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Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential…

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Jim Holt

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Title:Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
Authors:Jim Holt
Info:Liveright (2012), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 320 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:August 2012 philosophy cosmology

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Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (2012)


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I thought it was a great character study. Holt: lost Catholic, lonely, forever trying to make contact. Cat person. Man of many single dinners. I really liked the book.
  Peter_Scissors | Jun 21, 2016 |
In truth, a book such as Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? should appeal to everyone. This is a question which everyone has, at some stage and to some variable degree, contemplated, whether in existential angst, exasperation or ponderance. Atheists look to science to provide the answers, agnostics perhaps look to philosophy, and theists rely on that old crutch of 'God'. Holt's work embraces this diversity, and is consequently a fantastic introduction to the dilemma of why there is something rather than nothing. This is because it is, as its subtitle proclaims, an 'existential detective story' - Holt is embarking on this quest for ultimate truth along with the reader. Of course, it should come as no surprise that he reaches no conclusive answer as to the origins of the universe, but during his investigations he encounters a wide variety of theories, and is capable of digesting and explaining them to his own audience. Thus, we get explanations and critiques encompassing science, philosophy, metaphysics and theology, to name a few. Holt is open-minded enough to assess the relative merits of each of these and, in refreshing contrast to other works of this nature, is not overly contemptuous of the 'God hypothesis' (though he does not treat it with undue reverence either, as he notes its many logical fallacies).

Some of these theories are complicated, as you would imagine any attempt to understand the universe would be. As such, the book itself might take longer to read than its length (a shade under 300 pages) would suggest as you try to wrap your head around the various competing theories. Some of these theories have more to recommend them than others - quantum fluctuations, multiverses, or chaotic inflation, for example, are more intellectually sound than religious dogma or the woolly Platonic insistence on the logical necessity of goodness - but all are treated by Holt with respect, as he correctly assumes that no one can presume to hold theoretical answers that are so watertight that they cannot be challenged by other competing theories.

Holt also shows that the question of why there is something rather than nothing is more than just a question of how the Big Bang (itself only a hypothesis) poofed into existence out of absolute nothingness. He expands his remit to question our own perceptions (Can we imagine absolute nothingness, free of our own consciousness? Does the self even exist?) and to debate the meaning of such words as 'truth' and 'reality', though in my opinion these debates are resolved by semantics and therefore cannot be truly examined by the compromised and limited human mind.

Indeed, this question as to whether humankind can truly comprehend such abstractions as existence, time and reality arguably makes the search for an answer to the titular question futile. After all, our understanding of the universe is only how we perceive it through our own eyes, through our own limited processor that is the human brain. We call certain things atoms, and attempt to identify universal natural laws, but is that the same thing to an impersonal universe? We perceive time as a guide for how our lives seem to pass, but is time even linear, as it seems to our minds? Can the ultimate question of the universe truly be resolved by the tiny minds of tiny creatures living on a tiny planet in a tiny galaxy in a far-off corner of said universe? Which itself may be only one of many universes in a wider multiverse?

Holt acknowledges the possible futility of this question and, as I said before, no reader will finish reading this book with an definitive answer. Holt's own conclusions, presented late on in the book, are interesting, as he appropriates the idea of Selectors and meta-Selectors from the willing philosopher Derek Parfit. This, at the very least, provides a coherent possibility of why there is something rather than nothing, even if it does not provoke an epiphanic reaction in the reader that one has found the ultimate truth.

