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on September 11, 2013
Forget getting answers to the world's oldest question--Why Does the World Exist? The writer travels to fascinating experts around the world; experts from religion, science, philosophy, and mathematics to discuss the question. The answer: We don't know yet! This book is not about the answer--the question is so provocative and full of history, philosophy, astro-physics, mathematics, and religious thought that its the journey through this writer's mind that's worth your time. It will test your logical and mathematical thinking--in fact--all your thinking capabilities as you travel with him through the minds of these unique thinkers as they explore the question. It certainly inspired my latest art series: Unseen Cosmos. Hang on--it's a ride!
Susan Josepher, Ph.D.
Artist/Art Educator
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on August 6, 2012
In this book, Jim Holt traverses for the lay reader, better than any single work I have read to date, the historical and current thinking in the areas of metaphysics, the standard model of physics, existentialism, cosmology, and the biologic underpinnings of the mind. It is difficult to overstate the value of this highly readable, intelligent, comprehensive, entertaining, and rigorous (both philosophically and scientifically) 300 page book on the nature of the existence of the universe(s) and ourselves.

These are the "big" questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? How did the "something" we perceive come to be what it is? Is there one universe, 58 universes, or maybe an infinity of universes? What is the nature of the consciousness that enables us to perceive ourselves and our surroundings? What part, if any, do religion and human psychology play in this great mystery?

Holt covers the entire spectrum of philosophical, scientific, religious and even psychological thought on all these matters, from Plato and Aristotle to St. Thomas Aquinas, Newton, Hume, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, Einstein, Wittgenstein, William James, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Schrödinger, Bertrand Russell, Richard Feynman, Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking, Derek Parfit, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, Karl Barth, Richard Swinburne, Adolf Grünbaum, Roger Penrose, Richard Dawkins, and John Updike(!), among others. But this is no dry survey of thought and opinion; rather, it is an entrance into the "Great Conversation," engaging in in-depth and probing interviews of a number of the living sources listed above. Holt, an incredibly well versed student of the philosophy of science, successfully challenges many of his interlocutors to defend their own views versus those of their equally eminent opposites.

Neither does Holt suffer lax thinking gladly. Letting Richard Swinburne's own words bury him without an overt rebuttal on the part of Holt brings out Holt's obvious bemusement at Swinburne's self-contradictory and circular religious thinking.

The interview with John Updike, about a year prior to his death, is delightful in its sheer erudition on the part of both. Updike, like many people, just can't imagine the fact of the Big Bang or the postulated existence of a multiverse. "[And as for] the whole string theory business...There's never any evidence, just mathematical formulas, right?...There are men spending their whole careers working on a theory of something that might not even exist," to which Holt replies, "[t]hey're doing some beautiful mathematics in the process," and Updike retorts, "Beautiful in a vacuum!...What's beauty if it's not, in the end, true? Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty."

Interpolated throughout this work are a number of enjoyable but poignant "interludes" consisting mostly of relevant personal reflections and experiences, none of which should be spoiled for the reader by recounting them in a review.

This book is a must read.

The Kindle version would be equally good, since there are no visuals and only one diagram.
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Oh, sure, it's brilliant, elegantly written, and jaw-dropping in its scope, but what is the most valuable part of Jim Holt's writing is that it gets you to examine your own views with more vigor and clarity. The book is just stunning.
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on August 4, 2013
You won't find an answer to the question that is the title of the book. It is unlikely that humans will ever find an answer. Perhaps not even God knows. We do know that our universe began 13.8 billion years ago, probably as a point-like singularity. But it did not come out of nothingness. Physicists think that there was a previous space-time similar to ours in which a a bit of matter twisted space-time into a ball and skewed out of the dimensions of the old universe, and a new universe began with a big bang. Or maybe something else entirely happened. But there was something before our universe. Nothing comes out of nothing. Incidentally, our empty space is anything but empty. Virtual particles pop in and out of existence constantly. Gravity can bend space. Space is something.

You can keep going back infinitely and still there will be something. Each bit you look at had a cause just before it. And that cause had a cause... Holt wants to know why there is this infinite chain of cause and effect.

Holt finds three different possibilities considered by scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers. Matter of some sort always existed (See paragraph one.). Or perhaps God always existed and He creates matter. Or perhaps mathematics is eternally true and forces (somehow) matter to exist.

None of these theories is without problems. By the end of the book you will have a good idea of what the greatest minds of Western Civilization have thought. And somewhat surprisingly, a Buddhist monk has the last word.
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on October 10, 2012
This book offers the chance to follow Jim Holt on his quest for an answer to his philosophical question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" which is a variation of the basic ontological question of why the universe exists. To find the answer Holt examines the thinking of living and dead philosophers, a few cosmologists, and even a couple of novelists. He also provides word portraits on Oxford University and Paris which are unnecessary to his quest, but are pleasant interludes.

Although Holt presents the thinking of some cosmologists, his heart appears centered on philosophical understandings of the mystery of existence. He therefore presents the reader with his interpretation of the ontological thinking of selected philosophers from the time of Plato. He appears particularly interested in the ontology of classic philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, St Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel. He also visits personally or through their works more contemporary philosophers such as Hiedegger, Nozick, and Swinburne. Because of the way he chose to structure his question, Holt spends a lot of verbiage on the nature of nothingness that includes some silly word games. Still understanding the essence of nothingness is a legitimate philosophical pursuit and his ruminations on this topic are of considerable interest.

