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

Jim Holt
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (261 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 8, 2013 0871403595 978-0871403599 1

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.

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Editorial Reviews


“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))

“The author takes on the origin of everything in this wonderfully ambitious book encompassing mathematics, theology, physics, ethics and more.” (Michael S. Roth - The Washington Post)

About 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.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (April 8, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871403595
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871403599
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (261 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #16,803 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
388 of 406 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something from nothing July 14, 2012
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. Read more ›
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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
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.
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24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yes, philosophy can be fun August 10, 2012
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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Sitting On the Dock of the Bay
I bought this book as a gift for my son and he has reported back to me that he enjoyed the book very much. He read it during breaks on his cruise on his Coast Guard cutter. Read more
Published 5 days ago by BrokenArrow
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking
Interesting and thought provoking book written in an entertaining way. Not an easy read however.
Published 7 days ago by George James Kalergis
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read
Really enjoyed it cover to cover. I'm a physics wonk, so it was refreshing to see cosmological theories and evidence blended with philosophical positions. Mr. Read more
Published 10 days ago by Russ Hill
1.0 out of 5 stars A philosopher writing about science
Holt can't decide if he's dealing with the question as a philosopher (which Holt is) or a scientist. Read more
Published 23 days ago by Dan Stern and Gail Stern
4.0 out of 5 stars Whimsical Look at a Profound Question
WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST by Jim Holt is an often whimsical look at one of humankind's most profound questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing? Read more
Published 23 days ago by E. Evans
5.0 out of 5 stars No answer, just a question.
It reminded me of conversations with my wife. I would ask the same question over and over again and never get an answer.
Published 24 days ago by Virginia M. Heenan
2.0 out of 5 stars I too was slightly fooled
Like others, I anticipated this book to be a more serious treatment of the question. Rather, it is a wordy travelogue, with a few worthy sentences plucked from his interviews with... Read more
Published 26 days ago by john
5.0 out of 5 stars Just read it.
If you are philosophically inclined, you will really enjoy this book. Light in tone but serious reading with a tinge of humor, about the biggest strangest and most easily screwed... Read more
Published 27 days ago by EL
2.0 out of 5 stars Cocktail hour talk
This book was purchased under the impression that it was a serious treatment of the question posed in the title. Viewed that way, it would merit at most a single star. Read more
Published 29 days ago by ssw
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing....
Given that a substantial consensus exists among cosmologists, physicists, and astrophysicists that the universe originated with a 'big bang' 13. Read more
Published 1 month ago by reddecliff
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