Book: Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story

I finished this a couple of weeks ago and find that a lot of it has stayed with me - which must mean I enjoyed it.

Basically, this is like a really chewy version of books that cut across history and disciplines based on a central theme - like the books Cod, or Longitude, or the Professor and the Madman. So, at that level, this book is a solid, well-written-and-explained overview of the philsophical, religious, scientific and other explorations into the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” For that alone, if you are curious about this type of introspective, Big Question noodling, you would enjoy the book.

But it is also a bit more ambitious, in that Holt gathers up the various threads of exploration along his way, and tries to synthesize and integrate them into, well, an answer to the question central to the book. I am not going to speak more about it - it isn’t some cute plot-driven resolution; Holt is trying to apply the rigor of what he has learned and reach some conclusions. Depending on what you bring to the book, and how you dig into it, you can decide how you feel about his approach. But I will say that I loved the clarity of the book and didn’t find Holt’s attempts to actually participate in the dialogue offensive or amateurish - he contributions on content felt worthy to me.

Anyone else read this?

I have been planning to read this. Now you have spurred me to get online and request it from my library.

Got it and read it. Pretty thought-provoking.

A Monday bump before this fades off into the sunset. A great book.

I’m reading it right now, so maybe there is still something to come, but unfortunately, I can’t really share the general excitement for the book. It’s written in an impeccable style (though it repeats itself every now and then), and there’s a lot of show and imbroglio in the colorful descriptions of meetings with the intellectual champions Holt chooses for his detective work, the lunches at trendy cafés, irreverent side remarks about some bit of interesting architecture or history—all of which, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy reading very much.

It’s just that, unfortunately, behind the grandeur and grandiloquence, I haven’t yet found very much substance (narrowly avoided the obvious pun here). Certainly, he does a good job repeating thoughts and viewpoints of other people, but often, his own analysis falls short, amounting to little more than presenting a well-stirred, but overall undercooked mix of his opposites’ opinions.

Philosophically, it often verges on the downright shallow—in places, he seems to be advocating a naive dualism that hasn’t been taken seriously for ages—and physically, it’s sometimes downright wrong (though the only example I can think of right now is really as much physical as it is philosophical: the notion that general relativity advances manifold substantivalism; where in fact, via Einstein’s celebrated hole argument, GR suggests the exact opposite). Sometimes, I’m also not sure if a point he makes is intended to be serious, or meant to be an obvious joke: for instance, the argument for, I don’t know what he called it, busy people? right at the beginning—it’s a simple and obvious equivocation on the word ‘nothing’, yet nothing indicates that it is anything but intended as serious.

That’s not to say there isn’t also a lot of good in it—the clarification of the differences between the philosopher’s and the physicist’s nothing alone would have saved Lawrence Krauss the trouble of writing an entire book—it’s just that there is enough smug intellectualism in the presentation that I think it deserves to be held up to the highest standards; which it, at least in my opinion, doesn’t meet.

So far, at least—perhaps the truly dazzling show is yet to come…

I don’t think you will find it dazzling, as much as a mental gathering-up of some major themes he has explored, and how he uses them to each point to a general conclusion.

I always enjoy your thoughts on physics and philosophy, so will be interested to hear your thoughts when you finish it…

I got through the chapter on the philosopher who makes the, IMO, irrefutable point that the whole issue of why is there something instead of nothing is asking the wrong question. Everything we’ve learned from today’s science is that nothingness is literally impossible. But “what can’t there be nothing?” is hardly an interesting question to discuss. He also makes the point that almost all modern discussions of the issue arise from Christian theology because of its emphasis on God the Creator. Take that away and the urgency even of the original question evaporates.

After reading him - it’s about the third chapter, IIRC - what’s left of interest in the issue? I’ve read the mathematical and physical speculations elsewhere, done better.

If you haven’t done any reading on this and are encountering it all for the first time, this might make a good primer. I admit I don’t know how he ends the book and that might redeem it. But from the portion I read, I’m going to make the assumption that the good reviews were another example of Snow’s Two Cultures. Most of the world of culture is as innocent of science as a groundhog. They see it once a year and then burrow back into their holes.

Sorry, this is but another example of Things That Annoy Me About the World™. Nothing personal intended.

