“Why Does the World Exist?” with Jim Holt

Note: this interview was broadcast on the WGBH public radio affiliate WCAI, on the Cape and Islands!

Jim Holt (photo: Michael Todd)
Jim Holt (photo: Michael Todd)

In this ThoughtCast interview, science writer Jim Holt takes us on a jaunty tour of being and nothingness, existence and emptiness, quantum tunneling and the uncertainty principle. The author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, Holt lends his wit to a dissection of the puzzle of existence, which happens to be the topic of his just-published book Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story!  A frequent contributor to The New York Times and other publications, Holt approaches his subject with a personal, philosophical and scientific point of view. But does he solve the puzzle?… You tell me!

Click here to listen (28 minutes.)

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24 Responses to “Why Does the World Exist?” with Jim Holt

  1. Benson Bear July 26, 2009 at 8:41 am #

    Good interview. Strange Holt didn’t mention the essay Parfit wrote on “the puzzle of reality” which is right on point. Also, Nagel’s discussion of his thought “I am Thomas Nagel”, fits very well with Holt’s discussion of how his own existence startles him. No mention of Nagel at all until the very end, but I wasn’t surprised to hear he’s one of Holt’s favorites.

    Now, you are in NYC? Why don’t you try to get Nagel, from NYU, for a Thoughtcast. Or Parfit? (Parfit is also at NYU for a few weeks a year).

  2. Matthew Smith July 27, 2009 at 10:28 pm #

    Good catch, Benson. We’re not based in NYC, but both Nagel and Parfit are good suggestions, and we do sometimes make trips. Any other recommendations of people who deal with this sticky puzzle gracefully? Does anyone get it dead wrong?

  3. William April 17, 2010 at 1:18 am #

    This is very timely for me. About a year ago, I began to wonder why existence exists (again). Arrived at no satisfying conclusion(s).

    Thanks for the post Jenny.

  4. Jenny April 18, 2010 at 1:12 am #

    Is this William or Stanley or both??

  5. Howard Jones June 30, 2010 at 8:18 pm #

    If nothing complements something then existence is its companion, hence a “universe” of existence.

  6. Kris July 16, 2010 at 8:45 am #

    What if the answer lies outside of the intellectual structures we employ to frame it? Holt mentions existence and consciousness – might the two not be dependent in some way upon each other?

  7. Albert July 31, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    The question, Why is there something rather than nothing? is puzzling. But there is a more puzzling question: Why is there something that must not be?–the question of evil.

  8. Mike July 15, 2011 at 5:35 pm #

    True nothingness cannot become something. Existence exists, and what doesn’t exist… Just doesn’t! Heisenberg applies to what appears to be inherently random behavior of fundamental particles, but the behavior of one particle is a relationship with the rest of the universe ( and vice versa). As Holt stated, how would the rules apply outside of the universe? The need to explain Existence with Creation is very human, but since what doesnt exist can’t exist, one concludes Existence has always existed in some shape or form. Not very satisfying, I know…

  9. Estanisla August 7, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

    I think Jim Holt is a genius. I saw him on Charlie Rose and I watched the segment twice. The only thing that didn’t sit well with me about his interview was that he only interviewed English speakers with the exception of some French guy. I wish he would have gone somewhere outside America to find answers. Like India for instance, which is full of brilliant physicists.I still am in love with the fact that he was brave enough to question existence.

  10. bo gallagh August 13, 2012 at 7:18 am #

    Jenny…. Thoughtcast is so awesome! Loved your bio as I’m a devoted NPR fan. You’re like a digital Charlie Rose…. I’m jealous! I think Charle Rose has found a new guest host? ??!!! How ’bout interviewing Columbia U. area singer and activist Suzanne Vega?

