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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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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 |
Jim Holt is a journalist who frequently writes about purely scientific issues, but who is also comfortable writing about philosophy and cosmology. This book is a memoire of his personal exploration of what may be the most profound of all philosophical inquiries: the question of why the world exists. After all, it is imaginable (but perhaps not possible) that there might be nothing at all. Holt admits that the question of the cause of existence had not occurred to him until he read Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics. His early curiosity was satisfied by the nuns who told him that God made the world. But he is now looking for a nontheistic explanation, which is the central tenet of the book.

Holt begins his search with a review of the “usual suspects,” eminent philosophers of old. To his (and my) mild surprise, the concept of creation ex nihilo is relatively modern, starting with second or third century Christian philosophers. The Greeks, Hebrews, and primitive societal “creation myths” all began with some unformed substrate that had always existed. Christian doctrine seems to be the first to sanction the idea of nothingness as a genuine ontological possibility.

Gottfried Leibniz first articulated the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which postulates that for every truth, there must be a reason why it is so and not otherwise. Leibniz argued that God’s nonexistence was logically impossible, but both David Hume and Immanuel Kant refuted him, asserting that no being’s existence was guaranteed as a matter of pure logic.

Holt observes that a purely scientific explanation would ineluctably involve a physical cause, which would necessarily make the explanation circular. A theist would say that God’s essence is existence, but what does that mean? Russian physicist Andrei Linde theorizes that the theory of cosmic “chaotic inflation” explains the existence of the matter of the universe as created from the negative energy of the gravitational field, making it possible for a hacker physicist in another universe to have created ours in his lab! Holt notices that this explanation does not avoid the problem of infinite regress, i.e., from whence did the hacker physicist emanate?

Henri Bergson tried to refocus the issue by arguing that it was not possible for there to be nothing at all. That argument made no impression on Martin Heidegger, for whom the mystery of existence was the “most fundamental of all questions.” Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the question of existence was beyond the limits of language, into the realm of the unsayable: he said “The riddle [of existence] does not exist.” Bertrand Russell said, “…the universe is just there, and that is all.” In 1927, Georges Lemaitre worked out an Einsteinian model of the universe where space was expanding, which was confirmed empirically by Edwin Hubble. Working backward, scientists and cosmologists have concluded the universe had a beginning, about 13.7 billion years ago.

Holt was not content to confine his research to dead intellectuals. So he traveled to Paris, London, Oxford (several times), Pittsburgh, and Austin, Tex., to meet eminent living philosophers, physicists, and cosmologists [David Deutsch, Adolf Grünbaum, John Leslie, Derek Parfit, Roger Penrose, Richard Swinburne, and Steven Weinberg], and even interviewed the philosophically inclined novelist John Updike. Their explanations are sometimes startling and often strange.

Philosopher Adolf Grünbaum, was not surprised at being at all. Why, he argues, is nothingness somehow more natural than existence? The ancients started with matter, not the void; to him, nothingness is stranger than being. Holt’s other interlocutors disagree—they marvel at being, but they confirm Grünbaum’s point about the puzzling nature of nothingness. If the universe started with a Big Bang, did it burst out like “a party girl jumping out of a cake,” as British astronomer Fred Hoyle put it? But what was the “cake” from which to burst? Holt quotes a beautiful definition by the physicist Alex Vilenkin: “a closed spherical spacetime of zero radius.” Try jumping out of that. No wonder the philosopher Robert Nozick said that “someone who proposes a nonstrange answer shows he didn’t understand the question.”

Holt personalizes his quest in the final chapter, where he gives a sympathetic account of the death of his mother: her passing from being to nothingness. This section was particularly moving for me since my own mother is now 92 years old and failing rather rapidly.
Holt is effective at summarizing the thoughts of some very deep thinkers in a few words. Summarizing his summaries surely disserves the original thinkers, but what else can one do in a short review? I, unlike some - well, most - of my colleagues, found the book stimulating and engrossing. It helps, however, to have had a nontrivial background in philosophy, physics, and the philosophy of science.

