Nothing, nothingness, and the world: a book review of Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt

I am reading about nothing.  Literally, about nothing.  I am reading about the concept of nothingness, and it’s a pretty difficult thing to get one’s head around.

Philosophers, theologians, mathematicians, and physicists have been puzzling the concept for a very long time, and it is quite a hot button in philosophical and scientific circles today.

In the West the concept of nothing is relatively new. 

In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-14th century that the idea of “zero” came to the West. And then, it came to us through accounting.  Something had to stand between asset and debit.

The East, however, had long dealt with nothingness not only in their mathematics but in their spirituality as well. For after all, attaining “nirvana” was equal to attaining nothingness, to achieving “emptiness.”

The Hindu word for this nothingness was sunya, which became in Arabic sefir, which came to Europe in the Middle Ages and is the root of our word “zero” and “cipher.”  And when it came to Europe, it came along with the rest of the Arabic numerals that we use today.

And yet what is nothing? There are many who say that no such thing exists.

The philosopher Henri Bergson tried to imagine nothingness. He simply kept subtracting all that he knew existed. However, when he reached the end he felt there was still something–his inner self which was doing all this subtracting. (An enlightened Buddhist would perhaps be able to extinguish that entity, but most of us cannot.) He concluded that imagining absolute nothingness is impossible.

Another philospher, Bede Rendell, saw that the failure in imagining nothingness is that after one had subtracted everything that was in the universe, one still had the space where those things once existed–a universe skin collapsed on itself.

The entire conversation is both intriguing and maddening, puzzling and wondrous.  (Sort of like in Alice in Wonderland when the Red King concludes that since nobody passed the messenger on the road, then nobody should have arrived first.)

I am having this “conversation” with myself because of the book Why Does the World Exist?–An Existential Deterctive Story by Jim Holt.  Holt’s book, which is somewhat addressed to the lay reader (I can only imagine what a technical book on this subject might be like), springs from the question “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” 

This question, I have learned, is one that has puzzled philosophers for aeons.

And when you get to the question of “something” and “nothing” you are led to the question of what “existed” in the universe before the “Big Bang” created the universe. The theologians have their answer. The scientists are not all that sure.  But they have their theories.

And both try to define or dismiss “nothing.”

All of which makes for fascinating reading.  Even the mathematical equations (which Holt has to explain to me or which I run to my resident philosopher/mathematician) are fascinating. For instance, his mathematical equation for absolute nothingness is

(X) ˜ (x=x)

and now seems to makes some sense to me. But it took a while for me to get to. (The equation means that X [the empty universe] is not where x = x [where something is something.]) He explains it much better and is  much more entertaining.

I am no philosopher or mathematician. My sense of the void, of nothingness–aside from my own existential angst and probings seeemingly hardwired in my soul–comes from Satre, Camus and Beckett.  And Holt brings these into the mix as well. (The cover of the book features a photograph of the Café de Flore, a favorite haunt of Sartre’s.) The book, in many ways,  is almost a primer of thinkers, ancient and new, and a wonderful introduction to the confluence of metaphysics, philosophy, literature and science.

And what  they ask is:  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Why is there a world?  A universe?

These are pretty big questions to roll around with and Holt’s book makes it a entertaining and informative  ride.

But to be truthful, I still don’t know the answer.


20 thoughts on “Nothing, nothingness, and the world: a book review of Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt

  1. We can not understand nothingness, because we are blinded by somethingness. When we will become seers, then we will understand that every “thing” is “nothing”… everything is nothing, and understanding we will reconcile with nothingness, and then, in the eternal extinction, we will disappear without a trace … 🙂

  2. I think that Nothingness exists only for God, not for us. We are trapped in a material world and in our dimension we cannot imagine or understand the idea of NOTHING or ZERO.

    This reminds me of a great poem (Satire I) written by our greatest Romanian poet, Mihai Eminescu:
    “The moon looks in and sheds its beams a pile of ancient books upon,
    He sets his mind to roving back across a thousand ages gone
    Into the time are things began, when being and not being still
    Did not exist to plague man’s mind, and there was neither life nor will,
    When there was nothing that was hid, yet all things darkly hidden were,
    When self-contained was uncontained and all was slumber everywhere.
    Was there a heavenly abyss? Or yet unfathomable sea?
    There was no mind to contemplate an uncreated mystery.
    Then was the darkness all so black as seas that roll deep in the earth,
    As black as blinded mortal eye, and no man yet had come to birth,
    The shadow of the still unmade did not its silver threads unfold,
    And over an unending peace unbroken empty silence rolled!…
    Then something small in chaos stirred… the very first and primal cause.
    And God the Father married space and placed upon confusion laws.
    That moving something, small and light, less than a bubble of sea spray,
    Established through the universe eternal and unquestionable sway…
    And from that hour the timeless mists draw back their dark and hanging folds.
    And law in earth and sun and moon essential form and order moulds.
    After that day in endless swarms countless flying worlds have come
    Out of the soundless depth of space, each drawn towards its unknown home,
    Have come in shining colonies rising from out infinity,
    Attracted to the universe by strange and restless urge to be,
    while we, inheritors of space, the children of this world of awe,
    Are raising witless heaps of sand upon our little earthy floor;
    Microscopic nations rise with warrior and king and seer,
    Throughout the years our fortunes wax, until we have forgotten fear.
    We, flies, that for a single day buzz in a measured world and small,
    Suspended in the midst of time, careless and forgetting all
    That this frail world in which we trust is only flung momentarily
    between the darkness that is past and all the darkness yet to be.
    Just as the motes of dust enjoy their kingdom in the lamplight’s ray,
    Thousands specks that are no more when once that beam has passed away
    So, in the midst of endless night, we have our little time to spend,
    Our moment snatched from chaos, which did not yet come to an end.
    But when our beam at last goes out, our world will suddenly disperse
    Amidst the dark that ever hangs around this whirling universe.”

