Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story

by Jim Holt

Liveright | 2012 | 320 pages

Reviewed by Steven Paul Leiva

Why Does the World Exist? is a book of contemplation that at times causes illumination and at other times causes irritation. But in either case the suppleness and elegance of Jim Holt’s prose causes nothing but reading pleasure.

The book is well subtitled “An Existential Detective Story,” for like any good detective story it moves with the proper pace to keep you on board; it provides atmospheres and landscapes that put you into the scene; it creates interesting characters, and it offers up a rather large puzzle to be solved.  The problem is, it is a puzzle not only hard to solve, but which may be impossible to solve, although Holt believes that he may have solved it (his solution depends on the universe coming into existence as a mediocrity, or something like that).

Unlike a mundane detective story there are no guilty parties—except maybe for those who are guilty of twisting your head into knots. Being an existential detective story, it confronts you with many musings considered deep by some and silly by others; it puts a plethora of questions in your head or draws out of you only one simple one: Why are people wasting their time with this “mystery”?

The title is a simplified version of the “deep” question Holt is investigating here, Why is there something instead of nothing? To get at the answer Holt, like any good detective, does the necessary legwork, prowling the mean streets of philosophical meditations and scientific hypotheses, wearing down shoe leather in a number of locations, including Stanford University in California; The University of Pittsburg in Pennsylvania; Oxford University in England; the University of Texas; the West coast of Canada; back to Oxford; that famous intellectual center, Manhattan—and a couple of stops off for mental refreshment at the Café de Flore in Paris, where Jean-Paul Sartre used to hang out.

In this peripatetic quest for the answer to his deep question, Holt’s one unscheduled stop is back home to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia to attend to the death of his mother, and where the abstract question that he has been pursuing suddenly becomes a concrete reality when he witnesses the “...infinitesimal transition from being to nothingness.”

In reporting on both his geographical and philosophical travels Holt does a fine job portraying the intellectual essences of the thinkers he encounters, such well-regarded men as Russian physicist Andrei Linde, philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum, philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne, British physicist David Deutch, American theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate in Physics Steven Weinberg, Oxford’s emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics Roger Penrose, speculative cosmologist John Leslie, English philosopher Derek Parfit (Holt’s hero, if the book has one), and even the late American novelist John Updike. 

Holt also travels into the past to bring in ideas from David Hume and Immanuel Kant, Leibniz and Heidegger, and even reaches back to Plato, who sort of started the philosophical quest to understand Why existence?  And who, despite 2500 years having elapsed, still seems to be a major figure in that quest.

(In putting together this list I noticed that there is not one woman on it, either historical or contemporary. One has to pause to wonder why.  The imp in me can’t help but suggest that possibly women see a question like Why is there something instead of nothing? as more grandiose than grand. Or possibly it’s just that men, until very recently, haven’t really given women the free time to muse as extravagantly as they do.)

In giving a fair hearing to all the thinkers he encounters, Holt makes as clear as possible to readers who might not be trained in philosophy or science such ideas as: The principle of sufficient reason; causa sui: the cause of itself; the Higgs Field; universally free logic; the Null World; the cosmological argument; the ontological argument; the principle of fecundity; various quantum physics views of existence including the many worlds view, the multiverse, the view the includes parallel universes; string theory; quantum tunneling, and—back to Plato again—the easily understood concept of Ideal Forms but with the modern twist that they are all mathematical. 

You get a good grasp of what his thinkers are thinking about. Or, at least a good enough grasp to go, on occasion, “Oh, yes, I see,” and on other occasions, “That’s just crazy.”

Both reactions are not without their pleasures. Consistently throughout the book, when he brings up a thinker who was last mentioned several chapters back, Holt will quickly summarize that thinker’s basic position, allowing you to easily compare it with the position of the thinker he is at the moment writing about. He does this naturally and without any sense of redundancy. An elegant and simple technique that should be applied by more authors of such works.

At only 279 pages of text, Why Does the World Exist? is not a weighty tome. But the question persists, as I have hinted at: Is his subject a weighty subject?  For Holt, a well-respected (as well he should be) writer on philosophy and science for such publications as The New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books (and who lives, oddly enough, in New York), it obviously is.

He seems to feel that it is the deepest of questions, for if we can come to understand why the universe exists then maybe we can come to understand why we exist and what role we may or may not play in this universe. However after reading much of the philosophical speculations that Holt summarizes some readers might find themselves like Eliza Dolittle singing out in despair, Words! Words! Words!

For it often seems as if the play of these philosophies is nothing but the clever manipulations of words. All arguments between competing answers (or approaches to answers) to the question Why is there something instead of nothing? may, indeed, be nothing but arguments over semantics, not destined to lead to solid conclusions that can resolve the arguments. One man’s philosophical meat may be another man’s dunderheaded poison. And the twain—or the Platonic and Aristotelean —shall never meet.

It boils down to this: opinion, just opinion, no matter how deep in thought the philosopher has gone to come up with it.  Holt, presumably happy to be called a philosopher himself, is not unaware of this and he gives much voice to the Oxford philosopher of science Adolf Grünbaum, an intensely atheistic thinker who considers the question Why is there something instead of nothing? to be not much more than a Mcguffin keeping us in quasi-religious suspense and allowing the religious a last refuge against science. Allowing, indeed, for the denigration of evidence-based knowledge by claiming that it cannot explain why we exist, therefore “revealed” or “reasoned out metaphysical” knowledge, whether it be of a God or of perfect Forms or of some other concept snatched from the ether, is our only recourse. But as Grünbaum and many scientists may well feel, the question Why is there something instead of nothing? may be no more profound and deep than the question What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Who you side with, Holt or Grünbaum, on whether Why is there something instead of nothing? is a deep or silly question, will depend on your, as William James put it, sentiments of rationality.  If you are religious, metaphysical—or possibly that strange netherworld of thought, spiritual—you will side with Holt. If you have more trust in the scientific method than faith in theological or philosophical musings, you will side with Grünbaum.

But no matter what side you take, I highly recommend Why Does the World Exist? for Holt’s journey of inquiry is not only sincere it is so well rendered in words that you will find him an excellent traveling companion.

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