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Much Ado About Nothing: Review of Why Does the World Exist?

PUBLISHED: October 12, 2012

Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt

Why does the world exist? An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (W.W. Norton, 2012). $27.95, 307 pages.

Mysteries small and great abound in Jim Holt’s new book—even in restaurants, where he spends an inordinate amount of time for an existential gumshoe. At a Paris bistro he dines alone on a plate of choucroute and a bottle of Saint-Emilion. A whiff of inscrutability suddenly wafts across the page: why would Holt choose a full-bodied red from Bordeaux rather than an Alsatian Riesling to accompany the famously heavy dish of that same region?

Leaving the restaurant, our man in Paris shuffles across the wintry and wet streets to his apartment and snaps on the TV. On the screen appears a literary show devoted to the question “Why is there something instead of nothing?” (This is Paris, after all.) A physicist, priest and Buddhist monk each take up the question, but their answers—quantum flux, God and illusion—leave Holt dissatisfied. Restless, he again hits the street, walks to everyone’s favorite bridge, the Pont des Arts, lights a cigarette and stares at the cityscape. This pourquoi quelque chose plutôt que rien business, he reflects, is kind of interesting. Taking a last draw on the cigarette, he mutters: “Maybe I should even write a book about it some day.” With that, he flicks the cigarette into the Seine and walks away.

Et voilà: here, on the book’s last page, we find its origins. It is a quiet move, executed by a smart and subtle writer. (Does Holt know that this same bridge serves as the stage for an earlier writer’s effort to reverse time: Claude Roy’s haunting novel La Traversée du Pont des Arts?) For those of you expecting an answer to the book’s title, spoiler alert: Jim Holt doesn’t have one. But this should no more discourage you from reading his book than, say, watching The Maltese Falcon. The crime’s solution, or the actual existence of the falcon, matters less than the hero’s integrity and smarts, as well as the mesmerizing oddness of the palookas he meets in his travels. Consider this remarkable book a stab at cosmological noir or metaphysical whodunit—with the difference that we’ll never know who did it, how it was done or even what “it” is.


With child-like wonder, the otherwise severe Ludwig Wittgenstein confessed in his Tractatus Logico-Philosphocus: “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.” Why does it exist? A question our children ask us, just as we asked our own parents. And a question I mostly dodge, just as my parents did with me, with a lame gesture towards the Big Guy. Or the Big Bang. The bigger, the better, of course. But no matter how big the ostensible cause, deep down I always knew that size in this case just didn’t matter. At such dark moments, the wisdom of Wittgenstein’s last proposition in his Tractatus dawns: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

But, happily, we cannot be silent. Instead, we persist in plaguing an indifferent universe, as well as our (mostly indifferent) fellow men and women, with the question of origins. But some of us go back further than others. The ancient Greeks, Holt notes, always launched into their cosmological explorations from a solid base; whether it was earth, fire or water, something has always existed. And since something could not sprout from nothing, nothingness was simply not an ontological option. This was also the case of the ancient Hebrews: Yahweh required matter, albeit in a chaotic state, in order to sculpt the heaven and earth. As for whatever preceded this chaos, not to mention Yahweh’s own status, Job served as a reminder that certain questions are best left unasked.

Early Christianity, leery to place limits on divine power, gave nothingness its first important break. With the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, God pulled the rabbit of being out of the hat of pre-being. But it is only with the advent of modernity that nothingness achieves marquee status. It was the unintentional consequence of the rationalist philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Towards the end of his life Leibniz proposed his “Principle of Sufficient Reason” which holds that for every question there is an answer. By way of illustration, Leibniz affirmed that God is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. And why, might you ask, does God exist? Easy, replied Leibniz: a necessary being, he is his own cause. A non-existent God is not just blasphemous; it is, in strictly logical terms, nonsense.

Ridiculed by Voltaire in Candide, where the maiming or taking of innocent lives becomes the sufficient reason for horrifying cataclysms, Leibniz nevertheless posed a question that has stuck with us ever since. Yet it is only in the 20th century that philosophers, carried along by the torrent of scientific discoveries, began to wrestle with the why question in earnest.

Well, not all philosophers. One of the century’s most influential philosophers of science, Adolf Grünbaum walks unexpectedly into the narrative—imagine Peter Lorre sidling up to Humphrey Bogart—to warn Holt that this “why” business is a mug’s game. A dapper, gnome-like octogenarian with the faintest of German accents, Grünbaum thinks the very question is larded with presuppositions. Why, he wonders, must there be such an explanation? For that matter, for what earthly reason should we suppose that, lacking such an ultimate explanation, nothingness would trump somethingness? What’s so compelling, either logically or scientifically, about nothingness?

Look no further than religion, Grünbaum observes. He notes that even militant atheists like Richard Dawkins, who assume that nothingness is a more normal state of affairs than something, have imbibed a kind of religious awe “with their mother’s milk.” Thanks to the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, all of us, believers and unbelievers alike, assume that nothingness is, in Holt’s happy phrase, the “ontological default position.”

But why should that be? Is this the case because nothingness is the simplest of all cosmological options? Most scientists would nod their heads: it is axiomatic that the simpler the theory, the more likely it is true. As the late physicist Richard Feynman remarked, the “truth always turns out to be simpler than you thought.” But this sentiment elicits a harrumph from Grünbaum. “What makes simplicity into an ontological imperative?” he asks. Complexity has as great a claim on ontological seniority than does its opposite. For this reason, Grünbaum steadfastly refused to marvel at the sheer existence of our world. Flustered by his interlocutor’s rap against rapture, Holt concludes: “If, as Aristotle remarked, philosophy begins with wonder, then it ends with Grünbaum.”

