some way.

    You said, “. . . I don’t think there is a satisfying answer because it deals with infinite regress and that is a big conundrum. No matter what entity we may come across there will always be the question of explaining that entity.”
    I agree with you that the Kalaam cosmological argument is problematic, but let me suggest to you that it is not because of infinite regress, rather because it never addresses the deep metaphysical questions. Let me explain. First, science does not support an infinite regress in the past. The Vilenkin-Borde-Guth theorem states that even in inflationary scenarios, there was a finite spacetime boundary in the past. Also, as you noted in your conversation with your son (which is awesome), we know that infinity is a mathematical construction that does not correspond to any known physical reality. So, the real problem with Kalaam has nothing to do with infinite regress. It has to do with the fact that the Unmoved Mover is basically just another physical object that exists within a physical framework like a demiurge. Why does the physical framework exist? This is where we cross a great schism for which science has no access. Not even “indirect” access as Matthews suggests. These are no longer physical arguments, rather metaphysical arguments. It is no longer a posteriori rather a priori. Think of the argument from contingency. Contingency has nothing to do with physical causality that can be traced back in time, rather has to do with logically contingent and logically necessary beings. There must exist a single necessary Being which then endows all being to all else and at every moment. Anyhow, this paragraph is not a defense of these arguments, rather highlighting the great schism that Kalaam has trouble with.

    On one side of the great schism we have nature which is accessed by our senses and science. On the other side we have, for lack of better terminology, supernature which is only accessed by reason. A bunny rabbit is natural and can be studied by the scientific method, but existence itself is supernatural. Existence cannot be reduced to a mechanistic explanation. Also, take consciousness. Neuroscience, despite its herculean effort, has failed to make any mechanistic sense of consciousness. We just have neurochemical reactions which magically produce consciousness. The wizardry involved here is recognized by philosophers like Alex Rosenberg. So, they adopt what is called eliminative materialism which states that mental states and consciousness are illusions. That is completely incoherent! I am more certain that I have a mind capable of intentional thought than I am of gravity and germ theory.

    One does not have to be a naturalist to be an atheist though. However, take all the features of life which cannot be reduced to mechanistic interactions of matter in spacetime – freedom, beauty, good and evil, intentionality, WITA, why the subject exists, consciousness, purpose – and using magic to simply reject their reality is markedly incoherent. It is denying reality that we know is true, and is why naturalism is the most incoherent worldview. One could be a Platonist and an atheist and say these really exist in a platonic realm that patterns itself onto matter. That is more coherent because at least it would acknowledge the existence of these.

    As for multiverse, I think we are talking about different ideas here, because I agree that inflationary cosmology is legitimate science. Alexander Vilenkin, a reputable cosmologist, stated in an article in the physics journal, Arxiv:
    “If you change [physical constants] by relatively small amounts, you end up with a universe that is not fit for life. This seems to suggest that the constants were fine-tuned by the Creator, in order to make a bio-friendly universe for us to live in. . . The multiverse picture offers a different explanation. The constants of nature take a wide range of values, varying from one [inflationary] bubble to another. Intelligent observers exist only in those rare bubbles in which, by pure chance, the constants happen to be just right for life to evolve. The rest of the multiverse remains barren, but no one is there to complain about that.”
    In this article Vilenkin attempts to apply the principle of mediocrity to support this idea, and I wrote a blog refuting this application of the principle of mediocrity. But, the main point to gather from this quote is that the multiverse is a conspicuous attempt to argue against the fine-tuning argument. But, more importantly it has zero scientific evidence. Typically its proponents cite string theory have 10^500 solutions as suggesting that physical constants can, in principle, change. But, think about this proposal. 1) Even if physical constants could change, we have no evidence that they ever would change, 2) If physical constants do change, why should they be different in different inflationary bubbles, 3) There is not any experimental evidence for string theory, 4) String theory is currently not falsifiable therefore fits Karl Poppers criterion for pseudoscience. Multiverse as stated is also not falsifiable. Therefore, we can confidently say the multiverse with altering physical constants fits the definition of pseudoscience. I do not even think it can legitimately be called a hypothesis because it is embedded within so many layers of far-reaching and unsupported hypotheses. Telepathy on the other hand is NOT pseudoscience, because it is falsifiable and has been falsified by experiments.

  13. Hi Brandon,

    A lot of that is some very good thinking about this stuff and there are probably several things I could pick out that I agree with.

    From my reading there are many more naturalistic views than just the eliminative materialism you describe. I have much more to read before being able to explain though, so we’ll probably be able to discuss more another time.

    I think we’re dealing with semantics on the pseudoscience thing so I’m cool leaving it at disagreeing there and allowing you the last word.

  14. Hey Howie, I reread that swollen WOT I wrote yesterday and realized a mistake about infinite regress. But, the criticism that Kalaam does not go behind the curtain so-to-speak is still valid I think.

    Anyway, here’s my last word: lymphangioleiomyomatosis.

  15. Hey Brandon… hmmmm.. WOT – way over typed? google failed me on this one. I got “world of tanks” and “web of trust” but neither of those seems to fit. Either way that comment was a bit of a word soup – I got a major migraine last night when I was trying to actually think through the whole thing.

    Ok, I’m not gonna give you the last word anymore after that crazy long one!

  16. Is the answer to the question “why is there anything?” simply “because it is possible”?
    Or, to put it another way, unless there is a rule that prevents “anything” from “existing”, then “anything” is free to exist. If there was a rule, that would itself imply some sort of existence and would therefore be a logical contradiction.

    Of course, this is metaphysical speculation, and perhaps suggests that the universe is some kind of illusion, not in the sense that we as humans simply imagine it, but that we don’t really have a deep understanding of what “existence” or “reality” mean, other than what we experience. Since we are part of reality (whatever that is) it is necessarily the thing that we experience.

    So it all seems quite tautological. As you say, perhaps the question isn’t answerable, which would imply that it’s simply not the right question to be asking. More interesting is “why is reality like it is?”, and that is what science is endeavouring to find out.

  17. Hi Steve,

    I can relate to a lot of what you write. I’ve seen some people argue for naturalism with the line of thinking in your first paragraph, and it seems to make some sense, although admittedly mixes in my head a bit confusingly. Most philosophers seem to agree that at least the laws of logic exist necessarily. All one needs is some type of energy and/or other naturalistic force which exist necessarily and the universe could have evolved from the “potential” that existed given there is no rule preventing it to have done that. And if there is a rule preventing it then as you say that is also something that would be in existence. And the “evolving” part of that idea seems very much reasonable given that scientific investigations have found that a lot of things are capable of evolving naturally from simpler to more complex.

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