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402 of 420 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Something from nothing
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...
Published on July 14, 2012 by A. Jogalekar

84 of 104 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Why is there something instead of nothing?
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...
Published on August 10, 2012 by A. T. Lawrence

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars It's About the Journey Not the Destination!, January 18, 2013
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Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt

"Why Does the World Exist?" is an intellectual quest of one the most intriguing philosophical questions, "Why Does the World Exist". Philosopher and author Jim Holt plays the role of the inquisitive detective who is on a mission to answer the ultimate question of existence. Through research and a series of interesting interviews with some of the greatest minds Holt tackles the question from multiple views and angles. The book never gives you the satisfaction of reaching a destination; the satisfaction comes from taking the journey. This interesting 320-page book is composed of the following fifteen chapters: 1. Confronting the Mystery, 2. Philosophical Tour d'Horizon, 3. A Brief History of Nothing, 4. The Great Rejectionist, 5. Finite or Infinite?, 6. The Inductive Theist of North Oxford, 7. The Magus of the Multiverse, 8. The Ultimate Free Lunch? 9. Waiting for the Final Theory, 10. Platonic Reflections, 11. "The Ethical Requiredness of There Being Something", 12. The Last Word from All Souls, 13. The World as a Bit of Light Verse, 14. The Self: Do I really Exist? And 15. Return to Nothingness.

1. The topic is fascinating and profound yet the author does a good job of keeping it mostly intelligible. He adds a touch of humor to keep it from being dry.
2. The author pursues the grand philosophical question by interviewing a wide range of great minds; and I mean wide. The mystery of existence.
3. Does a wonderful job of defining philosophical terms.
4. If I can describe this book with one term...thought-provoking.
5. A lot of great tidbits interspersed throughout book.
6. The great Leibniz, the "Principle of Sufficient Reason".
7. An interesting look at the Big Bang. The new inflationary cosmology.
8. The three camps behind the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?": the optimists, the pessimists, and the rejectionists.
9. A religious angle at the grand old question. Swinburne.
10. An interesting look at nothingness from once again different views: Leibniz, Newton, Vilenkin, Bergson, Heidegger, Nozick, etc...
11. The chapter involving Adolf Grunbaum was one of my favorites. "The Great Rejectionist". The conversation with Steven Weinberg a close second.
12. Concepts of finite and infinite...perceptions versus reality. Cosmological models.
13. The debunking of the ontological argument and its different manifestations.
14. The fascinating concept of the universal quantum computer.
15. Quantum theory and how it relates to the question of existence. Quantum cosmology.
16. The arguments for and against the multiverse idea.
17. Mysticism and can count on it. Plato's influence.
18. The physicist's view of reality. Consciousness. Interesting take on "panpsychism".
19. A very interesting interview with Josh Leslie. Some unique insights. In general, I don't agree with his arguments but quite thought provoking.
20. Death and the return to nothingness.
21. Links worked great!

1. Let's face it philosophy is deep and it even at its most accessible it will test your resolve to understand some of the more esoteric concepts. That whole discussion about selectors with Derek Parfit can test your patience.
2. The chapter on the self was in my estimation the weakest part of the book. I have some book suggestions that cover the concept of the self in a more comprehensive manner. That being said he makes a very strong point about how lucky we are to even exist at all.
3. Photos of the interviewees would have added value.
4. A table summarizing the philosophical views would have been welcomed.
5. No formal bibliography. You have to pick through the notes.

In summary, this is a deep philosophical book at an accessible level. The journey is a bumpy and at times even tumultuous but overall a satisfactory quest. Some of the answers of these great minds will come across in various degrees from the absurd to the compelling. That being said, I enjoyed the journey. The quest to get the answers of the most important questions is a worthy one and Mr. Holt did a commendable job of providing a multitude of views. I recommend it!

