The title question to Jim Holt’s semi-journalistic, semi-autobiographical philosophical expedition, Why Does the World Exist? may initially seem naive and pedantic but Holt presents his ponderous quandary as an easily digestible and well researched book that offers just enough depth to entice a curious mind without becoming overly saturated with philosophical terminology that would dissuade a philosophically naive reader. To paraphrase what I just said, this is a well written and enjoyable book that effectively stimulates reflection upon our understanding of existence.
Holt’s primary concern isn’t really about the world per se, but why there is something or anything at all rather than a much simpler state of just nothing. Why does the universe exist? is his actual concern, but that may have been a clunky book title so he opted to go with Why Does the World Exist? instead. Holt sees the question of why there is something rather than nothing as the greatest unanswered question in the two and half millennia of philosophical inquiry. However, many readers who aren’t necessarily interested in philosophical inquiry may react to this question rather nonchalantly with a response such as, of course the universe exists, it just is!, or that is an unanswerable question, why waste your time? To those naysayers Holt has this response:
“Take another question, posed twenty-five hundred years ago by Thales and his fellow pre-Socratics: What are things made of? Asking a question of such all-encompassing generality might sound naive, even childish. But, as Oxford philosopher Timothy Williamson observed, the pre-Socratic philosophers “were asking one of the best questions ever to have been asked, a question that has painfully led to much of modern science.” To have dismissed it from the outset as unanswerable would have been “a feeble and unnecessary surrender to despair, philistinism, cowardice or indolence.” The mystery of existence, however might seem uniquely futile among such questions.” (29-30)
In his detective exploration of the question why there is something rather than nothing Holt searches high and low. He builds upon a philosophical foundation, referencing many of the well known historical thinkers such as Plato, Schopenhauer, Spinoza, Sartre, and many others, but his exploration is hardly limited to only philosophical thinkers as he gives much recognition to the scientific achievements of physicists, biologists, geologists, cosmologists, and even mathematics. There is an extensive and intriguing exploration of the Big Bang as well as a generous nod towards the importance of our understanding of evolution and genetics as significant scientific theories that have pushed forward humanity’s understanding of nature and our relationship to it. However, Holt argues that the broad scope of human achievement and understanding has not satisfactorily provided a meaningful understanding as to why the universe’s dimensions of time, matter, and energy ever came into being when it seems much more plausible that there would be a much more stable state of simply nothing at all.
Perhaps that question has been so difficult to answer because our minds, which are recognizably something are not capable of imagining a true state of pure nothingness. The very fact that there exists any speck of matter, energy, or time prevents the possibility of the nonexistence of pure nothingness:
“Perhaps any attempt to summon up an image of nothing is self defeating. Even so, is thinkability a reliable test for possibility? Does the fact that we cannot imagine absolute nothingness – except, perhaps, in a state of dreamless sleep – mean that something or other must perforce exist? One must beware of falling into … the philosopher’s fallacy: a tendency to mistake a failure of the imagination for an insight into the way reality has to be.” (47)
It is truly an intriguing mental exercise to consider the possibility of a noniverse, a realm of total non-existence, because even empty space is something, for it has a temporal and cosmological relationship to the galaxies that fill the vast realm of our known universe.
In Holt’s investigation he interviews several well respected theologists, physicists, mathematicians, and of course philosophers to probe their minds for their answer to the question why is there something rather than nothing. The presentation of his investigation reads as a journalistic travelogue spanning across continents and meandering through the playground of the academic world’s best minds. Holt does spend a lot of time pondering the existence of God as either a truly sentient being, or simply as a model of ethical excellence, and although he is honest about his own atheism he does not belittle or set aside the significance of theological thought as both a foundation and a limitation towards the scope and capacity of human understanding. The following [abbreviated] passage is one of the best and most clearly stated ponderings about the potential or non-potential existence of God that I have read:
“[God] is by definition a maximally great being … his greatness – and therefore his existence – is stable across different possibilities. So if God exists in some possible world, he must exist in every possible world – including the actual world. In other words, if it is even possible that God exists, then it is necessary that he exists … So, if by parity of reasoning, there must be a possible world in which no-maximality is exemplified – that is, one in which maximal greatness is absent. But if God is absent from any possible world, he is absent from all possible worlds – in particular, he is absent from the actual world.” (116-117)
The argument that Holt presents, a world that is absent of God is also an argument that leads down a path absent of meaning. The book is an intriguing read, but in the end, the question remains unanswered. Although Holt does present a proof that the existence of something rather than nothing is necessary and essential, this proof is less satisfying than simply looking at the existence of the reality in front of me. This leads me to ask, why in the world does this book exist? Well, Holt does provide a reflection that gives a human meaning to the existential inquiry he takes us on. His book ends with first a reflection on his dog’s death and then later his mother’s slow and painful decline and death. With his mother’s death, Holt is left alone with no family to connect him to the world that surround him. That emptiness is tantamount to the emptiness of nonexistence that he is interested in. Ultimately, the great philosophical and scientific inquiry that has driven mankind has its basis in our connection with one another.