  11. Gordon September 2, 2012 at 7:37 pm #

    “Nothing is nothing!” I dog-eared page 143. But thought then; everything must be something. We do love to complicate, it is like some cosmic curse. Perhaps it’s just the insidious and continuing increase of entropy resulting in what we perceive as time that infects us with a lack of implementing Ockham Razor in our strivings (wasn’t it Einstein who mentioned that it was odd we can comprehend the incomprehensible and that any answer would be both simple and beautiful?). We do not like time (nor do we like unfairness or imperfection—that is, we are twisted inside by unfairness and our difficulty striving for perfection). There is a problem with these words: nothing, something, everything, and anything; and the answer is too simple: it’s the word “thing”. If E=MC^2 then M= E/C^2. Mass (all material) is equal to nothing other than energy/light speed ^2 . Two entities that are not things when ‘cranked’ together become something—that which we all too lackadaisically call solid (the material world). Material seems to like frozen energy, caught by the exchange rate of light speed, squared. If one questions wiki: “How much space is in an atom?” the typical return is about 99.99% empty space. But it’s not empty it is full of ‘stuff’ which is not a thing (how is it that the electron and protons know where to go…by order of the strong and weak forces? Where does this info come from?); and the only conclusion to that is abstracts quantities and/or values. What are those? Forces, relationships, mathematics, and information. If we are to understand the ‘physical’ it will not be from a position of the physical nor can any physical analogy satisfy explaining was is abstract. Scientists say that light is a wave and so waves ‘interfere’ and so then by information describe our physical world to us—and we suck right into the trap. Information only comes from intelligence. No one touches anything, it’s just the valance electron (negatively charged) bending/deflecting the other (touched item) valance electron and thereby registering an electrical signal to our brains (‘poof’ a thing has arrived). Ever try to force together the north poles of two magnets? Feel the ‘resistance’? See the space in between them—they are not touching! That is what happens when we ‘touch’ a ‘thing’ but it’s at near the Plank limit…! For all intents and purposes we are spirits (for lack of a better name) residing within electo-chemical bio-mechanical earthsuit. C.S. Lewis made a comment (in part): “If there exists within me a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy then I was most likely made for (or from) another world.” This is not our home, we are but travelers in a foreign land where time stresses us (with its limitations) and desires of perfection and fairness are not here, but home. We are in a most interesting and yet strange place and with a brain way too big for us to be just Darwinistic creatures—we have four land-rovers on the moon, seek abstract knowledge at the atomic level, enjoy music, jokes, art, poetry and other abstracts (such as infinity) all of which have little to do with an Darwinian survival value traits. If you were just a meat robot you would not be reading this…but because you are; you are therefore a conscious observer, and moral agent, a sentient timeless being who values abstracts more than material…to include love (the deepest relationship valued). Now what are you going to do?

  12. giselle dominguez September 2, 2012 at 10:08 pm #

    Being extremely glad I discovered thoughtcast, and Jenny, I would like to share a comment. Jim Holt was fascinating on Charlie Rose. His mind seems used to deal with complexity. Hence, I respectfully recommend he review a new book “Heterostasis: The Wisdom of the Nonverbal Mind” newly published by Amazon.com; keyword heterostasis. The author has a website: “nonverbalmind.com” and it has a Review by Dr. Jim Walker which seems to be a synoptic review of a “magnum opus..” of novel “insights into philosophy, biology, and psychology…” It would be extemely interesting to see how the Jim-Holt-mind would process such book. Awaiting a reply and the results of such a two minds alchemy.

  13. KHALID MASOOD September 16, 2012 at 12:56 am #

    UNIVERSE LOST
    We Are Aliens!

    Creator/Author: Khalid Masood

    Merging space and time to-gether into space-time was a good idea. And merging space-time into time is my dangerous idea! Space and time, space-time, and now time, is my brief history of time in one sentence. Time is the eternal fabric of the universe, parallel universes, multiverse, hell, and the Heaven. There is a raging debate going on about whether the fourth dimension is time, or whether it is a 4th spatial dimension. The unification of time and space as a four-dimensional continuum (spacetime) and the concept of a fourth spatial dimension (four-dimensional space) make no sense. Spatial dimensions are no more. Particles and forces of nature are time dimensions. All dimensions are time dimensions. Fluctuating extreme levels of time are dimensions of time, and behave like particles and forces, and are the basic building blocks of every manufactured quantity. Matter changes the geometry of space-time itself is not true. Time changes the geometry of everything. Geometry exists in its own time dimensions. God invented time the Holy Grail of Nature.Time exists and is fundamental, independent, and the only real entity of the universe. The universe, life, and everything is spam, not real, and secondary form of time. Time is infinity and the only singularity and has no beginning and no end. Big bang is not the event-of the origin of the universe. The very essence of matter is its fundamental entanglement with the ultimate non-matter fluctuating extreme levels of time. Everything ultimately is boxes of time dimensions. The fundamentals of inheritance (Genetics) is in time dimensions structure of DNA, and RNA. DNA and RNA are mere boxes of time dimensions. There is no such things as, space, motion, particles, forces, and “everything”. All are time dimensions, positions just relative-referred quantities occupied by “time”. What exactly defines “Time?”. Time can exist on it’s own.

    Time is not a manufactured quantity. More accurately, time is not manufactured, and is not a quantity. Every quantity is manufactured except time. Length, mass or force, and motion are forms of time. All motion is time. Any change in position of an object is due to the extreme level fluctuations of time. Newton’s laws of motion, his study of light, and his theory of universal gravitation needs an improved model of time physics.

