A More Beautiful Question

Why Does the World Exist?
An Existential Detective Story
Jim Holt
Liveright, $27.95, 312 pp.

There is every reason in the world why this book should not exist. How can you write a breezy book about such a ponderous question? How can you do philosophy by interviewing philosophers? It seems an impossible task—like getting something from nothing—but author Jim Holt pulls it off with great verve and brio.

The premise of Why Does the World Exist? is as simple as it is maddening. Holt puts Leibniz’s famous question—“Why is there anything at all; why not nothing?”—to a handful of contemporary cosmologists who have been thinking about the origins of the universe. With the unabashed enthusiasm of a kid on a treasure hunt, the author trots back and forth across oceans and continents interviewing scientists and philosophers. He also interrogates some of the great texts of philosophy, though that’s not nearly as much fun for the reader as the author’s accounts of buttonholing Oxford dons and astrophysicists. Holt’s unusual method works because his longtime interest in science and philosophy—subjects he’s written about for the New York Times and the New Yorker—makes him a particularly articulate explainer. His intellectual modesty and generosity of spirit, his eye for telling details, and his self-deprecating sense of humor make this highly theoretical book also an engaging one.

Holt’s interviews are the source of much of the book’s humor. When the author meets...

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About the Author

Francis Kane is professor emeritus at Salisbury University and co-director of its Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement. He is the author of Neither Beasts nor Gods (Southern Methodist University Press).