But, of course, wonder never ends—at least if Oxford, where a disproportionate number of cosmologists live, has any say in the matter. Amid the ivy, Holt meets the philosopher and theologian Richard Swinburne, a gray-haired and mild-voiced bachelor who is the un-Grünbaum. Swinburne reassures Holt that, contrary to Grünbaum’s claims, simplicity is all that it’s cracked up to be. If the pot of tea and plate of sugar biscuits he served was not proof enough, Swinburne also offered a sampling of subtle arguments. Reason tells us, he purred, that just as a simple universe is more likely than a complex universe, the simplest of all possible universes is one that contains nothing. But since the universe, one filled with teapots and self-satisfied Oxford dons, does exist, we must plump for the next simplest hypothesis—namely, a god who made it. This hypothesis, Swinburne reassures Holt, is more compelling and elegant—in a word, simpler—than mere chance: “A cosmos must meet some very precise conditions in order for humans to appear.”

Not only need we look no further than God to explain these conditions, we cannot look any further without plunging into the white water of infinite regression. Orson Welles once remarked that if you want a film to have a happy ending, it depends on where you stop it. Well, so too with existence. Unless there is a divine ending, it will run backwards ad infinitum. As Swinburne points out, God is a necessary being “in the sense that he does not depend for his existence on anything else.”

But why must there be an ending? This is the universe, after all, not Citizen Kane. Who says we need God to bring it to an end (or a beginning)? At this point, Swinburne’s unruffled demeanor grows troubled. While he is not the sort to take a leap of faith, he does skip a bit: It is with God, he tells Holt, that “explanation has to stop … As to why God exists, I can’t answer that question. I can’t answer that question.” With this response, Holt brings matters to an end as arbitrarily as Swinburne’s god begins them: “It was time to go.”

The more time Holt spends with Oxford types, the more candidates he discovers for the role of uncaused cause, first mover, or necessary being. Sir Roger Penrose, a mathematician who earned his knighthood for his work in theoretical physics, is not the sort, clearly, who needs God as a hypothesis. But it turns out Penrose has a different candidate for the existence of our world: numbers. He resembles Plato, minus the toga, for whom ideas, including numbers, are famously more real than the world. As Penrose declared: “I imagine that whenever the mind perceives a mathematical idea it makes contact with Plato’s world of mathematical concepts.” When pushed by Holt, Penrose insists that mathematics can make the universe happen. But when asked how this might work, Penrose admits: “I’m not saying I can resolve this mystery.

Or there is Derek Parfit, a philosopher who has spent his fairly long adult life at All Souls College—he began his tenure in 1967—and whose members are paid to think, not teach. For this reason, perhaps, Parfit agreed to an interview on the condition that Holt not quote him verbatim. But Holt does offer a few choice lines from Parfit’s very quotable articles. After having emphasized the compelling nature of what he calls the “Null possibility”—that nothingness is the least puzzling of all cosmic possibilities—Parfit nevertheless sighs: “In some way or another, a Universe has managed to exist.” Along, we need to add, with philosophers who wonder why.

In his conversation with Holt, Parfit develops his notion of a “Selector”—a kind of existential calculus that, running through the vast array of possibilities, leads us to the one that is most likely to prevail. Rather like a form of cosmic Darwinism, with the winning universe the one most likely to endure. Yet, when pushed by a persistently dubious Holt, Parfit concedes that, as with God, Ideas, Numbers or any other hypothetical original cause, a “Selector” would also leave us ultimately dissatisfied. When Holt asks the inevitable question—Wouldn’t that “Selector” require an even higher “Selector”?—Parit shrugs. If we don’t embrace a particular “Selector,” he observes, we will confront selectors from here to infinity.


Holt does not grill only Oxford dons—among the book’s many marvels is the author’s phone interview with John Updike, who compares the world to a “bit of light verse”—but with each and every encounter, he comes away enthralled and amazed, but bereft of the solution he has been seeking. Like Sam Spade, Holt never finds the falcon. It is not even clear if the falcon exists—or, to be sure, if its possession is more important than its pursuit.

By film’s end, we know where the Fat Man and Joel Cairo stand on this question. And Spade? Well, we know just one thing: he is alone. At the end of Why Does the World Exist?, this is also one of the few things we know about Holt. He works alone, dines alone, and understands that at the end of things, each of us dies alone. His book, ultimately, is a meditation on the state of nothingness awaiting all of us. There is more of Montaigne than mathematics to his reflections. During the course of his investigations, he loses his old and beloved dog to cancer, and far more tragically, loses his mother to the same disease. Cancer also reaches out and takes Updike’s life a year after his interview. Like Spade, Holt does not turn to a lover, a friend a significant other. Unlike the hard-boiled Spade, however, Holt instead turns inward and understands all there is to understand: “I would not be reunified with my parents until I, too, entered the nothingness that had already absorbed both of them.” No doubt. But as Holt’s book reminds us in spades, nothingness contain silence our humanity, imagination and intelligence.


About the author

Robert Zaretsky teaches French history at the Honors College, University of Houston. His books include Nîmes at War (Penn State University 1995), Cock and Bull Stories: Folco de Baroncelli and the Invention of the Camargue (Nebraska 2004), and with John Scott, The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume, and the Limits of Human Understanding (Yale 2009). His most recent books are Albert Camus: Elements to a Life (Cornell 2010) and, with Alice Conklin and Sarah Fishman, France and its Empire Since 1870 (Oxford 2010). He is currently writing two books: Boswell’s Enlightenment (Harvard UP) and A Life Worth Living: Why Camus Matters (Harvard UP).


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