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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on 15 July 2012
Reading this book feels like working out in one of the finest philosophical and intellectual gyms in town. In it Jim Holt takes us on a journey which tackles one of the oldest and most profound questions that humans have asked; "Why is there something instead of nothing?". To his credit Holt does not try to answer the question but instead leads us through a set of meetings with some of today's leading philosophers and scientists who all have their own fascinating takes on the problem. Holt starts the book with accounts of different schools of philosophy which have tried to stake out paths from something to nothing. It turns out that it's far from easy to define the existence of "nothing" partly since the very entity defining that nothing is something. Interestingly a few of the philosophical attempts also fly in the face of the latest insights from theoretical physics, and in fact one of the goals of the book is to demonstrate the creative tension between science and philosophy, hinting that both disciplines will continue to learn much from each other. Listing philosophical attempts to explain nothing and something, Holt dwells on the work of thinkers like Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer and Leibniz, giving us a sampling of philosophical speculations on the question over the last five hundred years or so.

The heart of the book however involves Holt's conversations with some very smart thinkers even as he criss-crosses the globe and spends his time in French cafes contemplating the quirks and facts of his own existence, sometimes poignantly so as he thinks about the demise of his dog (a practical instance of the transformation of something into nothing?). Some of the conversations feel like intellectual ping-pong, and Holt's great strength is his ability to ask these people tough questions and spar with them on an equal level; this turns the interviews into exchanges of real substance rather than simple Q&A sessions. Among the cast of fascinating characters that Holt talks to are celebrated scientists, philosophers and writers. For instance there is the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne who thinks that the simplest explanation for the presence of such a complicated universe is that it must be created by God. Then there's the Oxford physicist David Deutsch who is convinced of the existence of multiple universes, a fact which then posits our universe as simply one of many other worlds, albeit one containing sentient humans. An even more bizarre idea comes from the physicist Andre Linde who is sympathetic to the existence of our universe as a simulation created by other sentient beings with awesome powers of matter and energy creation. A healthy antidote to those who seem astonished by the complexities of our cosmos comes from the Pittsburgh philosopher Adolf Grünbaum who thinks there's no reason to be awed by the presence of something and that a fondness for considering nothing to be the "natural" state of the universe is really rooted in Judeo-Christian philosophy which imparts special significance to creation. Many of these thinkers hold diverse and even opposite views of the topic, but it's clearly this variety that makes pondering the question such an intellectual treat.

There are many others who Holt talks to, including the Platonist mathematician Roger Penrose, the writer John Updike and the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. As noted above, these meetings are interspersed with poignant personal ruminations about life, death and existence, mostly done while lounging around in the French cafe that Sartre frequented. Interludes between conversations cover a smattering of related topics, including proofs for God's existence and Holt's own ruminations on them. Ultimately Holt does not find the final answer to the question "why is there something rather than nothing", but I don't think he is disappointed. Neither are we. This is one of those cases where the journey is far more important than the destination. It exemplifies the kinds of deep questions that humans are capable of addressing through science, philosophy, literature and poetry. We should all be glad that there are people who think about these questions in such deep and diverse ways, and we can thank Jim Holt for being a patient, witty, insightful and poignant guide on this wonderful journey.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 12 August 2012
The title might have been designed to capture the attention of the book browser because the true question that Holt pursues so meticulously and vigorously throughout the book is "Why is there something rather than nothing?" That is the most profound and difficult of all existential questions. It is a question pursued by scientists, philosophers, and religious people. Hence, Holt consulted thinkers from these fields as well as mathematicians, cosmologists, and biologists. The reader will be introduced to the thoughts on this specific subject by Plato, Adolf Grunbaum, Roger Penrose, Derek Parfit, David Deutsch, Richard Swinburne, Martin Heideggar, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, John Leslie, and Stephen Hawking among many others. However, the two questions though related, are entirely different. The first (from the title) includes a value element, implicitly seeking a purpose for its existence. The second raises the question, "What is the meaning of `Nothing'?"

Holt discusses theory after theory and exposes the problems with each of them. In the case of living proponents of the respective theories Holt travels the world to interview and discuss the theories and their problems with those proponents. One of the delightful aspects of this book is that the conversations Holt has with the thinkers he talked to contain many witty and humorous anecdotes. The Canadian cosmologist John Leslie was so proud of his theory until he found that Plato beat him to it 2,500 years ago.

Some of the theories may sound incredible to the uninitiated but Holt describes them with clarity and simplicity without any appearing pedantic. He shows how Plato's (and Leslie's) idea that "existence arose out of a need for goodness" made no sense because such an existence could only be "mental". Another ostensibly and seemingly weird theory is that described as "panpsychism" which Australian philosopher David Chalmers advocates. The German philosopher Grunbaum rejects the question altogether, prompting Holt to declare "if, as Aristotle remarked, `philosophy begins with wonder', then it ends with Grunbaum". Grunbaum is not alone. To cosmologists like him and Lawrence Krauss who published his book "A Universe from Nothing" (2012, Free Press) what happens before the "Big Bang" is not such a crucial question though they will like to know the answer as it will probably reveal useful information about the universe. To philosophers, it may be a red herring to declare that "Nothing exists". If it exists, it must be something, not "nothing".

