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Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story

3.77  ·  Rating details ·  5,413 Ratings  ·  628 Reviews
"Why is there a world rather than nothing at all?" remains the darkest and most enduring of all metaphysical mysteries. Following in the footsteps of Christopher Hitchens, Roger Penrose, and even Stephen Hawking, Jim Holt now enters this fractious debate with his lively and deeply informed narrative that traces the latest efforts to grasp the origins of the universe. The s ...more
Hardcover, 279 pages
Published July 16th 2012 by Liveright Publishing Corporation (first published February 1st 2011)
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Mark Saha I can only comment that Einstein does not recognize such nothingness, nor comment on anything existing outside space-time. Relativity has not only…moreI can only comment that Einstein does not recognize such nothingness, nor comment on anything existing outside space-time. Relativity has not only been empirically confirmed but has many practical uses; e.g., it tells us that the clock in an orbiting GPS satellite will slow down relative to one on earth, and must be adjusted to make GPS work. If not for Einstein, GPS would not work and no man would know why. (less)

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Jessica Q. Rabbit, singer, model, movie star and high-flying academic, talks candidly to The Toon Town Times about Why Does the World Exist?

Jessica 1

TTT: Jessica, great to meet and thank you for making space in your busy schedule.

JR: The pleasure's all mine.

TTT: Okay, now I know you have another meeting in half an hour, so let's cut to the chase. What's up with Jim Holt's new book? Why aren't you in it?

JR: Why should I be?

TTT: Ah, come on. Sartre... Proust... cosmology... modal logic... it's Jessica all
Daniel Bastian
Jul 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed
“The lower a man is in an intellectual respect, the less puzzling and mysterious existence itself is to him.” —Arthur Schopenhauer

Jim Holt has made a career out of tracking philosophy’s Moby Dick, or perhaps more appropriately, the explanatory “superturtle”: the question of why there is something rather than nothing. The secret to existence. The riddle of Being.

It’s a question that confronted Plato, haunted Heidegger, religion claims to have answered long ago, and, so declare Lawrence Krauss and
Jan 18, 2013 rated it did not like it
This supremely unimportant book raises three deep and troubling questions.
The first is: Why in blazes did I buy it? By way of apology more than explanation I did struggle with Heidigger in graduate school back in 1970 and thought this might be a good way to revive my earlier befuddlement. Befuddlement revived? Check. Good way? Not so much. Here’s a good sample: Expanding upon his conversation with Robert Nozick (Who I am sure is a very smart fellow.), Holt writes, “Let’s call this deepest-of-a
Aug 19, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: book-club
I haven't argued with a book as much as this one.....ever. I was furious, outraged, bombastic. What?! How can people get away with such partial and idiotic arguments, and how can anyone take them seriously. The book irritated me, to say the least, and all I wanted to do was sit across a table from Holt and from everyone he interviewed (except David Deutsch and Steven Weinberg) and ask them if they were really kidding.

It's an unanswerable question, why there is something rather than nothing, and
Peter Mcloughlin
This book is among one of my twenty most favorite books. It goes into a subject that is the deepest of all. Why is there something rather than nothing. In pursuit of that question the author tracks down physicists and philosophers in search for an answer to this mystery. Whether it be mathematical Platonism, the Multiverse, God, or just a brute fact the author explores a wide array of answers by some of the smartest people around. The author at the end of his journey does not have a satisfactory ...more
Chris Horsefield
Jan 18, 2018 rated it liked it
The author considers all possible perspectives, a strategy which makes the discussion a bit vague and directionless in my opinion.
Craig Werner
Jan 12, 2013 rated it did not like it
This book came to me via the very positive New York Times Book Review review, and it made the Times list of best books of the year. I wish I'd read Freeman Dyson's review in the New York Review of Books first and saved my time.

Certianlyk the organizing question--why does the universe exist?--is interesting. Or at least I thought it was until I read the book. After reading it, I'm convinced that almost everyone who addresses it is deeply mired in circular thinking of the sort where the argument i
Sep 12, 2012 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
An exuberant romp of a book. Holt ponders that most enduring & impossible of questions: why is there something rather than nothing. All well & good & I enjoyed the ride, even though one should know from the outset that nothing will be decided. The author won't even get to the bottom of what exactly "nothing" IS. But that's to be expected & doesn't diminish the pleasure of the quest. Midway through the book, however, I began to wonder why all the philosophers, scientists or simply ...more
Riku Sayuj
Science cannot answer the deepest questions. As soon as you ask why there is something instead of nothing, you have gone beyond science.
~ Allan Sandage, the father of modern astronomy

The author basically takes this one question and runs around brandishing it at books, pubs and at author interviews. If you are curious to see how people like Parfit, Penrose, Weinberg and even Updike think outside of their books, some of the chapters here could be fun reads. And to be honest, after all the conversa
Jayaprakash Satyamurthy
Even with some limitations, this was a very stimulating book to read. Inconclusive as any such book must be, so don't pick it up expecting one definitive version of an answer.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. It's a bit self-indulgent, with lots of little segues where Holt sits around drinkin' and thinkin' at the same Paris cafe where Sartre wrote Being and Nothinginess or soaking in a bathtub in the Athenaeum club, but they add a few much-needed downbeats to what might have been a somewhat gru
Gabriel C.
Mar 16, 2013 rated it did not like it
Shelves: john, nonfiction
This book was just brutally bad.

