Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story [NOOK Book]

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 ...

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Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story

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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.

One of the New York Times Book Review's Top 10 Books of 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

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.
The Barnes & Noble Review

"It has been said," Jim Holt writes, "that the question Why is there something rather than nothing? is so profound that it would occur only to a metaphysician, yet so simple that it would occur only to a child." I might have reversed the adjectives, but the basic thought that lies behind this — that the child's imagination is, at its core, philosophical and metaphysical, and that the philosopher is the adult who has managed to retain his childhood sense of wonder at the universe — seems to me sound.

And as for this particular question: well, it's a biggie. Why is there stuff — indeed, quite a lot of stuff, as anyone who has walked down Fifth Avenue, visited the Grand Canyon, or simply looked at the night sky, can attest — rather than a whole lot of nothing? (Or would that be a tiny bit of nothing?) Not every question gets, or deserves, its own book, but the question that gives Why Does the World Exist? its title is far too big for any one volume. Holt's book is not meant to be the last word on the matter; it is best seen as an entertaining introduction to a vast range of argument and speculation that would take more lifetimes to master than any of us has at his disposal.

The arguments can get complex but return repeatedly to rest on a couple of basic issues. Here is a question to start with: What, if anything, are we allowed to take for granted when we describe the beginning of the universe? The obvious rejoinder to any proposal that "X caused (or is a reason for) the universe, so the existence of the universe is explained by X" is to say, "Alright, but where did X come from?" (Or, if X is a law or principle, why does X obtain? What makes it true?) This rejoinder is extremely effective when X is, say, God: as Richard Dawkins, among many others, has pointed out, the religious "explanation" of the universe — God made it! — is entirely unsatisfying unless one can also explain who made God. One can hold that God does not need an explanation, of course; but then, why not just say that about the universe itself? As one would expect, there have been attempts to show that God, by his nature, is special and does not need any such explanation; the attempts offered thus far, though, are hopelessly unsatisfying for any questioner not already committed to a religious framework for thought.

But the "So where did X come from?" rejoinder is not only a problem for religious accounts; it also raises issues for any scientifically oriented explanation that aspires to completeness. 'The Higgs boson did it" is as unsatisfying as "God did it" unless we can explain why the Higgs boson and other elementary particles exist at all. (Actually it's not clear that the Higgs boson, if and when its existence is conclusively confirmed, will shed any light on questions of the universe's origins, despite its somehow managing to get itself nicknamed "the God particle.") More seriously, saying that the universe began with the Big Bang doesn't really explain much of anything unless we can explain why the Big Bang happened; if it's just something that came out of nowhere, for no reason, then it can't be counted as a complete explanation. Similarly, a number of physicists have argued that quantum mechanics allows a universe to pop into existence out of something extremely minimal — an energy-packed void, a quantum fluctuation, or something of that ilk. But these accounts still start with something, and so we can still ask where the energy that packed the void came from, or why the laws of quantum mechanics that permit such fluctuations should be as they are. A complete explanation of the universe's existence, as many people understand it, would have to explain those, too.

One might think, then, that a genuinely complete explanation of the world's existence would have to be infinite, since each explaining element would itself need to be explained by something else, something prior. The Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick suggested that the key to ending the regress was to find a principle that did double duty, one that explained the universe's existence and, at the same time, justified itself. His proposal was the so-called "principle of fecundity," which states that "all possible worlds are real." Since the principle of fecundity was itself possible, it would imply its own truth. (If all possible worlds are real, then the possible world or worlds in which the principle of fecundity holds is real.) So it wouldn't need anything else to justify it; it would justify itself. And it would explain why there was stuff in the universe, since stuff is possible, and all possibilities are (somewhere) actualized.

Nozick's proposal is clever, but as Holt observes, it doesn't work. After all, it is not logically possible that all possibilities obtain: some possibilities exclude others. If any possibility that includes the existence of some material object obtains, for instance, then the possibility that there are no material objects anywhere in the multiverse does not obtain. Nozick tried to finesse this by holding that different possibilities obtain "in independent noninteracting realms." But this won't work, because in order to justify itself the principle of fecundity needs to hold across all realms. "Even if all possible planets are realized," Holt explains, "there is no planet where all possibilities are realized. So fecundity is not self-subsuming after all. It's a cruel dilemma for Nozick: either his ultimate explanatory principle leads to contradiction, or it fails to be self-subsuming."

In introducing the idea of possible worlds and treating them as really existing (and not just as logical fictions) we have introduced the concept of the multiverse: a vast, comprehensive reality that includes not only the universe we live in but others as well, perhaps even an infinity of others. Some thinkers — Andrei Linde, for instance — have proposed that our universe is the outgrowth of another. The theory of "cosmic inflation," Linde explains, implies that "the only thing you needed to get a universe like ours started is a hundred-thousandth of a gram of matter.? All the matter in the universe gets created from the negative energy of the gravitational field. So what's to stop us from creating a universe in the lab? We would be like gods!" Thus, "[W]e can't rule out the possibility that our own universe was created by someone in another universe who just felt like doing it."

