Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt

Journalist and former philosophy grad student Jim Holt sets out to answer that long-standing philosophical/scientific question: Why is there something rather than nothing? 

His principal method is to interview a number of well-known philosophers (Adolph Grunbaum, Richard Swinburne, John Leslie and Derek Parfit) and scientists (David Deutsch, Andre Linde, Alex Vilenkin, Steven Weinberg and Roger Penrose). He also talks to John Updike, who is surprisingly knowledgeable about both science and philosophy.

Nowadays, when people ask why the world exists they are generally asking why the Big Bang occurred. Unfortunately, nobody knows. The most common answers are that there was some kind of random quantum event that made it happen or that God made it happen. Some people think that our universe is just a small part of reality and that somehow the existence of a vast, possibly infinite, collection of other universes explains why ours is here and/or why ours is the way it is. The philosopher John Leslie thinks that our universe might exist because it’s good.

As soon as a particular cause or reason for our universe to exist is suggested, it is natural to ask why that cause or reason is the explanation, rather than some other cause or reason. Why are the laws of quantum mechanics in effect? Where did God come from? This is why the answer provided by a Buddhist monk at the very end of the book is my personal favorite: “As a Buddhist, he says, he believes that the universe had no beginning….The Buddhist doctrine of a beginning-less universe makes the most metaphysical sense”.

Perhaps the reality that exists (the super-universe, whatever ultimately caused the Big Bang) has always existed and always will. It simply is. It never came into existence, so no cause, reason or explanation is necessary or possible. Perhaps it’s cyclical. Perhaps it’s not. But it’s eternal, with no beginning or end.

This book is worth reading, but not as good as it might have been. Mr. Holt writes well and seems to accurately present the ideas of the thinkers he interviews. But his own thoughts on the subject, and other subjects, such as consciousness and death, aren’t especially interesting or profound. In particular, his attempt to prove the existence of an infinite yet mediocre universe is completely unconvincing. His travel writing — where he stayed, what he ate, his strolls through Oxford and Paris — is also a bit much. He doesn’t just bump into a philosophy professor at a local grocery store; it’s a “gourmet” grocery store. He has excellent taste in food and drink as well.  (9/8/12)

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