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Why Is There Anything At All?

Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story
Why Is There Anything At All?

Jim Holt, who writes about science and philosophy for such magazines and newspapers as Slate, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, has written this volume, aimed at an educated layperson, who is interested in ultimate questions. He has picked perhaps the most vexing ultimate question of all: why is there anything? or Why is there something rather than nothing? The question intrigued philosophers from Socrates to Sartre and has become the most difficult question for many atheistic philosophers especially because of its constant pressure toward a theistic answer.

Holt poses an interesting introduction to the importance of the question in the opening pages of his first chapter by telling an autobiographical story. He relates first encountering it in the opening pages of Martin Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics as a teen-ager. He was, as he puts it, “bowled over by its starkness, its purity, its sheer power. Here was the super-ultimate why question, the one that loomed behind all the others that mankind had ever asked. Where, I wondered, had it been all my (admittedly brief) life?” (p. 4). Assuming the aphorism that “…the question Why is there something rather than nothing? is so profound that it would occur only to a metaphysician and so simple it would occur only to a child”, Holt muses that he had missed it as a child for one reason: his religious upbringing. Because God is causa sui, i.e. self-existent, we cannot and need not explain his origin and purpose, but the universe’s existence is no mystery at all. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because God made it.

I expected Holt to go in a direction that generally slammed the ignorant, unthinking religious believer at that point, but that is why this book is so interesting. He does mention that believers—of all religions, i.e. theists—often have bad answers to the question, but his much more curious interest is in the numbers of unbelievers, who treat this question either dismissively or with answers that have not been thought through deeply enough. These generally fall into one of two categories. The first, the science-will-someday-explain-it hypothesis, Holt dismisses because science can only deal with things that already exist, i.e. physical causes, and any physical cause is “by definition part of the universe to be explained. Thus any purely scientific explanation of the existence of the universe is doomed to be circular” (p. 6). The second, what Holt calls the “brute-fact view” tries to dismiss the question altogether, which he calls “intellectually throwing in the towel” (p. 7). He points out that Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason has demonstrated its validity over and over and appears to be a bedrock of human inquiry. The principle states that for every truth, there must be a reason why it is so and not otherwise, and for every thing, there must be a reason for that thing’s existence. To deny this is to invite a world of chaos, and no one can live like that.

Dismissing the dismissive, Holt then goes on a quest, using reason and logic to explore the question. Instead of making this a purely philosophical treatise, like the journalist he is, Holt both traces the history of the answers to the question and travels to talk to many contemporaries about their answers to the question. Interviewing such intellectual stalwarts as Roger Penrose and Derek Parfit, he travels to places as disparate as Greenwich Village, Oxford’s All Souls College and Paris’ Café de Flore, and his tale of the journey is a welcome one amidst the philosophical speculation. Even though Holt is a master of writing clear, simple sentences, the arguments are so detailed and sometimes so abstruse that the book can be difficult.

Perhaps that is why one of my favorite chapters is Holt’s recounting of a telephone conversation he has with John Updike. Spending most of his time in a discussion of a scene in his 1986 novel Roger’s Version, Updike largely demonstrates his notion that science requires us to believe things as hard to grasp as theology ever has. The entire universe reduced to one small point of mass before the Big Bang? Impossible! Updike even questions whether any offered amount of time is large enough really to explain the development of the universe from nearly nothing: “Just think of it. The notion that this planet and all the stars we see, and many thousands of times more than those we see—that all this was once bounded in a point with the size of, what, a period or a grape? How, I ask myself, could that possibly be? And, that said, I sort of move on” (p. 249). Updike’s take on the answers that “science” gives to the question, push him to say sarcastically that their view of reality makes of the universe no more than “a bit of light verse.

Tellingly, Holt picks up on that phrase and seems to embrace it. The dark aspects of death intrude into his ruminations at the end of the book, and as he stands on the Pont des Arts in the chill night air of Paris, he flicks his cigarette butt into “the dark waters flowing below”. Holt seems no closer to answering the question than he was before he wrote the book. At the bottom of the last page, after he has told the story of his standing on the bridge, ruminating about the beauty of Paris and questioning if it could really be only an illusion, absurd, or a divine gift, Holt gives a cynical definition of philosophy from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary: Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

A book is sometimes worth reading, not because it solves a problem, but because it outlines the questions of a problem so well. Why Does the World Exist? is just such a book. Jim Holt has done us all a service by providing so much argument about this question in one place, and so tellingly. Christians need to examine his work carefully and rejoice in the truth that God did create the universe, and that He saw that it was good.

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