Currently Reading: “Why Does the World Exist?” by Jim Holt (WW Norton, 2012)


A quick note to recommend Jim Holt’s “Why Does the World Exist?” which takes us on a global quest to find the answer to a question I am sure most people don’t ask every day: Why is there something rather than nothing?

This may seem like a trivial question (and to at least one thinker Holt speaks to it is), but I agree with Holt that it is a question worth asking. After all, the idea that there must be something at the bottom of the existential well underpins many a great philosophical position, not least the “first mover” argument in support of the existence of God.

Holt, who frequently writes for “The New Yorker,” takes the reader on a tour across space and time to review what many a great thinker has had to say on this subject. Indeed, like a modern-day Socrates, Holt travels the world to ask this basic question of the smartest guys (and they are all guys) he can find. Interestingly, every thinker he talks to fills his head with ideas that seem to solve the problem but then soon enough prove incomplete.

Throughout the book, Holt does a great job of taking a seriously complex problem and presenting both the question (it in its many forms) and the multitude of answers in clear, accessible language. So it is that we learn Wittgenstein thought that explaining existence was futile and that Adolf Grunbaum thinks existence is not just ordinary but an expected state of affairs. As Holt notes of Grunbaum:

There is no reason, in his view, to be astonished, puzzled, awed or mystified by the existence of the world. None of the virtues claimed for Nothingness — it’s supposed simplicity, its naturalness, its lack of arbitrariness, and so on — made it the de jure favorite in the reality sweepstakes; such was his conviction.

And so it goes from Grunbaum in Pittsburgh to Richard Swinburne in Oxford, each thinker presents his something about nothing and each ultimately fails to answer the question to Holt’s satisfaction. Of course, the paradox that seems to escape Holt is the idea that something (a theory, explanation, guess) can explain nothing, since, as Holt himself notes at one point, once you define something, in any sense, one posits substance, however fleeting, and so the object defined ceases to be undefined, ceases to be nothing.


Unless of course, one is able to create a negative definition of nothing, i.e., define nothing by clarifying what it is not (everything) rather than what it is. Eureka! Time to get on another plane…

So overall, a very nice book but it does have it’s flaws. Holt gets carried away at times with his own literary fancies (a chapter opening in the Cafe Flore in Paris with Karl Lagerfeld is especially self-indulgent), and he has a habit of using unusual words when more common ones would do just fine.

Overall, though, this is a fascinating survey of what great (and not so great) thinkers have and do think about what nothing is and, interestingly, is not (spoiler alert: nothing is something). Moreover, the ideas flow endlessly and with fun, and the best part of the book is taking a peak into the minds of some genuinely smart men wrestling with fantastically challenging ideas. Take, to cite just one example, Grunbaum’s reply when Holt asks him if was possible that an entity in our distant future (what some call the “Omega point”) could have retroactively caused the Big Bang (implying our creation to be an event that has not yet happened!):

“Ah,” he said, ‘you’re talking about retrocausation. Is such a thing possible?” he then launched into a learned disquisition on cause and effect whose virtuosity reminded me of a great diva delivering an opera aria. I listened with more awe than understanding as he wrapped it up: “Well, they got it wrong because they misextrapoltaed from second-order equations in Newtonian mechanics, where forces are causes of accelerations, to a third-order differential equation, Dirac’s equation, in which forces are not causes of accelerations. So even though when you integrate over all future time you have force quantities in the integral — called ‘pre-accelerations’ — that doesn’t mean that this instantiates retrocausation of acceleration by forces. Say,would you like a little gin? I think I’ve got some here.”

I don’t know about you, but that’s not a chat I have every day, and it’s these moments — the mixture of grand questions of existance with the humanity of those who take them on, that raise Holt’s book above the commonplace.

Bottom line: If you are curious about why “nothing” is not “nothingness,” or need to refresh your memory on the difference between a multi-verse and a megaverse (trick question: there isn’t one), Holt’s book is a fine launching pad on your journey to nowhere.

Get it here at:

Carlos Alvarenga

Founder and CEO at KatalystNet and Adjunct Professor in the Logistics, Business and Public Policy Department at the University of Maryland’s Robert E. Smith School of Business.

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