Ask Jim Holt Anything: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 24 2012 @ 12:00pm

I’ve loved and admired Jim Holt for as long as I’ve known him. Razor-sharp, intellectually brilliant, he also has the driest and richest sense of humor of anyone I know, now that Hitch is a stiff. He wrote some priceless essays for me when I was editing TNR. And he has a new book out, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story. How Jim described the question in an interview with John Williams:

Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing? Why is there something rather than nothing? William James called this “the darkest question in all philosophy.” For Wittgenstein, the world’s existence was cause for wonder. “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical,” he declared, “but that it exists.” … I was brought up in a religious family, so the stock answer was that God made the world, and God himself existed eternally by his own nature. As a teenager I started to doubt this theological story. I became interested in existentialism and got my hands on a book by Heidegger called “An Introduction to Metaphysics.” The very first sentence was, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can still remember how the sheer poetry of it bowled me over.

Ron Rosenbaum gives the book a glowing review:

I’ve written about this problem before—the “why is there something rather than nothing” problem—which I regard as the second most important unsolved mystery of the cosmos. The first, of course, being love, a similarly unfathomable mystery, one aspect of which I wrote about recently in exploring the implications of a single line by the great poet Philip Larkin (“What will survive of us is love”—survive us where, for instance?). The third greatest mystery, in case you care, is the mystery of consciousness, its origin and locus, mind versus meat (brain).

There’s a similarity in these unsolvable mysteries: Poets are the physicists of love, but, as I suggested, in Larkin’s case at least, their work is marked by humility, a tender tentativeness. Whereas physicists tend to be know-it-alls. … This is why I want to spotlight a new development, an admission that was overlooked in the Higgs hype, a disguised concession of defeat by one of the “nothing theorists.” The best way to begin to understand the substance and importance of this new development—I’d call it a shocking confession—and the small but cosmically important war that has broken out over nothing in the past few months among physicists and philosophers is to follow Jim Holt’s thrilling and comprehensive study of nothingness, his “Existential Detective Story,” hinting at a quest that offers all the drama of the best noirs.