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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.

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