Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Jim Holt and 'Why does the world exist?'

Whilst this year's 'publishing sensation' appears to be Fifty Shades of Spunk, those seeking to increase the blood-flow to their brain will derive comparable stimulation from Jim Holt's new book, Why does the world exist: An existential detective story.

This is a truly brilliant book. It's accessible and engaging, but written with a sophisticated understanding of the relevant philosophy, mathematics and physics. Holt visits luminaries such as Adolf Grunbaum. David Deutsch, Steven Weinberg and John Updike, asks all the right questions, and has the confidence and ability to construct his own lines of reasoning.

Amanda Gefter raises a mild criticism in New Scientist that the book "could have benefited from some deeper delving into physics." There might be something in that, but in this respect, Holt's book can be treated as a philosophical counterpart to Michael Heller's 2009 work, Ultimate explanations of the Universe, the first part of which provides a more detailed, if slightly terse account of the various proposals within mathematical physics.

The only criticism I'd make of Holt's book is that the travelogue he tries to weave into his philosophical investigation doesn't really work. Much of this travelogue consists of nothing more than an unimaginative enumeration of European place-names. Consider the following account of Holt's journey from Paris to Oxford as an example of such name-dropping, with my own sound effects added:

"I hauled my bags onto the metro and headed to the Gare du Nord [clang], there to catch the Eurostar train [clang] to London. Arriving at Waterloo station [clang] a few hours later, I caught the tube to Paddington [clang], where I hopped on a local train to Oxford....Next afternoon I left my hotel on the High Street, made my way down Queens Lane, passed under the Bridge of Sighs [clang] and by the Bodleian Library [clang] and Ashmolean Museum [clang]."

Jim is a contributor to The New Yorker, and the New York Times, and lives in Greenwich village, New York. Far too often one feels that this is a book written for educated New Yorkers, and it is never clear why Jim spends so much time musing at the Cafe de Flore in Paris, or the Athenaeum Club on Pall Mall.

Nevertheless, despite this failing, be in no doubt that this is a great book, and for anyone with an interest in philosophy and the philosophy of cosmology, it would be surprising to read a better book this year.

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