I’m open to hearing that the book has issues if you dig I with a strong background in one or more of the fields featured. I am an avowed amateur, in the old- translation sense.

Exapno, I found his approaches to the possibilities for nothingness along religious, philosophical or physics/multi-verse lines of inquiry were interesting. If one or more of them are mis-portrayed, or elevated beyond their station, I’d love to hear more. I absolutely grant you that he treats each line of inquiry with balanced respect - so some of the religious stuff, for instance, feels pretty old school ( but not completely).

Like I said, it isn’t one of the Great Texts, but compares favorably to other well-written, nonfiction explorations on a theme…

I felt that all of them except one were elevated above their station. I hate that anyone takes the issue seriously. It’s like a GD thread in book form. That’s a personal quirk of mine, but one I couldn’t get past.

Well, if that’s your thinking on the matter, I’d say you should have stuck with the book, rather than abandoning it for failing to cater to your own prejudices. Because, as I’ve already said, among the books merits is certainly that it points to the fact that when scientists talk about ‘nothing’ they very rarely talk about the same (no-)thing the philosopher’s talk about. The point can be made more strongly than Holt does, however: whenever a physicist (and I do feel a bit like I’m fouling up my own nest in saying so) talks about nothing, they talk about its properties—that it is, say, a spacetime manifold of zero radius, a fuddle of virtual particles, or simply unstable; and thus, they’re not talking about nothing, which has no properties.

In fact, this goes generally: if somebody purports to tell you how something comes from nothing, they haven’t understood the question, since any nothing something can come from must have the property of being able to give rise to something—and hence, isn’t really nothing.

As for why the question is interesting in the first place, the reason is just that if there were nothing, there would not be any need for further explanation (quite apart from the fact that noone would be around to demand it)—there would literally be nothing to explain (yes, this is basically an equivocation on the word ‘nothing’—but it doesn’t matter here). The fact that there is (apparently) something is thus supremely odd, and very much in need of explanation! And since every other explanation takes the existence of something for granted, without that last explanation, we’ve effectively explained—well, nothing. (Well, this isn’t quite true: if one has two mysteries, and uses one to explain the other, one is in the end left with only one mystery, and so, has definitely gained something. Also, there are sometimes—quite often, in practice—what one might call effective explanations, that obtain irregardless of the fundamental details.)

Anyway, having now read the book in full, I can definitely say that I enjoyed the read, for the most part; and the book is certainly an interesting and for the most part thorough collection of disparate viewpoints that one rarely encounters all in the same place. In this, it’s refreshingly non-dogmatic and non-paradigmatic—in a field where it sometimes seems that half the literature is made up of New Atheists and Old Faithfuls trying to one-up one another, that’s a welcome change. But it somehow fails to quite gel, to come really together and become more than its parts; in fact, trying to think of its merits, I can come up mostly with negatives: besides the already mentioned nons, it’s non-partisan, non-judgemental, etc. This seems a bit like damning with faint praise, as if I’m just saying that this could certainly have been worse.

As for the philosophical positions presented, although I disagree with most of them vehemently, I don’t think any was particularly and inordinately overrepresented—maybe Parfit’s, but I think that only seems to be that way to me because of Holt’s own extension of Parfit’s thinking into his ‘proof’ (rhymes with ‘oof!’ in my mind, and that’s about all one needs to say about it).

It struck me as a curious omission that there is very little Buddhist philosophy present, and what’s there is really only through the mediation of Heidegger and Schopenhauer (for both of whom one can make a good argument that they essentially misunderstood it), as well as a briefly recapitulated television snippet in the end. For a book essentially about nothing, it seems certainly odd to fail to discuss what is perhaps the philosophical tradition that has grappled with nothing most of all, especially in light of the recent revival of western philosophical interest thanks in part to Owen Flanagan, Byung-Chul Han, Mark Siderits and Georges Dreyfus.

Well, in any case, I got my money’s worth out of it (bought it on a gift voucher I got for my birthday), and as I said, as a (though grossly non-exhaustive) collection of viewpoints, it does an admirable job—but there’s no last answers here.

Nicely articulated all around; thank you. I especially like how you frame the ways to define Nothing and therefore, why there is Something becomes essential. I felt like the book made a fascinating case for the Ground Zero nature of the question, which is something I, a Philosophy amateur, had not appreciated fully before. To that end, it was worthwhile for me.