    After Newtonian mechanics and mechanics of particles, I have a bold proposal for mechanics of time, a new discipline of physics as a branch of TIME COSMOLOGY. Instead of particles, ultimate fluctuating extreme levels of time is the eternal fabric of the universe, life, nothing, everything, and all the things in between. God does not play a particles game with the universe. The particles with speeds approaching the speed of light, or a particle speed greater than the speed of light in empty space is wrong idea. There is no any independent speed of light and no empty space exists. Only time move and time field exists. Every pattern in nature-be it a so-called sub-atomic particle or a human instinct-is linked by a continually evolving organizing, commanding, master primary force”time field” or”t field”. Fluctuating extreme levels of time behave like motion in shape of particles and photons. It’s the speed of time. Time travel in the form of light at its own speed. The speed of time vary with the evolution of the universe. The universe’s expansion is not accelerating, and there is no such thing as dark energy and dark matter. It’s time which is accelerating carrying the universe. The time is never dead, disappears, or slowing down. It’s not time, it’s matter which is disappearing from the universe.

    Our universe, parallel universes, and Multiverse exists in infinity of time dimensions. Multiverse should be named Multitimeverse. In parallel universes, and multiverse, parallel lives and multilife exists. Time dimensions is the limit, which differentiate our universe, and bio-life from parallel universe, parallel lives, and multiverse, multilife. Our BioLife, parallel lives, and multilife is all extraterrestrial life (aliens) to each other. Sorry! scientifically, we are entirely aliens. Mankind may not be a superior intelligence. We are not the main points of Darwin’s theory of Evolution by natural selection. Natural selection is a product of purely time. We are all creatures of time.