1. Cornball bullshit/Disingenuous pseudo-sophistry. The very best parts of this book aspire to sophistry, which is supposed to have some sort of plausibility. Pseudo-sophistry is supposed to superficially sound like sophistry but have zero plausibility. This shit started with the first words of the text but there were outbreaks like sores all over the place. Disgusting. No sense of propriety. Not funny.

2. The forced real-life interludes. Be it the woman he passes
Aug 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
Holt's book is very thought provoking and very clearly written with an occasional touch of humor. That said, though I left with a pleasant reading experience, a deeper understanding of the issues, and lots to ponder, I didn't leave with the answer (but then one shouldn't expect to, given the complexity of the question).

I have read other books on related topics, and Holt's book is the most enlightening, the clearest, and the most informative by far. Sentences are carefully presented; ideas flow l
Rob Adey
Aug 20, 2012 rated it it was ok
I'm used by now to this kind of book not actually providing a satisfactory answer to the question posited, but this one is really infuriating.

Holt speaks to an admirably wide range of thinkers about this ultimate question, but doesn't provide enough detail on their theories for us to get much of a handle on them. Given that the range is so wide it wouldn't be surprising if some of the actual interviewees were unfamiliar with some of the other ideas in the book, it's a bit unfair for Holt to ass
John Alt
Apr 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Why does this book review exist? Because its author poured himself a cup of coffee the other morning and sat down in front of the computer to write it. Why did he write it? Because he wanted to, silly. Where did the book come from? Its author wrote it. This is becoming tedious.

Okay, how about this?

Where did the universe come from? One interpretation of the Big Bang theory is that it emerged from nothing--in the final analysis, then, it, time, space, cups of coffee, blogs, book reviews, books, yo
Aug 19, 2014 rated it liked it
I found the discussion in this book on why there is something rather than nothing utterly charming but totally befuddling. There was not a single page where I thought to myself ah yes that obviously makes sense, instead each page elicited a headache.

In face of my own profound inability to understand any of this book it is of course equally impossible for me to give any sense of whether this book is any good or not. Lack of understanding, leads one to either describe the book as absolute nonsense
Tim Pendry
This review of contemporary thinking on the question of existence represents the best of North American intellectual journalism where the writer tries to represent the intelligent 'ordinary joe' in his search for knowledge.

Of course, it has its irritations. The American literary style is almost defined by its narcissism - the fact that Jim Holt is sitting in the cafe that was patronised (or matronised) by Sartre and De Beauvoir is of very little interest.

We want to get to the meat but that's ju
Sep 23, 2012 rated it it was ok
An intriguing and hopeless search for the meaning of existence. William James called the question of existence "the darkest in all philosohpy." Sadly, the book sheds no light on the question. Jim Holt is an excellent writer who can explain philosophical, scientific and existential themes with skill. He conducts interviews with leading scientists and philosophers who have explored the mysteries of existence using the tools of mathematics, quantum mechanics, platonic philosophy, and philosophical ...more
Abu Hayat Khan
May 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
why do we think that the universe is made of electron and quark? in a precise sense, "electron" and "quark" are just names for human convenience, to indicate that they are two different stuff. their properties like charge, mass, spin etc are also just indicative of certain interaction they engage with. the real things those matters, let say for an electron, are (-1, 1/2, 9.10938356 × 10^-31, etc) which represent charge, spin, and mass respectively. same goes for quark as well. so the question wo ...more
Mar 12, 2013 rated it liked it
I took a college philosophy class more than two decades ago. it was taught by a complete asshole whose only pleasure was ridiculing and tormenting others. Although not related to my major I wanted an A in that class more than anything. True to the story I missed it by like .1 of a point. That was my introduction to the mystery of existence. I was hooked as I'm sure most of you reading a review of this book would have been.

