Book Review: Jim Holt’s, “Why Does The World Exist?”


Jim Holt’s recent book, Why Does The World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, tackles the question that Martin Heidegger characterized as the greatest in all philosophy and William James called the darkest in all philosophy–why is there something rather than nothing? For many religious believers the obvious answer to this question is god or allah, but this begs the question of how these gods came to be. In response many probe scientific answers, but Holt says that scientific explanations suffer because any physical cause proposed to explain reality is part of reality–hence scientific explanations never show how something came from a true nothing. (The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss rejects this claim in his recent book A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing.) We might also say the universe just is, it exists as a brute fact without a cause, perhaps because it is eternal. But this violates Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason, the idea that there must be a reason for every truth. So what answers are available? To find out Holt visits many of the world’s foremost thinkers for answers.

The first person Holt visits is the physicist Andre Linde who thinks the universe was created in a lab by a physicist hacker. (This suggestion should caution all those who assume the designer of the universe was omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent.) Next he visits the philosopher, atheist, and ardent critic of religion Adolf Grunbaum who thinks the very question is misconceived. The idea that the world needs an explanation assumes that without one nothingness would prevail. But why do only deviations from nothingness need explanations? Why can’t somethingness be the natural state? Grunbaum believes that the idea of nothingness as the natural or simplest state came from the theological doctrine of creation ex nihilo–it is a vestige of early Judeo-Christianity and no longer needed. Furthermore Grunbaum doesn’t believe there is any reason to be astonished or awed by the existence of the world as compared to nothingness. Nothingness wasn’t more likely to be than somethingness. In fact as Grunbaum puts it: “What could possibly be more commonplace empirically than that something or other does exist?” (Holt, 69) He also balks at the suggestion that there is any importance to nothingness being a simpler explanation or a more natural state of affairs–hence there is no need to explain somethingness.

Next up is the Christian apologist Richard Swinburne who argues that the christian god is the simplest and only adequate explanation for the universe. His argument is that the god of traditional theism is infinitely good and concerned about the world unlike other conceptions of gods. (The objections to this line of thinking are self-evident. If they are so good and so concerned, why is there so much evil?) Swinburne argues that evil is necessary for certain goods to be possible, primarily the good of free will. “Now a good parent allows his children to suffer, sometimes for their own good, and sometimes for the good of other children.” (Holt, 102) (You really have to be determined to believe something like this.) Swinburne concludes by arguing that the existence of his invisible god is a brute fact. Still he claims: “As to why god exists, I can’t answer that question…” (Holt, 106) This is the most humble thing he says.

Next comes David Deutsch, a physicist who rejects any foundation for our existence. He doesn’t think we’ll ever discover an ultimate explanation for everything, since if we did we wouldn’t know why that was the true explanation–hence the problem of the ultimate explanation is insoluble. As Deutsch puts it “I do not believe that we are now, or ever shall be, close to understanding everything there is.” (Holt, 129)

The Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has spent much of his life searching for a “theory of everything.” Weinberg believes that a final theory may shed light on why there is anything at all–maybe the laws of nature dictate it–but still we can ask why the laws are that way and not another. He also argues that belief in a god doesn’t help. If you believe god is something very definite–loving, kind, jealous, etc.–then you must answer why your god is that way and not another. And if you don’t mean something definite by god then why use the word at all? Moreover Weinberg doesn’t think we know enough about physics to answer these ultimate questions. In the end he says “we’re faced with a mystery we can’t understand.” (Holt, 155) But he also thinks our search for truth in noble. “The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.” (Holt, 163)

Next Holt visits the physicist and mathematical Platonist Roger Penrose. Penrose posits that there are three worlds: the physical world, the world consisting of consciousness, and the Platonic world of pure forms.  Penrose believes there is a connection between the physical world and our minds, which themselves connect us to the Platonic world via mathematics. “It’s out there, the Platonic world, and we can have access to it. Ultimately, our physical brains are constructed out of material that is itself intimately related to the Platonic world of mathematics.” (Holt, 178) Penrose believes this Platonic world is more real than the physical one and that our world arose from bits of mathematics, although how it did so is a mystery. But Holt doesn’t believe that mathematics gives rise to life or answers the question he has posed; nor does he believe that logic guarantees the existence of the Platonic world or assures us that reality emanates from that world. And no amount of feeling that mathematics has such powers confirms that it does.

But what of Plato’s idea of the Good? Might it have the creative power to give birth to the world? The philosopher John Leslie believes something like this. Leslie claims there is something rather than nothing because it’s better that there is something. He calls his idea axiarchism, “the view that values rule or explain the natural order. Things are as they are because that is the way they ought to be.”1 Goodness or value create the world from among the infinite number of logical possibilities; the world exists because of a need for goodness. But Leslie is not done: “In my grand vision … what the cosmos consists of is an infinite number of infinite minds, each of which knows absolutely everything that is worth knowing.” (Holt, 200) Leslie claims that our physical universe–and all other logically possible universes–results from the contemplation of just one of those minds.

