Has philosophy ever answered a question

The question of all questions

Working hypothesis: Let's imagine Jim Holt as a man who does nothing better than to deal with the big, the really big questions in life. The time: nothing but illusion, "a damned mystery". The universe: "a terrible mess, incredibly bumblingly cobbled together". Death: the great nothing. The American philosopher has the talent to make complex connections amazingly comprehensible, like his New York Times bestseller "Is there all or nothing?" shows in the most beautiful way. An intellectual delight and great reading pleasure - and not just because of the “three to ten punch lines per page” (Hannes Stein, Die Welt).

Tour d'Horizon on the mystery of existence

It is the question of all questions. It was formulated with great clarity for the first time three hundred years ago by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: "Why is there anything at all and rather nothing?" According to Martin Amis, we are “at least five Einsteins away from answering them”. So very, very far. The greater the joy of measuring the worlds of explanation and interpretation between philosophy, mathematics and religion with a high-speed thinker like Jim Holt. Here a proof of God unhinged with the left, there a casual anecdote that one could ponder for hours ...


When Jim Holt was still a “milk-beard and would-be rebel” at a high school in rural Virginia at the beginning of the 1970s, fascinated by existentialism, one day he was standing in the college library in front of two books with intimidatingly powerful titles: Jean-Paul Sartre's “Das Sein und das Nothing ”and Martin Heidegger's“ Introduction to Metaphysics ”. Before he knew it, he was infected with the "absolute why question, the one behind all the others that humanity has ever asked". And not everyone deals with the all-or-nothing thing as pragmatically and coolly as Bertrand Russell (“I would say that the world is just there, and that's it”). In short: the young man had found his intellectual life theme.


If God created the world out of perfect nothing, where does he come from? For the majority of Americans, this is a question from the arsenal of godless presumption that one should kindly burn in hell for. But even without a divine hypothesis and a crutch of faith, one stands there rather ignorantly on the mined all-or-nothing area, as Holt impressively demonstrates on his Tour d'Horizon.

The all-or-nothing question


Newton and Einstein, Sartre and Heidegger, Henri Bergson and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alexander Lurija and Karl Barth, Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, Samuel Beckett, EM Cioran and John Updike: you and many other of the brightest thinkers of their time have grappled with the question of everyone Questions dealt with. And yet even the cleverest philosophers, writers, mathematicians, cosmologists or evolutionary biologists cannot convince anyone of the "opposite side" - there is an eternal stalemate between believers and Darwinists. It looks like we are doomed to "choose between God and the deep, raw absurd." Or not?


What actually makes us so uneasy about this stalemate, about the obvious non-answerability of the existential question? Jim Holt's explanation sounds plausible: “Yes, to the mind it feels like the towel is being thrown in. It is one thing to come to terms with a universe with no purpose or meaning, we have all done it before on a dark night of our minds. But a universe with no explanation? That probably means taking the absurdity too far, at least for a species addicted to justification like ours. "

Here today, not yesterday, away tomorrow


The fact that Holt's book is so entertaining is due to the humorous, elegant style of his argumentation. And the gorgeous portraits of his many interlocutors whom he met in the course of his research: philosophers and theologians, mystics and cosmologists, particle physicists and neurobiologists, Buddhists and combat atheists. How much pleasure it must have given him is suggested by sentences like this: "The woman's face was a pale mask of leather-skinned cheerfulness, and she spoke in a low, hoarse voice that reminded me of Jeanne Moreau ..."


One of the most interesting experts Holt met was the Russian physicist Andrei Linde, who immigrated to the USA in 1990 and now teaches at Stanford University. As a young scientist in Moscow, Linde began to think about the origins of the cosmos with obsessive pleasure. So a new version of the Big Bang Theory was born, with which he tried to answer three questions: «What was bang? Why did it pop? And what was before it popped? "


Linde is known in expert circles for weird ideas and subtle humor; His theory of chaotic inflation also sounds like a joke: It is theoretically as well as practically possible, in a do-it-yourself or hacker-style, to create a universe. Take: a thousandth of a gram of matter "to create a lump of vacuum that expands into billions and billions of galaxies as we see them around us. (...) So what is preventing us from creating a universe in the laboratory? We would be like gods! "


The Russian-American master thinker freely admits that his theory has tiny gaps ...