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The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All? 1st Edition
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“In this deep and thoughtful book, philosopher John Leslie and public sage Robert Lawrence Kuhnorganize, integrate, and reassess past and current ideas about this most compelling of metaphysical questions.” (Metapsychology, 13 August 2013)
“And now John Leslie and Robert Lawrence Kuhn have published The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All?, a very useful anthology of classic and contemporary readings.” (First Things, 24 July 2013)
“Read the book by all means. It's well written. Inevitably. After all its contributors number the greatest brains known to man. But I think it has been misnamed. The Mystery of Existence. (There really isn't anything to concern us.).” (New Nurturing Potential, 1 July 2013)
“I certainly recommend it, but it is not the sort of book you would buy to read in the train.” (Magonia Blog, 6 June 2013)
"Their book, which I would recommend highly to students, researchers or indeed anyone with a curiosity about or stimulated by these deepest of questions, offers an abundance of suggestions for further reading and research on this inexhaustible topic." (Mysterious Planet, 1 June 2013)
“Recent discoveries in cosmology have led to a renewed surge of interest in ultimate questions of existence. What, if anything, came before the big bang? If the universe appeared from nothing in a law-like manner, then where did the laws come from, and why do they have the form that they do? Or is our universe but an infinitesimal fragment of an eternal, infinite sea of diverse laws and universes? This book provides a comprehensive review of attempts to grapple with such foundational questions, and skillfully charts the intersection of science, philosophy and theology. The authors have assembled an intellectual feast for all those who care about physical existence, the universe and our place within it.”
―Paul Davies, Director, BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, Arizona State University
Author of The Goldilocks Enigma: Why the Universe is Just Right for Life
“This book gathers together some of the best that has been thought and written on what may be the most fundamental question of all: Why does anything exist? Readers won’t find a definite answer – perhaps there isn’t one that we’re capable of understanding – but they will at least get a feel for the nature of the question. And in philosophy, understanding the question is in itself an important step
―Martin J. Rees, Astronomer Royal (UK)
Author of Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe
“A very useful collection containing many of the most prominent responses to the question why there is something rather than nothing, with helpful introductions by the editors.”
―Richard Swinburne, University of Oxford
Author of The Existence of God
“This book will be an indispensable resource for anyone who wants to think seriously about the questions, ‘Why is there something – and not rather nothing?’ and ‘Why is there this something – and not rather some entirely different “something”?’”
―Peter van Inwagen, the University of Notre Dame
Author of Existence: Essays in Ontology
- Item Weight : 1.22 pounds
- ISBN-10 : 0470673559
- ISBN-13 : 978-0470673553
- Dimensions : 6.75 x 0.74 x 9.75 inches
- Paperback : 328 pages
- Language: : English
- Publisher : Wiley-Blackwell; 1st edition (April 12, 2013)
- Best Sellers Rank: #352,494 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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But the point of Kuhn's book is not to answer the question "Why?". The point is to make you dizzy as you should be. At the end you should be well grounded in how hopelessly ungrounded the entire program of Western philosophy has been up to now (Heidegger's point). You should have an appreciation of how deep and magisterial the question is so as to put all of your further philosophical pursuits into proper order.
The fundamental question of metaphysics “Why is there something instead of nothing?” has recently been resurrected and re-vitalized for twenty-first century philosophy. This is partly due to the fact that both of its majority traditions, the Analytic and the Continental, have withered away and are struggling to maintain their original sense of purpose. It is also due to the fact that this one daring question has a commanding position in the economy of meaningful inquiry, whether it is suppressed or not.
It is now time to ask the question properly, to discover its hidden dimensions, and to feel the world-shattering shock of its impact. For this reason “The Mystery of Existence” is both timely and apposite. It is basically an anthology, interspersed with commentaries and summaries by John Leslie, of representative articles that approach the fundamental question in one way or another. Systematic, well executed and penetrating, it serves as an eye-opening introduction to its topic, and a good standard resource for research.