But what Holt's quest truly presents to us is that the journey, the attempt to even ask such questions, is itself enriching. Towards the end, Holt engages in a discourse with John Updike. This is refreshing as, unlike the others Holt corresponds with who are scientists and philosophers who made their name with one theory or another, Updike is a novelist with no pet theory and is consequently free to ponder existence without the shackles of the obligation to defend one's own theory. This discourse shows that even thinking about the question can itself be rewarding. The final few chapters, as Holt formulates his conclusions, engages in a discourse with Updike, and deals with a personal loss that coincides with his ponderances on mortality and non-existence, are the most invigorating in the entire book. They show that the question of why the world exists is not merely one of theoretical abstractions but one of powerful and profound implications for our individual lives. Indeed, one could perhaps recast Holt's book not as an attempt to find an answer to the ultimate question, but an attempt to show us that the fact that such a question can even be pondered is itself a cause for wonderment. ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Jun 3, 2016 |
This is a book I enjoyed skimming - and reading reviews of - and writing a few notes about. It is about the question why there is something rather than nothing, and reconfirmed my own thought/feeling that I'm just not interested in that question. It's not a real question. It gets lost in trying to define "nothing." It is unknowable an that may be its most important feature. Things exist because they do.
I'm glad the book exists and that people are pondering such questions. Holt writes well and I'll be looking for more of his work. ( )
  mykl-s | Sep 9, 2015 |
sometimes a little too funny for his own good, but when he hits the mark his observations make philosophy a joy to read. Put your mind in gear if you want to get the most from this. ( )
  Daniel_Nanavati | Jul 19, 2015 |
An exuberant romp of a book. Holt ponders that most enduring & impossible of questions: why is there something rather than nothing. All well & good & I enjoyed the ride, even though one should know from the outset that nothing will be decided. The author won't even get to the bottom of what exactly "nothing" IS. But that's to be expected & doesn't diminish the pleasure of the quest. Midway through the book, however, I began to wonder why all the philosophers, scientists or simply very smart people the author consulted & conversed with were white males & pretty exclusively North American or British (perhaps a few Frenchmen, since the author does journey to Paris a few times & he does at least mention Buddhism at the very end of the book). It's not like there aren't very smart women & non-English or French speaking women & men in the world who might have contributed some interesting thoughts on the subject. The author seems very willing to travel, since he crossed the Atlantic to Paris & London several times. So, he wasn't forced by lack of funds, time, or physical disability from seeking answers further afield. Even if he were limited to New York City, his home base, there must be a goodly supply of female thinkers in that city alone. I have to assume that an exclusionary principle operated at the level of personal inclination, or disinclination, as it were. Such thoughts did spoil the fun a bit, I must admit. ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
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Perché esiste il mondo, e perché ne facciamo parte? Perché c’è qualcosa anziché il nulla? Da secoli se lo chiedono in tanti, tra filosofi e scienziati, teologi e scrittori, ed è sorprendente scoprire quanto singolare, articolata e avvincente si possa rivelare, ai nostri giorni, una ricerca che prende le mosse da un interrogativo così semplice e potente; una vera e propria indagine, personale ed emozionante, condotta come una detective-story da un brillante divulgatore scientifico con un debole per i grandi misteri dell’esistenza.

In Perché il mondo esiste? Jim Holt indossa i panni del segugio cosmico e interroga, punzecchia, mette alle strette (o ascolta, rapito e incredulo) una schiera di intellettuali di rango assoluto: Nobel per la fisica come Steven Weinberg, giganti della letteratura contemporanea come John Updike, matematici innamorati delle forme platoniche come Roger Penrose, teorici del multiverso e della realtà virtuale. Ogni colloquio è un viaggio in mondi nuovi, un confronto con prospettive sconvolgenti, un’immersione nelle teorie più argute, avventurose e geniali del sapere contemporaneo, spiegate al lettore senza indulgere in tecnicismi e con grande affabilità, quasi come in un romanzo di formazione.

Perché il mondo esiste? chiama in causa Dio, il Big Bang, la fisica classica e quantistica e altri cardini del pensiero scientifico e filosofico contemporaneo, ma il filo conduttore rimane la curiosità: la curiosità instancabile, la lungimiranza e l’ingegno di una specie come la nostra, che da millenni non è mai stanca di porsi domande su se stessa e sul mondo in cui vive.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0871404095, Hardcover)

2012 New York Times Top 10 Book of the Year
Slate.com 2012 Staff Pick

In this astonishing and profound work, an irreverent sleuth traces the riddle of existence from the ancient world to modern times.

Whether framed philosophically as “Why is there a world rather than nothing at all?” or more colloquially as “But, Mommy, who made God?” the metaphysical mystery about how we came into existence remains the most fractious and fascinating question of all time. Following in the footsteps of Christopher Hitchens, Roger Penrose, and even Stephen Hawking, Jim Holt emerges with an engrossing narrative that traces our latest efforts to grasp the origins of the universe. As he takes on the role of cosmological detective, the brilliant yet slyly humorous Holt contends that we might have been too narrow in limiting our suspects to God vs. the Big Bang. Whether interviewing a cranky Oxford philosopher, a Physics Nobel Laureate, or a French Buddhist monk, Holt pursues unexplored and often bizarre angles to this cosmic puzzle. The result is a brilliant synthesis of cosmology, mathematics, and physics—one that propels his own work to the level of philosophy itself.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:02 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

As he takes on the role of cosmological detective, the brilliant yet slyly humorous Holt contends that we might have been too narrow in limiting our suspects to God vs. the Big Bang. Whether interviewing a cranky Oxford philosopher, a Physics Nobel Laureate, or a French Buddhist monk, Holt pursues unexplored and often bizarre angles to this cosmic puzzle. The result is a brilliant synthesis of cosmology, mathematics, and physics{8212}one that propels his own work to the level of philosophy itself.… (more)

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» see all 4 descriptions

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