A good book, but not without its flaws. Holt's basic question (asked by other philosophers as well) is based on the unsupported assumption that prior to the creation of the present universe there was absolute nothingness. Also Holt has the annoying habit of inconsistently conflating the term "universe" with term "world". He also uses "world" to mean "earth" so one has to be careful when reading him. And for all his reading of Aquinas, he really fudges around the concept of a prime mover, that is some force that caused the universe to be created in the first place. Finally he pretty well ignores the ontologies of non-European thinkers. In the end after examining the ontological thinking of some of the West's deepest thinkers, Holt reveals first that he really wanted to know why he exists (not even relevant to the universe's existence). He concludes that he will go along with Descartes understanding of existence to explain his existence. A pretty weak ending for an otherwise interesting book.
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on November 21, 2012
The book consists of a string of interviews with smart interesting people on why the world exists. Not to spoil anything but Woody Allen gets it right. :) Just kidding, he wasn't interviewed. In between the interviews Holt gives us a break from all the deep philosophical thought with a personal story, usually about how he gets to the next interview; this keeps things moving along nicely. The people he interviews are so varied in background and intellect that it never gets boring. I'm sure there's something here for everyone no matter what your world view is. I personally enjoyed the thoughts of Derek Parfit on personal identity. I also found it to be an interesting overview of the the great minds of our time, which was nice since I'm fairly ignorant in that department. There's no answer of course to the big question but I found this book has shaped my thinking on the matter. And it's fun to see that even the smartest people struggle with the same questions everyone has. Definitely worth a read through.
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on June 30, 2013
Ah, yes, I swing between loving and hating when it comes to philosophy. After all, the ideas are deep, and a non-swimmer can easily drown. But Holt does a great job at maintaining a pace and energy and verve in searching through the ideas of the great thinkers of all recorded time. What great scholarship! What lovely presentation! What capable skill in recapping so many ideas as his search continues to answer the basic question "Why is there something rather than nothing?". It is satisfying to make this aerial journey keeping so many ideas in view, like a juggler keeps many balls effortlessly up in air at once. I like to think I learned something about the big picture. Holt even presents his own "solution", but when he closes, he seems to wink and leave us quickly. Now I'm juggling all by myself and wondering where the teacher is.

Still, I'm happy about the book. Besides showing us ideas, Holt takes us to his interviews with current thinkers in Europe, the UK and America. We meet the people who think the thoughts. Nice. And we even consider such arresting questions as "What is more conducive to philosophical discussion, a cup of coffee or a glass of wine?". Ah, deep or what?
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on June 17, 2014
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?” The pretense of this book is Mr. Holt’s search to find for himself the answer this question with the reader following along in his global-trotting pursuit. But this is a thinly veiled device. Mr. Holt actually tips his hand pretty early as to what he believes, his answer, though something I could not accept, is certainly interesting and a possibility I had never considered (pg. 34).

Mr. Holt travels the U.S. and Europe interviewing a number of philosophers, scientists, mathematicians etc. drawing from each an answer to the question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Between each of these chapters are “interludes” which are part travelogue part personal memoir. These chapters and interludes are stitched together almost seamlessly and create a narrative that is often complex, sometimes humorous and occasionally poignant.

Mr. Holt does not really provide any profound insights and he does not drill down into the fields he surveys. But still the reader closes the book with a broad understanding of how modern thinkers attempt to explain, why there is something rather than nothing.

I enjoyed this book, enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I read it twice. However, readers like me, who believe in a creator, should be prepared to have those beliefs almost summarily dismissed. Even so this is well-written, entertaining look at a profound question.
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on August 6, 2013
I enjoyed this book. I like philosophy. I minored in it when attending college. the question the author poses is a great one. he does explore deeply trying to answer this question. he has many discussions with various experts. In the end, he isn't able to answer the question to his complete satisfaction, but he did a good job sharing the fruits of his exploration
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on June 18, 2013
I began hoping for more from this book, but it turned out to be pretty pedestrian. The best argument I found here was the statement that there is Something rather than Nothing because there are more ways for there to be Something rather than Nothing (there is only one way for there to be Nothing), so that Something is more probable. If you're interested in arguments about the existence of a Supreme Being, that an imaginary being who is perfect must exist, that the world exists because there can be no virtue to Nothingness, then this book is for you, but I found it pretty frustrating in the end. Holt interviews some fairly significant men in physics, mathematics, philosophy, and theology, but only ends up setting them up as straw men, and reducing them to figures of fun by concentrating on their most embarrassing statements to support his philosophical inclinations. Roger Penrose's conformal cyclic cosmology might be more interesting if it was considered by Holt, but he doesn't appear to have any significant facility with a mathematical concept of entropy that is currently undergoing some pretty interesting developments in computer science and linguistics, so instead he focuses on Penrose's mystical idea about quantum consciousness. Of course, my own view is that physics has gotten really off the track in some very basic way in the past fifty years with string theory, multiverses, unified field theory, and inflationary cosmology -- theoretical physics really hasn't accomplished anything unambiguous in the last fifty years; most discoveries are now in communications, computer science, and perhaps mathematics -- but Holt appears to buy into all this because he spents a fair proportion of his time exploring these theories. Perhaps he is saying that if (and here I might even agree with him) he can show that these far-out explanations are what physics is now all about, then religion can supply explanations that are just as satisfying if not simpler. Of course, institutions including the Catholic Church and an organized physics community can turn out to be equally wrong about things as history could clearly show. Heidegger and Wittgenstein certainly had more to do with dispelling these varieties of old confused arguments about the mind/body problem and pointless linguistic exercises (is it really true that there are no married bachelors? -- I know some!), so that no self-respecting philosopher should still be talking about these obsolete topics. And Richard Rorty's concept of 'irony' to show why we can never really know the truth because our language is always changing (to reflect social changes and new discoveries -- think retronyms) might bear more attention to dispersing these ancient chestnuts about Platonic Forms. Perhaps Holt should carefully explore the nature of logical paradoxes about infinity, identity, and incompleteness rather than attempting to introduce them into sloppy pseudo-logical arguments.
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