Describing the respective theories is only half the enlightenment of this book. The other half comes from the problems Holt exposes in them. Swinburne, the Christian philosopher from Oxford who told Holt that he belongs to the Eastern Orthodox faith propounded his theory based on "simplicity", but Holt got him to elaborate till it appears that Swinburne's God is not really so simple as he made him out to be. Many Christians believe their God to be complex and not simple. Further, Swinburne conceded that God is only a strong probability, not a necessity. Swinburne's version differs from some other prominent Christian philosophers such as St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Alvin Plantinga, who hold the view that God is a necessary being. But Plantinga had his theory of "the necessary being" (shades of St Anselm) exposed by Holt as cutting both ways - that if one can claim that a maximally great being must exist in all possible worlds, it is equally capable for one to claim that a maximally great being does not exist in all possible worlds.

Holt ends his book with an examination of the question whether the self exists, a fundamentally existentialist question. He courses through cognitive philosophy (very lucidly) the problems of how a subjective personal mind can "know", objectively, its own mind. When he chances upon the ubiquitous question, `What is the purpose of life?', Holt quotes Ivan Goncharov, "The purpose is to live." Thus Holt arrives at the end of his book, his ruminations on death and the return to nothingness. Incidentally, the subtitle to Krauss' book is - "Why there is something rather than nothing." Both books should be read and relished.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 6 January 2014
This book reminded me of Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything", in that it addresses a huge topic within a relatively short space, and yet does it so well that you really feel like the expert coming out of it. In addition, you need hardly any background in philosophy to understand it (although I think that being versed in the big bang theory will help some of the more technical arguments).

The book is written in the style of an everyday down-to-earth man who goes on a quest to settle this question by engaging with various experts in the field. This is a bit of a construct, as Jim Holt is obviously not a noob on this topic, as his pointed and insightful questions to the various experts belies.

At the end of the day, we get to meet many people that have pondered this question from different angles (scientists, theologians, philosophers), and the reader is essentially free to choose which version he wants to align to. Yet, Holt is not afraid to point out the holes and problems with each of these.

Having said that, the book is obviously going to be more about width than depth. For example, I have some issues with the author's allegiance to Nagel while paying only lip service to alternative theories of the mind. Sure, panpsychism solves a cosmic riddle by unifying physical and mental entities, but why ignore the alternative theories that solve this by simply getting rid of mental entities altogether?

These minor issues aside, the book does come to a sort of elegant conclusion on the topic, which climaxes with the author's own proof on existence. I'm sure it will not be the last word on the matter, but it does provide a satisfying ending to a journey well worth the travel.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 23 August 2013
I took this book on holiday with me and I read and reread it. Ultimately, of course, it disappoints: no philosopher, scientist or theologion can answer this question . When I asked my nine year old granddaughter why their is something rather than nothing, she said " But nothing is something ". Maybe the most profound answer!
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 7 September 2012
Is this the ultimate book of popular science and beyond?

In the plethora of popular science books - on evolution, quantum physics, the big bang - there are occasionally the odd hints and nudges about ultimate questions - about consciousness, a theory of everything, "Why does the universe bother to exist?" - where workaday science nudges up against philosophy and metaphysics, poses a few of the most basic and unanswerable (or are they ?) questions and stops.

Bolder than them all, this author goes further, grappling with one of the most - maybe the most -fundamental questions - Why is everything here ( if it is?)?

Other authors have been brave at communicating complex and subtle ideas - higher mathematics and physics for the masses. But this guy takes it too another level - in your face metaphysics. Not the easiest topic to convey, but he succeeds. With a heady mix of cosmology, theology, philosophy, he takes us on an exploration of questions that have challenged - and often defeated - the brightest of historical and contemporary minds. Yet he does it in a style that is never boring, never condescending, never obscure.

This is essentially a book about metaphysics - questioning the very nature of reality. Now that, I think, is a tough topic not just to write about but to write about in a way that compels the attention of a respectably sizable audience. Does he succeed? - in my opinion, yes. This is one of the most unputdownable books I have ever read. I have read books about hugely interesting subjects that are incredible in their boringness. I have read books that are of largely uninterestig subjects that are tolerable. This subject , though, is compelling yet intellectually demanding, but its treament here is acccesible and readable. The writer has the rare gift of introducing and discussing the most profound of concepts and yet taking you effortlessly through hugely complex existential conumdrums.