Holt relates his introduction as a high schooler reading Satre's Being and
Kyle Muntz
Feb 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
A nice, well written survey of contemporary metaphysics/science, mostly trying to explain "why there is something rather than nothing". It's more engaging than most surveys, with some nice cameos by prominent scientists/philosophers, and less shallow than most things aimed at a general audience. Because of my background, the philosophy felt a little basic, but a lot of the physics were engaging and new, and seeing them together was a nice treat. Like most metaphysics surveys, it spent a while gr ...more
Mar 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
Actually more like 4.5. Engaging and thoughtful and deftly told (probably all these adjectives are used in the blurbs, but in this case they're accurate). Anyhow, it's fascinating stuff. Holt reminds us philosophy can be fun, too. Three cheers for deep thought and wild conjecture!
Jul 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST: An Existential Detective Story. (2012). Jim Holt. ***1/2.
Holt demonstrates that he is still an excellent writer, but he has bitten off more than can be chewed with this book. I hate to bust your bubble, but the answer to the title question is not in the book. What we get instead is a variety of answers to a variety of related question that do their best to get around the unknown. I am reminded by the title of an old routine by Bill Cosby – that’s right, Philadelphia’s o
James Murphy
May 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Why is there something rather than nothing? It's a classical philosophical question. As Jim Holt tells it, Martin Amis once remarked in an interview that we're about 5 Einsteins away from answering the question of why things exist and how the universe popped into being. Taking the thought to heart, he gave himself the task of talking to a succession of experts--particle physicists, theologians, philosophers, cosmologists, mystics, and a great writer, heavy thinkers all--who he hoped would prove ...more
Aug 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
In Why Does the World Exist?, Jim Holt addresses the perennial question: why is there something rather than nothing?

Holt interviews a number of different thinkers: philosophers, scientists, and theologians, engaging with them and their ideas on why being (something) has triumphed over nothing. Holt also offers his own personal ruminations on the ideas of those whom he interviews and, in the end, provides his own answer to the question of why something exists rather than nothing.

Holt's conversati
Nov 09, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
Holt took an interesting approach with this book, combining a serious, if somewhat light-hearted, philosophical inquiry into a profound metaphysical question with a non-fiction style situated between autobiography and travelogue.

The question is "why is there something rather than nothing?" Holt kicks off with an overview of history behind this mystery, which dates back to at least the Greeks, ran through Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, and Hegel (among others), and has more recently found ex
Sam Schulman
Aug 05, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This is a far more personal and self-disclosing book than I expected, and skates very far, I feared at first, in the direction of one of those concocted "How the Irish Jews Saved The Parthenon, Invented Caller ID, and Inspired Emily Dickinson" sort of books. But Jim Holt's slyly amiable and vulnerable persona is armed with a very serious purpose, and rather than give us potted versions of the views of the various players in this arena, he works out his own understanding, often in conversation wi ...more
Nov 28, 2015 rated it did not like it
I really, really don't like not finishing books, so congratulations to Mr. Holt for being one of the chosen few (I gave up with about 90 pages to go). Part of this is my fault: I forced myself through the equally terrible Assholes: A Theory last year and should know by now that navel-gazing logic-heavy philosophical books based around thought experiments are not my cup of tea. It was paining me to get through this to begin with, because at the end of the day, though armed with plenty of jargon a ...more
Feb 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? is probing, unrelentingly smart and, at times, deeply moving. In the process of guiding his reader through his philosophical-theological-scientific meditation on the origins of the universe, Holt's book reveals itself to be as concerned with the problem of subjectivity as cosmogenesis. While the two issues may seem to be diametrically opposed in scale ("Why do I exist?" versus "Why does the world exist?"), Why Does the World Exist? convinces you that these qu ...more
Apr 24, 2012 rated it really liked it
I don't know why I get my hopes up over these kind of books. Isn't it obvious that the question can't be answered by any means?

Never mind. Lots of interesting people get interviewed (Steven Weinberg!), and some good dead people also get to put a word in (Bertrand Russell)

I think I'll interrupt this premature review to quote Steven Weinberg a little. Before reading 'Why does the world exist..' I knew him only as one of the guys responsible for electroweak theory and the standard model of physics.
Mar 09, 2013 rated it did not like it
One of the worst books I have tackled in recent years. Holt would have to be a brilliant journalist because he is impressively producing 2-page-articles one after another, all equally great. Sadly, this does not add up to a book. Or even a chapter. Only to a droning repetition of shallow variations on themes beyond the scope and capacity of the writer.

Of course, interesting books on philosophy can be written by non-philosophers. But where other writers manage to capitalise on their stance as non
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October Book 3 47 Mar 21, 2014 04:15AM  
The Aspiring Poly...: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story 1 30 Nov 03, 2012 03:01PM  
  • Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away
  • Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized
  • Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False
  • Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything
  • Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution
  • Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything
  • God and the Multiverse: Humanity's Expanding View of the Cosmos
  • The God Problem: How a Godless Cosmos Creates
  • The Social Conquest of Earth
  • Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking
  • The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People
  • Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche
  • Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists
  • The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy
  • Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist
  • On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines - and Future
  • Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite
  • Quantum Computing Since Democritus
Jim Holt is a longtime contributor to the New Yorker -- where he has written on string theory, time, infinity, numbers, truth, and bullshit, among other subjects -- and the author of Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes. He is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the London Review of Books. He lives in Greenwich Village.
More about Jim Holt

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“Having just enough life to enjoy being dead.” 24 likes
“In 1921, a New York rabbi asked Einstein if he believed in God. "I believe in Spinoza's God," he answered, "who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.” 19 likes
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