Jan. 20th, 2013

capfox: (Wonderboy)
I suppose "because I said so" isn't really going to be a good answer.

Book #45: Why Does the World Exist?
Author: Jim Holt
Provenance: Borrowed from Westmount Library

No, really, why does the world exist? The question posed by the title is likely one of the oldest questions that people have ever considered, particularly if we rule out more mundane questions like where their next meal is going to be coming from. It is definitely one of the foundational questions that is answered by religion, as well, and then in terms of philosophy and science. Getting a variety of answers in one place seems like a interesting book to have.

Holt probably isn't the first person to try tackling the challenge of putting together a coherent examination of the facts, but I think he may be the first one to try doing it with this approach. After laying out the overall question of why there is something rather than nothing and a couple of initial thoughts, Holt embarks on an interview tour with many different sorts of thinkers: philosophers, theologians, scientists, and even John Updike, in the end. And we're not talking about any random, low-key selection of thinkers here. These are people who've generally given a lot of thought to the topic: Adolf Grunbaum, Steven Weinberg, Derek Parfit, etc. It's a good mix.

At each point, Holt discusses how he set up the interview, why he wanted to talk with that person, and gives them a chance to elucidate their argument. These range from "this is a pointless question; there's no reason to think nothing would be a more rational state" to "God made the universe" to the Big Bang theory to a variety of other philosophical and scientific views. After almost each interview, there is an interlude in which Holt gives more history and background around the question, details a bit of his life at the time, and most importantly, grapples with the views of the person he's just talked to, their likelihood and their implications.

It helps that Holt is a clever guy, an erudite writer, and someone who is very clearly interested in this question, because the book somehow fails to ever become tedious. The different people Holt talks with are invested in making sure their points are clear, and their relationships to Holt matter, too (Derek Deutsch nearly doesn't talk with him because Holt gave a fairly negative review to one of his books once). The personal interludes actually help the story along, as Holt encounters death around him, bringing the question of something vs. nothing into a more personal light. But really, the meat of the book is Holt considering the different views of the interviewees, and accepting or rejecting the ideas, and that makes for a fulfilling read.

I don't really personally find satisfactory the conclusion that Holt stops on, or share the reverence for Updike and his opinions that Holt shows at the end after he's reached the conclusion he stops on. That said, it was a very interesting read, far more readable than I'd have thought it had any right to be, and it does stick with you, the ideas. If you've ever wondered about this question, you could do far worse than trying this book. I quite enjoyed it, and I'd like to see what else Holt has done. If he's this interested in the topic, it probably makes for a good read.

Next up: Should I even predict? Let's say Dear Teen Me.

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