Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story

3.8 25
by Jim Holt
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

The Washington Post Notable Non-Fiction of 2013

“I can imagine few more enjoyable ways of thinking than to read this book.”—Sarah Bakewell, New York Times Book Review, front-page review

Tackling the “darkest question in all of philosophy” with “raffish erudition” (Dwight Garner,

Overview

The Washington Post Notable Non-Fiction of 2013

“I can imagine few more enjoyable ways of thinking than to read this book.”—Sarah Bakewell, New York Times Book Review, front-page review

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.

Editorial Reviews

While most of us have been doing our laundry or responding to email, essayist Jim Holt has been pondering the Ultimate Big Question: Why does the world exist? To track down the most plausible answers, this apparently tireless investigator sought out maverick scientists, eccentric philosophers, Eastern religious sages, and even the venerable John Updike. The possibilities that he discovered are, depending on your temperament, either awe-inspiring or downright frightening: One of his interviewees suggests that God might be a renegade physicist hacker. A cerebrum-stimulating read. Now in trade paperback and NOOK Book.

The Washington Post - Michael S. Roth
There are many intellectually stirring moments in the book, and I learned more than I would have thought I could about contemporary controversies in quantum mechanics and cosmology. Holt is an excellent translator of complex ideas and issues…His real concern isn't creation but extinction—why somethings turn into nothings. He knows the causal explanation, but that is not answering his question…Why do we lose those we love? Why do important parts of our world vanish? These are not questions for a detective story, existential or not. But they are the questions to which, in the end, Holt's wonderfully ambitious book leads us.
The New York Times - Dwight Garner
In Why Does the World Exist? Mr. Holt picks up this question about being versus nothingness and runs quite a long and stylish way with it. He combines his raffish erudition with accounts of traveling to tap the minds of cosmologists, theologians, particle physicists, philosophers, mystics and others.
The New York Times Book Review - Sarah Bakewell
…Jim Holt [is] an elegant and witty writer comfortably at home in the problem's weird interzone between philosophy and scientific cosmology…Holt traces the reasoning behind each [theory] with care and clarity—such clarity that each idea seems resoundingly sensible even as it turns one's brain to a soup of incredulity. He is an urbane guide, involving us in his personal adventures…I can imagine few more enjoyable ways of thinking than to read this book.
Jay Tolson - The American Scholar
“A reminder that the quest for foundational truths is not only a supremely human activity but also one that brings us, if not absolute truth (which may be unknowable), at least better and better approximations of the truth… A gifted essayist and critic… Holt intersperses his intellectual investigation with brief but revealing glimpses of his own life, including the death of his mother, when existential musings on the nature of being seem anything but abstract.”
Arlice Davenport - Wichita Eagle
“Holt writes a warm, humane, funny, gripping and poignant tale about Being and Nothingness in the 21st century, a book that every educated person should read. His ‘detective story’ hides a winsome primer on the big questions of life, which no one—except the most ignorant or self-absorbed—can afford to avoid.”
Freeman Dyson - New York Review of Books
“Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story is a portrait gallery of leading modern philosophers…. Their answers give us vivid glimpses of the speakers… Holt’s philosophers belong to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries… When and why did philosophy lose its bite? How did it become a toothless relic of past glories? These are the ugly questions that Jim Holt’s book compels us to ask.”
Francis Kane - Commonweal
“It seems an impossible task—like getting something from nothing—but author Jim Holt pulls it off with great verve and brio….His intellectual modesty and generosity of spirit, his eye for telling details, and his self-deprecating sense of humor make this highly theoretical book also an engaging one…For those who are fascinated by discussions about the origins of the universe—and events such as the recent discovery of the Higgs boson—this is the book for you.”
Starred Review Booklist
“Winding its way to no reassuringly tidy conclusion, this narrative ultimately humanizes the huge metaphysical questions Holt confronts, endowing them with real-life significance. A potent synthesis of philosophy and autobiography.”
Bruce Springsteen
“I’ve [read] Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt to get my existential buzz.”
London Review of Books (UK) - Michael Wood
“Holt has a religious temperament, if not a religion, and he thinks the notion of God is a possible explanation of the mystery of being rather than the reverse or the refusal of one...[He] is an expert juggler of the paradoxes that go with so many kinds of negation...the fun of his quest has to do not only with what he wants to know but with his eagerness for live dialogue.”
Michael Wood - London Review of Books (UK)
“Holt has a religious temperament, if not a religion, and he thinks the notion of God is a possible explanation of the mystery of being rather than the reverse or the refusal of one...
[He] is an expert juggler of the paradoxes that go with so many kinds of negation...the fun of his quest has to do not only with what he wants to know but with his eagerness for live dialogue.”
Michael S. Roth - The Washington Post
“The author takes on the origin of everything in this wonderfully ambitious book encompassing mathematics, theology, physics, ethics and more.”
