That’s a nice philosophical question. The question doesn’t ask what purpose does the world exist for, though you might read it that way, but rather it asks why does the world exist instead of not existing. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz asked it succinctly in 1714 — “…the first question which we have a right to ask will be, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?'” In the history of Western philosophy, it’s a rather recent question.
Jim Holt, a contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Times, has written a book on this subject called, in fact, Why Does the World Exist? (Liveright: New York, 2012. 307 pages, $27.95) Holt doesn’t propose an answer himself, but reviews the answers given by others long gone, such as Leibniz, and those more recently gone, such as Sartre, and interviews one recently among us, John Updike, and most of all, visits and chats with those still above ground.
In other words, the book is a survey of people who have thought about the existence of the world and have written about it. Actually, Holt’s book isn’t a plain survey. The book is subtitled An Existential Detective Story, and the jacket flap says “Jim Holt takes on the role of cosmic gumshoe, exploring new and sometimes bizarre angles to the mystery of existence. His search for the ultimate explanation begins with the usual suspects — God versus the Big Bang.” We’ll get back to this nonsense of the author as gumshoe later.
Why Does the World Exist? isn’t an exploration in depth, it’s a broad, comprehensive survey of thought on the question of existence versus nothingness. Churlish critics, such as you find here at Critical Pages, think Holt is too comprehensive, too inclusive. Some readers will be confused by the welter of names and ideas, others will be annoyed at the consequent superficiality. And — damn it! — the book is marred by the persistent charade that the author is a detective tracking down …well, whatever it is you track down when you interview philosophers and physicists about the coming into existence of our world or the universe at large.
OK, now that we got that off our chest we can say that if you’re interested in the question of why the world exists, this is the book and Jim Holt — friendly, casual, and afraid of being too intellectual — is your guide. At one point, Holt offers his own vision of God, saying that he believes God is 100 percent malicious, but only 80 percent effective. It’s one of the wittiest lines in the book. His mother died while Holt was writing his book and he brings that event onto the page. You knew we’d get to death sooner or later, right? Because you can’t discuss why the world exists without talking about the alternative, and the alternative certainly applies to us mortals.
The people who may want to read this book are those who have wondered these things: How do you start with nothing and get something? Or has something always existed, forever, from the beginning to time to now and into the endless future. Are physicists right when they infer from what appears to be an expanding universe that it all began as a point? And if there was nothing, where was that point?
The cover photograph on the book jacket is of the Café de Flore in Paris. It’s nighttime: the waiter has set chairs upside down on the tables and now he’s standing off to the right, his hands folded on an upright broom handle; he’s looking at a couple almost hidden in a shadow on the far left, a man and a woman embracing. The Café Flore is where Sartre, author of Being and Nothingness, used to hang out, and Jim Holt went there too, while writing this book. Presumably the photograph was chosen by the author and it’s an odd image for a book of philosophy. Maybe it suggests that the riddle of existence can be answered best by losing yourself in the embrace of an amiable companion. But the café is closing and the scene is dark and that couple will soon have to leave what little light there is and enter that darkness. Or maybe it just a photo of a famous cafe.