Why is there something rather than nothing? This question, which occurs in many different forms throughout the pages of history, also repeats in the pages of Jim Holt’s book, Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story. The subject matter of this book is every bit as daunting and ambitious as the title portrays it to be. Holt takes a logical, spiritual, and philosophical look at what it means to exist and thoroughly explores different schools of thought on why the universe and the physical and logical laws that govern it have taken on the characteristics they have.
Rather than attempt to tackle this intimidating task all alone, Holt enlists the advice of some of the foremost thinkers of the past and present to get their take on the reason behind existence. Holt interviews a diverse cast of scientists, priests, theologians, and philosophers in his year-long quest to find an answer to the all-encompassing question of “why.”
Holt has no qualms about questioning the ideas of the people he’s interviewing. He comes to each encounter prepared with a list of counter examples and sometimes outright refutations and gives each speaker the opportunity to defend their position in the face of contradictions. This sometimes leads to tension and exasperation, but more often than not, what emerges is a fascinating exchange of ideas that will hopefully inspire some genuine “eureka!” moments for the readers with the patience to follow along. Holt displays an uncanny ability to sniff out error and logical fallacies and leaves no stone unturned in the process. Using this approach, Holt is able to capture exactly why this question is so difficult and divisive.
At its core, Why Does the World Exist is a book about philosophy and logic, and because of this, it sometimes can get bogged down in the minutiae of predicate logic and circular arguments. Fortunately Holt breaks up the austerity with periodic “interludes,” short chapters that will see Holt meandering through the streets of Austin, TX or sipping coffee in the hallowed Cafe de Flores in Paris while recording his own existential musings. These chapters serve as a great intellectual palette-cleanser to help prepare you for the next round of mental jousting to occur in the sections to follow.
To say that existence is a big question is an understatement to say the least, but Jim Holt does a great job of treating the question with the gravity it deserves. He not only compiles an impressive collection of ideas within this book’s 280 pages, but his cautious and skeptical approach leads to some very thought-provoking moments.