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John Updike

I began by asking [John] Updike whether the theology of Karl Barth had really sustained him through a difficult time in his life.

“I’ve certainly said that and it did seem to be true,” he said. “I fell upon Barth having exhausted Kierkegaard as a consoler, and having previously resorted to Chesterton. I discovered Barth through a series of addresses and lectures called The Word of God and the Word of Man. He didn’t attempt to play anybody’s game as far as looking at the Gospels as historic documents or anything. He just said, essentially, that this is a faith—take it or leave it. So yes, I did find Barth comforting, and a couple of my early novels—not so early, actually—are sort of Barthian. Rabbit Run certainly presents a Barthian point of view, from the standpoint of a Lutheran minister. And in Roger’s Version, Barthianism is about the only refuge for Roger from all the besieging elements that would deprive one of one’s faith—both science, which Dale tries to use on behalf of the theist point of view, and the watering down of theology with liberal values.”

“It’s interesting,” I said, “that some philosophers are so astonished and awed that anything at all should exist—like Wittgenstein, who said in the Tractatus that it’s not how the world is that is mystical, but that it is. And Heidegger, of course, made heavy weather of this too. He claimed that even people who never thought about why there is something rather than nothing were still ‘grazed’ by the question whether they realized it or not—say, in moments of boredom, when they’d just as soon that nothing at all existed, or in states of joy when everything is transfigured and they see the world anew, as if for the first time. Yet I’ve run into philosophers who don’t see anything very astonishing about existence. And in some moods I agree with them. The question Why is there something rather than nothing? sometimes seems vacuous to me. But in other moods it seems very very profound. How does it strike you? Have you ever spent much time brooding over it?”

“Well, to call it ‘brooding’ would be to dignify it,” Updike said. “But I am of the party that thinks that the existence of the world is a kind of miracle. It’s the last resort, really, of naturalistic theology. So many other props have been knocked out from under naturalistic theology—the first principle argument that Aristotle set forth, Aquinas’s prime mover … they’re all gone, but the riddle does remain: why is there something instead of nothing?”

I told Updike that I admired the way he had a character in Roger’s Version explain how the universe might have arisen from nothingness via a quantum-mechanical fluctuation. In the decades since he wrote the book, I added, physicists had come up with some very neat scenarios that would allow something to emerge spontaneously out of nothing in accordance with quantum laws. But then, of course, you’re faced with the mystery: Where are these laws written? And what gives them the power to command the void?

“Also, the laws amount to a funny way of saying, ‘Nothing equals something,’ ” Updike said, bursting into laughter. “QED! One opinion I’ve encountered is that, since getting from nothing to something involves time, and time didn’t exist before there was something, the whole question is a meaningless one that we should stop asking ourselves. It’s beyond our intellectual limits as a species. Put yourself into the position of a dog. A dog is responsive, shows intuition, looks at us with eyes behind which there is intelligence of a sort, and yet a dog must not understand most of the things it sees people doing. It must have no idea how they invented, say, the internal-combustion engine. So maybe what we need to do is imagine that we’re dogs and that there are realms that go beyond our understanding. I’m not sure I buy that view, but it is a way of saying that the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain. I have trouble even believing—and this will offend you—the standard scientific explanation of how the universe rapidly grew from nearly nothing. Just think of it. The notion that this planet and all the stars we see, and many thousands of times more than those we see—that all this was once bounded in a point with the size of, what, a period or a grape? How, I ask myself, could that possibly be? And, that said, I sort of move on.”

Updike chuckled softly. His mood appeared to lighten.

“When you think about it,” he continued, “we rationalists—and we’re all, to an extent, rationalist—we accept propositions about the early universe which boggle the mind more than any of the biblical miracles do. Your mind can intuitively grasp the notion of a dead man coming back again to life, as people in deep comas do, and as we do when we wake up every morning out of a sound sleep. But to believe that the universe, immeasurably vast as it appears to be, was once compressed into a tiny space—into a tiny point—is in truth very hard to believe. I’m not saying I can disprove the equations that back it up. I’m just saying that it’s as much a matter of faith to accept that.”

Here I was moved to demur. The theories that imply this picture of the early universe—general relativity, the standard model of particle physics, and so forth—work beautifully at predicting our present-day observations. Even the theory of cosmic inflation, which admittedly is a bit conjectural, has been confirmed by the shape of the cosmic background radiation, as measured by the Hubble space telescope. If these theories are so good at accounting for the evidence we see at present, why shouldn’t we trust them as we extrapolate backward in time toward the beginning of the universe?

“I’m just saying I can’t trust them,” Updike replied. “My reptile brain won’t let me. It’s impossible to imagine that even the Earth was once compressed to the size of a pea, let alone the whole universe.”

Some things that are impossible to imagine, I pointed out, are quite easy to describe mathematically.