    Khalid Masood

  14. Harry Currie January 3, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    Jim Holt, the philosopher/author of the book “Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story” (2012, Liveright), ponders “whether the universe, like life, is anything more than a short interlude between two vast nothings.” Regarding life, the answer is most probably a resounding “yes,” but, undoubtedly, this concept is something the vast number of people in the world would reject out of blind fear.
    The human race has an illusion that there must be more than this brief earthly existence, and there’s a good reason why they are so deluded. For thousands of years religions and other belief systems have dwelt on the fallacy that there had to be gods and spirits that controlled everything, as well as places that exist beyond this earth where all humans would go in some ethereal form when terrestrial life ends – an extension of who we were in our Earth life. This instilled comfort in our ancestors, and the religious leaders perpetuated these beliefs through the centuries, for it gave them importance, power, wealth – just look at how many are still at it today.
    All of this, of course, was because our ancestors needed answers about things they couldn’t understand, like “why does the sun come up?” and “what causes thunder and lightning?” Since there was no science for logical answers in the ancient days, those in control – and those who wanted to acquire control – made up fictitious explanations, for neither did they know anything about how things worked. Then they frightened the peasants when they adopted the myth of hell, which assured them firm control – and they’re still in control today.
    Another major conundrum which has plagued mankind through the millennia is “why are we here?” The real answer to that, and the most simple, is found in the old bit of doggerel: “We’re here because we’re here.” And that’s all there is to it. It matters not whether you believe in creation or evolution – we’re only here because we’re here. Our so-called higher purpose is to look after Planet Earth and all living creatures, but the human race hasn’t matured to that level, and it probably never will.
    Philosophers and scientists have searched, theorized and postulated since humans acquired conscious thought about the great mysteries of life and existence, but except for figuring out some of the mechanics of the creation of universes and all they contain, they can’t find out what set all this in motion and why, and they never will. And perhaps nothing did set it in motion – conceivably it’s just always been that way, with no beginning and no ending, just a continuous cycle – again, we’ll never know. But to answer Jim Holt’s contemplation that the universe could come from nothing, be something, then nothing, doesn’t make sense either in science or logic.
    With the most powerful telescopes ever invented we can only see some 46 or 47 billion light years away, and that’s not even to the end of our own universe. It would take at least 4000 years in a spaceship to get that far, but we don’t have the technology to do it anyway, and it’s doubtful that there would be anything there to answer a single one of the great questions.
    The new James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in 2018, and which will operate from an orbit a million miles from Earth, will put us in touch with the first galaxies that formed in the early universe and other fascinating connections, but it won’t tell us anything about “why” or “what’s behind it all.” The nearest estimate is that the universe is approximately 150 billion light years in diameter – though that is not known for certain – and expanding rapidly every day. Warp drive and “Beam me up, Scotty” will remain in Star Trek, unfortunately.
    Albert Einstein proved that mass and energy are exchangeable – establishing the law of mass-energy equivalence as expressed in his famous formula E=mc². We don’t know what’s beyond our universe. Perhaps there are billions of other universes, or it could be just a continuation of the universe we’re a part of, but a name that has been coined for everything out and beyond is “omniverse.” A simple statement based on Einstein’s law, then: everything that exists in this omniverse is energy, but in various forms – gases, liquids and solids, both inert and living. If there is any doubt about solids being energy, think about uranium, a metallic chemical element, and what happens when you split an atom of uranium. The energy released is catastrophic.
    A Black Hole is a region of space where the gravity is so powerful that nothing can escape it, not even light. Black Holes form when stars collapse at the end of their life cycle, sucking everything in that was connected to that solar system and even beyond. Though I haven’t seen it stated, it’s quite possible that everything pulled into the Black Hole is converted back to pure energy. But a Black Hole may have only a certain capacity, so conceivably, when it reaches maximum capacity but material keeps being sucked in, like an overblown balloon there is a massive explosion – a Big Bang – and the whole evolutionary cycle begins anew.
    Let’s face it – a few billion years from now our sun will run out of fuel and begin to die, and that will spell the end of our solar system and Earth. But in about one billion years the temperature on Earth will be too hot for life to continue.
    However, at the rate which humans are destroying our planet – more than a third of the natural world has been destroyed by humans in the last 30 years – by 2050 the overpopulation and overconsumption will be more than the planet can sustain. Scientists and environmentalists are predicting that seas will become emptied of fish, while forests – which absorb carbon dioxide emissions – will be completely destroyed, and freshwater supplies will become scarce and polluted.
    Unfortunately, far too many of the over 7 billion humans in the world are some combination of obtuse, greedy, ignorant, illiterate, stupid or misled, so the chances of major change are slim to none. When the disasters become apparent over the next 40 years or so, it will undoubtedly be too late to reverse them. It’s debateable that human life can exist at the present rate of destruction and consumption for more than 100 to 200 years, with a rapid deterioration of the standard of living over that period. There’s also a chance that humanity will have destroyed itself long before then, because the ignorant and the illiterate are still mesmerized by those early made-up fairy tales, the leaders are still rigidly advocating them, all for the same old reasons, and humans keep killing each other, again, all for the same old reasons.
    That, of course, brings up the final great question: “is there some kind of creator?” If there is, you just have to look at our turbulent history and the mess the present world is in, and you would have to conclude that such a creator – whether a he, she, it or computer – doesn’t care a whit about what we do to ourselves or the planet, with wars, daily killings, disease, starvation, degradation rampant. If that’s benevolence I’d hate to see malevolence. Best bet – no creator, it’s all part of a cycle.
    But don’t think you’re going to some Heaven, Jannat or Valhalla, because, as Einstein proved, we are just energy along with everything else that exists. When we die we simply become part of the energy of the cosmos, and the human entity we enjoyed being for our short period on Earth will be no more. We are who we are only because of memory, and memory is an electro-chemical fusion of brain cells – a physical process – so when the body dies the memory dies, and “we” no longer exist. We live on only in the thoughts of those we leave behind. As the song says, “That’s Life!”, and this life is all there is for who we are on Earth, whether we like it or

  15. Lawrence Chase January 25, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    People that are interested in this subject might like to read Howard K. Bloom’s works such as the The Global Brain; The God Problem; The Lucifer Principle. Bloom approaches this topic from an unconventional angle.

  16. Arthur Hoyle January 28, 2013 at 3:02 pm #

    The question of the origins of the universe and of life itself is a mystery that must and will remain a mystery if man is to preserve his sense of the sacred. The mystery is contained and expressed in the paradox that Being contains non-Being, as life contains death. It is fruitless to search for a first cause. One gets hopelessly lost in a logical maze, as Holt’s book amply demonstrates. The mystery can only be grasped and understood intuitively.

  17. Chester Elders March 13, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

    I’ve just finished reading Jim Holt’s book, Why Does The World Exist? I like his personal solution to the titular question. His schema of explanatory “meta-selectors” as being either “simplicity” or “fullness” is profound. The explanation for a world randomly “selected” would indeed be mediocre: infinitely equidistant from all values and their opposites.

    Some of Holt’s “logic” though, as expressed throughout the book is suspect. For example: on page 49 he critiques a “proof” by Bede Rundle for why there’s something, rather than nothing. Rundle argues that “[i]f there were nothing, then it would be a fact that there was nothing. So at least one thing would exist after all: that fact!”. Holt calls this a “truly terrible argument”. While it’s true that a single thing cannot exist (there’d be nothing from which the thing could be distinguished from as “not-existing”), that’s not a “deal breaker” for Rundle. The fact of “nothingness” wouldn’t be archived within nothingness; it’d necessarily be archived in an existing world. And, that’s why it’s not a “terrible argument”: the “fact-of-nothingness” posits existence as a place to be archived.