So how does he do this? Most of the book is strung around a series of conversations from scientists and philosophers for whom the puzzle of existence is centrally or tangentially connected to their work. There were names here who I recognised straight away, and some who I didnt at all. And interspersing them we have the historical figures relevant to the subbject. The author doesnt reproduce all these talks verbatim of course, but summarises well their intellectual highlights. And a wide range he finds - the atheists, agnotics or religious, those who consider his questions profound or trivial, the convinced (of which there are many) or the questioning.

Imnpressively, whoever he meets, and however so apparently defintive their answers, the author keeps on. When you think "well, that is the end of that that, no further questions ", up he comes with another "Ah, but". Halfway through this book I had thought he had raised every issue, every debate about exitence . But no, on it goes in hugely impressive and rigorous philosophical investigation.

The last chapters deal with the conciousness and arew the weakest part of the book. Here the author skims rather than delves. Is he less comfortable dealing with biology and psychology than physics and theology? There are may philosophycal and scientific issues here that need addressing. An given that there are some - rightly or wqronglky - who hold that the quantum world is intertwined with our conciousness, it seems odd that he doesnt explore this and other ideas relating to conciousnesss and existance with the rigour that characterises the rest of the book.

In the end it is not unexpected that no answer is reached. Thats no problem - we are here foir the ride. Less forgiveable are the last chapters apparent retreat to an apparent endorsement of Buudist thinking based, on the face of it, on the appearance of one of its devotees, and a eulogy to Nothingness.

Ostensibly mere theory, this book, impresses on us the immediacy of its questions.Thanks in good part to the writing skills and intellect of the author, we are given an astonishingly exciting and exhaustive survey of the historically relevant and contemporary thought on reality and existence. Who would have thought that a book on that most abstruse of subjects - metaphysics - could be one of the most intellectually and emotionally gripping volumes of fiction or non -fiction published in years?
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on 10 March 2013
In a Nutshell Jim Holt takes us on a refreshingly bold and frank expose of the limits of scientific and philiosophical understanding via a series of interviews and reflections. The interviews are balanced in such a way as to include eminent scientists, theologians and philosophers. As perhaps guessed, there are no firm answers to the entitled question per se, but as the old adage goes; it's the journey that counts.

What is most refereshing is the author's understanding of the nature of science and scientific understanding: science is a wonderful house built on sand. Science is always "true" but the truths are relative truths; descriptions that explain behaviours in terms of other behaviours but nothing about the essential nature of things. Observation and description (via models, theorems and mathematics) are one thing but what does it really tell us about the essential "nous", the tangible fabric of life?

Be prepared for frontier (yet accessible) jaunts around quantum mechanics, relativity and string theory. Can we have a unified theorem of everything? At the frontiers of science, at the bedrock of this house of sand, do scientists defend their institutions out of blind faith as much as theologians? (ultimately, yes).

What this leads to is a discussion about the ultimate nature of things and if we are even capable of understanding them. Is the observed cartesian, noumenal world really separate from our phenomenal consciousness? It's interesting from the interviews that some of the brightest minds on the planet do not have the same "Blind Watchmaker" cosmo-conceptions that we might presume. In fact at the very frontier of human understanding we are asymptotic to mysticism and metaphysics, the difference perhaps being vocabulary.

Any final consolations to a seemingly intractible subject? I have only one: The map is not the place (Korzybski).
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on 9 September 2015
Wow, what a wonderful mental work-out! I've now read this book twice and can't recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in the really big questions such as "Why is there something rather than nothing?" and "Where did the universe come from?". Jim Holt has an easy-to-read, journalistic style but, be warned, the questions he grapples with are very tough and it helps if you have at least some knowledge of cosmology and quantum physics. In the course of his investigations he talks to a wide selection of leading scientists, philosophers and theologians and while not coming up with a definitive answer to the book's title (How could he?!) he leaves you with the feeling that he's on the right track. By the way, don't expect the easy answer that "God made it"!
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on 25 May 2013 a constant itch with my mind and this book helped give it a thorough scratching. The first person narrative style makes it feel like an extended and interesting conversation and the range of views and "expert" opinions garnered from such diverse scientific disiplines makes it relevant to any enquiring mind.
I have recommended it to friends and it is now part of my reference collection.
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13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 1 July 2012
I bought this because it had a good review in the magazine "New Scientist". A review quoted on the book says that despite its serious pupose it is fun. I read a lot of popular science books and this is certainly one of the best - fascinating, thought provoking (and fun too) and written in a very readable way. Excellent. If you are the least bit interested in this sort of stuff - highly recommended.
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on 2 January 2014
300 pages on why there is something rather than nothing is heavy going even for me. Holt betrays his prejudices and shows too much deference to the wishful teleology of John Leslie and not enough to the platonic ideas of Roger Penrose and the clear insights of Adolph Grunbaum. All in all though, well worth a read. Perhaps he should have skipped the chapter on personal identity to shorten the book.
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