Further suggestions: "A Universe from Nothing" by Lawrence Krauss, "The Ego Tunnel" by Thomas Metzinger, "The Elegant Universe" by Brain Greene, "The Quantum Universe: (And Why Anything That Can Happen, Does)" by Brian Cox, "The Grand Design" by Stephen Hawking, "About Time" by Adam Frank, "Higgs Discovery" by Lisa Randall, "The Believing Brain" by Michael Shermer, "How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed" by Ray Kurzwell, and "Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior" by Leonard Mlodinow.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's the Journey!, September 11, 2013
Susan Ann (Los Angeles, CA) - See all my reviews
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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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great read!, November 21, 2012
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This review is from: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (Hardcover)
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Deepest Question, September 6, 2012
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To publish a book with the title "Why Does The Word Exist?" takes certainly a lot of courage. I am glad Jim Holt was bold enough to go after the question of all questions: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" . This is serious question for philosophers, physicists, theologians and for every person who would like to know where we are and where we came from. How was the world born? Is a God necessary to create the Universe? Was there really the Nothing before the Big Bang? How Nothing could be turned in Something? Is Nothing possible at all? If a tiny-tiny particle, the size of which was probably a trillionth of a millimeter (coming from where?) could be inflated to bring into existence billions and billions of galaxies harboring a boundless number of planets (our Earth among the quadrillions...), can it happen again? Or can the Something disappear again into Nothing? Fascinating questions galore. Jim Hol does not promise us to the final solution of these remarkable mysteries but he does invite us to follow him on his journey looking for ideas and theories trying to solve the enigma hiding the deepest question of our existence.
The book is rich in content and fortunately easy to read. One has not to be a specialist of the quantum physics or a professor of theology to be able to understand the abundance of clever, witty and at the same time entertaining thoughts of outstanding scientists the author of the book could talk with.
Holt means that knowledge and understanding is for the curious reader. Being very curious myself I gladly read this extraordinary book that did not made big promises but really delivered quite a lot.... I bought it at Amazon for my Kindle as I keep buying books there belonging to the magic world of today's science.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I too was slightly fooled, June 14, 2014
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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 serious thinkers. I think, in the end, the book could be named "Why Does This Book Exist?" and the answer would be $$$.
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15 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Much ado about nothing, October 12, 2012
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This review is from: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (Hardcover)
This topic always snares me; alas, we shall never have an answer. Two reasons exist.

First, a physical reason. Our universe binds us, so we cannot "explore" anything beyond our boundaries of space-time, matter-energy. This is a real (physical) boundary. A true limit. So conjecturing about what lies on the other side shall always be speculation. God, multiverses, Platonic realms -- the unknown unknown will always remain unknown. And I hate this conclusion.

Second, philosophical investigations and human logic -- and this book focuses mainly on these -- fail at many levels. Take, for instance, quantum mechanics. I dare anyone to claim it is logical. It is not. So human logic and philosophical investigations fail at this level. And I dare anyone to suggest that human logic, without evidence-based experimentation, can unravel the mysteries at other layers of our observable universe and beyond our observable universe (if this even exists, or if this concept even makes sense). Philosophy without evidence-based research cannot claim to discover the truth.

So these are limits we have to accept.

But, placing this objection to the side, the author does a great job of summarizing many arguments about WHY IS THERE SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING. He explores theological, scientific, and philosophical approaches, but concentrates (as I've already mentioned) on the philosophical shade.

Although the author also tries to weave many personal and engaging stories into the narrative, I feel this style is inappropriate considering the question's gravity. It diminishes the content and arguments.

I do, however, thank the author for finally helping me to settle the issue: we shall always remain clueless about ultimate explanations. Perhaps such questions are ultimately a waste of time: much ado about nothing.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ontology for Fun and Profit, October 10, 2012
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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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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Whereof one cannot speak, March 7, 2013
exurbanite (Inverness, CA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (Hardcover)
Jim Holt is a middle-aged writer who lives in Greenwich Village and wants to know why there is something rather than nothing. He decides to get in touch with a few esteemed intellectuals - philosophers, physicists, mathematicians, theologians, even the late novelist John Updike - to harvest their thoughts on this classic metaphysical question. He visits some in person, others he contacts by phone.

His interlocutors are wise, thoughtful and interesting men who seem happy to hold forth on the deeper questions surrounding man and the cosmos. The conversations delve into matters complex and diverse: the nature and existence of God, the Big Bang, microbiology, string theory, the multiverse, Platonic and mathematical forms, the fecundity principle, consciousness, mysticism, and much else.

