Jim Holt Considering Why the World Exists

Jim Holt has a new book out with the provocative title Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, featuring encounters with the mathematician Roger Penrose, author John Updike, physicist Steven Weinberg, philosopher Adolf Grünbaum, and theologian Richard Swinburne, among others.

David Ulin at the L.A. Times summarizes:

That question — "Why is there something rather than nothing?" — occupies the center of Holt's book, which is by turns a philosophical and scientific inquiry, written through a broadly personal lens. Beginning with his discovery of this "ultimate why question" as a teenager reading Heidegger, Holt frames his investigation as a series of conversations with luminaries from the academic and cultural worlds.

Overview from the publisher W.W. Norton & Company

Review by David Ulin at www.latimes.com

Review by Kathryn Schulz at www.vulture.com

-Dylan Casey


  1. Ryan says

    I will definitely have to give this book a read soon. Interestingly enough another philosopher, Quentin Meillassoux has written his own existential detective story this year titled “The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarme’s Coup De Des” (a critical reading of a French poem titled ‘a roll of the dice will never abolish chance’). The reason I believe this kind of story has suddenly become its own unique form of thinking is because there is clearly something fishy going on between our modern understanding of topics like statistics and probability, quantum mechanics, unidirectional time and the moving present, multiple worlds, and reality, that we have so far been completely unable to conceptualize together in a very coherent fashion.

    Our empirical understanding of the functionally infinite world has grown leaps and bounds beyond anything that we could apply practically to life for ourselves as finite individuals, and so we have reached a moment where we must find a radically new explanation for how humanity might be able to ascribe meaning in to the world, or fully embrace nihilism and death and extinction. As absurd as that second option might appear to be on its face, it has already presumably been casually accepted by a majority of people I find myself speaking with who express having no interest in asking why, or deny our capacity to provide any answer for that kind of question altogether.

    Quentin’s response calls back to his reading of Hume in After Finitude, where he posits that the problem of induction is not an epistemological deficit, but rather an ontological necessity. In this way there is a kind of divine chance that allows for all events to happen contingently, and the regularities in the world we have observed are only necessary in so far as otherwise Hericlitean-styled total chaos in a certain sense actually consists in no change at all, but merely an unchanging eternal flux. Despite being a self-acclaimed atheist, Quentin’s speculative theory also reveals a presently dead virtual God, as the unbounded extent of this hyperchaos conceivably would allow for even a God to potentially come about. Due to the fact that it would not suffer an obligation to any given event necessarily, it is a God that would hold no indebted dependence on any of the monstrosities that pervade our history, and so would also be able to provide actual redemption for all of the beings that have nonsensically been lost to the merciless hands of death.

    Mallarme wanted to be the founder of a new religion that would recognize this divinity of chance, and left just enough clues in his work that somebody could potentially discover this belief. Quentin suggests that he himself has finally performed this task nearly a century later, with the caveat that there is also just enough confounding evidence to leave us debating forever whether this is the correct reading of Mallarme. In this way Mallarme has seemingly chosen to deliberately permanently sacrifice his role as a poet to be taken seriously, by way of masking his belief behind the playing of silly number ciphering games in his poem, in order to have personally embodied and consciously lived in good faith, what was seemingly his very serious belief about the real divinity of chance.

    A recent lecture he gave on his book: http://vimeo.com/42719285

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *