Why Does the World Exist?


Today’s post is from Annie at Parr Library.

Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt

If a popular science book is one that explains science topics to the general reader in an entertaining and informative way, you could say that Jim Holt, a science writer, essayist and critic, has written a popular philosophy book in that he has taken one of the central philosophical questions of the ages – Why is there something rather than nothing – and attempted to explicate it for regular folks. 

Explicate: Make plain or clear .  One of the fun things about this book was the five-star words Holt sprinkles throughout his text.  I read the book with Dictionary.com open on my Galaxy Tablet so I could look up words like “concinnity” (harmony of tone) and “numinous”  (mysterious).  I even made Dictionary.com pronounce the words several times, just because I could.

Holt has wrestled with the Nothingness vs. Being question most of his life, a question that William James called the darkest in all of philosophy, and one that quickly spawns another–How did the world come into being?  These are hefty and complex concepts and in his quest for clarity, Holt strolls through the different schools of thought put forward by the living and dead icons of philosophy, physics, cosmology, and theology.   And he does it all with such witty and erudite style, traveling the world, eating and drinking sumptuously, and sharing intimate details of his life.  It mattered not one whit that after 279 pages of thoughtful and entertaining prose, the book ended without a definitive answer.  It was reward enough to spend time reflecting, along with the world’s great thinkers, about nothing.  And not just plain, old nothing, but Nothing, the nonexistent abyss.  In that endless game of dividing the world into two kinds of people, this will either appeal to you, or it won’t. 

Interestingly, another 2012 book covers the same Nothingness vs Being territory–A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist, cosmologist and popular science writer.  Krauss approaches the subject from a purely scientific viewpoint, while also peppering his text with dismissive put-downs aimed at philosophers and theologians.    Not surprisingly, noses got bent.  David Albert, a philosopher of physics wrote a negative review of Krauss’s book in The New York Times to which Krauss responded in an Atlantic interview by calling names and taking potshots, proving that intelligence does not automatically convey wisdom or class.  Various and sundry physicists, philosophers, and bloggers have weighed in.  Jim Holt himself published a subdued and rational opinion on the matter. I found this all deliciously human, as only really good non-fiction can be.  Only fisticuffs could have made it better. 

Fisticuffs: Combat with the fists .



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