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Why Does The World Exist [Hardcover]

Jim Holt
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

July 17 2012
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."

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Review

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"

About the Author

Jim Holt is a prominent essayist and critic on philosophy, mathematics, and science. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books and Prospect magazine. He lives in New York City. He is the author of Stop Me If You've Heard This [9781846681097] also published by Profile. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Probably more interesting to philosophers March 11 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I gave this book more of a chance than some reviewers, reading almost three-quarters of it. By then I found that I was rapidly losing interest in a very important question: why does the world exist? Although it seems unlikely that science will answer this question (at least in my lifetime, and probably ever), the philosophical approaches, which dominate the book, offer even less hope.
Readers who enjoy philosophy will probably enjoy Holt's conversations with a wide variety of respected thinkers. To me, the best parts of the book were the vivid descriptions of place and atmosphere: a cafe in Paris, Oxford, etc.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is exactly what I have been looking for and has partly relieved me of my existential and ontologival curiosity. The book approches the ultimate question from various backgrounds and wide perspectives like physics, philosohy, religion, mathematics and literature. Though the subject is a very tough one, the book is very readable and wonderfully balanced both in its range and depth.

The author blends his personal ideas and argument with both the past great thinkers' thoughts and his interviews with the contemporary top class scholars. The author's writing style is philosophical, scientific and poetic, all mixed in a beautiful and lierary tone. Even his very personal and daily experiences are harmoniously interwovend, contrasting starkly with the dark weight of the ultimate question and making the question's philosophical aspects all the more distinct.

It is a product of his life-long quest for humankind's insurmountable big wall. Of course, by this book you cannot get the final answer to that question, but you can grasp the impossibility of the ultimate solution and at least what the answer would be like.
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4.0 out of 5 stars written with intent June 11 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The book hits it in the sense that it tries at no time to pontificate.
The exposition is clear and succinct and the research is thorough.
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1 of 22 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars boring Dec 25 2012
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
booooo!I wouldn't recommend this book. I found it very boring, vague and pointless. Me no likey read this book here
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  271 reviews
391 of 409 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something from nothing July 14 2012
By A. Jogalekar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Reading this book feels like working out in one of the finest philosophical and intellectual gyms in town. In it Jim Holt takes us on a journey which tackles one of the oldest and most profound questions that humans have asked; "Why is there something instead of nothing?". To his credit Holt does not try to answer the question but instead leads us through a set of meetings with some of today's leading philosophers and scientists who all have their own fascinating takes on the problem. Holt starts the book with accounts of different schools of philosophy which have tried to stake out paths from something to nothing. It turns out that it's far from easy to define the existence of "nothing" partly since the very entity defining that nothing is something. Interestingly a few of the philosophical attempts also fly in the face of the latest insights from theoretical physics, and in fact one of the goals of the book is to demonstrate the creative tension between science and philosophy, hinting that both disciplines will continue to learn much from each other. To explain nothingness, philosophers resort to various logical proofs of God and existence while physicists think that the universe could have been a random quantum fluctuation that fed upon itself. Listing various attempts to explain nothing and something, Holt dwells on the work of thinkers like Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer and Leibniz, giving us a sampling of philosophical speculations on the question over the last five hundred years or so.

The heart of the book however involves Holt's conversations with some very smart thinkers even as he criss-crosses the globe and spends his time in French cafes contemplating the quirks and facts of his own existence, sometimes poignantly so as he thinks about the demise of his dog and then even more sadly of his mother (practical instances of the transformation of something into nothing?). Holt's accounts of these encounters are in equal parts clear, moving and enormously intellectually stimulating, making us confront a wide variety of questions about meaning and existence. Some of the conversations feel like intellectual ping-pong, and Holt's great strength is his ability to ask these people tough questions and spar with them on an equal level; this turns the interviews into exchanges of real substance rather than simple Q&A sessions. Among the cast of fascinating characters that Holt talks to are celebrated scientists, philosophers and writers. For instance there is the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne who thinks that the simplest explanation for the presence of such a complicated universe is that it must be created by God. Then there's the Oxford physicist David Deutsch who is convinced of the existence of multiple universes, a fact which then posits our universe as simply one of many other worlds, albeit one containing sentient humans. An even more bizarre idea comes from the physicist Andre Linde who is sympathetic to the existence of our universe as a simulation created by other sentient beings with awesome powers of matter and energy creation. A healthy antidote to those who seem astonished by the complexities of our cosmos comes from the Pittsburgh philosopher Adolf Grünbaum who thinks there's no reason to be awed by the presence of something and that a fondness for considering nothing to be the "natural" state of the universe is really rooted in Judeo-Christian philosophy which imparts special significance to creation. Many of these thinkers hold diverse and even opposite views of the topic, but it's clearly this variety that makes pondering the question such an intellectual treat.