Sarah Bakewell - New York Times Book Review
“There could have been nothing. It might have been easier. Instead there is something. The universe exists, and we are here to ask about it. Why? In Why Does the World Exist?, Jim Holt, an elegant and witty writer comfortably at home in the problem’s weird interzone between philosophy and scientific cosmology, sets out in search of such answers. ...There is no way to do justice to any of these theories in a brief review, but Holt traces the reasoning behind each one with care and clarity—such clarity that each idea seems resoundingly sensible even as it turns one’s brain to a soup of incredulity.... I can imagine few more enjoyable ways of thinking than to read this book.”
David Ulin - Los Angeles Times
“If Jim Holt's deft and consuming Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story has anything to tell us, it's that such a comment is less about literary riffing than deep philosophy.”
Karen R. Long - Cleveland Plain Dealer
“So much in middle-class life and literature is rote: We decide what to have for dinner, we floss, we pick up something to read. Hurray for Jim Holt, who cracks our formulaic stupor with his crisp, jolly new book, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. Already, I've started a list of folk who will find it gift-wrapped from me at the holidays.”
Booklist
“Starred review. Winding its way to no reassuringly tidy conclusion, this narrative ultimately humanizes the huge metaphysical questions Holt confronts, endowing them with real-life significance. A potent synthesis of philosophy and autobiography.”
Kathryn Schulz - New York Magazine
“The pleasure of this book is watching the match: the staggeringly inventive human mind slamming its fantastic conjectures over the net, the universe coolly returning every serve.... Holt traffics in wonder, a word whose dual meanings—the absence of answers; the experience of awe—strike me as profoundly related. His book is not utilitarian. You can’t profit from it, at least not in the narrow sense.... And yet it does what real science writing should: It helps us feel the fullness of the problem.”
Ron Rosenbaum - Slate
“He [Jim Holt] leaves us with the question Stephen Hawking once asked but couldn't answer, ‘Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?’”
Kate Tuttle - Boston Globe
“It’s the mystery William James called “the darkest in all philosophy”: “[W]hy is there something rather than nothing?” For Jim Holt, it is a question that may never find an answer, but one endlessly worth asking. In this highly engaging book, Holt visits great thinkers in mathematics, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, theology, philosophy, and literature. These conversations don’t lead him toward any conclusion, but they make for a lively, thoughtful read, whether your worldview tends toward Spinoza (in which “reality is a self-sustaining causal loop: the world creates us, and we in turn create the world”) or like Stephen Hawking, still searching for the final theory of everything.”
Dwight Garner - New York Times
“In Why Does the World Exist? Mr. Holt picks up this question about being versus nothingness and runs quite a long and stylish way with it. He combines his raffish erudition with accounts of traveling to tap the minds of cosmologists, theologians, particle physicists, philosophers, mystics and others.”
New York Times Book Review "Editor's Choice"
“An elegant and witty writer converses with philosophers and cosmologists who ponder the question of why there is something rather than nothing.”
Jeremy Bernstein - Wall Street Journal
“Back and forth he goes between scientists and philosophers, testing the contentions of one against the theories of the other.”
The Economist
“… an eclectic mix of theology, cutting-edge science (of the cosmological and particle-physics variety) and extremely abstract philosophising, rendered (mostly) accessible by Mr. Holt’s facility with analogies and clear, witty language.”
Los Angeles Times
If Jim Holt's deft and consuming Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story has anything to tell us, it's that such a comment is less about literary riffing than deep philosophy.— David Ulin
Cleveland Plain Dealer
So much in middle-class life and literature is rote: We decide what to have for dinner, we floss, we pick up something to read. Hurray for Jim Holt, who cracks our formulaic stupor with his crisp, jolly new book, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. Already, I've started a list of folk who will find it gift-wrapped from me at the holidays.— Karen R. Long
New York Magazine
The pleasure of this book is watching the match: the staggeringly inventive human mind slamming its fantastic conjectures over the net, the universe coolly returning every serve.... Holt traffics in wonder, a word whose dual meanings—the absence of answers; the experience of awe—strike me as profoundly related. His book is not utilitarian. You can’t profit from it, at least not in the narrow sense.... And yet it does what real science writing should: It helps us feel the fullness of the problem.— Kathryn Schulz
Slate
He [Jim Holt] leaves us with the question Stephen Hawking once asked but couldn't answer, ‘Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?’— Ron Rosenbaum
Boston Globe
It’s the mystery William James called “the darkest in all philosophy”: “[W]hy is there something rather than nothing?” For Jim Holt, it is a question that may never find an answer, but one endlessly worth asking. In this highly engaging book, Holt visits great thinkers in mathematics, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, theology, philosophy, and literature. These conversations don’t lead him toward any conclusion, but they make for a lively, thoughtful read, whether your worldview tends toward Spinoza (in which “reality is a self-sustaining causal loop: the world creates us, and we in turn create the world”) or like Stephen Hawking, still searching for the final theory of everything.

