How to write (about) philosophy

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Telling a story about a philosophical question is hard. It’s easy to see the emotional significance of  certain ethical or religious problems. But how do you turn an obsession with a more abstract question like “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, much less a serious account of the different arguments and problems with various answers, into a story?

Jim Holt found a way to do it. And it’s something that anyone who teaches philosophy or “theory” or even any history of ideas can learn from. Why Does the World Exist: An Existential Detective Story isn’t really a “mystery” with a clear solution at the end. (I’m guessing that title was a marketing decision.) It’s not even a book with a particular answer in mind. It’s really the story of someone committed to a question who wants to approach it as authentically as he can, who really does follow the evidence and the logic wherever it leads, and who doesn’t at all know where he’s going to end up. He doesn’t even really offer a final answer to the question (although he gives it a tentative shot). Instead, what the book does best is show how someone can care deeply about a philosophical problem without turning it into either a melodramatic story of “self-discovery” or a dry academic exercise on the other.

Holt’s trick is making arguments seem dramatic. That’s different from talking about the drama or importance of the positions or “answers” the arguments support. Anyone who’s ever had to teach philosophy or “theory” knows that one of the hardest parts is getting your students to think not just about “big ideas” but about the arguments that lie behind those ideas. I always knew I’d been successful with someone when they’d answer a question by starting with “One way to think about that is…” or “That would seem to solve the problem of…” rather than “I think that…” or “I believe that…” It’s getting people to see that ideas are involved in bigger contexts, in structures of implications, and generally in relationship to other ideas that is really showing them how philosophy works.

Part of Holt’s trick is a kind of backdoor Socratism: the book is structured around interviews with various physicists and philosophers who have dealt with his central question. These chapters both let the thinkers speak for themselves and allow him to interject questions and objections from other thinkers (both historical and from the other positions in the book) so that you alternate back and forth between explication (whether Holt’s or the interviewees’) and analysis. For example, when speaking with the mathematician and physicist David Deutsch, the conversation moves between potential physical answers to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing” and philosophical problems with such an approach:

Deutsch had long maintained that quantum theory was a key to understanding the fabric of reality. And in quantum theory, I observed, you can seemingly get Something from Nothing. A particle and its antiparticle, for instance, can spontaneously appear out of the vacuum. Some physicists have conjectured that the universe itself began as a vacuum fluctuation – that it “tunneled” into existence out of nothingness. Might quantum theory explain why there was a world at all?

“Not the least!” he replied. “Quantum theory is too parochial to address the question of existence. When you talk about a particle and an antiparticle appearing in the vacuum, that’s not at all like coming into existence out of nothing. The quantum vacuum is a highly structured thing that obeys deep and complex laws of physics. It’s not ‘nothingness’ in the philosophical sense at all. It’s not even as little as the kind of nothing you have in your bank account when there’s no money in it. I mean, there’s still the bank account! A quantum vacuum is much more even than an empty bank account, because it’s got structure. There’s stuff happening in it.”

So the laws governing the quantum multiverse can’t tell us anything at all about why the multiverse exists?

“No, none of our laws of physics can possibly answer the question of why the multiverse is there,” he said. “Laws don’t do that kind of work.”

All of Holt’s best passages have this ability to be both philosophical and conversational. It’s a style of writing that’s like what actually happens when people try to hash out ideas or when a philosophy teacher has a discussion in class. What’s different here is that those conversations are the very text of this philosophy book. You don’t read arguments carefully laid out in isolation from one another. Instead, you have a sympathetic narrator who has read and understood some very technical and heady work in a large range of science, mathematics, and philosophy, and who knows how to show both the productive and problematic relationships that those ideas have to one another. The book itself is not an argument but, in spite of that, it seems to understand argument even more than most works of philosophy designed to argue.

And, further, the conversational setting of the book means that his interlocutors have to speak about complex ideas. They don’t have the luxury of spending pages and pages teasing out subtleties. Everything has to address the question and ultimately address Holt’s interest. But far from reducing complex arguments and difficult scientific and mathematical ideas (which Holt will take the time to explicate before and at times during the conversations), it means that both he and his interviewee have to concentrate on why they matter and what their implications are for other ideas and thinkers. Everything is relevant and every idea is related to other relevant ideas.

The lesson to take away from this book for people who want to teach or write about difficult ideas is that arguments can be thought and written about as narratives. Holt’s book isn’t a single narrative, except in terms of the general frame of “I went here and talked to this guy, before going to another place and talking to someone else.” Instead, what he’s able to do is show how a number of argument narratives continually cross and interrupt one another, just as, in the Deutsch example, the philosophical definition of “nothingness” interrupts the quantum theory answer which also leads to a question of what kind of “laws” (physical? logical? cosmological?) would be worthy of responding to that problem.

As for what you come away with from this style, the book “teaches” you about the problem by having you take up various positions with Holt throughout the book. When speaking to physicists, he asks philosophical questions. When speaking with philosophers, he asks questions about physics and mathematics. And in every case, the reader is forced to respond to the arguments from alternating perspectives. I don’t think that I know a good answer to why the world exists, but I do feel prepared to know where other answers fit and to know what would count as an improvement if I or anyone else has another idea. In other words, this book does what most teachers say they want to get their students to do which is to “get them into the conversation.” And it does it by staging conversations.

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1 comment
  1. Listener said:

    After seeing the author on Colbert, I quickly looked up the book on Amazon and thought about buying it – several mixed reviews and I hesitated, but your review has convinced me it is worth a read. Thank you.

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