Of course, as a complete answer to the question of our universe's existence, this faces the same old regress problem: if our universe grew out of another one, where did the other universe come from? (Essentially the same point can be made about Alex Vilenkin's view, which also involves cosmic inflation and allows that from an initial state of nothingness, "a tiny bit of energy-filled vacuum could spontaneously 'tunnel' into existence?[and then] undergo a runaway expansion. In a couple of microseconds it would attain cosmic proportions, issuing in a cascading fireball of light and matter - - the Big Bang!")

No one has yet succeeded, then, in explaining how something could literally come out of nothing: in every case some sort of prior condition needs to be presupposed. Perhaps, though, it is the very idea of "something coming out of nothing" that is at fault. Why not just say, as David Hume suggested, that the universe has always been around, and that the existence of the universe at each moment in time is explained by its existence in the previous moment? Accepting this as the final explanation, of course, involves giving up on the idea that the existence of the universe as a whole can be explained; rather, we would have to accept its existence as a kind of brute fact. But should this bother us?

It doesn't bother me much, to be honest, but it does bother Holt. "Intellectually," he writes, the brute-fact view

feels like throwing in the towel. It's one thing to reconcile yourself to a universe with no purpose and no meaning — we've all done that on a dark night of the soul. But a universe without an explanation? That seems an absurdity too far, at least to a reason-seeking species like ourselves. ?A world that existed for no reason at all — an irrational, accidental, "just there" universe — would be an unnerving one to live in. So, at least, claimed the American philosopher Arthur Lovejoy. In one of his 1933 lectures at Harvard on the "Great Chain of Being," Lovejoy declared that such a world "would have no stability or trustworthiness; uncertainty would infect the whole, anything (except, perhaps, the self-contradictory) might exist and anything might happen, and no one thing would be in itself even more probable than any other."
The first thing to say is that Lovejoy is making at least one error of logic here, by confusing the question of how (and whether) the universe began with the question of what the universe is like. That the universe's existence is irrational (in the sense that it has no ultimate explanation) does not entail that the universe must behave irrationally. The idea that a logical and predictable universe has simply always existed is no more mystifying and no less probable than the idea that a chaotic and fundamentally unpredictable universe might simply always have existed. To think otherwise is to commit the error of thinking that we can use pure reason, unguided by empirical evidence, to determine what a universe is likely to be like.

There is a tendency among many of the thinkers represented here, Holt included, to commit this error — to think, for instance, that we can know just by thinking about it that the universe is more likely to be simple than complex. In Holt's view this is what explains why the existence of the universe is so puzzling. Shouldn't there have been nothing, rather than something, given that nothing is so much simpler than any something? (It's very predictable, for one thing, and takes very little time to describe.) But the idea that the nature of the universe can be known a priori is simply mistaken — a mistake, I can't resist pointing out, that has been well mocked by Douglas Adams, who in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy imagined a "stupendous super computer which was so amazingly intelligent that even before the data banks had been connected up it had started from 'I think therefore I am' and got as far as the existence of rice pudding and income tax before anyone managed to turn it off."

Holt's objection to the brute-fact view, then — the view, that is, that the existence of the universe as a whole has no explanation, most likely because it has simply always been around — depends on the questionable view that the existence of the universe requires an explanation: the idea that it is somehow surprising that the universe should exist, and that its nonexistence was more reasonable or more likely. Many people in Holt's book share this view, but there is at least one who doesn't: philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum, who, Holt writes, "finds the existence of the world utterly unastonishing. And he is utterly convinced that it is rational for him to be unastonished." Holt summarizes this thread of Grünbaum's thinking as follows:
Those who profess puzzlement at the existence of a world like ours — one teeming with life and stars and consciousness and dark matter and all kinds of stuff we haven't even discovered yet — seem to have an intellectual prejudice, one that favors the Null World. Nothingness is the natural state of affairs, they implicitly believe, the ontological default option. It is only deviations from nothingness that are mysterious, that require an explanation.
But this last bit, Grünbaum holds — and for my part, I tend to agree — really is nothing more than a metaphysical prejudice: there is no reason to think that an empty universe is any more likely to exist than one that is full of stuff. Indeed, the way we find out what is probable, and what is reasonable to expect, is by looking at how things are — and when we look at how things are, what we find is most decisively not an empty universe! On this view, the existence of stuff, far from being surprising and standing in need of an explanation, is entirely unsurprising. It's the status quo.