Holt is a generous guide, laying out a brief history of how philosophers have approached these questions before bringing us along on his tour of modern thinkers—some of whom are also fairly eccentric, hilarious talkers. The author’s willingness to include his personal struggles with being and nothingness—as when he faces the death first of his dog, then of his mother—grounds the book in intimate, humane terms. We may never know why the universe exists, but we know how to grieve those who exit it.— Kate Tuttle

Wall Street Journal
Back and forth he goes between scientists and philosophers, testing the contentions of one against the theories of the other.— Jeremy Bernstein
The American Scholar
A reminder that the quest for foundational truths is not only a supremely human activity but also one that brings us, if not absolute truth (which may be unknowable), at least better and better approximations of the truth… A gifted essayist and critic… Holt intersperses his intellectual investigation with brief but revealing glimpses of his own life, including the death of his mother, when existential musings on the nature of being seem anything but abstract.— Jay Tolson
New Yorker
“[Holt] is a spirited interlocutor and a deft explainer, patiently making sense of subjects ranging from Platonism to quantum mechanics, while nonetheless marveling at their seemingly fantastical nature… This cheerful persistence—combined with anecdotes celebrating the thrills of travel, good food, and drink—helps to sweeten what is, finally, a somber vision, in which reality may take the form of ‘infinite mediocrity’ and ‘the life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.’”
Wichita Eagle
Holt writes a warm, humane, funny, gripping and poignant tale about Being and Nothingness in the 21st century, a book that every educated person should read. His ‘detective story’ hides a winsome primer on the big questions of life, which no one—except the most ignorant or self-absorbed—can afford to avoid.— Arlice Davenport
New York Review of Books
Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story is a portrait gallery of leading modern philosophers…. Their answers give us vivid glimpses of the speakers… Holt’s philosophers belong to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries… When and why did philosophy lose its bite? How did it become a toothless relic of past glories? These are the ugly questions that Jim Holt’s book compels us to ask.— Freeman Dyson
Commonweal
It seems an impossible task—like getting something from nothing—but author Jim Holt pulls it off with great verve and brio….His intellectual modesty and generosity of spirit, his eye for telling details, and his self-deprecating sense of humor make this highly theoretical book also an engaging one…For those who are fascinated by discussions about the origins of the universe—and events such as the recent discovery of the Higgs boson—this is the book for you.— Francis Kane
Library Journal
Freelance critic Holt seeks to answer the question, "why is there something rather than nothing?" He fails to fully answer, but not before reintroducing 11th-century monk Saint Anselm's ontological proof ("God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived") and its various subsequent spins laid out alongside and sometimes in opposition to the claims of evolutionary biology, neuropsychology, theoretical physics, natural religion theology, contemporary mysticism, and militant atheism. Holt, however, does not merely stage a battle of great treatises in which Newton gives way to Kant who yields to Einstein, etc. Instead—with gossipy bits preserved—he interviews several philosophers and scientists currently engaged in answering the question, including physicist David Deutsch, a nonbeliever who theorizes a "multiverse," and Richard Swinburne, a contrastingly conventional-seeming philosopher of religion whose belief in God is rooted in faith and not "pure logic." But Holt's many anecdotes do not make his difficult subject more accessible. VERDICT Holt's efforts to make the why of existence compelling to a highly sophisticated lay audience will only succeed with the most committed of the cosmologically inclined; this is really a book of philosophy to be read by philosophers and Big Theory intellectuals.—Scott H. Silverman, Richmond, IN
Kirkus Reviews
A guided tour of ideas, theories and arguments about the origins of the universe. Any book with such a title is bound to raise at least as many questions as it tries to answer. "I cannot help feeling astonished that I exist," writes Holt, "that the universe has come to produce these very thoughts now bubbling up in my stream of consciousness." With too much abstract theory, the author runs the risk of the narrative collapsing under its own weight. However, if he moves too far in the other direction, rigorous exploration gives way to platitudes. Holt finds the right recipe, combining a wide variety of subjects in his exploration of his "improbable existence." The author lists his background as an "essayist and critic on philosophy, math, and science," which could serve as the boiled-down review of this book, as he draws from those three disciplines and others and respectfully does not shy away from posing thoughtful, difficult questions to his interview subjects. Through discussions with philosophers of religion and science, humanists, biologists, string theorists, as well as research into the scholarship of days past--from Heidegger, Parmenides, Pythagoras and others--and an interview with John Updike, Holt provides a master's-level course on the theories and their detractors. The interludes find the author positioning himself as an existential gumshoe, but also working through the sudden loss of a pet and, later, the death of his mother. Holt may not answer the question of his title, but his book deepens the appreciation of the mystery.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780871403278
Publisher:
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Publication date:
04/08/2013
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
206,428
File size:
479 KB

