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Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story 1st Edition

4.1 out of 5 stars 337 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0871403599
ISBN-10: 0871403595
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Editorial Reviews

Review

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

An elegant and witty writer converses with philosophers and cosmologists who ponder the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

Back and forth he goes between scientists and philosophers, testing the contentions of one against the theories of the other. --Jeremy Bernstein

... an eclectic mix of theology, cutting-edge science (of the cosmological and particle-physics variety) and extremely abstract philosophising, rendered (mostly) accessible by Mr. Holt's facility with analogies and clear, witty language.

A reminder that the quest for foundational truths is not only a supremely human activity but also one that brings us, if not absolute truth (which may be unknowable), at least better and better approximations of the truth... A gifted essayist and critic... Holt intersperses his intellectual investigation with brief but revealing glimpses of his own life, including the death of his mother, when existential musings on the nature of being seem anything but abstract. --Jay Tolson

[Holt] is a spirited interlocutor and a deft explainer, patiently making sense of subjects ranging from Platonism to quantum mechanics, while nonetheless marveling at their seemingly fantastical nature... This cheerful persistence--combined with anecdotes celebrating the thrills of travel, good food, and drink--helps to sweeten what is, finally, a somber vision, in which reality may take the form of 'infinite mediocrity' and 'the life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.'

Holt writes a warm, humane, funny, gripping and poignant tale about Being and Nothingness in the 21st century, a book that every educated person should read. His 'detective story' hides a winsome primer on the big questions of life, which no one--except the most ignorant or self-absorbed--can afford to avoid. --Arlice Davenport

Holt has a religious temperament, if not a religion, and he thinks the notion of God is a possible explanation of the mystery of being rather than the reverse or the refusal of one... [He] is an expert juggler of the paradoxes that go with so many kinds of negation...the fun of his quest has to do not only with what he wants to know but with his eagerness for live dialogue. --Michael Wood"

The author takes on the origin of everything in this wonderfully ambitious book encompassing mathematics, theology, physics, ethics and more. --Michael S. Roth"

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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Product Details

  • 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: 0.3 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (337 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #230,635 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ash Jogalekar TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 14, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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 meetings with some of today's leading philosophers and scientists who all have their own fascinating takes on the problem. Holt starts the book with accounts of different schools of philosophy which have tried to stake out paths from something to nothing. It turns out that it's far from easy to define the existence of "nothing" partly since the very entity defining that nothing is something. Interestingly a few of the philosophical attempts also fly in the face of the latest insights from theoretical physics, and in fact one of the goals of the book is to demonstrate the creative tension between science and philosophy, hinting that both disciplines will continue to learn much from each other. To explain nothingness, philosophers resort to various logical proofs of God and existence while physicists think that the universe could have been a random quantum fluctuation that fed upon itself. Listing various attempts to explain nothing and something, Holt dwells on the work of thinkers like Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer and Leibniz, giving us a sampling of philosophical speculations on the question over the last five hundred years or so.Read more ›
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As the book's title suggests, the question that animates Holt is, "Why does the world exist?" By "the world," Holt means everything that exists, not just the Earth. Of course, Holt's question only makes sense if there are other possible ways things could have been, and Holt thinks that there are. In fact, there are infinitely many other alternative possibilities. The simplest is that nothing at all exists, and but there also are infinite variations on how an existing world could be, with different features and/or histories. So, given all of those possibilities, why do we have the world we have? Holt also is curious about why the world we live in has its many improbable features that have permitted intelligent life to emerge--does the unlikelihood of such a world provide evidence of a benign God who designed this world to support human life?

The subtitle of the book is "An Existential Detective Story," and Holt is cast as the p.i. and leading scientists and philosophers are cast as the experts he consults to untangle the mystery. Holt got access to top-flight thinkers, so the conversations take place at a high level, but Holt does a masterful job explaining the background material so that an attentive reader can follow the twists and turns of the conversations. Holt generally doesn't go deeply into the science, so if you want a book that thoroughly explains, say, quantum physics or the big bang, you should look elsewhere, but Holt provides enough background so that the reader can assess the pros and cons of the scientists' ideas about why the world exists. Holt generally provides more thorough explanations of philosophical theories that arise in the book.
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Format: Hardcover
After reviewing Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's "The Grand Design" a few days ago, and feeling that despite their erudition, they did not satisfy my lifelong curiosity about this Big Question, I awaited Jim Holt's take on Hawking and other thinkers, and the more cosmologically inclined Lawrence Krauss with his new "A Universe From Nothing," but as a decidedly lay reader who finds astronomy and philosophy both challenging to wrap my head around, I figured Holt would prove an assured guide. (I reviewed Krauss in Aug. 2012.)

I used to enjoy Jim Holt's end-page science columns in the late, lively academic magazine Lingua Franca. Here, as in his reviews and journalism, Holt takes a brisk clip to survey the earlier attempts at figuring out what Leibniz asked and what for the teenaged Holt Heidegger repeated as the "ultimate 'why' question."--Why is there something rather than nothing? Leibniz' answer to his own riddle does not please Holt: a self-evident "well, we have to exist, don't we?" retort. He then turns to Andrei Linde's scheme of a clever hacker from another universe for one scenario. Out of a hundredth-thousandth of a gram of matter, a universe can be concocted, and balloon outward.

Mixing his personal quest with philosophers, mathematicians, clergy, theologians, physicists, and some combinations of these professions, Holt uses interviews to bring the bulk of his account into the present-day search for meaning in our origins, not as myths but as "brute fact." Interludes with his own quest, and his own reflections flash by, and extended chats with experts follow.

I was pleased to find included Matthieu Ricard.
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