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Why Does the World Exist?

A simple question proves thorny in Jim Holt's new book.

July 27, 2012

Why Does the World Exist? By Jim Holt Liveright Publishing Corporation 320 pp.

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By Troy Jollimore, for The Barnes and Noble Review

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"It has been said," Jim Holt writes in his new book, "that the question Why is there something rather than nothing? is so profound that it would occur only to a metaphysician, yet so simple that it would occur only to a child." I might have reversed the adjectives, but the basic thought that lies behind this – that the child's imagination is, at its core, philosophical and metaphysical, and that the philosopher is the adult who has managed to retain his childhood sense of wonder at the universe – seems to me sound.

And as for this particular question: well, it's a biggie. Why is there stuff – indeed, quite a lot of stuff, as anyone who has walked down Fifth Avenue, visited the Grand Canyon, or simply looked at the night sky, can attest – rather than a whole lot of nothing? (Or would that be a tiny bit of nothing?) Not every question gets, or deserves, its own book, but the question that gives Why Does the World Exist? its title is far too big for any one volume. Holt's book is not meant to be the last word on the matter; it is best seen as an entertaining introduction to a vast range of argument and speculation that would take more lifetimes to master than any of us has at his disposal.

The arguments can get complex but return repeatedly to rest on a couple of basic issues. Here is a question to start with: What, if anything, are we allowed to take for granted when we describe the beginning of the universe? The obvious rejoinder to any proposal that "X caused (or is a reason for) the universe, so the existence of the universe is explained by X" is to say, "Alright, but where did X come from?" (Or, if X is a law or principle, why does X obtain? What makes it true?) This rejoinder is extremely effective when X is, say, God: as Richard Dawkins, among many others, has pointed out, the religious "explanation" of the universe – God made it! – is entirely unsatisfying unless one can also explain who made God. One can hold that God does not need an explanation, of course; but then, why not just say that about the universe itself? As one would expect, there have been attempts to show that God, by his nature, is special and does not need any such explanation; the attempts offered thus far, though, are hopelessly unsatisfying for any questioner not already committed to a religious framework for thought.

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