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book review

Jim HoltHandout

In 1981, during what I'll call an inner excursion, I figured out the riddle of reality. God – if there is a God – is so overwhelmed by the enormousness of his own existence that he creates our weird, wonderful cosmos as a distraction. I've mentioned this hypothesis in a couple of books, but nobody takes it seriously. I'm not sure I do either. But I do take seriously what I like to call The Question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

Jim Holt, a journalist who specializes in science, philosophy and mathematics, is as fascinated by The Question as I am. He dates his obsession back to the early 1970s, when he was a "would-be rebellious high-school student" in rural Virginia. Delving into "impressive-looking tomes" on philosophy in his hometown library, he stumbled on a work by Martin Heidegger that posed what Holt calls "the super-ultimate why question."

The Question has haunted Holt ever since. He has read everything he can find on it, by theologians, philosophers, mathematicians and scientists, from Plato and Spinoza to Gödel and Einstein.

Over the past decade or so, Holt also sought out and spoke to a wide range of living Questioners, and he has distilled his investigations and musings into a marvellous book, Why Does the World Exist?

Holt divides Questioners into optimists, who have faith that The Question will be answered; pessimists, who harbour doubts; and rejectionists, who view The Question as a meaningless pseudo-question. In one especially fun section of Holt's book, he travels to Pittsburgh to confront philosopher Adolf Grunbaum, whom Holt describes as "the Great Rejectionist" and "an octogenarian cross between Danny DeVito and Edward G. Robinson." Grunbaum insists that the existence of the world is "utterly unastonishing," a view that I find, well, utterly astonishing.

Another colourful character is the fecund-minded Russian physicist Andrei Linde, who helped to popularize the notion that our universe is only one of many in a never-ending "multiverse." Only half-kiddingly, Linde confides his suspicion to Holt that a "physicist hacker" in a parallel universe cooked up our cosmos in a laboratory experiment. This hypothesis, Linde suggests, could account for the fact that reality is "far from perfect."

Linde, among others, has also conjectured that space-time could be the inevitable consequence of quantum probability; roll the quantum dice enough times, and sooner or later a whole cosmos will pop out of the void. In a book published earlier this year, physicist Lawrence Krauss declared that this so-called "quantum-fluctuation" hypothesis solves the mystery of existence.

Of course, quantum mechanics cannot serve as a final explanation any more than God can. As Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg points out to Holt, if you attribute existence to the laws of physics, you still must ask, why are the laws this way, rather than some other way? "I think we're permanently doomed to that sense of mystery," Weinberg says glumly.

Holt, who has a knack for treating heavy topics lightly, does not pretend that he or anyone else has definitive answers to The Question.

He is the author of a previous book on the philosophy of jokes, and his default style is clever, comic, ironic.

But he can be poignant, too – for example, when recalling the death of his mother, who succumbed to cancer in a hospice as Holt held her hand. Death, after all, makes our contemplation of non-existence all too personal.

If we can never answer The Question, what's the point of pondering it?

For me and, I suspect, for Holt, the point is to be reminded of just how strange, improbable, even miraculous this world is. Favouring one answer over another – or, rather, claiming that one answer is truer than another, and possibly even absolutely true – strikes me as a category error, akin to arguing that Emily Dickinson is truer than William Blake, or the Bible, for that matter.

Even the most scientific responses to The Question, written in the language of mathematics, should be viewed as artistic creations, works of the imagination, which should be judged according to how deeply they move us.

No doubt in recognition of this truth, Holt sought out the late novelist John Updike, whose riffs on The Question are at least as profound as those of the professional logicians and empiricists Holt interrogates. Maybe, Updike says, God concocted the cosmos out of boredom, to pass the time, "almost like a piece of light verse."

That's not bad, but I still like my own hypothesis better, because it implies that God, if He exists, is just as stumped by The Question as we are.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, N.J. His books, the most recent of which is The End of War , include The End of Science and Rational Mysticism.