There are holes, however, and reasons for mild dissatisfaction. If the aim of the book was to provide central examples of the most significant ways to address the question, it is basically successful. On the other hand, as with many anthologies, the selection of articles reflects a certain bias. In this case, papers by physicists, often dealing with multiverse theories, are given a great deal of space. While I do not deny that all of this is relevant and interesting, the book would have been better if it was longer, and included more entries with philosophical content.
In my opinion, at least three additional authors should have been included, and not just mentioned in passing: Martin Heidegger, Quentin Smith and Quentin Meillassoux. They represent even more divergent themes, as each discusses the emotional as well as the cognitive aspects of the question. For Heidegger, it is “upon us” in moods of boredom, while for Smith our appreciative feelings range across global versions of joy, awe, marveling and wonder. Meillassoux defends the view that the answer to “Why does anything exist?” should be so constructed that it is utterly disappointing. How we feel about this question, and the ways in which it undermines rationality itself, are both significant in ways that the reluctant business of answering it rarely has the capacity to explain.
The absence of these pieces, and possibly a few others, is not an important defect. It does not detract from the excellence of the book’s actual content, nor from the adept work of its authors.
The General Introduction further explains, “A volume about these matters might feature as few as a dozen writings by ancient authors, or else by contemporary writers discussing medieval ideas, or by philosophers with newly coined ideas, or by religious leaders, theologians, or physicists. The present volume instead reprints fifty authors from Plato onwards. They were chosen… because they discuss ‘Why the World?’ intriguingly. Not all of them think it a sensible question. Several insist that the sole possible answer is ‘That’s just now matters are---the world exists, and that’s that.’” (Pg. 2)
Later, they continue, “In this edited volume you will find details of such answers to why there isn’t a blank. There are more answers out there in the world’s libraries, in the spoken words of mystics, in vague ideas running through the heads of all the millions who find the world’s existence puzzling. Focusing on various answers that seem to us outstandingly interesting, we editors might never had heard of others which we could have found equally intriguing---for the field is enormous. Probing it to any great depth would have required several fat volumes.” (Pg. 9)
In the section by physicist/cosmologist Alex Vilenkin, he notes, “My model of the universe tunneling out of nothing did not appear from nothing---I had some predecessors. The first suggestion of this wort came from Edward Tryon… [Yet] Tryon’s scenario does not really explain the origin of the universe. A quantum fluctuation of the vacuum assumes that there was a vacuum of some pre-existence space. And we now know that ‘vacuum’ is very different from ‘nothing.’ Vacuum, or empty space, has energy and tension, it can bend and warp, so it is unquestionably SOMETHING… The picture of quantum tunneling from nothing has none of these problems. The universe is tiny right after tunneling, but it is filed with a false vacuum and immediately starts to inflate. In a fraction of a second, it blows up to a gigantic size. Prior to the tunneling, no space or time exists, so the question of what happened BEFORE is meaningless. NOTHING---a state with no matter, no space, and no time---appears to be the only satisfactory starting point for the creation.” (Pg. 93, 95)
John Polkinghorne wrote, “Evolution by itself is not enough. You cannot, if you want to fulfil the role of Creator, simply bring into being more or less any old world and just wait a few billion years for something interesting to happen. Only a very particular, a very ‘finely tuned’ universe is capable of producing systems of the complexity and fruitfulness to make them comparable to anthropoid. The interplay of chance and necessity requires the necessity to have a very special form if anything worthy (by our standards) to be called ‘life’ is to emerge. It is this surprising conclusion that has been called the Anthropic Principle… In the first instance one needs to have the right kind of physical laws… Next, the intrinsic force strengths need to lie within very narrow limits… Gravity must be strong enough to cause stars and galaxies to condense, but not so strong as to enforce a cosmic collapse… The sequence of reactions involved in the synthesizing the range of nuclei needed for life is extremely complex and delicately balanced.” (Pg. 181-183)
