Friday, December 21, 2012

The fun of contingent stuff, or, Looking around in the corners of Why Does the World Exist?

{If I may ask a favor: this post has been receiving an unusual amount of traffic, but I can't figure out where it's coming from. We're not talking "praised by the Queen in her Christmas speech" kind of numbers, but still a noticeable spike. If you were sent here by a link or a reference, and you've got a minute to drop a note about it in the comments, my curiosity and I would greatly appreciate it.} If you've been following me on Twitter the past couple of days, you've already realized that I've been enjoying Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?, a philosophical and scientific investigation into the question posed by its title. The fact that I read it at all beyond the first pages is a mark of its quality, as that's a question that has never interested me much--in philosophy, I've always been content to stop at Spinoza, with his elegant and logical positing of all things as part of one single, unitary substance. To try to get much beyond that has always seemed impossible, as it requires asking our perceptions and logic to move beyond every single one of the conditions that created them.

Yet Holt, as he travels the world interviewing philosophers and scientists, pitting their theories against one another and punching holes in their logic, makes the whole drama of inquiries into existence seem vibrant and important. Plenty of reviews out there cover the content of Holt's investigations, so what I'll share instead are some of the plethora of details, asides, and throwaway moments that help keep the book from ever seeming aridly intellectual.

There are the occasional snatches of entertaining non-philosophical dialogue, like this exchange with John Leslie:
"Of all the contemporary philosophers I've been reading,"I told him, "you've got to be the wittiest."

"You're very kind," he said. Then he added, "But I'm not sure that's much of a compliment."
Then there's the night when Holt is wandering the streets of Paris, having earlier happened across Karl Lagerfeld (with "one of his muses," who was wearing black lipstick). He passes Descartes' tomb and reminds us that not all of Descartes lives there: "The whereabouts of his skull and right forefinger is a mystery." A similar bit of utterly inessential but satisfying detail that Holt includes is this sighting in Oxford:
A woman cyclist passed me on the road, with a log and some tree branches strapped to her bike, reminding me of the log lady from "Twin Peaks."
A book whose primary concern is the existence or non-existence of the world ought to include some of the contingent nonsense that makes the universe worth bothering with in the first place, shouldn't it?

Probably the best set-piece of character and description in the book is Holt's visit to the home of Oxford philosopher David Deutsch. When Holt calls Deutsch to ask for an appointment, the response is not good:
I had reviewed Deutsche's book years ago in the Wall Street Journal--favorably, as I dimly recalled. Surely, I thought, he would be willing to talk to an admirer such as myself, especially one who had taken the trouble to come all the way to Oxford. So I e-mailed him, introducing myself and mentioning the nice review I had given his book in the United States more than a decade ago.

"I just checked on Google," Deutsch e-mailed me back. "Arrogant in tone and marred by leaps of logic--is that the one?"

Oh, dear. My memory seemed to have played me false. I googled the review myself. The full sentence he had quoted read, "Arrogant in tone and marred by leaps of logic, his book nonetheless bristles with subversive insights about virtual reality, time and time travel, mathematical certainty, and free will." That didn't sound so bad. In the review I had also called Deutsch "mad, bad, and dangerous to know"--a description originally applied to Lord Byron. E-mailing him again, I pointed out that this was meant, in a somewhat jocular vein, as a compliment.

"In my opinion Byron was literally mad, bad, and dangerous to know, not least because he was a willfully careless thinker," Deutsch replied.
Deutsch may be the first person in history to hold Byron's sloppy thinking as his most damning fault.

Deutsch does eventually relent, inviting Holt to his home:
After a few moments the door was opened by an improbably boyish-looking fellow with large mole-like eyes, rather transparent skin, and shoulder-length, albinoid hair. Behind him, I could see great moldering heaps of papers, broken tennis rackets, and other detritus. I knew that Deutsch was famous for, as one science journalist put it, "setting international standards in slovenliness," but these looked more like experiments in indoor composting.
Inside, Holt finds on the sofa
an attractive young woman with strawberry-blonde hair--she looked almost like a teenager--eating a plate of macaroni and cheese.
Introduced in cursory fashion as Lulie, she sits in silence, eating macaroni, while Deutsch raves about the nature of reality, a 1960s youth culture movie–style riposte to any sustained toying with the idea of nullity.

Oh, and throughout the book there is much drinking--including gin, whole bottles of wine, whiskey, splits of champagne--though enough of it takes the form of tea or coffee that at one point Holt raises a lament to the heavens:
Why did everyone but me seem to find caffeinated beverages more conducive than alcohol to pondering the mystery of existence?
I have to agree. Coffee suits for facing the morning, tea suffices for facing the afternoon, but only gin suffices for facing the infinite.

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