Among the speculations is the possibility of a certain parallel between quantum mechanics and the universe. Miniscule particles pop up unpredictably from nowhere and disappear equally unpredictably, so perhaps at the other end of the scale the universe appeared for no particular reason in similar fashion. There is much fascinating existential pondering of this sort, but alas, when it comes down to the crunch, not one of the men interviewed actually has the faintest idea why there is something rather than nothing.

So what we finally come down to resembles an elaborately decked out box devoid of content. Holt fills the vacuum with metaphysical chatter and logical conundrums. Sensing, perhaps, the boredom imparted by these, he lightens the load with personal ephemera. His dachshund and his mother die. He takes a leisurely bath in the Athenaeum Club in London. He orders Scotch in the Café de Flore in Paris, now a tourist trap but frequented in the 1940's by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Holt's conversations with the learned men he seeks out constitute the worthwhile parts of this rather scattershot book. The rest is largely tiresome stuffing. Predictably left unanswered is the question posed by the pretentious title, "Why Does the World Exist?". Holt would have been well advised to heed Wittgenstein's famous advice: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent".
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent compilation of ideas from philosophers and scientists, November 10, 2012
This review is from: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (Hardcover)
If you're interested in the field of cosmology (esp, cosmogony) from a more philosophical slant, this book is for you. In a splendidly written book, Jim Holt describes his personal quest to answer the ultimate question by weaving theories and ideas from a wide variety of sources (aristotelian to present-day philosophers [atheists and theists], cosmologists, physicists, and mathematicians). Holt is no neophyte on these matters - he has written articles and book reviews for years for the New Yorker and NY Times on topics in science, cosmology (including string theory), and mathematics.

Don't expect a final answer to the question posed by the book's title - that's not the purpose of the book (although Holt provides an interesting "proof" near the end of the book). Instead, the book provides a fine introduction to a variety of ideas which attempt to address the issue of Why the World Exists. For the serious reader, this book will require some effort to try to digest everything. But it's beautifully written and reads like a detective novel. I'm sure there's also the hope that readers will spend time thinking, researching, and wondering about these questions long after they've finished reading the book.

I'd like to address some of the alleged "problems" with the book which several reviewers brought up in this forum:

1) Problem - Holt assumes that our Something arose from Nothing.

Holt focuses a lot of attention on Nothingness, but he does address the notion that our Something (cosmos) didn't necessarily arise from Nothing (see Grunbaum argument starting on page 70). Also there are various definitions of "nothing". As Holt explains, philosophers may define "nothing" differently from many physicists (Lawrence Krauss would be one of those physicists).

Pinning down the nature of Nothingness is extremely important with respect to questions of cosmogony. That's why Holt spends so much time on it.

2) Problem - Holt seems to have been unaware of Lawrence Krauss's latest book "A Universe from Nothing", published earlier in 2012. He should have read it and then addressed it in his own book (published later in 2012). Further, Krauss's book would have ended the discussion since as Dawkins gushingly proclaimed as an afterword in Krauss's book, "the Krauss book will do for Cosmology what Darwin's Origin of the Species did for biology" (i.e., crush all alternative theories especially those that appeal to the supernatural).

First, both the Holt and Krauss books very likely went to print about the same time. There was no practical way for Holt to have referenced the Krauss book in his own book (unless Holt had an advance copy or manuscript which he probably did not). In any case, I'm sure Holt was aware of Krauss's ideas through the ubiquitous YouTube video of Krauss's lecture on Cosmology.

Second, Holt has in fact addressed Krauss's ideas, as expressed in "A Universe from Nothing," in a recent NY Times blog. Holt does not consider Krauss's ideas to have settled the question of the origin of our universe: "Krauss, in essence, thinks the laws of quantum field theory somehow ordain the existence of a universe. Where these laws come from, and what gives them their apparent power over the void, he can't say." In effect, Krauss has redefined "Nothing" so that it is "Something", thus making it easier to go from "Nothing" to "Something" (Krauss has been criticized for this by Holt, David Albert of Columbia University, Ron Rosenbaum, et al).