    But, on the whole this book is spot-on target with its acute perceptions of the existential problem of why anything exists. The personal anecdotes about the death of Holt’s dog and his mother adds a pathos which enriches the narrative. Holt is extremely fair with those whom he interviews, even though he finds them each “wanting”. I recommend Why Does The World Exist to anyone whose ever wondered about his own navel.

  18. Peter Bafitis March 28, 2013 at 10:51 am #

    Impressive…and VERY thought provoking…many of the God/religion versus science “false” controversies
    I have been contemplating for some time but not been able to articulate as well as Jim has

  19. Michael Tupek May 3, 2013 at 1:36 pm #

    I respond for those who find the atheistic conclusions provided here as intolerably empty, as indeed they are. Although I did not read Jim Holt’s book, I knew from the very last paragraph, and from the interview here, that he has no meaningful knowledge about the question discussed, and that his book should be flicked away just like the cigarette mentioned in the last line of his book. Just the facts that he is ever retreating to the haven of humor and basks in the pleasure of mere intellectual pursuit without achieving conclusive truth tells me he is no solid guide for life.
    Instead, I invite those few people who might be interested to read my book, “Torah of Sin and Grace,” which, though addressing a specific subject, is universally relevant, providing a noble and consistent explanation of existence and its challenges. It also explains why people like Jim Holt consciously prefer an atheistic approach to the investigation.

  20. Antonio A. Colella May 14, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Dear Mr. Holt,
    The article “Why Does the World Exist” in the NY Times book review (August 2, 2012) was excellent. My theory is our universe was created by the collapse of a super supermassive quark star (matter) to a super supermassive black hole (energy) in our precursor universe. As my Precursor Universe Justification chart shows the prevalent theory of cosmology “The Ultimate Free Lunch” should be replaced by “An Integrated Theory of Everything” because my theory satisfies three laws of physics (Conservation of Energy/Mass, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics) whereas “The Ultimate Free Lunch Theory” satisfies only the third law. These are described in my 60 minute video “An Integrated Theory of Everything Video Presentation (You Tube)” available at:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CD-QoLeVbSY
    This is the long sought solution to the Theory of Everything and your frank comments are welcomed.
    Since my book, “Master Big Bangs through Black Holes in Four Hours: An Integrated Theory of Everything Introduction” describes everything in our universe as a child of the super force or mother particle, God exists and is everything in our universe. See
    http://www.amazon.com/Master-Bangs-through-Black-Holes/dp/147931093X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1362948895&sr=1-1&keywords=master+big+bangs+through+black+holes#_
    Sincerely,
    Antonio A. Colella

  21. Randy East May 28, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    I guess I’m in the minority here, but I found this discussion to be quite unenlightening. Talking about something, quoting various writers and intellectuals who’ve written about the topic, is not the same as actually making progress toward an answer. Or even framing the question in a meaningful way. Sure, it’s fun to BS about a topic like this (beer is helpful) and to sound intellectual in doing so, but in the end it’s just more chasing after the wind.

  22. Daniel Duinea June 30, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

    Everything in the universe seems to spin, from electrons to planets and galaxies. Except us, we experience things as still. But when we look closer we see that time is actually something that we seem to move through. What if time is friction between something and space. Imagine that someone is holding you face down in water in a boat at 100 mph.It would be bad. But space is not water. Well space is something we know that and we also know that if we move through something we get some effects and because space is a special something we get some special effects like time for example going one way. Well space is hitting something that is STILL. Maybe this is what that fat bastard talked about. What do you think – am i on to something?

  23. Maureen July 1, 2013 at 10:54 am #

    After reading his book “Why Does the World Exist” and listening to this interview, I can’t help wondering how Mr. Holt would interpret all he has discovered and thought if viewed through thorough knowledge of the Mormon theology I was raised with (and continue–after 66 years–to embrace and actively practice). As I progressed through the wide range of philosophical and scientific opinions that attempted to explain Jim’s thesis question, I felt this Christian (restored) theology explains and enlarges as well as comfortingly settles the innate human disquiet the question itself creates. “Love” is the force that necessitated the creation of the “world” which exists because of the eternal nature of intelligence(s) and our need to progress and experience. (I use quotes around the words I would otherwise italicize if this format permitted.) Needless to say, it would require another book to explain this conclusion, and I leave that to greater minds and anyone’s deeper investigation into those already written. Be forewarned, it will take a lot more/longer than 28 minutes.

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