“Why do we never get an answer, when we’re knocking at the door?” Question, The Moody Blues
Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt (Liveright Publishing Company, $27.95, 309 pages)
From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll (Plume Reprint, $17.00, 448 pages)
“Could it be… that the world exists precisely because it is, on the whole, better than nothing?”
Reading Tim Holt’s extended treatise on life and the universe is the equivalent of listening to a classic philosophical album by The Moody Blues – one hears numerous questions about being and existence but receives no answers. All in all, Why Does the Earth Exist? is an entertaining read but it’s far too clever by half; one gets the impression that Holt is trying to dazzle the reader with his brilliance – supposed or real – as he all too often gets off track. Holt never answers the question raised in the book’s title, and much time is wasted on diversions such as mathematical formulas and the rules of formal logic.
The writer seems to be at his most engaging while pondering deep thoughts after nights of imbibing far too much alcohol at the world’s glamorous hotspots. As such, he comes off as a tamer, more intellectual version of the Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary); one whose entertainment value (unlike the late Thompson’s) runs thin very, very quickly. Another flaw with Why concerns Holt’s unwillingness to acknowledge that much of the interest in time, and the birth and death of our 13.7 billion year old universe, relates to our personal fears of death and non-existence. Occasionally, he grudgingly concedes the point: “Our mild anxiety about the precariousness of being… might yield to cosmic terror when we realize that the whole show is a mere ontological soap bubble that could pop into nothingness at any moment, without the slightest warning.” “The life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.”
“…philosophy is a terribly difficult subject, and sorting out the hardest questions in the finite time of a human life is asking a lot.” (Emphasis in the original)
This book’s recommended only for those few selected – if perhaps strange – individuals who felt they didn’t take enough tough philosophy classes in college. And if you want to cover the majority of the same ground – from Einstein to modern physics, time travel and more – and get even deeper into the weeds of existence, existentialism and science – a better choice would be From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time by Sean Carroll (2010). Carroll offers less entertainment value, and fewer side trips than Holt but he delivers more content that actually helps us understand “how we came to exist” and where our existence (our world and our universe) is headed.
From Eternity to Here is well recommended, although it has the feel of a very serious college textbook. The universe itself is a terribly difficult subject, one not for the timid, weak or lazy.
A review copy of Why Does the World Exist? was provided by the publisher. From Eternity to Here was purchased by the reviewer.
Note: Tim Holt was raised as a Catholic. Undoubtedly, some will find that he spends far too much energy on religion in this work, while others will decide that he’s not said enough about God. What cannot be denied is that he gives full space to the arguments (and views) of all of the great modern and ancient existentialist philosophers – a matter that some will find pleasing, and others extremely painful.