Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Minimalism vs. Nihilism

I’m currently reading an intermittently entertaining book by Jim Holt, with the simultaneously catchy and off-putting title  Why Does the World Exist?   (2012).    I actually gave my mother a copy for Christmas when it came out:  not having yet read it myself, but counting on that ever-companionable writer to make big ideas plain to the public, the notion being that she would read it, and then we would discuss it in our weekly phone-calls (we live on opposite seaboards:  she in a nursing-home on the west coast,  I in a sheltered workshop on the east).   Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s intervened, and we can no longer discuss anything substantive;  her days of wine and metaphysics are behind her.  Though, now, as I finally get around to reading it myself, it would seem that, in this particular case, she hasn’t missed much.  The problem is, his clear-headed addressal of that perennial topic of sophomore seminars -- Why is there Something, rather than Nothing? --  would have made an excellent laconic magazine-article, but Holt somehow wound up with a book contract for this ultimately (indeed, quickly) sterile subject, and has to pad things out.  So he takes various nugatory arguments by e.g. “metaphysical nihilists” more seriously than they warrant, and duly deflates them, but takes several pages doing so.

(Mr. Holt’s genteel approach to such gentlemen  is to humor them -- though, to his credit, ultimately to refute them.  Ours is rather to rip their throats out;  cf.  our diatribe contra Eliminative Materialism.)

The exercise calls to mind James Surowiecki’s canny column in this week’s New Yorker, “Punditonomics”, where he notes the (obvious) economic incentive to spew out short-shelflife twaddle if all you want is eyeballs.   A lot of that has been evoked by the disappearance of Malaysia Air Flight 370 (I actually work a few feet away from some Bureau integrees who are involved with that case, and poll them every so often.  BLUF:  UFOs are not involved.)   As Surowiecki reports,

The peak (or nadir) of the speculative frenzy  came when CNN anchor Don Lemon wondered aloud whether the plane might have been swallowed up by a mini black hole.

(Ceci renoue avec notre thème du néant.)  When a retired general who now shills as a CNN commentator, failed to cough out an equally (yet distinct!) OTT hypothesis, suggesting we wait and look at the facts,  the Host replied, revealingly,

“You know how cable news works, don’t you?  We got time to fill here!”

And thus, likewise, Mr Holt has some pages to fill, that were better left (in the spirit of Nothingness) elegantly blank.

On pp. 59-62, Holt gamely attempts a riff on nothingness as, “as Leibniz was the first to point out, the simplest of all possible realities,”  adding solicitiously, in case the reader has instinctually at this point  razzed in disgust, “Simplicity is greatly prized in science.”  (So, pipe down, you-all in the back row.)  In mathematics, by contrast, the technical term for this (the null group, or anything else) is:  trivial.
In the course of this, though, he does raise a somewhat interesting question:  “If our world turns out to have an infinite census of objects, why should it be, say, aleph-2 rather than aleph-29?  Only the Null World escapes this kind of arbitrariness.”  (The same observation applies to a finite ontology as well, of course.)  And the answer to that, we would suggest, as we have argued in a series of essays (Theologia Mathematica), is to take the invisible world seriously, quite on a par (as Gödel argued) with the visible (and  arguably  moreso).  Such infinities as exist, exist, and those that don’t, don’t, and there you have it.  (Of course, should there turn out to be some unexpected supremum like aleph-29, we will look for a principled understanding of that surprising fact.)   This line of thought has been applied more seriously to the problem of the cardinality of the continuum:  aleph-1 seems the only non-arbitrary value.


So what do you do when the puns on Nothingness run out?   If you’re a good author, like Jim Holt, you don’t simply repeat yourself, or inflate a chapter like a bicycle-tire:  You take the show on the road.   And so we are treated to a travelogue of several European and American capitals, meeting various Colorful Characters along the way.   It’s like a thematic tour, only instead of the theme being Chocolate or Wines,  it’s Big Ideas;  and instead of Mansions of the Rich and Famous,  it’s Cramped Apartments of the Brainy and Loquacious.

And thus we are whisked to Pittsburgh, where we make the acquaintance of the legendary Adolf Grünbaum, a Morris-Zapp-like personality, still robustly vigorous in advanced age.   And in addition to various choice philosophical obiter dicta, we are regaled with a memorable tale of the nighttime drive to the restaurant atop Mount Washington, the voluble crusty atheist at the wheel.  (B.L.U.F. : Never drive with the guy.)

[Afternote:   I have just begun reading the Collected Works of Adolf Grünbaum, the first volume of which  came out in 2013.  Evidently the wily old philosopher was delighted by the rather Zorba-the-Greek portrait he gets in Jim Holt’s book, for the dust jacket quotes Why Does the World Exist to the effect that “In the philosophical world, Grünbaum is a man of immense stature.  He is arguably the greatest living philosopher of science.”  On page one of the Introduction, the editor goes on to quote Holt at greater length along those lines.]

“…Mmmyess… Immmmense, that is quite the word ….”

Then before you know it -- like James Bond hopping from metropolis to metropolis -- we are in Paris, this time without the excuse of any actual philosopher to interview, the slender connective being the Café de Flore, where Sartre used to squat, and doodle about le néant (Why is there quelque-chose rather than rien du tout?, that is to say).   We never get any philosophy here, but the author does offer a vivid tableau of the nightlife of fashionable Eurotrash:

At a table in the back  I spotted Karl Lagerfeld, with his characteristic ponytail, dark glasses, and high white collar, in hushed conversation with one of his muses, who was wearing what looked like black lipstick.  Other than that, the place was pretty much empty: le Néant.
But then there was a noisy burst of activity.  A woman of a certain age … breezed through the front door, accompanied by a pair of what appeared to be Cuban gigolos  dressed in shell suits.  Giggling and grinding their teeth, this trio sat down with us  and began to jabber away.  The woman’s face was a sallow mask of leathery jollity, and she talked in a low croak  that put me in mind of Jeanne Moreau. … It seemed a good time to leave.

(Should you ask:  Why are there gigolos, rather than nothing -- the question is unanswerable.)

[Update 10 May 2014]  Jim Holt takes on Derek Parfit; wins by forfeit:

1 comment:

  1. Back to that intelligent potato: Can it really know that other intelligent potatoes have minds?

    (Hi David!)