Wednesday, September 26, 2012

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

Jim Holts interesting, well written, often moving book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story  (Liveright Publishing, 2012) irritated me.  It is much better than Lawrence Krauss A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.  It reviews many of the major theories and arguments that seek to explain Why We Are Here. Not a religious book, it pays due homage to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens but also shows more respect for those who do believe in the concept and possibility of God than Krauss. It takes a relaxed, informal approach to its topic that doesn't condescend to its subject or its readers.  Holt interviews seven major philosophers and scientists, as well as one writer--John Updike (focusing on his novel Rogers Version)--as it seeks an explanation, philosophical or scientific, for our existence.  The interviews are for the most part a successful way of bringing out different theories and attitudes of the interviewees. Holt also makes this a personal book, in the course of his discussions pausing to discuss the deaths of his cherished dog (which I could have done without) and of his mother.   When I finished reading, I felt I had been exposed to sophisticated reasoning and high level thinking, but was no more satisfied about the question posed in the title than I was when I began the book.  Holt provides a range of possible answers to the question, rather than any one answer.  The fault with this book does not lie with Holt.  He does a better job than most writers on this topic.  His book is very readable (though some of the more arcane philosophical lines of thought are difficult to follow), and I would certainly recommend it.  But the problem may simply be that there is no answer to the question, or at least no answer we can know and understand.

In a way, the question is irrelevant, or at least pointless.  We are here, we exist, or at least we believe we do.  Maybe we should focus on how we make the short duration of our personal existence count rather than moldering away over a question whose answer (if someone could provide it) would have little impact on our lives.  

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