By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Jim Holt
Narrated by: Steven Menasche
With a smile and a pair of tennis shoes, Jim Holt tries to sell the idea that there is an answer to the question, “Why Does the World Exist?” Like Willy Loman, in “Death of a Salesman”, Holt has a gift for gab but neither he nor anyone else is able to close the sale.
It is certainly not that Holt is not a good salesman but he tries to sell a thing impossible to define. No known person has enough theoretical or experimental proof to convince one there is an answer to “Why Does the World Exist?” All that remains is faith, either in science, religion, or philosophy. Holt’s “…Existential Detective Story” is a terrific synthesis of physics, religion, and philosophy but the mystery remains, “Why Does the World Exist?”
From New York, to London, to Paris, Holt interviews some of the most renowned scientists, writers, and philosophers in the world. He is in search of an answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing in the universe. To argue there was a big bang that created the universe only begs the question; i.e. it is not an answer but a theory on the creation of something from nothing. The closest one conceives of the idea of creating something from nothing is an explanation given by numbers. Beginning with zero as nothing, one can have a negative “1” and a positive “1”, but combined they make a sum. That sum of positive “1” and negative “1” is zero, a something out of nothing.
That is a nice intellectual explanation of how nothing is something but it does not warm one’s heart or make one feel they understand why the world exists. In “Why Does the World Exist” Holt impressively manages to interview a series of people who have different answers to the question. Ed Tryon is an American scientist who says “the universe is simply one of those things that happens from time to time.” Holt explains, Tryon is saying that big bangs are natural cosmic events that happen in the infinity of time and space, so get over it.
John Leslie, a Canadian philosopher believes there is a Creator and that “goodness” is at the heart of the world’s creation. Holt asks how Leslie can believe that when there is so much grief and despair in the world. Leslie explains goodness is a process; i.e. it created the world and steadily improves the world as it evolves.
David Deutsch, a British physicist, suggests an answer will not be found because it depends on an understanding of consciousness; i.e. how the mind works. Deutsch believes without understanding how consciousness works, there is no chance of stepping outside of oneself to search for an answer to why the world exists. Holt suggests the idea of understanding how a mind works is a conclusion that includes itself, a circular deception. Deutsch seems to agree by suggesting artificial intelligence is a pipe dream because it is unlikely consciousness will ever be objectively understood. Deutsch is also a proponent of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics; i.e. the idea that there may be an infinite number of parallel worlds because the wave function discovered in quantum mechanics does not collapse but simply appears in a different world. Another idea that suggests something can seem to appear out of nothing.
Like Don Quixote, Holt puts a pan back on his head, grabs his lance, swings his leg over Rocinante, and tilts at Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” to answer the question of why the world exists. It is simply a matter of what you think. Of course, Holt does not believe this is an answer either. He is a very smart guy, a good writer, and an insightful philosopher; i.e. an interesting journey, but no destination.