On Why Does The World Exist?


Marina Petrova on Jim Holt's book, in the LA Review of Books:

JIM HOLT IS AN EXPERT AT NOTHING. He has gone on a world tour of modern philosophers, physicists, theologians, and writers, and asked them a question that is, he writes, “so profound it would occur only to a metaphysician, yet so simple it would occur only to a child.” Why is there something rather than nothing? Holt visited esteemed thinkers — Richard Swinburne, Steven Weinberg, Adolf Grünbaum, and John Updike — in their natural habitats, places like Oxford or Café de Flore in Paris. Holt presents their theories in Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story in a manner a layperson could grasp, and with wit and dry humor a cynic can appreciate. A philosopher, author, and essayist, Holt gives these great minds physical bodies, allowing his readers a glimpse into the lives of our own endangered species — humans that think for a living.

Holt grew up in a religious family, but he “had begun to develop an interest in existentialism” in high school, he writes, because it was “a philosophy that seemed to hold out hope for resolving my adolescent insecurities, or at least elevating them to a grander plain.” His parents and the nuns in his elementary school initially taught him that the world existed because God created it out of nothing. That answer didn’t quite jive with him, but that the world might exist for no reason at all seemed a bit unnerving. So Holt decided to play detective and attempt to make the universe answer for its existence.

Thinking for a living is a luxury few have, and asking the big questions is rare once we leave college. How many of us regularly ponder the reasons for the world’s existence after a full day’s work, doing homework with the kids, paying bills, and arguing with the spouse over whose turn it is to buy groceries? At times, after a long day, nothingness doesn’t look so bad. While nothing is more human than to contemplate our own existence, we just often forget about it when we grow up, leaving it to the metaphysicians, philosophers, and children. To read Jim Holt’s book after our daily minutiae is to remember what it was like, when we were younger, to mull over the question of existence and nothingness.