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

by Jim Holt

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8932217,135 (3.77)16
Moving away from the narrower paths of Christopher Hitchens, Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, the celebrated essayist Jim Holt now enters this fascinating debate with his broad, lively and deeply informed narrative that traces all our efforts to grasp the origins of the universe.

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The question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" plagues many people, but finding its answer usually results in either accepting that there really is no answer to the question, or accepting an answer that is one of belief rather than of fact: you can BELIEVE you understand why there is something rather than nothing, but no matter how much you believe your explanation, it cannot be seen as "proven fact."
Holt does a thorough job of exploring the question. He examines the answers provided throughout history by thinkers of all sorts, and meets with contemporary thinkers from a variety of fields to examine current thinking on the question. Theologians provide one set of explanations, physicists provide another, philosophers provide yet another. And the reasoning each thinker utilizes to come to his conclusions is often complex and difficult to follow, but Holt does a good job of boiling down the experts' explanations and making them accessible to readers.
Still, this is not an "easy read" or "light summer reading." Following the thinking of those Holt includes in the book is difficult work and requires a high level of concentration by the reader, yet the result is worth it. The satisfaction of completing a book that truly makes you think, that makes you examine the things you had thought before reading the book and comparing them to what you think after reading the book, is very worthwhile. As university students, we expect to read and struggle to understand the information in our textbooks. As adults readers, we rarely get the chance or find the right book that can make us think, make us learn, and makes us examine our own ideas. For me, this book did that. ( )
  Paul-the-well-read | Apr 18, 2020 |
Every once in a while, I like to add something a little more cerebral to my reading list, just to exercise a different part of my brain and get a little nonfiction into my fantasy-overloaded brain. Boy oh boy, was this one a mindbender.

The question 'Why does the world exist?' or alternately, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' is not a small or simple question. It's enough to give most people an existential headache, and is not the kind of thing most people ponder on a daily basis. But I've always enjoyed the occasional mental gymnastics, thought experiments, and dose of philosophy, and this book delivers that very well. Jim Holt travels to meet with various philosophers, writers, theologists and thinkers, posing the titular question to them and expanding on their responses and theories regarding how and why the universe (and everything in it) exists. Interlude chapters detail small, relevant snippets of his own life as well as sidenotes on historical philosophy and additional existential theories.

The author's style is very readable, despite the complex ideas he's delving into, and the fact that he never lingers too long on one theory or idea keeps the book from getting mired down. You probably won't agree with all of the ideas proposed (I certainly didn't), but the mental workout you get from trying to imagine how various theories could be possible is very satisfying and interesting if you enjoy that kind of abstract musing. Maybe you'll even find yourself agreeing with (or at least being intrigued by) one or two of the ideas. At the very least, it's one of the most encompassing and daring nonfiction books I've read in a while, and gave me a lot to think about. ( )
  booksong | Mar 18, 2020 |
Why is there something rather than nothing? In “Why Does the World Exist?” Jim Holt attempts to find the solution to that question, plumbing the depths of historical and modern thought to do so. In his quest, Holt crosses the Atlantic Ocean a few times to meet many luminaries of science and philosophy. Since the problem becomes that of being, we must also consider the opposite idea which is that of nothingness. Now, the ideas of nothing and nothingness are not to be conflated with each other. Nothing is just the absence of something while nothingness is a state of being. The book tries not to get too heavy on the jargon, though Holt makes allowances for when the scientific and philosophical figures he talks to get to show off the breadth of their knowledge.

Take the Big Bang Model of the creation of the Universe. Asking what caused the Big Bang makes no sense in that idea because the Big Bang is by definition the earliest event that happened in our Universe. Since that is the case, Mr. Holt is forced to ask whether or not the Universe just created itself.

Mr. Holt also discusses the concept of God and how it came to be that God “Created” the Universe. If you remember your Bible, in Genesis it says that the world was in the Primordial State of Chaos and God merely took that substance and fashioned the Universe out of what was there. However, around the time of the First Century CE, it came to pass that they changed it so that God brought everything into existence with a Word. So it was interesting learning about that. It isn’t really something I ever think about.

Holt discusses the “Proofs” of the Existence of God and talks about their virtues and shortcomings. It even has some Modal Logic thrown in from Kurt Godel, and that is pretty cool.

All in all, this was a great book. It doesn’t have anything on Further Reading but there are a few pages of Notes to peruse and an index to go over. ( )
  Floyd3345 | Jun 15, 2019 |
Such an odd book...so much intelligence, unfortunately bracketed by and interspersed with metaphysical nonsense and philosophical BS.

I was interested in the concept and what Holt had to say, but almost abandoned it after the first few chapters. I stubbornly persisted and it got better (he spoke to real scientists)...then retreated (back to philosophers). I have no use whatsoever for philosophy other than to satisfy a curiosity as to what would drive people to waste their lives and intellects.

When I saw the title question, three thoughts came to mind:
1) Why bother asking?
2) Why bother writing about it? and
3) Why bother reading about it?

The "answers"?
1) Meaningless question
2) Waste of time...a meaningless question cannot be answered other than the obvious "It does, so just deal with it"
3) Curiosity...which kills Schrodinger's cat...or didn't...but unlike the quantum thought experiment, this was a waste of time.

Holt gets three stars for trying, for speaking to cosmologists and I won't dock him any for the philosophy BS. ( )
  Razinha | May 23, 2017 |
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 |
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Moving away from the narrower paths of Christopher Hitchens, Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, the celebrated essayist Jim Holt now enters this fascinating debate with his broad, lively and deeply informed narrative that traces all our efforts to grasp the origins of the universe.

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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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