    Mihai Eminescu, a genius that lived before Einstein, was a poet brilliant enough to describe things like the Theory of Relativity or speed of light- in his poem “To the star”. You can find more in English on

      • “Pe când luna strãluceste peste-a tomurilor bracuri,
        Într-o clipã-l poartã gândul îndãrãt cu mii de veacuri,
        La-nceput pe când fiintã nu era nici nefiintã,
        Pe când totul era lipsã de viatã si vointã,
        Când nu s-ascundea nimica, desi tot era ascuns…
        Când pãtruns de sine însusi odihnea cel nepãtruns.
        Fu prãpastie? Genune? Fu noian întins de apã?
        N-a fost lume priceputã si nici minte s-o priceapã,
        Cãci era un întuneric ca o mare fãr-o razã,
        Dar nici de vãzut nu fuse si nici ochiu care sã o vazã.
        Umbra celor nefãcute nu-ncepuse-a se desface,
        Si în sine împãcarea stãpânea eterna pace!…
        Dar deodat-un punct se miscã… cel întâi si singur. Iatã-l
        Cum din chaos face mumã, iarã el devine Tatãl…
        Punctu-acela de miscare, mult mai slab ca boaba spumii,
        E stãpânul fãrã margini peste marginile lumii…
        De-atunci negura eternã se desface în fâsii,
        De atunci rãsare lumea, lunã, soare si stihii…
        De atunci si pâna astazi colonii de lumi pierdute
        Vin din sure vãi de chaos pe cãrãri necunoscute
        Si în roiuri luminoase izvorând din infinit,
        Sunt atrase în viata de un dor nemãrginit.
        Iar în lumea asta mare, noi copii ai lumii mici,
        Facem pe pãmântul nostru musunoaie de furnici;
        Microscopice popoare, regi, osteni si învãtati
        Ne succedem generatii si ne credem minunati;
        Musti de-o zi pe-o lume micã de se mãsurã cu cotul,
        În acea nemãrginire ne-nvârtim uitând cu totul
        Cum cã lume asta-ntreagã e o clipã suspendatã,
        Cã-ndãrãtu-i si-nainte întuneric se aratã.
        Precum pulberea se joacã în imperiul unei raze,
        Mii de fire viorie ce cu raza înceteazã,
        Astfel, într-a vecinciei noapte pururea adâncã,
        Avem clipa, avem raza, care tot mai tine încã…
        Cum s-o stinge, totul piere, ca o umbrã-n întuneric,
        Cãci e vis al nefiintii universul cel himeric…”

        Of course a mot à mot translation from Romanian into English is impossible, so the translation is a bit of an adaptation. But if you are passionate about it you can try to translate using Google for example in order to make an idea about each word. Enjoy! 🙂

    • But even God IS “something!” How can nothing exist for “him?” Perhaps because there is something, nothing is only a construct of the human mind… a concept. Impossible and never.

      • Well, maybe the “Nothing” can be isolated in a given space regardless of what one can find outside,just like the “antimatter” or “oxigen”… But if we read the old book of Genesis in the Bible we find a different idea: “In the beggining there was the Word”… so not the Nothingness… 🙂

            • Ela, I am not sure, though I tend to believe that we are completely alone. What is interesting is that this “scientific” book that I was reading concluded that there cannot be “nothing” that there had to be a primal cause. Most times I have trouble getting my head around that.

        • Interesting point. I personally don’t subscribe to the dogma of Christianity (I don’t take the creation story literally, for example), but I still think there can be wisdom in it. This may be an example of that. As mystical as it sounds, something indescribable must have existed at or before “the beginning,” call it “the word” or whatever you like…

  3. John, when I was a kid, I used to try to envision what the world looked like (or DIDN’T look like) before it was created…I feel like that’s a strange thought for a young too many religion classes, perhaps?

    • I’ve always thought about this question, since I was a small child too. I think it’s normal. I also think the answer is impossible, because the problem is a paradox. If we define the “universe” broadly enough, there cannot be anything before; there cannot be anything broader to encompass it. So it must be infinite and eternal. (Or analogously “circular” in the sense that somehow the beginning is the end, or the outskirts are also the interior – more paradoxes.) Whatever it is. We will never know.

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