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Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Storyby Jim Holt
Synopses & Reviews
“Why is there a world rather than nothing at all?” remains the darkest and most enduring of all metaphysical mysteries. Following in the footsteps of Christopher Hitchens, Roger Penrose, and even Stephen Hawking, Jim Holt now enters this fractious debate with his lively and deeply informed narrative that traces the latest efforts to grasp the origins of the universe. The slyly humorous Holt takes on the role of cosmological detective, suggesting that we might have been too narrow in limiting our suspects to Yahweh vs. the Big Bang. Tracking down an eccentric Oxford philosopher, a Physics Nobel Laureate, a French Buddhist monk who lived with the Dalai Lama, and John Updike just before he died, Holt pursues unexplored angles to this cosmic puzzle. As he pieces together a solution — one that sheds new light on the question of God and the meaning of existence — he offers brisk philosophical asides on time and eternity, consciousness, and the arithmetic of nothingness.
"A guided tour of ideas, theories and arguments about the origins of the universe….Through discussions with philosophers of religion and science, humanists, biologists, string theorists, as well as research into the scholarship of days past — from Heidegger, Parmenides, Pythagoras and others — and an interview with John Updike, Holt provides a master's-level course on the theories and their detractors. The interludes find the author positioning himself as an existential gumshoe, but also working through the sudden loss of a pet and, later, the death of his mother. Holt may not answer the question of his title, but his book deepens the appreciation of the mystery." Kathryn Schulz, New York Magazine
"If Jim Holt's deft and consuming Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story has anything to tell us, it's that such a comment is less about literary riffing than deep philosophy." David Ulin
"Winding its way to no reassuringly tidy conclusion, this narrative ultimately humanizes the huge metaphysical questions Holt confronts, endowing them with real-life significance. A potent synthesis of philosophy and autobiography." Cleveland Plain Dealer, Starred Review
"The pleasure of this book is watching the match: the staggeringly inventive human mind slamming its fantastic conjectures over the net, the universe coolly returning every serve....Holt traffics in wonder, a word whose dual meanings — the absence of answers; the experience of awe — strike me as profoundly related. His book is not utilitarian. You can’t profit from it, at least not in the narrow sense....And yet it does what real science writing should: It helps us feel the fullness of the problem." Booklist
"There could have been nothing. It might have been easier. Instead there is something. The universe exists, and we are here to ask about it. Why? In Why Does the World Exist?, Jim Holt, an elegant and witty writer comfortably at home in the problem’s weird interzone between philosophy and scientific cosmology, sets out in search of such answers....There is no way to do justice to any of these theories in a brief review, but Holt traces the reasoning behind each one with care and clarity — such clarity that each idea seems resoundingly sensible even as it turns one’s brain to a soup of incredulity....I can imagine few more enjoyable ways of thinking than to read this book." Los Angeles Times
"So much in middle-class life and literature is rote: We decide what to have for dinner, we floss, we pick up something to read. Hurray for Jim Holt, who cracks our formulaic stupor with his crisp, jolly new book, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. Already, I've started a list of folk who will find it gift-wrapped from me at the holidays." New York Times Book Review
"He [Jim Holt] leaves us with the question Stephen Hawking once asked but couldn't answer, ‘Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?’" Kirkus Reviews
"In Why Does the World Exist? Mr. Holt picks up this question about being versus nothingness and runs quite a long and stylish way with it. He combines his raffish erudition with accounts of traveling to tap the minds of cosmologists, theologians, particle physicists, philosophers, mystics and others." Boston Globe
"An elegant and witty writer converses with philosophers and cosmologists who ponder the question of why there is something rather than nothing." New York Times
"[A]n eclectic mix of theology, cutting-edge science (of the cosmological and particle-physics variety) and extremely abstract philosophising, rendered (mostly) accessible by Mr. Holt’s facility with analogies and clear, witty language." Wall Street Journal
Whether framed philosophically as “Why is there a world rather than nothing at all?” or more colloquially as “But, Mommy, who made God?” the metaphysical mystery about how we came into existence remains the most fractious and fascinating question of all time. Following in the footsteps of Christopher Hitchens, Roger Penrose, and even Stephen Hawking, Jim Holt emerges with an engrossing narrative that traces our latest efforts to grasp the origins of the universe. As he takes on the role of cosmological detective, the brilliant yet slyly humorous Holt contends that we might have been too narrow in limiting our suspects to God vs. the Big Bang. Whether interviewing a cranky Oxford philosopher, a Physics Nobel Laureate, or a French Buddhist monk, Holt pursues unexplored and often bizarre angles to this cosmic puzzle. The result is a brilliant synthesis of cosmology, mathematics, and physics — one that propels his own work to the level of philosophy itself.
2012 New York Times Top 10 Book of the Year
Slate.com 2012 Staff Pick
In this astonishing and profound work, an irreverent sleuth traces the riddle of existence from the ancient world to modern times.
About the Author
Jim Holt is a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and the New York Times Magazine, specializing in science and philosophy, as well as an erstwhile gossip columnist and an inveterate collector of jokes. His books include Stop Me If You've Heard This One and Why Does the World Exist? He lives in New York City.
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