There are many others who Holt talks to, including the Platonist mathematician Roger Penrose, the writer John Updike and the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. From a scientific viewpoint the cleverest idea seems to come from the physicist Alex Vilenkin who defines nothingness as the result of a sphere of spacetime shrinking to zero radius; presumably the universe could then arise out of this nothingness as a quantum fluctuation. As noted above, Holt's meetings with all these thinkers are interspersed with poignant personal ruminations about life, death and existence, mostly done while lounging around in the French cafe that Sartre frequented. Interludes between conversations cover a smattering of related topics, including various logical proofs for God's existence and Holt's own criticisms of them; in Holt we find a penetrating thinker who is entirely capable of asking the most revealing questions about the topic. In addition many of the discussions are spiced with humor. Ultimately Holt does not find the final answer to the question "why is there something rather than nothing", but I don't think he is disappointed. Neither are we. This is one of those cases where the journey is far more important than the destination; like the traveler in C. P. Cavafy's poem "Ithaca", it's the sights and sounds that we see on the way which really count. The investigation exemplifies the kinds of deep questions that humans are capable of addressing through science, philosophy, literature and poetry. We should all be glad that there are people who think about these questions in such deep and diverse ways, and we can thank Jim Holt for being a patient, witty, insightful and poignant guide on this wonderful journey.
109 of 125 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The history and relevance of the Biggest Idea July 17 2012
By John L Murphy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
After reviewing Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's "The Grand Design" a few days ago, and feeling that despite their erudition, they did not satisfy my lifelong curiosity about this Big Question, I awaited Jim Holt's take on Hawking and other thinkers, and the more cosmologically inclined Lawrence Krauss with his new "A Universe From Nothing," but as a decidedly lay reader who finds astronomy and philosophy both challenging to wrap my head around, I figured Holt would prove an assured guide. (I reviewed Krauss in Aug. 2012.)

I used to enjoy Jim Holt's end-page science columns in the late, lively academic magazine Lingua Franca. Here, as in his reviews and journalism, Holt takes a brisk clip to survey the earlier attempts at figuring out what Leibniz asked and what for the teenaged Holt Heidegger repeated as the "ultimate 'why' question."--Why is there something rather than nothing? Leibniz' answer to his own riddle does not please Holt: a self-evident "well, we have to exist, don't we?" retort. He then turns to Andrei Linde's scheme of a clever hacker from another universe for one scenario. Out of a hundredth-thousandth of a gram of matter, a universe can be concocted, and balloon outward.

Mixing his personal quest with philosophers, mathematicians, clergy, theologians, physicists, and some combinations of these professions, Holt uses interviews to bring the bulk of his account into the present-day search for meaning in our origins, not as myths but as "brute fact." Interludes with his own quest, and his own reflections flash by, and extended chats with experts follow.

I was pleased to find included Matthieu Ricard. I've profited from this French biologist-turned Buddhist monk's collaborations with his father, French political philosopher Jean-Francois Revel ("The Monk and the Philosopher") and with Vietnamese-born astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Tranh ("The Quantum and the Lotus")--see my reviews. Godel, Russell, Anselm, Voltaire, Feynman: Holt's range of reading meets what I'd anticipated. But we also hear from Woody Allen, James Joyce, John Updike, and Gaunilo the Fool.

The pace of this remains daunting, but as with his readership for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books as well as Lingua Franca, Holt expects a smart audience, able to grasp the history of ideas, tease out allusions to poetry and drama, and to handle quotations left in French. It's that kind of book, one that in a soundbite, pull-quote age will still find its audience, undoubtedly a self-selecting small one able to take on serious intellectual investigation along with Holt, as he relates the material with wisdom. He applies a steady gaze both to the demise of his dog and the death of his mother.

This brief study moves rapidly (lots of quick citations and parentheses and rapid transitions) for all its citations (endnotes if no bibliography). His interviews tend to be nimbly related, well-edited, but the pace slows in its later stages, as ennui sets in. He revives in a final interlude which spirals back to its beginning, as he shifts from "nothing" to "something" as the elusive definition. I leave the denouement for the reader's reflection, fitting after a demanding encounter with the brightest minds on the planet who grapple with metaphysics, science, and faith. Overall, it rewards reflection, even if it will not solve mysteries.

