Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story (London: Profile Books, 2012), 307pp
In truth, a book such as Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? should appeal to everyone. This is a question which everyone has, at some stage and to some variable degree, contemplated, whether in existential angst, exasperation or curiosity. Atheists look to science to provide the answers, agnostics perhaps look to philosophy, and theists rely on that old crutch of 'God'. Holt's work embraces this diversity, and is consequently a fantastic introduction to the dilemma of why there is something rather than nothing. This is because it is, as its subtitle proclaims, an 'existential detective story' - Holt is embarking on this quest for ultimate truth along with the reader. Of course, it should come as no surprise that he reaches no conclusive answer as to the origins of the universe, but during his investigations he encounters a wide variety of theories, and is capable of digesting and explaining them to his own audience. Thus, we get explanations and critiques encompassing science, philosophy, metaphysics and theology, to name a few. Holt is open-minded enough to assess the relative merits of each of these and, in refreshing contrast to other works of this nature, is not overly contemptuous of the 'God hypothesis' (though he does not treat it with undue reverence either, as he notes its many logical fallacies).
Some of these theories are complicated, as you would imagine any attempt to understand the universe would be. As such, the book itself might take longer to read than its length (a shade over 300 pages) would suggest as you try to wrap your head around the various competing theories. Some of these theories have more to recommend them than others - quantum fluctuations, multiverses, or chaotic inflation, for example, are more intellectually sound than religious dogma or the woolly Platonic insistence on the logical necessity of goodness - but all are treated by Holt with respect, as he correctly assumes that no one can presume to hold theoretical answers that are so watertight that they cannot be challenged by other competing theories.
Holt also shows that the question of why there is something rather than nothing is more than just a question of how the Big Bang (itself only a hypothesis) poofed into existence out of absolute nothingness. He expands his remit to question our own perceptions (Can we imagine absolute nothingness, free of our own consciousness? Does the self even exist?) and to debate the meaning of such words as 'truth' and 'reality', though in my opinion these debates are resolved by semantics and therefore cannot be truly examined by the compromised and limited human mind.
Indeed, this question as to whether humankind can truly comprehend such abstractions as existence, time and reality arguably makes the search for an answer to the titular question futile. After all, our understanding of the universe is only how we perceive it through our own eyes, through our own limited processor that is the human brain. We call certain things atoms, and attempt to identify universal natural laws, but is that the same thing to an impersonal universe? We perceive time as a guide for how our lives seem to pass, but is time even linear, as it seems to our minds? Can the ultimate question of the universe truly be resolved by the tiny minds of tiny creatures living on a tiny planet in a tiny galaxy in a far-off corner of said universe? Which itself may be only one of many universes in a wider multiverse?
Holt acknowledges the possible futility of this question and, as I said before, no reader will finish reading this book with an definitive answer. Holt's own conclusions, presented late on in the book, are interesting, as he appropriates the idea of Selectors and meta-Selectors from the willing philosopher Derek Parfit. This, at the very least, provides a coherent possibility of why there is something rather than nothing, even if it does not provoke an epiphanic reaction in the reader that one has found ultimate truth.
But what Holt's quest truly presents to us is that the journey, the attempt to even ask such questions, is itself enriching. Towards the end, Holt engages in a discourse with John Updike. This is refreshing as, unlike the others Holt corresponds with who are scientists and philosophers who made their name with one theory or another, Updike is a novelist with no pet theory and is consequently free to ponder existence without the shackles of the obligation to defend one's own theory. This discourse shows that even thinking about the question can itself be rewarding. The final few chapters, as Holt formulates his conclusions, engages in a discourse with Updike, and deals with a personal loss that coincides with his deliberations on mortality and non-existence, are the most invigorating in the entire book. They show that the question of why the world exists is not merely one of theoretical abstractions but one of powerful and profound implications for our individual lives. Indeed, one could perhaps recast Holt's book not as an attempt to find an answer to the ultimate question, but an attempt to show us that the fact that such a question can even be pondered is itself a cause for wonderment.