Why does the world exist?

Why do you exist? Why do I? How can it be that these words on a computer screen – written in a distant place, carried by invisible impulses, displayed by a little box that shows also images and videos – how can it be that these words are meaningful to you?

These may  sound like heavy questions for a Monday morning. There is email to go through, the weekly appointments to organize, the next weekend and next vacation to dream of. The origin and the meaning of the universe may sound like something we can leave for later – for the afternoon at the beach, maybe – or for eternal reflection on the other side of the grave.

But I believe the purpose behind the universe is a practical question too. It informs and directs the purpose of our lives; we will spend Mondays and weekdays and weekends differently, depending on how we answer this question. The purpose of the world is a grand but also a personal question; its implications reach into the cosmos but also into our daily schedules and minute concerns.

In a New York Times interview with the author of Why does the world exist? An existential detective story, Jim Holt remembers how the death of his mother prompted him to reraise the question.

This was borne in upon me when, just as I was writing the last chapters of the book, about the self and death, my mother unexpectedly died. I was alone with her in the hospice room at the last moment. To see a self flicker into nothingness — the very self that engendered your own being, no less — is to feel the weirdness of existence anew… The question “Why does the world exist?” rhymes with the question “Why do I exist?”[1]

For philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the very fact of the world’s existence was cause for wonder. “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical,” he declared, “but that it exists.”[2] There could be nothing. But instead there are fjords and dolphins and humans and supernovas. There are gentle moments of intimacy and dramatic departures. There is all the vague canvas of ordinary life, and then there is this curious question that keeps bugging us, that raises our heads toward the heavens, and that will not let go.

So why does the work exist? It is a question that can throw the start of a new week  – maybe the very week that starts today – into a whole new focus.

René Breuel


[1] John Williams, “No Small Talk: Jim Holt on Why the World Exists”, The New York Times, July 18, 2012. http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/18/no-small-talk-jim-holt-on-why-the-world-exists/?ref=books

[2] Ibid.

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3 responses to “Why does the world exist?

  1. I’ve just started reading Holt’s book, and I was struck by the very paragraph you highlighted, Rene. Good and important—even practical!—questions for a new year and a new week. Thanks for this.

  2. Pingback: The Mosaic of Life | Wondering Fair·

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