Roger Penrose and colleague Hawking assert the Big Bang's singularity, out of quantum fluctuations, as astrophysicists such as Krauss appear to back up, as the logical if not "determined" beginning to the universe, without any other cause. Holt opens up another response via Penrose and physicists open to finding a reasonable pattern in creation--that we can examine the universe to solve its own reason, so we need not accept God's uncaused cause or the self-created but purposeless absurdity of our existence as the polarized choices.

But, we seem programmed, as Adolf Grunbaum shows, to seek that the "why" presupposes a teleological goal set in motion from the start of something even if out of nothing: what Leonard Mlodinow and Stephen Hawking call in their recent "The Grand Design" a "top-down" rather than a cosmologically sophisticated (if maddeningly counter to theologians) "bottom-up" model that explains it all. Platonic forms might construct the universe, Penrose avers.

The sheer odds against us, many theologians understandably insist, rule out chance. Richard Swinburne's musings lead him to consider how unlikely God himself is, compared to nothingness. This humbling perspective permeates this challenging representation of some of the world's most intelligent minds facing such perplexity.

Do laws themselves require a prime mover, a grand designer? Or, is the universe, as God has traditionally been explained to be, a "causa sui," needing no other cause but itself? Is an origin based in "almost nothing" a better rationale concocted from the quantum fluctuations of a "false vacuum," or does this divert or delay human attempts by cosmologists and mathematicians to solve the ultimate question? Holt conveys frustration with all of these as partial evasions, while the state of "nothingness" itself evades our facile conception, of course.

David Deutsch here defends the multiverse; Holt sides with others who regard this as too easy a solution, allowing all solutions instead of fixing one for our particular universe, 13.7 billion years ago. Holt's examination appears, as Steven Weinberg's bleaker insistence repeats, to lack a single theory we can apply to unify the universe into a tidy cause-effect solution. If "why" can be replaced by "We exist because....", will this proclamation end the pursuit of cosmic mystery?

Question marks abound in such a book. Here Weinberg, as in his own work, finds no teleology suffices. However, Holt in a restless search for answers cannot be satisfied with this refusal to allow for the "why?" of his own title. The wandering results, fueled by both caffeine and an evident taste for fine wine, may surprise those who turn to science to answer what remains (as we meanwhile "discover" the Higgs Boson this past summer?) the most nagging of questions. Well, that and life after death.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yes, philosophy can be fun Aug. 10 2012
By The philosopher - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As the book's title suggests, the question that animates Holt is, "Why does the world exist?" By "the world," Holt means everything that exists, not just the Earth. Of course, Holt's question only makes sense if there are other possible ways things could have been, and Holt thinks that there are. In fact, there are infinitely many other alternative possibilities. The simplest is that nothing at all exists, and but there also are infinite variations on how an existing world could be, with different features and/or histories. So, given all of those possibilities, why do we have the world we have? Holt also is curious about why the world we live in has its many improbable features that have permitted intelligent life to emerge--does the unlikelihood of such a world provide evidence of a benign God who designed this world to support human life?

The subtitle of the book is "An Existential Detective Story," and Holt is cast as the p.i. and leading scientists and philosophers are cast as the experts he consults to untangle the mystery. Holt got access to top-flight thinkers, so the conversations take place at a high level, but Holt does a masterful job explaining the background material so that an attentive reader can follow the twists and turns of the conversations. Holt generally doesn't go deeply into the science, so if you want a book that thoroughly explains, say, quantum physics or the big bang, you should look elsewhere, but Holt provides enough background so that the reader can assess the pros and cons of the scientists' ideas about why the world exists. Holt generally provides more thorough explanations of philosophical theories that arise in the book. I am a professional philosopher, so I am better equipped to analyze how well he handles the philosophical parts of the book, and I'd say he acquits himself very well, showing a masterful ability to make these abstract and difficult philosophical ideas come alive.

Like when tackling a detective novel, the reader spends much of our time inside the head of the p.i. (Holt) as he thinks through the mystery at the heart of the book, but Holt is not cogitating alone: Many chapters involve Holt interviewing prominent philosophers or scientists. Although Holt lets the other person drive the conversation, Holt is not just passively taking notes--he asks insightful and interesting questions and raises important objections. Holt is a generous conversationalist who is open to exploring ideas, however counter-intuitive and surprising they may be. At the end of the conversation, Holt tells the reader what he took away of value from the conversation, as more pieces of the puzzle of existence come into place. Near the end of the book, Holt offers his own answer to the question of why the world exists, an answer heavily influenced by the work of the English philosopher Derek Parfit, whom Holt talked to in the previous chapter. Has Holt unlocked the mystery of existence? That is for each reader to decide, but I found Holt's answer to be fascinating.