“Still,” Updike said, warming to the argument, “there have been other intricate systems in the history of mankind. The scholastics in the Middle Ages had a lot of intricacy in their intellectual constructions, and even the Ptolemaic epicycles or whatever were … Well, all of this showed a lot of intelligence, and theoretical consistency even, but in the end they collapsed. But, as you say, the evidence piles up. It’s been decades and decades since the standard model of physics was proposed, and it checks out to the twelfth decimal point. But this whole string theory business … There’s never any evidence, just mathematical formulas, right? There are men spending their whole careers working on a theory of something that might not even exist.”

Even so, I said, they’re doing some beautiful pure mathematics in the process.

“Beautiful in a vacuum!” Updike exclaimed. “What’s beauty if it’s not, in the end, true? Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty.”

I asked Updike if his own attitude toward natural theology was as contemptuous as Barth’s was. Some people think there’s a God because they have a religious experience. Some think there’s a God because they believe the priest. But others want evidence, evidence that will appeal to reason. And those are the people that natural theology, by showing how observations of the world around us might support the conclusion that there is a God, has the power to reach. Is Updike really willing to leave those people out in the cold just because he doesn’t like the idea of a God who lets himself be “intellectually trapped”?

Updike paused for a moment or two, then said, “I was once asked to be on a radio program called This I Believe. As a fiction writer, I really don’t like to formulate what I believe because, like a quantum phenomenon, it varies from day to day, and anyway there’s a sort of bad luck attached to expressing yourself too clearly. On this radio program I conceded that ruling out natural theology does leave too much of humanity and human experience behind. I suppose even a hardened Barthian might cling to at least one piece of natural theology, Christ’s saying, ‘By their fruits shall ye know them’—that so much of what we construe as virtue and heroism seems to come from faith. But to make faith into an abstract scientific proposition is to please no one, least of all the believers. There’s no intellectual exertion in accepting it. Faith is like being in love. As Barth put it, God is reached by the shortest ladder, not by the longest ladder. Barth’s constant point was that it is God’s movement that bridges the distance, not human effort.”

And why should God make that movement? Why should he have created a universe at all? I remembered Updike saying somewhere that God may have brought the world into being out of spiritual fatigue—that reality was a product of “divine acedia.” What, I asked him, could this possibly mean?

“Did I say that? God created the world out of boredom? Well, Aquinas said that God made the world ‘in play.’ In play. In a playful spirit he made the world. That, to me, seems closer to the truth.”

He was silent again for a moment, then continued. “Some scientists who are believers, like Freeman Dyson, have actually tackled the ultimate end of the universe. They’ve tried to describe a universe where entropy is almost total and individual particles are separated by distances that are greater than the dimensions of the present observable universe … an unthinkably dreary and pointless vacuum. I admire their scientific imagination, but I just can’t make myself go there. And a space like that is the space in which God existed and nothing else. Could God then have suffered boredom to the point that he made the universe? That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.”

What a lovely conceit! Reality is not a “blot on nothingness,” as Updike’s character Henry Bech had once, in a bilious moment, decided. It is a piece of light verse.


From the chapter “The World as a Bit of Light Verse” in Jim Holt’s new book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story.

To anyone with an interest in this stuff, I’d urge you go pick up a copy of Holt’s book. As a complete scientific and philosophic diletente, I found it to be as readable and as luminous as any comparable text I’ve encountered.

In the book, Holt talks with philosophers, cosmologists, physicists, novelists, and other thinkers, confronting each with the question of Why? and receiving a slew of compelling conjectures in return. The overwhelming conclusion to be drawn, however, is that there is no discrete answer to that question; rational inquiry can run the gambit of inquiring words — Who, What, When, Where, How — but can do very little to demystify that monolithic query Why. We can lower our scientific and philosophical shoulders into that word all we want, but the universe doesn’t even bother to whisper back to us Why not?

Yet this fact is a great intellectual equalizer and the reason a book like this is intelligible to people like me. It’s also the reason why the conjectures of laymen like us are not that far off from the suppositions of esteemed intellectuals. As Holt says in one chapter:

“When you listen to such thinkers feel their way around the question of why there is a world at all, you begin to realize that your own thoughts on the matter are not quite so nugatory as you had imagined. No one can confidently claim intellectual superiority in the face of the mystery of existence. For, as William James observed, ‘All of us are beggars here.’”

To James’s observation I’d add the one enshrined as Oscar Wilde’s epitaph, “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” a favorite quote of mine and an uncharacteristically tentative utterance from a man so noted for his florid, grandiose phrase-making.

Furthermore, to Updike’s analogy of the dog, I would add the more elegant image proposed by Einstein:

“We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.”

This metaphor is at once superior and inferior to that of Updike. It’s superior because a dog — like everything else we know of in the universe — does not possess reflexive self-awareness, at least not in any robust sense.

However, as Holt’s book lays out, the universe is not arranged like a library wherein we effortlessly extract particular quantities to isolate and examine. Instead, the scientific method approaches the universe at its corners and wrinkles, gleaning what limited information we can from a cosmos shrouded in shady Higgs bosons, almost-invisible neutrinos, and inconsistent classes of elementary particles.

In this sense, we are more like canines ogling at an internal combustion engine, given that the object we are investigating (the universe) is not laid out to be reverse-engineered. It is not designed, as a book is, to easily reveal its secrets to us.