So, we're back to Square One, Holt's fundamental question - why does anything exist? What exactly
are the first principles, where in the heck did it all come from, and why?

3) Problem - Holt's book contains no footnotes or a formal bibliography.

Well, footnotes would've cluttered the heck out of the book and wrecked its flow. I'm glad Holt did not include footnotes. Instead, he has an Index, naturally, as well as a Notes section at the back which provides citations (by chapter and page number) for each referenced philosopher, scientist, or mathematician (including, in most cases, the corresponding book, manuscript, or article from which the citation came).

4) Problem - Freeman Dyson gave a poor review of Holt's book by stating that "Holt's philosophers belong to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Compared with the giants of the past, they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant."

Dyson's quote is taken out of context. Dyson was making the point that philosophy today has nowhere near the stature that it used to have. In fact, Dyson was lamenting the fact that philosophy and science have diverged so much over the last 100+ years that philosophers and scientists no longer even know one another (some of the great scientists hundreds of years ago were also great philosophers). Dyson was being critical of the current state of philosophy (what would you expect coming from a physicist? :).
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Why does the world exist? Why not?, February 19, 2013
Stuart (San Francisco) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (Hardcover)
Why not? is the best answer for a philosophical question that begins why.

"Why does the world exist?" is an anthropocentric, and henceforth illusory, question arising out of a human language that implies mistaken ontology. Pursuing such question is like chasing rainbow. It is what Wittgenstein meant by "the riddle does not exist," a statement of aphorism ironically quoted by the author in this book.

Most of philosophical questions arise out of linguistic entanglement, according to Wittgenstein who tried to articulate the mystic Zen point in the language of Western philosophy and logic. Like this book's question, metaphysical riddles are asked over and over and over again by generations of Western philosophers because the incessant act of asking is in reality human psychology. At the root of asking lies a man's fearful self-awareness of mortality. The author confesses that he suffers tremendous existential anxiety but never quite sees the existential connection between his fear of death and the pseudo philosophical question he is asking.

The true answer is not to be found in conceptual sophistry. It has to be a therapeutic one that can allay none other than man's fear of death. This of course is not my insight but the Buddha's (e.g., Mr. Holt may have never pursued the question if he had meditated).

The book is enjoyable in some aspects. The author did a fine job in walking the readers through the history of mainstream (largely academic) thinking around the issue. He summarized many thinkers' intricate ideas without losing their pointed essence. I am glad that this type of book can be commercially published and even successful in terms of sales. But the book's sin is amplifying an impression that the question of conceptual trickery (e.g., why does circle with right angles not exist?) is an important question for humanity to ponder.

People growing up in the tradition of Confucianism, Taoism, or Buddhism - although all these 'ism' labels are European Orientalists' ignorant work of art - rarely ask existential 'why' questions (although globalization and Western influences now increasingly turn their minds closer to so-called "rationalist" thinking). Asian languages, for one example, have evolved dispensing with words of ontological presumption because their spiritual orientation was not ontological and monotheistic. On the other hand, European languages came down to us saturated with ontological vocabularies of monotheism, which logically then prompts the speakers to raise a 'why' question. This is of course my biased opinion, but I believe that much of Western philosophy, albeit with many brilliant exceptions, is more or less a linguistic symptom of collective mental sickness of monotheistic orientation.

I could not resist its seductive title while browsing the philosophy section of a local book store. I expected the author's own answer out of his own, soulful, independent quest. It's perhaps necessary to be reminded of important thinkers' thoughts; but what is the point in talking to perhaps academically reputed but banal names one after another who offered nothing authentic? I ended up disdaining it despite the author's charming narrative skill. It was also disturbing to witness mainstream Western philosophy's ethnocentrism only deepened here. The author never bothered to take a serious look at the Eastern views, traditional or contemporary. Perhaps he never understood as he failed to understand the true meaning of Zen monk's bopping his head for an answer to the question. Lao Tzu or Buddha, in my view, offered some of the most profound and penetrating insight on this type of question (or rather the questioner's existential motive). Almost too a journalistic approach, which has become the standard commercial way of "popularizing" intellectually demanding topics these days, may serve many readers but bored me.
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Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story
Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (Hardcover - July 16, 2012)
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