Meet the Author

Jim Holt, a prominent essayist and critic on philosophy, mathematics, and science, is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books. He lives in New York City.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
Carl_in_Richland More than 1 year ago
Fans of existentialism and physicists will enjoy this book . The subtitle of this book suggests a work of fiction. It’s not. Rather, it is a review of the history of the question posed by the title itself, why does the world exist? It's a good read but it’s not always easy going despite the light hearted style of the writing. One problem early on is that nowhere does it address the intrinsic limitations of any question that begins with ‘why?’ If the answer is “because of A”, then one can ask, why A? And if the answer is “A because of B”, then one can ask, why B? etc. This could go on for a long time. Which made me wonder, even after reading the book, if the question posed in the title could ever be answered. Another issue I had with this book was that some of the proposed answers seemed so silly. The western monotheistic theologians are the first to present their ideas which are quickly dismissed because of the complications that stem from the concept of God; where did he (she?) come from? Many of the philosophical arguments come across like fairy tales. For example, arguing that the universe had to come into existence because a universe filled with goodness would be intrinsically better than a universe filled with nothing. One hopes the physicists would do better. And while many of their hypothesis are equally un-testable and even harder to understand, they at least have a mathematical basis, which is more than the theologians or philosophers can claim, and that makes them more plausible, if not more comprehensible (readers interested in this book should also consider Larry Krauss’ ‘A Universe from Nothing’....same subject, but without the theology and philosophy). One of many interesting tangents in the text considers the relationship of mathematics to reality or, as posed by Stephen Hawking, asks what it is that breathes life into the basic equations of physics? At the end, after presenting a multitude of suggested reasons explaining why the world should exist, the author does seem to settle on an answer which is a blend of metaphysics, spirituality and science. But oddly enough, this solution came to him while watching a book-chat television show having as guests a Dominican priest, a theoretical physicists and a Buddhist monk. The proposed answer to this question, as articulated by the monk (Matthieu Ricard…check out his books at the Barnes and Noble webpage), is quite interesting. But it makes sense only after struggling with the many other proposed answers discussed in the text.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Holt does an excellent job reviewing all the contending theories as to why there is something instead of nothing (and why there is this something). He personizes the book by writing about some of his encounters with the authors of the theories, but the focus of the book is very much on the theories themselves as opposed to being a set of biographies of the people putting forth the theories (as sometimes happens with books on difficult subject matters). One word of warning, the topic itself is challenging. While Holt does an excellent job making matters as simple as possible, some readers will find the book difficult going. That having been said, I highly recommend the book - well worth the time put into reading it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a very good read if your interested in origins. Some people have been saying Lawrence Krauss has already given the answer to this question but that is a fallacy. Jim shows the problem with Krauss's theory of how there is something rather than nothing. Krauss has a good book but its not the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. Jim has done a good job in his work. This book explores many different areas, I found it very worth while.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not a whole lot of science here, or theology for that matter. This is a book for someone with a huge interest in philosophy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Most philosophy writings put me to sleep. This one doesn't. Written in plain language, it is an entertaining, serious foray into the question of "Why is there something instead of nothing." Holt's sense of humor and easy prose makes you think he is sitting next to you with a glass of wine telling you of his journey in search of an answer that cannot come easily. You will enjoy it.
Bearymore More than 1 year ago
A well written, wide ranging, and cogently argued survey of the ontological landscape. It addresses the question why is there something rather than nothing from the philosophical and physical points of view to the personal and literary using interviews with a range of informants from John Updike to Steven Weinberg to Derek Parfit. A worthwhile and thought provoking read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A better than average treatment of this "ultimate" question, but in the end proves that nobody has a clue. Many of the philosophers and physicists in the book resort to word games, tortured logic, or wishful thinking to attempt an explanation. The deep thinkers often talk about nothing in a loose way so their idea of nothing allows something to exist in order to have their ideas make sense. The book is worth reading if only to see why nobody has a good answer.
resena More than 1 year ago
Sorry. I TRIED to like this book. But it is just too disorganized and rambling for me. I see no attention given to the latest findings in human brain structure and function, which could explain a lot of the (historic) philosophers' views as to "why there is something rather than nothing".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BrianTomOC More than 1 year ago
Superb.  Thought provoking, entertaining, readable, deep. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book does give you a good philosophical overview, whatever your stance maybe on this question. The answer can only be based on your faith.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Rufus_J_Firefly More than 1 year ago
This is a good survey of the various theories about the origins of the universe, if you can get past the "detective story" conceit and the accompanying travelogue details (which really get annoying after a while).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Jim Holt has a very sublime approach to some of the big questions. I am forever changed by the experience.