Naturally this raises the question of why, from an infinite number of possible universes, one like ours exists, with its arbitrary amount of goodness and badness. Why would an infinite mind conjure up a universe as imperfect as our own. Leslie replies with an analogy. The Louvre has paintings of various quality not just multiple perfect replicas of the Mona Lisa and this makes the Louvre a more interesting museum. (I don’t think this analogy works, nor does it console us in the face of evil.) But why does goodness give rise to infinite minds in the first place? Why does ought to exist, imply, does exists? Leslie replies: “Goodness is required existence, in a non-trivial sense.” (Holt, 203) The evidence for his view, Leslie claims, is the fact of the existence of the world–an existence which cries out for explanation. Of course this argument is circular–goodness creates the world and the evidence for goodness is the existence of the world. (As for me Leslie’s philosophy too mystical and speculative–the idea that goodness explains the world seems trivial. And Holt appears to agree.)

The last philosopher Holt interviews is Derek Parfit, one of the giants of contemporary philosophy. Parfit starts by considering that reality could have turned out differently–it could be like the reality we live in or it could have been a different reality. There are an infinite number of possibilities. Each of these different possibilities Parfit calls a “local” possibility, and the entire ensemble of these possibilities Parfit calls “cosmic” possibilities.2 The cosmic possibilities range from every conceivable reality existing (the all worlds possibility) to no conceivable reality existing (the null hypothesis). In between there are an infinite number of possibilities such as: only good universes exist, only 58 universes exist, only worlds that obey string theory exist, only bad worlds exist, only red worlds exist, etc. Of all these cosmic possibilities at least one of them must obtain. So the question is, which one and why?

Parfit believes the null hypothesis is the simplest and least puzzling since we don’t have to answer the question of why anything came to be. But the existence of our reality contradicts this hypothesis. This leads Parfit to conclude that the all worlds hypothesis is the least arbitrary since with any other hypothesis one has to ask further questions like: why do only good worlds or bad worlds, or worlds that obey string theory exist? As for our own reality, it may be part of the axiarchic or good worlds, or the string theory worlds, or the bad worlds, or some other world. Parfit concludes that the null hypothesis is the simplest, the all worlds hypothesis the fullest, the axiarchic hypothesis the best and so on. Now Parfit wonders if a cosmic possibility obtains because it has a special feature like fullness or simplicity or goodness. What if that feature chooses reality? If it does Parfit calls it a “selector.”

Now if the cosmic possibility that obtained was the 58 worlds or the all red worlds possibility that would appear arbitrary. But if the cosmic possibility that obtained was the fullest, simplest, or best that would suggest that this was not due to chance.  Rather the cosmic possibility became reality because it had the feature of fullness, goodness, or whatever. So reality had to be one way or another as a matter of logical necessity and the selector just tips the outcome one way or the other. But which selector? With the null selector already dismissed, Parfit now excoriates the idea that goodness is the selector: “We may doubt that our world could be even the least good part of the best possible Universe.” (Holt, 228) Most likely the selector for our reality is this–we are among the possible universes that are governed by laws that are relatively simple.

Of course this raises the question of whether there is some deeper explanation of why there is one selector rather than another. Is there a meta-selector and a meta-meta-selector ad infinitum? Parfit acknowledges that the ultimate selector would have to be a brute fact–to stop the infinite regress–but that this is better than no explanation at all. But Parfit also believes that the simplest explanatory possibility at the meta-level is that there is no selector! This does not mean there would be nothingness–that would be a special outcome best explained by simplicity as the selector. Rather no selector leads to a mediocre universe with nothing special about it–the way things turned out would be random. “Reality is neither a pristine Nothing nor an all-fecund Everything. It’s a cosmic junk shot.” (Holt, 236)

The final person Holt visits is the novelist John Updike. Updike says “I am part of the party that thinks that the existence of the world is a kind of miracle.” (Holt, 248) Updike says that the ultimate questions are beyond us, as the idea of an internal combustion engine is beyond a dog. But he conveys the feeling that it’s not that bad that we don’t know all the answers. Nothing seems to be a big deal for the contented Updike. He ends his conversation with Holt by telling him how out of breath he gets when playing with his grandchildren. The chapter end thus: “A few months later, Updike was diagnosed with lung cancer. Within a year he was dead.” (Holt, 252)

The final chapter tries to unite this philosophical discussion with the fact of our deaths. Holt admits to dread when thinking of death, and he appears to subscribe to what philosophers call the depravationist theory of death–it is bad because it deprives of us some goods. But he admits that other philosophers do not find death troubling, while the Buddhists seem to think of the state of almost nothingness as the best state one. Holt concludes that the endpoint of our life’s journey seems to be … nothingness. He ends his book with a moving account of witnessing his mother’s final hours.