Derek Parfit observes, “For life to be possible, the initial conditions had to be selected with great accuracy. This ‘appearance of fine-tuning,’ as some would call it, also needs to be explained… Of the range of possible initial conditions, fewer than one in a billion billion would have produced a Universe with the complexity that allows for life… Why was one of this tiny set also the one that actually obtained? On one view, this was a mere coincidence… But this view is hard to believe, since, if it were true, the chance of this coincidence occurring would be below one in a billion billion… This reasoning revives one of the traditional arguments for belief in God In its strongest form, this argument appealed to many features of animals.. that look as if they had been designed… Darwin later undermined this form of the argument… But evolution cannot explain the appearance of fine-tuning in the Big Bang… A stronger challenge to this argument comes from a different way of explaining the appearance of fine-tuning… The Universe, we can reasonably believe, contains many planets, with varying conditions. We should expect that, on a few of these planets, conditions would be just right for life. Nor is it surprising that we live on one of the few… On this ‘Many Worlds’ hypothesis, there is no need for fine-tuning… According to the Brute Fact View, reality merely happens to be as it is. That, as I have argued, may not be true, since there may be some Selector which explains, or partly explains, reality’s being as it is.” (Pg. 222-223, 235)
Robert Lawrence Kuhn summarizes, “consulting my gut, I come to only two kinds of answers. The first is that there can be no answer. Existence is a brute fact without explanation. The second is that at the primordial beginning, explanatorily and timelessly prior to time, something was SELF-existing. The essence of this something was its existence such that non-existence to it would be inherently impossible as physical immortality to us is factually impossible… Why is there Something rather than Nothing? If you don’t get dizzy, you really don’t get it.” (Pg. 262)
This is a very broad (maybe a bit TOO broad, for my tastes) collection, that will be of great interest to those pondering this difficult question.
Top reviews from other countries
The only quibble I had was with John Leslie's persistent tendency to mis-represent Spinoza's metaphysical system, something that has marred a couple of his previous books as well (including the recent "Immortality Defended"). He tries to enlist Spinoza in support of his own theory that value and goodness are what give rise to the universe. This is a perfectly respectable idealist position which goes back to Plato and neo-Platonism. But Spinoza was categorically not an idealist - in fact his 'Ethics' was, in part, an attempt to refute the mind-body dualism of Descartes on the grounds that it presupposes an (unexplained) interaction between two independent substances. Spinoza was a monist who believed that the cosmos is an entirely self-contained, all-inclusive unity in which mind and body are two attributes of a single, necessarily existing substance. He would have rejected any notion that an abstract value such as 'goodness' can give rise to a material universe through some intelligible causal process. He would have also rejected the suggestion that contingent things are simply ideas in a divine mind; thought and extension are clearly differentiated in Spinoza's system. His position instead was that God (or Nature) is the most powerful being that can possibly exist, and that, by definition, therefore, it is also the most valuable being that can possibly exist, since it is the sole source of all potential and actual goodness, as well as the source of much else that human beings do not, from their subjective perspectives, regard as good. This is not an idealist position and its treatment of the problem of Evil, in particular, is very different from that found in teleological explanations of the universe, including those prevalent in the monotheistic religions centred on the concept of a personal God.
Readers should therefore be very wary of the construction Leslie places on Spinoza's system. Those interested in learning more about Spinoza's metaphysics would be better advised to explore the extensive literature on his philosophy, notably books by Stuart Hampshire or Roger Scruton.
However, these caveats should not be allowed to detract from the qualities of this excellent book, which can be recommended without hesitation to anyone interested in the question of cosmic origins.
The selected writers are of course all of different opinions and writing quality, but the editors have summarised them and tried to group them in some kind of order. One thing that puzzled me is that an organisation of existence philosophies is presented early on, but it is not teh one followed by the rest of the book. It took me a couple of chapters to realise this.
I am only about 1/3 of the way through but I am looking forward to the rest of the book, and I expect to go through it again for a second time to make notes.
Indeed, five stars is not enough to do it credit. The editorial comments of Leslie and Kuhn are great. I particularly enjoyed Kuhn’s taxonomy of the nine levels of Nothing.
It would be great if a second edition, suitably expanded, could come into existence.