Why Does the World Exist?: One Man's Quest for the Big Answer Paperback – 13 Jun 2013
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Why Does The Word Exist? is more fun than a book this serious has any right to be. Holt has written a metaphysical page-turner and a triumph of intellectual liveliness. (Rebecca Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God)
There is no more entertaining, sure-footed, and witty guide to the big questions that we must all ponder than Jim Holt. Join him (Daily Beast)
Praise for Stop Me If You've Heard This:
'Sweet, witty and intelligent ... I only wish that, unlike a good joke, it was longer.(William Leith Guardian)
If Jim Holt's deft and consuming "Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story" has anything to tell us, it's that such a comment is less about literary riffing than deep philosophy. (LA Times)
Holt brings both complexity and clarity to his subject ... it does what real science writing should: It helps us feel the fullness of the problem. (Vulture)
There is no more entertaining, sure-footed, and witty guide to the big questions that we must all ponder than Jim Holt. Join him. (The Daily Beast)
It's philosophy of a high level, pursued in an unusual and personal manner, and it's a pleasure to follow along with the author as he tells a fascinating and thought-provoking story. (Peter Woit, Department of Mathamatics, Columbia)
Humorous yet deeply profound (New Scientist)
There's no denying the pleasures to be had from tagging along as Holt soars away into the heavens of our cosmic enigmas ... a wonderful book (Daily Express)
An elegant and witty writer...I can imagine few more enjoyable ways of thinking than to read this book (Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live)
What is special about Why Does the World Exist? is that Holt and the experts he talks to apply humour, good sense and a dose of incredulity and wonder to the problem (Independent)
An eclectic mix of theology, cutting-edge science (of the cosmological and particle-physics variety) and extremely abstract philosophising, rendered (mostly) accessible by Mr Holt's facility with analogies and clear, witty language (Economist)
An irreverent sleuth tackles the riddle of existence that has puzzled man since the dawn of timeSee all Product description
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In this book Jim Holt summarizes past philosophers' and scientists' ideas on the question "Why does the world exist at all?" and then, taking the debate up to date, goes on to interview contemporary scientists, theologians and philosophers. There are illuminating exchanges between interviewer & interviewee, and then the author tells us what he thinks are the strong & weak points of the interviewee's argument.
The tools used for the debate are the philosophical tool of logic (with embellishments from Existentialism & Theology) and the scientific tool of the "Multiverse" theory derived from quantum mechanics. In fact, it is because of advance in quantum theory that this ancient question of ontological contingency can now be examined from a different angle.
Towards the end of the book, the author interviews philosopher Derek Parfit and amplifies Parfit's theory which Holt thought to be the best explanation of "Why the world is as such but not otherwise" and indeed "Why does the world exist at all"
The readers can decide for themselves to what extent Holt succeeds in his conclusions, as well as ponder the merits of the other theories put forward in the book.
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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