- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Liveright; 1 edition (April 8, 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0871403595
- ISBN-13: 978-0871403599
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 360 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #40,388 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story 1st Edition
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Starred 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.
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
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.
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
Why is the universe characterized by such abundance and complexity? Why does it exist at all? How did it come into being? Could there have been something else instead? Could there have been nothing else--that is, nothingness--instead? Is the human mind capable of resolving these matters? Can anyone do justice to all this in a 279-page book? I can answer only the last of these questions. Yes, someone can: Jim Holt, in Why Does the World Exist --Andrew Sullivan
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
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
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.Holt is a generous guide, laying out a brief history of how philosophers have approached these questions before bringing us along on his tour of modern thinkers--some of whom are also fairly eccentric, hilarious talkers. The author's willingness to include his personal struggles with being and nothingness--as when he faces the death first of his dog, then of his mother--grounds the book in intimate, humane terms. We may never know why the universe exists, but we know how to grieve those who exit it. --Kate Tuttle
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
So much in middle-class life and literature is rote: We decide what to have for dinner, we floss, we pick up something to read. Hurray for Jim Holt, who cracks our formulaic stupor with his crisp, jolly new book, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. Already, I've started a list of folk who will find it gift-wrapped from me at the holidays. --Karen R. Long
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.
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The heart of the book however involves Holt's conversations with some very smart thinkers even as he criss-crosses the globe and spends his time in French cafes contemplating the quirks and facts of his own existence, sometimes poignantly so as he thinks about the demise of his dog and then even more sadly of his mother (practical instances of the transformation of something into nothing?). Holt's accounts of these encounters are in equal parts clear, moving and enormously intellectually stimulating, making us confront a wide variety of questions about meaning and existence. Some of the conversations feel like intellectual ping-pong, and Holt's great strength is his ability to ask these people tough questions and spar with them on an equal level; this turns the interviews into exchanges of real substance rather than simple Q&A sessions. Among the cast of fascinating characters that Holt talks to are celebrated scientists, philosophers and writers. For instance there is the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne who thinks that the simplest explanation for the presence of such a complicated universe is that it must be created by God. Then there's the Oxford physicist David Deutsch who is convinced of the existence of multiple universes, a fact which then posits our universe as simply one of many other worlds, albeit one containing sentient humans. An even more bizarre idea comes from the physicist Andre Linde who is sympathetic to the existence of our universe as a simulation created by other sentient beings with awesome powers of matter and energy creation. A healthy antidote to those who seem astonished by the complexities of our cosmos comes from the Pittsburgh philosopher Adolf Grünbaum who thinks there's no reason to be awed by the presence of something and that a fondness for considering nothing to be the "natural" state of the universe is really rooted in Judeo-Christian philosophy which imparts special significance to creation. Many of these thinkers hold diverse and even opposite views of the topic, but it's clearly this variety that makes pondering the question such an intellectual treat.
There are many others who Holt talks to, including the Platonist mathematician Roger Penrose, the writer John Updike and the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. From a scientific viewpoint the cleverest idea seems to come from the physicist Alex Vilenkin who defines nothingness as the result of a sphere of spacetime shrinking to zero radius; presumably the universe could then arise out of this nothingness as a quantum fluctuation. As noted above, Holt's meetings with all these thinkers are interspersed with poignant personal ruminations about life, death and existence, mostly done while lounging around in the French cafe that Sartre frequented. Interludes between conversations cover a smattering of related topics, including various logical proofs for God's existence and Holt's own criticisms of them; in Holt we find a penetrating thinker who is entirely capable of asking the most revealing questions about the topic. In addition many of the discussions are spiced with humor. Ultimately Holt does not find the final answer to the question "why is there something rather than nothing", but I don't think he is disappointed. Neither are we. This is one of those cases where the journey is far more important than the destination; like the traveler in C. P. Cavafy's poem "Ithaca", it's the sights and sounds that we see on the way which really count. The investigation exemplifies the kinds of deep questions that humans are capable of addressing through science, philosophy, literature and poetry. We should all be glad that there are people who think about these questions in such deep and diverse ways, and we can thank Jim Holt for being a patient, witty, insightful and poignant guide on this wonderful journey.
I was frequently caught off guard by his vocabulary. I had never heard of many words casually inserted into his narrative: concinnity, inspissate, bosky and others. Yet his use of them never seemed contrived or pedantic.
This is a good book if you want an overview of the many possible answers to the question of "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Just understand what the question pre-supposes: that there IS something.
"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 mathematics...you 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.