Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why Does The World Exist: a very short review

Over the (all-too-brief) holiday, I flew (all-too-rapidly) through Jim Holt's intriguing book: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story.

Holt, a journalist (the New Yorker, the New York Times) and amateur philosopher, takes as the subject for his book the following question: "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

One day I went to the local college library and checked out some impressive-looking tomes: Sartre's Being and Nothingness and Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics. It was in the opening pages of the latter book, with its promising title, that I was first confronted by the question Why is there something rather than nothing at all? I can still recall being bowled over by its starkness, its purity, its sheer power. Here was the super-ultimate why question, the one that loomed behind all the others that mankind had ever asked.

Holt undertakes to study this question from a variety of perspectives: physical, astronomical, theological, mathematical, linguistic, philosophical, literary. And hence he beings a rather meandering journey around the globe, tracking down mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers, linguists, physicists, religious thinkers, and authors to ask their opinion of The Question.

Interspersed with his relating of the conversations he has with all these deep thinkers, Holt digs into various historical figures who considered these topics: Leibniz, Plato, Hegel, Sartre, Wittgenstein, and more.

Such an omnibus approach must necessarily provide such a varied buffet that every reader of Holt's book will, at some point, throw up their hands and say: "what rubbish! Why did he bother to include that?"

But, on the other hand, there is such a collection of fascinating characters, with such intriguing and well-presented theories and proposals, that every reader will also, at some point, gasp in recognition and say: "yes! Yes, of course! How clear is that!"

Still, at times, Holt's book becomes somewhat of a catalogue:

My purpose, though, is a serious one. What I am struggling to do is to see the world in the most abstract way possible. That, it seems to me, is the best remaining hope for puzzling out why the world exists at all. All of the thinkers I had already spoken to fell short of complete ontological generality. They saw the world under some limited aspect. To Richard Swinburne, it was a manifestation of divine will. To Alex Vilenkin, it was a runaway fluctuation in a quantum vacuum. To Roger Penrose, it was the expression of a Platonic mathematical essence. To John Leslie, it was an outcropping of timeless value. Each of these ways of seeing the world purported to yield the answer to why it exists. But none of these answers struck me as satisfactory. They didn't penetrate to the root of the existential mystery -- to what Aristotle, in his Metaphysics, called "being qua being." What does it mean to be?

Surely, you cannot criticize Holt for being over-timid. If you are going to take on a Big Question, how much bigger could a question get? Holt's book has no easy answers, but it excites the mind and motivates the reader to think and consider and contemplate ideas that are big and complex and worthy of study.

How much more can you hope from a book than that?

I enjoyed this book a lot, and happily passed it on to the next reader, who I hope will enjoy it as well.

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