Holt's book differs from most "academic" works of philosophy in that he personalizes the issues and thinkers. He ties our interest in nothingness to our fear of death, which is our own inevitable plunge into nothingness, and he probes the personalities and biographies of the scientists and philosophers he interviews for a window into why they gravitate to different types of answers about why the world exists. His "investigation" is as much about human hopes and fears as it is about the mysteries of existence, as we see when he copes with the death of his mother and of his pet and thinks about what it means for a conscious being to no longer exist, to return to the void.

The only criticism I have of the book--a criticism that would make me drop the book's rating to 4.5 stars--is that its organization can be haphazard. This may be an inevitable byproduct of the author's method of talking with so many different people, but certain ideas, such as the physicists' concept of a "multi-verse," come up in different chapters where they get different partial explanations; the book would be clearer with a single, more comprehensive explanation earlier in the book. Indeed, I sometimes found myself thinking, "Didn't I read about this in an earlier chapter?" but not remembering exactly where. It can be hard to find those passages in earlier chapters because the chapter titles usually don't announce clearly whom Holt is talking to in that chapter. Because I had the Kindle edition of the book, the book's index, which references page numbers in the printed volume, was useless. (Of course, the Kindle edition has a search function.)

The copy of the Kindle edition looked clean to me. I noticed no typos, except for a possible mistake on the chart that Holt uses to explain Parfit's theory in chapter 12. I would like to look at the hardback copy of Holt's book to see whether the chart there matches the one in the Kindle. Although this point will only be of interest to people who have read through chapter 12 of the book, I'm wondering whether it is an error that the arrow that goes from "Goodness" to "Axiarchic" is x'd out as circular. If anyone has any comments on that issue, please leave them here for me.

So, if you're the least bit inclined to ask "the big questions" and want a readable, state-of-the-art introduction to where scientists and philosophers stand on trying to explain the most mind-boggling question of all, namely, why the world exists, you are fortunate to have Jim Holt as your tour guide through the intellectual wilderness. Beginners to science and philosophy and more experienced hands should all enjoy the trip.
91 of 108 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the Best - Ever. July 13 2012
By W. Bloom - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is, quite simply, the best book that addresses the fundamental ontological question of "Why is there Something rather than Nothing?" that I have ever read. The author has a good grasp of the relevant science as well as of the philosophic arguments. He interviews an impressive collection of contemporary thinkers, and his writing style is both clear and deeply moving. Toward the end, he presents his own carefully considered approach to the problem. This is clearly the product of an intellectual labor of love. Bravo, Jim Holt.
82 of 101 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Why is there something instead of nothing? Aug. 10 2012
By A. T. Lawrence - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
During the initial pages, I found my concentration slipping as I was looking for a focus, but then around page nineteen the focus became sharper as Holt writes, "A theory about the birth of the universe is called a cosmogony, . . . The ancient Greeks were the pioneers of rational cosmogony, as opposed to the mythopoetic variety exemplified by creation myths." And then Holt brings in metaphysics which he defines as "the project of characterizing reality as a whole." But why should anyone be concerned about the birth of the universe or the fundamental nature of being and the world? Perhaps this is the most critical question for people to ask. Whence did it all begin, and what was there before? Science has certainly opened our eyes; up until the twentieth century, astronomers believed that the Milky Way was the only galaxy in the entire universe. Then, in in 1923, Edwin Hubble, with the use of the new 100-inch telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, California, determined that the clouds of gas observed by previous astronomers, first thought to be incubators for stars within our own galaxy were in fact distant galaxies. It is now theorized that the universe is made up of over one hundred billion galaxies like our Milky Way. So now the Earth has become an even smaller speck in the universe, though its size has not changed since antiquity.

When did something from nothing occur? And why? Was it 4 billion years ago, nine billion years after the creation of the universe, when the hot gases orbiting our star (the Sun) cooled down and our planet Earth was formed? Or was it 13.75 billions years ago when a body of extremely densely compacted mass, no bigger than our solar system exploded, and the Big Bang occurred and thus created more than one hundred billion galaxies? Or was it before then, and what was there before? Were there earlier moments, before the Big Bang when nothing existed, not even time? Holt addresses these issues and takes us on an amazing journey, illuminating dark passageways, while enabling us to open our eyes and our minds.

I majored in philosophy in university, and Holt certainly has a firm grasp of philosophy, as well as physics, mathematics, religion, and other specialties, which he is able to weave together in an engrossing treatise -- get ready, though this is an erudite book for the serious and well informed reader.

There is an insightful public radio ThoughtCast interview with Jim Holt that is accessible on the Internet[...], when he was in the midst of writing this book. If you listen to this interview, you would be inclined to purchase this book.
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