Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Book Review: Why Does the World Exist?

Spoiler alert: Why Does the World Exist? doesn't really answer its title question. Rather, the point is the journey, as you might expect from an author with a philosophy background interviewing various intellectuals and putting it together at a "magazine" level of detail. Most of the arguments I had heard before, but Holt allows the physicists and philosophers to use their own words and engages them like a student in one of their classes would. He also lets you know what he thinks about their arguments and why he finds many of them unsatisfying. I learned two things about myself from this book: 1.) My own impression that the anthropic principle is pretty powerful is indeed backed up by a large number of the intellectuals in this book, in their own ways. Although I don't think Holt is hard enough on the multiverse claims. 2.) I naturally resonated with the only two intellectuals with a theistic leaning: Richard Swinburne and John Updike. Probably confirmation bias, which shows why this is such a hard topic to explore semi-objectively, but I appreciated their inclusion in this book, and would have liked to have a few more chapters from those like them. There's a couple of simplistic swipes at theology but not too many.

I really do think theism is dismissed too readily by the modern mind because we assume that personality must be complex. The idea that a universe came from a personality rather than a mechanism is the key dividing line for me. I just don't have a problem with that. I think the irreducible part of the universe is more about personality than mechanism, and lo and behold, the theists make sense to me.  Holt is clearly on the other side of this. Is it that I tend toward stoicism and Holt toward epicureanism?

This book succeeds not because it is completely balanced, but because it is unbalanced, from Holt's point of view and with his questions and his life driving him on. The interplay of life and work is what makes this book succinct. It's not really a detective story, but it's more of a memoir at heart. That makes it work.

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