Why Does the World Exist?

Jim Holt

The full title is Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. If you find this title (1) pretentious, (2) inane, or (3) uninteresting — this is not the book for you. If, however, you’d enjoy a few hours of ontological speculation and quantum physics, you’ll be in metaphorical heaven with this little gem.

In Why Does the World Exist? Jim Holt embarks on a physical and metaphysical journey, travelling to Oxford, Paris, London, and various American cities to ask some of the western world’s most respected thinkers, as well as a celebrated American novelist, and one demonstrative Zen Buddhist, the primary question: Why does something exist instead of nothing?

The answers he gets range from Platonic idealism to entangled consciousness to a swing at his head (from the Buddhist), and they are consistently interesting, provocative, and engaging.

Now, I should warn you at this early juncture that I suffer from an imposed intellectual deformity, one that makes me particularly susceptible to books like this. In the day, as they say, I was a philosophy major at a Jesuit university. That gave me an unnatural tolerance for pointless abstraction. If you don’t have a similar inclination, you’ll probably drift off from boredom (or toss the book into the bin in contempt) long before you reach the end. Forewarned is forearmed. Here’s a short example of what you’re in for if you open this book, in a section called “The Arithmetic of Nothingness.”

0 = 1–1 What might it represent? That 1 and –1 add up to zero, of course. But that is interesting. Picture the reverse of the process: not 1 and –1 coming together to make 0, but 0 peeling apart, as it were, into 1 and –1. Where once you had Nothing, now you have two Somethings! Opposites of some kind, evidently. Positive and negative energy. Matter and antimatter. Yin and yang. Even more suggestively, –1 might be thought of as the same entity as 1, only moving backward in time.

Was that fun? If it was, then read this book!

Holt weaves short sections like “The Arithmetic of Nothingness” into the interviews with the philosophers and scientists he visits to create his “detective story.” And that’s what it is. He’s not just reporting what these thinkers have to say. He engages with them, learns from them, argues with them. He reflects on what he hears and responds with his assessment of the believability — the reasonableness — of the theories he encounters.

Holt’s interviewees are an impressive group of philosophers and scientists. His conversational partners include, among others, such luminaries as David Deutsch, Thomas Nagel, and Steven Weinberg. He even visits John Updike.

Their answers to his basic question cover an extraordinary breadth of ideas, and Holt’s responses and reflections bring into play the ideas of a dozen other thinkers from Plato to Wittgenstein. Superstars of the past like Newton, Leibniz, Descartes and Hume rub shoulders with more contemporary heavyweights like Bergson and Sartre. For the specialists, there are discipline celebrities like Carnap and Strawson (the Younger). It’s all a big, beautiful buffet of brains.

Partway through his journey, Holt indulges himself in a fun section, “Epistolary Interlude: The Proof,” an entirely abstract and thoroughly suppositional argument that “proves” logically that ours is the most probable universe. It’s not the most probable because it exists; it exists because it’s the most probable. And for Holt this most probable universe is one that is thoroughly unremarkable because it is fundamentally mediocre: “The existence of this cosmos can be fully explained only on the assumption that it is middling in every way—a vast Walpurgisnacht of mediocrity.” Yeah, I know. You’ll just have to read the chapter.

For me, the most interesting part of the book is Holt’s musings on the self and consciousness. Contemporary brain science has brought back into prominence the question of consciousness — human, animal, inanimate, and cosmic. He begins where his assertion of a mediocre universe leaves off.

And if reality has no special feature, then my own presence in it cannot be explained by the hypothesis that I somehow enhance that feature, add something to it. Thus there can be no cosmic point to my existence—or rather, the only point to my existence is that I exist.

And who, what, am “I,” that I should exist? Descartes had one answer, no longer very popular; Hume had another, now widely embraced by philosophers and neuroscientists.

Suppose you turn your attention inward in search of this I. You may encounter nothing more than an ever-changing stream of consciousness, a flow of thoughts and feelings in which there is no real self to be discovered. That, at least, was what David Hume, a century after Descartes, found when he conducted his own introspective experiment.

Holt entertains Galen Strawson’s idea that our self is really our selves, that “within each person’s stream of consciousness, little transient selves constantly wink in and out of existence, none of them lasting for more than an hour or so.” This is an intriguing idea, of course. What if “I” am nothing more — or less — than this moment’s conscious manifestation of the body states and mental processes going on at the time? What if our sense of the continuity of the self is a product of memory and not existence? In other words, what if our minds create a self for each separate circumstance, and then use our memories of departed selves to generate the false impression of persistence? That would explain why we so often say things like “I don’t feel like myself today.” This moment’s self isn’t like the remembered selves that we have usually expressed. “I feel like a new person!” may be more true, more profound, than we realize.

Perhaps there is no real answer to the question of whether I exist or not. Even though I am referring to something when I say “I” or “me,” that something has no ontic solidity. It does not figure among the True and Ultimate Furniture of the Universe. It has no existence apart from the constantly shifting mental states that populate my mind and the constantly changing set of physical particles that constitute my body.

Holt is not worried about this version of the conscious self. Far from it. If we create ourselves from moment to moment, and those selves apprehend the universe, does that mean that the self, by creating itself, creates the universe, too?

Once you entertain the notion that the I is self-creating, it’s easy to find yourself sliding down a slippery transcendental slope. And what lies at the bottom of that slope is a curious form of idealism, one which says that the I, in creating itself, creates all of reality.

At the end of this engaging little book, you will have a headache — or a smile on your face.

I’m still smiling.


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