Today, November 28th., there is on 3quarksdaily a very interesting article by Jay Tolson, commenting on a recent book by Jim Holt (Why Does The World Exist), also available directly from:
Apart from the immediate importance of an article such as this, and, indeed, the appearance of Jim Holt's book itself, I found myself yet again confronted with the confusing underlying assumptions made by an author that make an adequate engagement with the issues identified by that author almost impossibly difficult.
In fairness, both Tolson's article, and Holt's book, attempt to confront a fundamental philsophical problem, which, succinctly, simply amounts to how adequately to ask the fundamental question "What is the meaning of everything?"
As readers of MSOU will already know, my own perspective on this is that the manner in which we ask the question already inhibits the possibilities we can entertain as potentially available answers. The specific inhibition is of any answer that excludes the possibility of there being no initiating purposeful agent. Both Holt and Tolson are apparently intent on transcending this inhibition, but Tolson's arguments, at least in this article, make it difficult for him to make a persuasive case.
A major part of Tolson's difficulty (and perhaps Holt's also) is that the concept of meaning is almost inextricably entangled with the association of purpose with an agent. Meaningfulness is almost necessarily associated with intent, and that requires an agent. Writing at the time that he did, it is not surprising that Baruch Spinoza's view (considered by both Holt and Tolson) assigned that intent to Nature itself, as an immanent God. Evidently, Einstein himself felt this was a sufficiently valid hypothesis to permit the use of the word "God" as the prime mover. This has the (unfortunate) advantage that it can always produce pro-and-con responses in our global psyche, and thus make a viable resolution of our polarities of opinion all but impossible.
In his article, Tolson comments favourably on a concept of a "causa sui" purpose for Nature itself that depends on a hypothesis of "Good" as the prime organising directional "intent" of the processes of existence. This is, admittedly, tentatively, and indeed ambivalently offered, but apparently without awareness that such a concept itself contains the immanence of polarity (i.e., "Good" presumes––apparently––the possibility of "evil" too . . .)
Perhaps the ultimate issue for us is whether we can truly accept that we ourselves are the potential agents of our survival or destruction, and not the personified Gods or Devils of our conceptualizations of motivational forces.
I, more than once, have had conversations with a wildlife biologist of my acquaintance, who declared with a kind of wry and self-deprecating wisdom, "I think the Universe will proceed on its way perfectly well without us."
Responses? Do read Tolson's article. Both he and Jim Holt are at least giving their all to the issue . . . as should we all . . . (Re-reading two or three of the most recent posts before this one might also be useful, particularly "Revisiting Chapter Ten".)
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