(JAB) ( )
  nbmars | Feb 10, 2014 |
Tackling the “darkest question in all of philosophy” with “raffish erudition” (Dwight Garner, New York Times), author Jim Holt explores the greatest metaphysical mystery of all: why is there something rather than nothing? This runaway bestseller, which has captured the imagination of critics and the public alike, traces our latest efforts to grasp the origins of the universe. Holt adopts the role of cosmological detective, traveling the globe to interview a host of celebrated scientists, philosophers, and writers, “testing the contentions of one against the theories of the other” (Jeremy Bernstein, Wall Street Journal). As he interrogates his list of ontological culprits, the brilliant yet slyly humorous Holt contends that we might have been too narrow in limiting our suspects to God versus the Big Bang. This “deft and consuming” (David Ulin, Los Angeles Times) narrative humanizes the profound questions of meaning and existence it confronts. ( )
  MarkBeronte | Jan 9, 2014 |
I tried to be a philosophy for a few semesters at college, but I was never much good at it, so I picked up "Why Does the World Exist" with a certain sense of sadness. The ideas inside are indeed as complicated as the title would suggest: the simplest thoughts here can seem both knotty and positively head-bending. The author, though, works hard to make them more accessible to the general reader. The book is essentially the compiled transcripts of conversations that Holt had with various notable philosophers, and he never lets you forget that these are thoughts that came from real, often ordinary-seeming people. He takes time to describe them, their surroundings, and even how he traveled to meet them. This lends the book a very welcome human dimension, though some readers will probably decide that they could do without Holt's record of his brooding in various notable Paris cafés. Even so, the book's well targeted to the sort of reader, like myself, who'd like to know more about philosophy but still feels intimidated by the really big texts.

As for the ideas themselves, Holt provides a fair smorgasboard of arguments that might provide an explanation for the existence of the world in which I'm writing this book review. Some of his interview subjects argue that the world's existence is highly improbable, while others posit that it's existence is more or less to be expected. Some argue that the universe's existence is due largely to God's love, while others are combative atheists. Both Platonic notions of goodness and "quantum tunneling" get a hearing. You get to hear some of Holt's interlocutors throw around the prospect of trillions of alternate universes as easily as some people discuss baseball scores. Cosmological arguments involving billions of stars and millions of light years are dealt with via explanations that could fit on the back of a bar napkin. You get the sense that most of these interviewees have lived with these questions for so long that they've developed a curious, almost casual, familiarity with them, and it's interesting to see that working philosophers can still be so far apart on so many basic questions. Holt leaves the answer to the title's question more or less unanswered, but that's more or less to be expected. For anyone who wanted to face the big questions but feel a bit under-equipped, or just too busy, to do so, "Why Does the World Exist" struck me as a pretty good starting point. I predict that I'll be rereading sections of it in the not-too-distant future. ( )
  TheAmpersand | Sep 26, 2013 |
Holt took an interesting approach with this book, combining a serious, if somewhat light-hearted, philosophical inquiry into a profound metaphysical question with a non-fiction style situated between autobiography and travelogue.

The question is "why is there something rather than nothing?" Holt kicks off with an overview of history behind this mystery, which dates back to at least the Greeks, ran through Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel (among others), and has more recently found expression in the ideas of names like Heidegger, Sartre, and Wittgenstein. This whirlwind of an introduction is enough to lay out the basics of the problem and why it is such a head-scratcher.

The remainder of the book follows Holt as he travels to meet a range of theologians, philosophers, physicists, and even the late John Updike. The perspectives are varied, as suits a work of this scope, and Holt is careful to stop for a breather and exposition at each stage so that those without a philosophical background can follow along.

Holt managed to shift me into philosophy mode and get my wheels turning at many points, as any good work of this nature should. From Adolph Grunbaum's a priori skepticism about nothingness to John Leslie's axiarchism and Derek Parfit's Selectors, there are some beautiful ideas touched on here, and to Holt's credit he largely shies away from interjecting any hard-line personal beliefs. There is one chapter near the end where, after speaking to Parfit, he attempts to flesh out a metaphysical explanation; while this was interesting, I didn't find it any more compelling than the other alternatives insofar as actually being "an answer".

Even science, often considered the final answer and indeed the only route by which an answer may be forthcoming, is at a loss, and may remain so when confronted with the brute fact of Being. As with so much in philosophy, it's the journey that matters more than the destination. Despite finding no answer, indeed conceding that there may be no answer, engaging with the question is rewarding in its own way.

To my reader's eye, Holt qualifies as a wonderful writer. The style is easy-going and accessible under the weight of considerable philosophical matters while managing to do them justice.

The science-minded who want hard answers and Truths (and are similarly offended by metaphysical speculation) will be put off, but for anyone interested in the inquiry that lies beyond science (and where science fits into that puzzle), I'd suggest giving this a look. ( )
  chaosmogony | Apr 27, 2013 |
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:57:12 -0400)

(see all 2 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)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 4 descriptions

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