In case anybody’s interested, this year’s Asimov debate will be on the subject of ‘The Existence of Nothing’, and features both Lawrence Krauss and Jim Holt (who replaces David Albert, probably because of last year’s clash between Albert and Krauss). It’ll be broadcast live on March 20, 7:30 EST.

Buddhist “philosophy” (which is really a misnomer) isn’t about nothingness although I can understand how that might be the first handle a Westerner would reach for in attempting to bridge the gap. A better term would be “suchness” but then to explain that is considerably more difficult.

Well, I’m no expert; but I think there’s an argument to be made that Buddhist concepts have a great bearing on the issue, since they start from different ground than most Western schools, deemphasizing (and perhaps lacking) ideas such as substance and identity (a thing being a thing in itself, independently of anything else, in Western philosophy, rather than arising, and having individuating properties, only dependently in Buddhist traditions), which simply allows a different framing of the question. At least, that’s what I got from reading Flanagan (whose Buddhism of course is very much philosophy). But in any case, this is besides the topic, since Holt’s book doesn’t deal with it.

I kept that brief because I didn’t want to come across as dogmatic but there are a lot of problems with Western expositions of Buddhism which is due mainly to the fact that it simply doesn’t translate - into any language, which is sort of the whole point of the exercise.

Buddhism is quintessentially about the experience of reality and hence the central role of meditation. There are certainly many sacred texts that can help an adept to find his or her way, no doubt, but they don’t really qualify as philosophy in any Western sense of the word although it can be very tempting to draw that parallel.

I should have added that I think you’re right about Buddhism having an utterly unique perspective, for a host of reasons I probably shouldn’t try to get into here but chief among them being the type of undifferentiated acceptance of reality embodied in the idea of suchness - something that is so much more profound than that silly little moniker might lead one to believe.

I think I agree, to the extent that language implies discourse, and Buddhism isn’t really concerned with the discursive mode of thinking and argumentation—or perhaps better, that mode isn’t applicable to Buddhism (or the world on a Buddhist conception, or some such thing). (I think it’s perhaps the recognition that it’s not a given that this mode is universally applicable—an assumption which is really a prerequisite to doing philosophy in the Western sense—that I find most intriguing. But these really are deep waters I’m not quite comfortable swimming in.)

Yes and to really demonstrate just how alien the thought process is that’s involved, Buddhism is happy to recognize multiple inconsistent “philosophies” as being equally valid - at least that’s true I believe for the Mahayana branches which would include Chinese and Japanese Buddhism. I think the more traditional Theravadin school may be less flexible but I know much less about them.

not that Im a great thinker as my logic tends to fail me for these sorts of discussions, and the quiet path of introspection doesnt seem to be my style either, i seem to be a person of action or “doing”…
…anyways… this subject seems to always be on my mind, but like a mental scratch which cant be itched:rolleyes: …so thanx SD members for the links both to the book and upcoming radio show. I ordered the book/as the GD section of the Dope has been a bit slow on this subject lately. ha…I just had the thought “you cant make this stuff up!!”:smiley:
Interesting tangent on the Buddhist style of ///nothing…I would like to hear more.

I’m not sure what you had in mind and it’s been a few decades since I’ve actively studied the subject so I can only speak mostly in generalities, but Mahayana literally means ‘great vehicle’ and they chose that name for their variety of Buddhism because they recognize many, many paths to enlightenment. For a Mahayana Buddhist, Christian mysticism is just as valid a path to enlightenment as Zen as is Bodhisattva worship - which has nothing at all to do with meditation.

And the reason is that each is, or at least has the potential to be a path to understanding - but not understanding in any conceptual sense. Rather it conceptualization that is one of the barriers to understanding and why the very concept of a Buddhist philosophy is, at it core anathema to what Buddhism is actually about.

The only real distinction that’s made between different paths is an assessment as to how efficient they are in bringing one to the desired state. For example with the Pureland sects, they seek to build up good karma so as to be born in a higher plane of existence where enlightenment will be either assured or more readily attainable.

But in this life, it is recognized that while there are many paths, some will be more likely to lead to understanding than others. This doesn’t make the others invalid and indeed, for some souls, those paths may in fact still be the best.