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RS86 - Live From NECSS With Jim Holt On Why Does the World Exist?

Release date: May 5, 2013

NECSS 2013

Why does the universe exist? And is that even a sensical question to ask? Philosopher Jim Holt has written extensively for publications such as the New Yorker, the New York Times and Harper's, and most recently embarked on this "existential detective story" in his new book, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story Jim discusses his book with Massimo and Julia in this live episode of Rationally Speaking, taped at the 2013 Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism in New York City.

Reader Comments (17)

Excellent discussion! I used to argue with followers of the new age pseudo-philosopher Ken Wilber about the "How does something come from nothing?" question, which Wilber uses to support the idea that the ultimate nature of reality is "spiritual" and that consciousness "goes all the way down" and that a mysterious force he calls "Eros" drives evolution. There may be no chance that any of them will listen to anything on a site called Rationally Speaking but they could learn something from this podcast. It's great how so many different ways of thinking about this question were touched on in this podcast. Good reference to the NYT book review of Lawrence Krauss's A Universe From Nothing as well as to the interview of Woody Allen by a Jesuit, which I assume is "Woody's World: Beyond Sex and Death" by Marc Gervais in Compass: A Jesuit Journal, Vol. 15, No. 1 (which seems to only be available online to those who, unlike me, subscribe to Questia, but maybe I'll find it in a university library).

Thanks to Jim Holt, Julia, Massimo and Benny!

May 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEurydice

The comments about modern physics are way off base. The standard model is not ugly. It does not have 60+ particles unless you do some silly over-counting. Quantum mechanics makes perfect sense and is well-understood, even if it contrary to your prejudices.

May 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

The only perfectly satisfying equation that explains everything is the equation itself. =

May 8, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMJA

oy, what was the name of the conference,colloquia on naturalism that Massimo referenced on this podcast?

May 9, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterShane

I think it is stupid (pardon my language, but that's what I think) to say that "observation" in QM means viewing by a human being. My understanding is that "observation" in QM means interaction of the particle with another particle. To assert that there must be a human being (or other "conscious being") for "observation" to take place is the height of egotism, comparable to the assertion by some religions that the world was created for humans. What collapses the wave function is not that a human sees a thing, but that a particle has an interaction, thereby settling the state of the particle.

May 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

Regarding the remark that Massimo made about how simple or complex is the God hypothesis, Dawkins actually explains that it is complex because the universe is very complex. Invoking a God to explain everything means that he must be more complex that what he supposedly created.

May 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGil

If the Universe is everything that is
And God is just another name for is
Then what is more simple than is?
= is

May 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMJA

More guest. Less Massimo. I enjoy reading M's ideas in his blog; want to hear more about guest's ideas here.

Julie's question around 41:00 was good example of how to set conversation back on track.

June 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteranon

I haven't listened to the podcast yet. Reading the book and chuckling a lot. Swearing a bit as well. For example, page 116.

' say it it possible that God exists is to say that in some possible world there is a God.'

(Interesting syntax 'a God'. Surely only God can be maximally great, a God is contingent?).

Anyway, the syntax isn't my point, the logical fallacy is. To say that it is possible that God exists says only that in some possible world there is some possible God. The modal bridge to existence is down.

July 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHugh

Here's another one.

Page 132 (I'm a slow reader) says "Although there is a world, there might not have been".

Really? Says who? Now that there is a world (at least I think there is, but I can't be sure until someone else posts), how could there not be. And what would it be like if there wasn't? Would it have any relevance at all to anything if, as is a necessary logical condition, there was nobody there to know there was no world? (Just think metaphorically of all those trees falling silently in earless forests).

Here's another thought. My formal logic is a bit rusty, but if I remember correctly there is a formula such that x implies everything but not x. So anything is possible, except something which is contradictory to a fact. Now, we know the world exists, don't we? And in support of x implies everything except not x we know from quantum physics that anything that is possible must actually be the case in some part of the multiverse. (I don't know the science for this, but my wife who teaches physics has told me so, therefore i believe it to be true).

But if the world x exists, not x is contradictory and therefore logically impossible. Because there is a world, it is impossible that there could not have been.

I like this game.

August 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHugh

Still just me. But page 199 has really annoyed me. John Leslie is credited with "Suppose you had an empty universe - nothing at all." How can something like an empty universe be nothing at all?

Going back for enlightenment. I may be some time.

August 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHugh

Why does the world exist?
Personally I'm still trying to understand why logic exists.

August 8, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter'Mash


Impossible. How can you wonder how logic exists? It may not, but what would you use to ask the question? Non logic? How would that work?

Anyway, just I've just read this, around page 225.

"There are two broad questions we can ask about the world: why is it and how is it."

What about, What is it? You cannot ask never mind answer the other two until you've answered that one. And I don't know the answer to that one. Help. Mash? Anyone?

August 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHugh


I once had a conversation with someone who held that a multi-verse/all possible universes could exist. It was one of those conversations where logic seems to vanish in effort to maintain the balance of "all possibilities", and such descriptions as "right now in another universe you and I could be having this very conversation but a panda bear could walk into the room and sit on my lap..."

I agreed that this could very well occur, but I did pose this question that if all possibilities of universes could exist, could a universe/possibility exist that no multi-verse existed, or ever existed? He said agreed there could.

I frowned and admitted that my brain unfortunately could not both hold that within the realm of all possibilities, that the possibility that not all-possibilities could simultaneously exist with all possibilities.

Which of course goes right back to the easiest point to understand... that because there is something, something first had to exist. If there was nothing, there would be nothing now. I see no reason that anyone has a problem with this, the problem is the definition and nature of the "something" that was before.

Not quite sure science will ever like to define the universe as being self-existent, non-created, eternal; nor would I either.

August 19, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter'Mash

God is a philosophical explanation for the creation of everything, maybe even an implied reason of being.
Religion is a twisted invention of man, used to control as many people as possible.

I think the universe is infinite in all dimensions. It does not explain where matter/energy came from.

This question has pushed humanity forward hundreds of thousands of years, even if the road was bumpy, the question of why is brilliant. However I think other questions are more important. How do we live longer? What is required for us to reach faster than light speeds and potentially unlimited resources? When will we design a better way to get along?

August 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterReverseSimplicity
Wonderful discussion. Instead of "WHY the world exists," this episode mostly explores HOW the world could exist. Perhaps the universe exists so that we can explore it. Maybe someone created our existence as a sort of ultra complex puzzle for us to solve.
January 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
This question of why are we here: appeared in the Babylonian Talmud at least 2000 years ago.The question was raised
in a debate between Hillel and Shamai and the answer was: "To do it again" .

A similar question was asked by Richard Feynman of his father when he was a kid and was in a forest: " Why do we have all
these plants and creature" His father gave him the same answer given above.
April 25, 2019 | Unregistered Commentergabi wiesen

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