My mother’s breathing was getting shallower. Her eyes remained closed. She still looked peaceful, although every once in a while she made a little gasping noise.

Then, as I was standing directly over her, still holding her hand, my mother’s eyes opened wide, as if in alarm. It was the first time I had seen them that day. She seemed to be looking at me. She opened her mouth. I saw her tongue twitch two or three times. Was she trying to say something? Within a couple of seconds, her breathing stopped.

I leaned down and whispered that I loved her. Then I went into the hall and said to the nurse, “I think she just died.”

… I had just seen the infinitesimal transition from being to nothingness…

I would like to thank Jim Holt for his wonderful book.  As for me I don’t know why there is something rather than nothing or whether the question even makes sense. What I do know is what Socrates taught me long ago–that I know very little. We just don’t seem to be able to penetrate this deep mystery.

1. From the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.
2. Parfit’s exact words, open to interpretation are: “It will help to distinguish two kinds of possibility. Cosmic possibilities cover everything that ever exists, and are the different ways that the whole of reality might be. Only one such possibility can be actual, or the one that obtains. Local possibilities are the different ways that some part of reality, or local world, might be. If some local world exists, that leaves it open whether other worlds exist.” ~ Derek Parfit, “Why Anything? Why This?” London Review of Books, Vol. 20 No. 2 · 22 January 1998, pages 24-27


John G. Messerly, Ph.D taught for many years in both the philosophy and computer science departments at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of futurism and the meaning of life at

5 Responses

  1. Joao says:

    The “Jocaxian Nothingness” answer the question: “Why is There Something Rather Than Nothing?”

    See the answer here:

    Thank You
    Joao Carlos

  2. Roger says:

    Here are my thoughts on the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”.It’s kind of long, so sorry about that. More detail is at:
    (click on 3rd link)

    Thanks for listening!


    A solution to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is proposed that also entails a proposed solution to the question “Why do things exist?”. In brief, I propose that “something” and “nothing” are just two different words, derived from two different ways of thinking, for describing the same underlying thing: what we’ve traditionally, and, as will be shown, incorrectly, thought of as the “absolute lack-of-all” or “non-existence”. I put these phrases in quotes because I try to show by my argument that when we’ve gotten rid of everything that is traditionally thought to exist, the supposed “absolute lack-of-all” or “non-existence” that’s left actually meets the definition proposed here of what it means to exist.

    How can this be? To answer that, I first discuss the question “Why do things exist?” and use the example of a pile of dirt. Why does a pile of dirt exist?. Three choices for places that might give existence to the pile of dirt are the stuff inside the pile (e.g., the molecules of dirt), the surface or edge of the pile which defines what is contained within the pile, and something outside the pile. I argue that it is the surface or edge which gives existence to the pile of dirt. More generally, what I mean by the surface/edge argument is that a thing exists because there is a grouping or relationship that defines what is contained within. This grouping/relationship is equivalent to a surface, edge or boundary defining what is contained within and giving “substance” and existence to the thing as a unit whole that’s a different existent entity than whatever is contained within. Some evidence against the first and third choices and for the second choice include:

    1.) Try to imagine a thing like a pile of dirt existing that does not have an outermost edge or surface. Even if you say I can remove the outer layer of the pile and still visualize the pile, then remove the outermost layer of what’s left, and remove the outermost layer of what’s left after that. Eventually, to avoid an infinite regress and to still have anything exist at all, there must be some smallest, most fundamental existent entity that has an outermost surface and nothing further inside.

    2.) A thing like a pile of dirt is not just a bunch of dirt molecules considered individually. It’s the grouping together of these molecules into a new unit whole called a pile. The pile is a different existent entity than the individual dirt molecules considered on their own, and it is the grouping/relationship/surface defining exactly is contained within that is responsible for the pile being a different existent entity than the dirt molecules considered individually.

    3.) The stuff-inside and stuff-outside arguments both succumb to infinite regress problems. For instance, with the stuff-inside argument, one might ask: what’s inside the molecules of dirt, what’s inside the atoms in the molecule of dirt, what’s inside the protons and electrons in the atoms in the molecule of dirt, etc. At some point, to avoid an infinite regress and to still have anything existing at all, there must be some smallest, most fundamental existent entity that exists that has nothing at all inside. An existent entity with absolutely nothing inside would seem to be just a surface. What else would it be?

    In sum, I propose that a thing exists if there is a grouping or relationship present defining what is contained within. This grouping/relationship is equivalent to a surface, edge or boundary defining what is contained within and giving “substance” and existence to the thing.

