Let me start with quibbles about the title of Jim Holt’s book: Why Does the World Exist?– An Existential Detective Story. The title question is not the subject of the book; the book asks why there is something or anything rather than nothing—and that really is a different question. And rather than a detective story, it is better described as a guidebook into widely varied philosophical and cosmological theories of existence.
These quibbles aside, this is the sort of book you’ll either love or hate. If you relish late-night conversations about the nature of existence or find “Nova” programs on quantum mechanics and string theory fascinating, if you just like to make your mind buzz with pondering, you’ll enjoy Why Does the World Exist?
In the opening pages, Holt makes it clear that he isn’t interested in the possibility that God, however defined, might be the source of everything (although God makes appearances, especially in Holt’s conversations with Richard Swinburne, an Oxford philosopher of religion, and American writer John Updike). Holt combs through theories ancient and modern and buttonholes contemporary philosophers and physicists, cosmologists and theorists. He examines descriptions of nothing (not emptiness—there’s a difference!), considers the riddle of what if anything might have been before time began, and even noodles about the nature death. It’s all quite heady, and although in the final chapter, he moves from head to heart when he describes being present at his mother’s death, he doesn’t stay with his feelings for more than a page or two (which I thought a shame).
On each theoretical path he wanders, Holt bumps up against the limits of what can be proven, imagined, theorized, intuited, or proposed. No reader should expect a whodunit solution from this purported “detective story,” but you can expect a thought-provoking read.