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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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Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 13, 2012 6:03:17 AM PST
Excellent defence of the book. Regarding Krauss, I wouldn't have been as polite as yourself so I commend your reasonableness and equanimity.
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