This position, then, is precisely the opposite of that held by Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne, who holds that
descriptions of reality can be arranged in order of their simplicity.? On a priori grounds, a simple universe is more likely than a complicated one. And the simplest universe of all is the one that contains nothing — no objects, no properties, no relations. So, prior to the evidence, that is the hypothesis with the greatest probability: the hypothesis that says there is Nothing rather than Something."
This seems deeply erroneous. Choosing the simplest theory that gets correct results (i.e., the simplest one that is adequate to the universe as observed) is a matter of good scientific practice, but it does not reflect an assumption that the universe itself must or even is likely to instantiate any particular degree of simplicity. When we gather evidence — i.e. observe how the world is — we accept it, even when it complicates things (and it often does). We go for the simplest theory that is compatible with the evidence, but the idea that contemporary physics reflects a fundamentally simple reality is utterly wrongheaded, as anyone who has studied contemporary physics will know. Simplicity constrains our theories; it does not constrain what the universe must be like.

Holt is not, ultimately, convinced by Grünbaum's arguments. (Nor is he is convinced by Swinburne's position, which is that the simplest hypothesis consistent with the observable evidence is that God created the universe. This, Holt observes, commits the standard error of theistic explanations, explaining one mystery, the existence of the world, in terms of an even greater one, the existence of God.) In the end — after speaking with luminaries including John Updike (who is genial, charming, and charmingly skeptical) and John Leslie (who holds that the universe exists because it is good and good things have a tendency to exist — a view which, as Holt points out, runs into serious difficulties with the problem of evil) — Holt formulates his own explanatory hypothesis, largely inspired by the work of Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit. Unlike Leslie's view, which seems to imply that reality must be maximally good, and thus perfect, Holt's view, as he formulates it, identifies "the general form that this reality is bound to take" as "that of infinite mediocrity." (This is, at least, in line with what I, at any rate, tend to observe in daily life.) Holt's hypothesis, while it assumes a lot, is interesting and at least a little ingenious, though when he sends it to Parfit he receives only the briefest of replies: "Thanks for the message, which is very interesting. I shall have to think about it carefully?"

"The question Why is there something rather than nothing? sometimes seems vacuous to me," Holt admits at one point. "But in other moods it seems very profound." The latter mood, one guesses, afflicts Holt more frequently. (Why else would Why Does the World Exist? exist?) Those who share this mood with Holt, at least from time to time, will almost certainly find this to be an entertaining and thought-provoking book. I must confess, though, that none of the proffered answers to the title question were quite as satisfying to me as the one Holt attributes to the late Sydney Morgenbesser, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University. When a student asked him, "Professor Morgenbesser, why is there something rather than nothing?" Morgenbesser responded, "Oh, even if there was nothing, you still wouldn't be satisfied!"

Troy Jollimore is Associate Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Chico. His most recent books are Love's Vision and At Lake Scugog: Poems, both from Princeton University Press.

Reviewer: Troy Jollimore

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871403278
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 4/8/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 78,079
  • File size: 468 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.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: A Quick Proof That There Must Be Something Rather Than Nothing, for Modern People Who Lead Busy Lives 1

1 Confronting the Mystery 3

Interlude: Could Our World Have Been Created by a Hacker? 13

2 Philosophical Tour d'Horizon 17

Interlude: The Arithmetic of Nothingness 36

3 A Brief History of Nothing 41

4 The Great Rejectionist 63

5 Finite or Infinite? 81

Interlude: Night Thoughts at the Café de Flore 88

6 The Inductive Theist of North Oxford 95

Interlude: The Supreme Brute Fact 108

7 The Magus of the Multiverse 120

Interlude: The End of Explanation 131

8 The Ultimate Free Lunch? 138

Interlude: Nausea 149

9 Waiting for the Final Theory 154

Interlude: A Word on Many Worlds 164

10 Platonic Reflections 171

Interlude: It from Bit 186

11 "The Ethical Requiredness of There Being Something" 197

Interlude: An Hegelian in Paris 216

12 The Last Word from All Souls 221

Epistolary Interlude: The Proof 237

13 The World as a Bit of Light Verse 243

14 The Self: Do I Really Exist? 253

15 Return to Nothingness 266

Epilogue: Over the Seine 276

Acknowledgments 281

Notes 283

Index 295

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 23 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 23 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 18, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Fans of existentialism and physicists will enjoy this book . Th

    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.

    17 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2012

    Challenging, but excellent

    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.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 14, 2012

    Recommend

    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).

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2012

    Much Knowledge Gained

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2012

    A philosophical travelogue

    Not a whole lot of science here, or theology for that matter. This is a book for someone with a huge interest in philosophy.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2012

    A Great Foray

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 18, 2012

    A well written, wide ranging, and cogently argued survey of the

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2013

    Title question never answered

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted April 26, 2013

    Rambling, disorganized confusion.

    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".

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted March 12, 2013

    Superb.  Thought provoking, entertaining, readable, deep. 

    Superb.  Thought provoking, entertaining, readable, deep. 

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2013

    A wonderful and rewarding experience.

    Jim Holt has a very sublime approach to some of the big questions. I am forever changed by the experience.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2013

    Interesting read

    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.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted August 25, 2013

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    Posted October 23, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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