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

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

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Book Description

July 16, 2012 0871404095 978-0871404091 1

2012 New York Times Top 10 Book of the Year
Slate.com 2012 Staff Pick

In this astonishing and profound work, an irreverent sleuth traces the riddle of existence from the ancient world to modern times.

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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Editorial Reviews


“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 - Los Angeles Times)

“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.” (Sarah Bakewell - New York Times Book Review, Front page 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.” (Booklist, Starred Review)

“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 - New York Magazine)

“A guided tour of ideas, theories and arguments about the origins of the universe…. 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.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“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 - Slate)

“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.” (Kate Tuttle - Boston Globe)

“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.” (Dwight Garner - New York Times)

“… 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.” (The Economist)

“I’ve [read] Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt to get my existential buzz.” (Bruce Springsteen)

“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 - The American Scholar)

“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)

“[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.’” (New Yorker)

“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 - New York Review of Books)

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

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (July 16, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0871404095
  • ISBN-13: 978-0871404091
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (261 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #103,400 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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 6 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 9 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 22 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 22 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 23 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 25 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 26 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 28 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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Positivism refuted
That's not correct, as you might confirm by looking at the two articles that Ayer wrote about his NDE before he died, one in the Telegraph and the other in the Spectator. Both can be found in the Atheist Reader that Christopher Hitchens edited. (I suggested to Hitchens that he include them.) I am... Read More
Nov 6, 2012 by J. Holt |  See all 9 posts
Book description is a bit strange....
Checking "Look Inside the Book," I see Hitchens is mentioned a couple of times. I strongly suspect that his rather prominent position in the book description copy (written by the publisher or Amazon) is primarily to capture the interest of more readers by associating the book with a... Read More
Jul 30, 2013 by Kurt |  See all 2 posts
Did Holt discuss "The Grand Design"? Be the first to reply
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