Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story

  • Jim Holt
  • Liveright Publishing
  • 282 pp.

The author draws on ancient and modern sages to help answer the age-old question: What makes the universe and how did we get here?

Reviewed by Y.S. Fing

Jim Holt surely considered giving this book the title Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? He asks this italicized question five times in the first 15 pages. In the same pages he also asks, in italics, Why does the world exist? and Why do I exist? In responding to the questions he quotes Richard Dawkins, when he stated that “there had to be a reason why there is something rather than nothing,” and Christopher Hitchens, who said, “I’d love to know what came before the Big Bang.” So if the title is prosaic, at least readers know very quickly the territory they are in.

Holt brings many of the ancient and modern heavy-hitters in to examine the development of the answers to these questions, especially since science has come to the aid of philosophy during the last 500 years. Sartre and Heidegger appear on the first page, after a cute prologue, and so does Jim Holt himself, “a callow and would-be rebellious high school student ... in the early 70s.” Together they confront the mystery that Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking pondered: “What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?”

If this question tickles you, you will enjoy Holt’s book. It would be a hard slog otherwise. Holt  scours the history of European and Western metaphysical thought of Leibniz, Bertrand Russell and Schopenhauer, and he seeks out and encounters some of the great contemporary thinkers and theorists, like Robert Nozick and Adolf Grunbaum, to explain the existential dilemma: “How did I get here?”

Holt picks up steam in the middle of the book, around the time he visits Alex Vilenkin, who insists, “Nothing is nothing! Not just no matter. It’s no space. No time. Nothing.” Holt answers with “a precise definition of nothingness: a closed spacetime of zero radius.” The engaged reader might ask, “Is there energy in nothingness?” The disengaged reader will probably not carry on.

Never at rest in this peripatetic investigation, Holt moves on inexorably to Steven Weinberg, whose Dreams of a Final Theory is a foundational text for the author. Holt asks, “Are the laws of physics somehow to inform the Abyss that it is pregnant with Being? If so, where do the laws themselves live? Do they hover over the world like the mind of God, commanding to exist? Or do they inhere within the world, amounting to a mere summary of what goes on inside it?” Readers may not prefer the question to be asked in such a way, but by the end of the book Holt’s idiosyncrasies seem a natural part of the vibrant and mystical journey of the mind that he presents.

One of the most scintillating connections that Holt makes in his various wanderings is his encounter with the mathematical physicist and philosopher Roger Penrose (whose book Cycles of Time this writer read and reviewed last year). The drama begins when Holt dismisses Platonism with a heavy hand because he says the central idea that a separate realm exists where abstract notions (straight lines, perfect circles, etc.) physically exist is “fantasy.” His final put-down of Platonism seems to be that “This is a pretty picture. But could anyone who is not in the habit of eating lotus leaves take it seriously?”

Holt then introduces Penrose, “an unabashed Platonist” and a profound mind, and conducts a testy interview in which Penrose concludes that “The Platonic world ... is compelled to exist by logic alone.” Finding this conclusion contradictory and unsatisfactory, Holt suggests “a failure of nerve on Penrose’s part.” Holt is sensitive to “contradiction” in nature, and it is here that Holt says, “Mathematicians essentially make up complex fictions.”

Holt spends inordinately more time with the British philosopher Derek Parfit than with Penrose, and it feels, again, like a thread that’s sustained for too long. And just when you think it’s over, Holt pays a visit to John Updike, who demonstrates that writers are better able to talk about the meaning of quantum physics than scientists are. Holt then finishes up with meditations upon the existence of the self, “the enduring self is something of a fiction.”

All these fictions add up to a central detective, Jim Holt, being in a state of befuddlement, as Humphrey Bogart was in “The Big Sleep.” Holt closes with a replay of a Hollywood cliché — flicking his cigarette away and tucking his chin into his coat as he walks home without the full story. But the truly key moment happens on the page before, where Holt envisions the best example of response to the complexities and intricacies of the universe and consciousness being stated by a Buddhist monk who suggests: “This world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid-seeming. Buddhism, by correcting our metaphysical error, thus has a therapeutic purpose. It offers ... a path to Enlightenment.”

Y.S. Fing, an instructor of English at a university in the D.C. area, is the author of such unpublished works as “Socialize Yourself: A Teacher’s and Student’s Guide to College-

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