    Some examples of existent entities and their groupings defining what is contained within are as follows. First, consider a book. Try to imagine a book that has no surface defining what is contained within. Even if you remove the cover, the collection of pages that’s left still has a surface. How do you even touch or see something without a surface? You can’t because it wouldn’t exist. Second, think about a set of all the positive integers. If it were unknown what numbers were contained in the set, would that set exist? No. Even for the null set, it’s known exactly what is contained within: the lack of all elements. The grouping defining what is contained within is essential for the set to exist. The grouping is shown by the curly braces, or surface/edge, around the elements of the set and is what gives existence to the set.

    I next apply this definition of an existent entity to the question of “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. To start, “absolute nothing”, or “non-existence”, is first defined to mean: no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc.; and no minds to think about this absolute lack-of-all. This absolute lack-of-all itself, and not our mind’s conception of the absolute lack-of-all, is the entirety, or whole amount, of all that is present. It is the entirety, or the all, of what is present (e.g. “absolute nothing”). An entirety/whole amount is a relationship defining what is contained within and is therefore a grouping, an edge, and an existent entity. In other words, because the “absolute lack-of-all” is the entirety of all that is present, it functions as its own grouping/edge, defining what is contained within. It defines itself and is, therefore, the beginning point in the chain of being able to define existent entities in terms of other existent entities. The grouping/edge of the absolute lack-of-all is not some separate thing; it is just the absolute lack-of-all itself because this absolute lack-of-all itself is a grouping or relationship defining what is contained within in that it is the “entirety of all that is present” and “the all”. This reasoning for why the “absolute lack-of-all” is actually an existent entity is the counterpoint to argument 1, above, for why a thing exists. Both come to the same conclusion but from different directions: that there is a most fundamental existent entity that is a surface with “absolutely nothing” inside. What this reasoning means is that 1.) our traditional definition of the “absolute lack-of-all” as the lack of all existent entities is incorrect because even after we’ve gotten rid of all things thought to exist, the “absolute lack-of-all” itself can be seen to be an existent entity if thought of in this different way, 2.) our traditional view of “nothing” as the opposite of “something” is incorrect because “nothing” and “something” are really two words for the same thing, and 3.) “something” or “existence” is necessary, or non-contingent, because even what we’ve traditionally thought of as “nothing” is actually an existent entity, or “something”.

    What is all of this good for? Like all proposed solutions to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, I can never prove the above hypothesis because I can never actually directly see whether the “absolute lack-of-all” is an existent entity, but what I can do is to use the above thinking to develop a model of the universe and eventually make testable predictions. This assertion is based on the thinking that because the hypothesis proposed here is about the most fundamental of existent entities, because the universe exists and seems to be composed of existent entities, and because physics is the study of how the universe works, then the laws of physics and of the universe should be derivable from the properties of the fundamental existent entity proposed here. I refer to this type of thinking as a metaphysics-to-physics approach or philosophical engineering. I believe that using this type of thinking, physicists and philosophers would be able to make faster progress towards a deeper understanding of the universe than by using the more top-down approach they currently use.

  3. Philip says:

    So who or what caused the first cause? And who or what cause that which caused the first cause? And who or what caused that cause that caused the first cause?

  4. David Pearce says:

    Thanks John for a great review of one of my favourite books.

    Information is a key notion in contemporary physics.
    Strictly speaking, information can neither be created or destroyed..
    But what would be the case if reality had zero information?
    Compare the Library of Babel with, say, the Complete Works of Shakespeare. To describe the Complete Works of Shakespeare takes a lot of information; but the Library of Babel has no net information content at at all.
    Then let’s consider the Landscape of M-theory, which embodies all physically possible self-consistent descriptions: the “measure” problem is far more challenging than the so-called measurement problem of pre-Everett quantum mechanics.
    Is the information content of reality any different from the information content of the Library of Babel, i.e. zero?

    As it stands, of course, this is an inadequate explanation of what’s going on. But what intrigues me is whether the logico-physical principle of a zero ontology is the right “explanation space” where the ultimate answer will be found.
    Or are we barking up the wrong tree altogether?

  5. Tim says:

    The philosophy that describes the problem (and proof that God exists) comes from Thomas Aquinas in the 13th or 14th century, basically an inductive argument the “uncaused first cause”. Basically since cause and effect are a natural law of our universe and since everything here has to have been “caused” the universe itself has to have been caused from outside the universe, thus by “god” (or “creator”, call him/her whatever you want).

    There is, however, no evidence of the nature of this being or any proof that God gives a rats ass about us. This is a matter of faith by Christians, Jews, etc.

    The “why” question of course is open to interpretation, and until someone gets to talk to the creator we won’t know (and maybe not even then, he could lie to us…). So anybody’s guess is just as good as anyone else’s.

    My two cents.


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