On Jim Holt’s ‘Why Does the World Exist?’

There’s a lot to be disliked in Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story, but I’m giving it four stars because it at least spread the conversation around from scientists to philosophers to novelists to theologians (though it would have been nice to hear from more thinkers from the East).

I enjoyed reading it, but I wouldn’t begrudge someone who was annoyed by Holt’s personal anecdotes and sloppy metaphysical interludes — which he probably included to make the book feel more like a real journey; his interviews, however, are mind-opening and fun to read. The subjects of the interviews, which range from Richard Swinburne to Roger Penrose to John Updike, all have interesting takes on the ultimate question, requiring the reader to think about it from a variety of well-argued perspectives.

Personally, the thinker I agree with most doesn’t appear until the epilogue, a nameless Buddhist monk who appears on a French television show that Holt catches while he’s in Paris.

As a Buddhist, he says, he believes that the universe had no beginning…Nothingness could never give way to being, he says, because it is defined in opposition to that which exists. A billion causes could not make a universe come into existence out of what does not exist. That is why, the monk says, the Buddhist doctrine of a beginning-less universe makes the most physical sense.
The Buddhist genially protests that he is not evading the question of origins. Rather, he is using it to explore the nature of reality. What is the universe after all?…It is not nothingness. Yet it is something very close: an emptiness…Things don’t have the solidity we attribute to them. The world is like a dream, an illusion. But in our thinking, we transform its fluidity into something fixed and solid seeming. This engenders [desire, pride, jealousy]. Buddhism, by correcting our metaphysical error, thus has a therapeutic purpose. It offers…a path to enlightenment. And it also resolves the mystery of being. When Leibniz asked, [Why something rather than nothing?], his question presupposed that something really and truly exists. And that’s an illusion.

But regardless of what I think, if you would like to contemplate why there is something rather than nothing without having to slog through dense original texts from the likes of Leibniz, Heidegger, and Sartre (not to mention the theologies of Aquinas and the mathematics of Stephen Hawking), Holt’s book is a harmless enough survey of the various answers conceived by some of the greater thinkers in the West.