Jim Holt likes to pursue questions — big questions. And he does so with a sincerity and light-heartedness that draw his readers along for the ride. He’s written for the New Yorker on tough subjects such as string theory and infinity, but his last book was on the seemingly more accessible topic of jokes. In “Why Does the World Exist?” — a finalist for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction — he takes on one of the biggest questions in conversations with philosophers and scientists: What is the origin of everything?
(Liveright) - ‘Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story’ by Jim Holt
By helping readers understand what some very smart people think an answer to this question might look like, he introduces us to advanced mathematics, theology, physics, ontology and epistemology — just to name some subjects he visits. Holt is usually very good about not losing us along the way, even when the math or the logic gets pretty esoteric.
“The transition from Nothing to Something seems mysterious,” he writes, “because you never know what you’re going to get.” That might be true if one were asking as a disinterested party, but Holt is anything but that. The “Something” he has in mind is us — how did we and our world come to be? He wants to know how nothingness, a state in which absolutely no things exist, gave rise to a universe that includes all the things around us. “Conceptually,” he writes, “the question Why does the world exist? rhymes with the question Why do I exist?”
There are two major kinds of answers to these twinned questions. The first kind emphasizes the “how” — how a specific cause leads to a particular effect. Why am I here? Because my parents had sex. The second kind of answer moves from cause to meaning. Did my parents want a child? Do I have a purpose in life? What am I doing here? Some of the intellectuals with whom Holt talks sound as though they believe that if they thoroughly answer the “how” version of the question (the one that details causes), they will have answered the “why” version of the question (the one that provides meaning). Or perhaps they think that an airtight explanation of the emergence of causality will make the meaning question irrelevant.
There are some philosophers, it should be said, who think Holt is just asking the wrong question. Most interesting is philosopher of science Adolf Grunbaum, who cheerfully tries to show our author that his anxious astonishment with the existence of the universe is misplaced. Unexamined religious longing for mystery and a confused sense that we need to figure out why nothingness does not prevail generate a confused question with no rational response: “Go relax and enjoy yourself! Don’t worry about why there’s a world — it’s an ill-conceived question.” But Holt is only briefly deterred, declaring, “There is nothing I dislike more than premature intellectual closure.”
Holt travels in England, France and the United States to talk with some very thoughtful men about some very thorny issues. It’s always thoughtful men. Somehow he didn’t find any women to interview about creation, though at the end of the book he movingly describes his mother’s death. She, a believer, did not think she was passing into nothingness. Respectful, Holt has no closure on this, either.