BEHIND THE CURTAIN: The alleged philosopher's flimflam and quest!


Part 3—Hero of his own gong-show:
Perhaps it's time to define the nature of Jim Holt's actual quest.

His quest is explained in the first two pages of his Ten Best Books of 2012 book, "Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story." His quest adopts this form:

Holt was raised Catholic in rural Virginia. He was told by the nuns and the monks that God created the world.

As "a callow and would-be rebellious high school student," he "began to develop an interest in existentialism" in the 1970s. He was bowled over by Heidegger's presentation of the question, or perhaps the pseudo-question, Why is there something rather than nothing at all?

The explanation Holt had received from the nuns no longer seemed to work. Almost forty years later, he set out on a quest to write a book to examine this deepest question.

Did God create the world, and was God "self-caused?" The nuns told us that story too; we memorized the correct answers as part of Catechism class. As Holt notes on his second page, "It is a story still believed by a vast majority of Americans."

For ourselves, we got talked out of that story in (we think) ninth grade. Full disclosure:

Like many people who cease to believe that story, we don't think that we the humans are likely to provide an alternate answer to Holt's question, at least not any time soon.

Physicists can take us back to the Big Bang, but it has proven rather hard to explain things much beyond that. And when "philosophers" enter the scrum, the foolishness really gets started, as Holt demonstrates, again and again, all through his ridiculous book.

We don't think the three-year old preschoolers up the street could build a ladder to Mars. We also don't think that a person like Holt has any real chance to answer the question which has dogged him, or so he claims, since he became a rebellious teen, Heidegger and Sartre in hand.
so he
Forty years later, Holt set out to see if he could answer that question, or at least so he pretended. The result was a plainly ridiculous book of a rather familiar kind, a book larded with silly self-dramatization and obvious manifest bull-roar.

In other words, the type of book the New York Times adores! In the next dew weeks, we'll be peeking behind the curtain in an attempt to come to terms with this state of affairs.

Credit where due! When Dwight Darner reviewed Holt's book for the Times, we thought we saw green shoots of scorn pushing up through the ground.

Still and all, Holt was a "made man" within the journalistic elite, and Garner is employed within that guild. Perhaps for that reason, he was willing to describe Holt's basic account of his quest without noting how silly and absurd this premise actually is:
GARNER (8/2/12): Mr. Holt’s book was inspired partly by Martin Amis, who suggested in an interview that humanity is, in terms of discovering the algebra of existence, “at least five Einsteins away.”

This comment lights more than a few synapses in Mr. Holt’s mind. “Could any of those Einsteins be around today?” he wonders. “It was obviously not my place to aspire to be one of them. But if I could find one, or maybe two or three or even four of them, and then sort of arrange them in the right order...well, that would be an excellent quest.”

An excellent quest it mostly turns out to be.
It’s no spoiler to report that the author doesn’t return, like Ernest Hemingway with a marlin, with a unified theory of everything. “Why Does the World Exist?” is more about the nuances of the intellectual and moral hunt.
An excellent quest it (mostly) turns out to be? Scripted reviewer, please!

Holt does in fact describe that "quest" in his book's opening pages. As he does, we're introduced to the heroics which animate this ridiculous book—and we're asked to believe Holt has magic trombones for sale which basically play themselves.

For the record, Holt's book starts on page 3. The rumination shown below, concerning a search for the "algebra of being," arrives quite early on.

Trust us—nothing Holt writes before this passage helps us understand the term "algebra of being." The showy term is a type of flim-flam, of a type which litters this book:
HOLT (pages 10-11): How close are we to discovering such an algebra of being? The novelist Martin Amis was once asked by Bill Moyers in a television interview how he thought the universe might have popped into existence. “I'd say we're at least five Einsteins away from answering that question," Amis replied. His estimate seemed about right to me. But, I wondered, could any of those Einsteins be around today? It was obviously not my place to aspire to be one of them. But if I could find one, or maybe two or three or even four of them, and then sort of arrange them in the right order...well, that would be an excellent quest.

So that is what I set out to do.
My quest to find the beginnings of an answer to the question Why is there something rather than nothing? has had many promising leads. Some failed to pan out.
So begins Holt's "quest." Let's note how silly this is.

For starters, why the Sam Hill would Bill Moyers have popped that question to Amis?

We don't have the slightest idea how to answer that question. That said, if you work off things like published transcripts, this is the actual Q-and-A which actually seems to have transpired back in 2006:
MOYERS (7/28/06): What brought you to this PEN festival of writers on faith and reason? Because you're not a believer?

AMIS: Right. No. I wouldn't call myself an atheist any more. I think that's it's a sort of crabbed word. And agnostic is the only respectable position, simply because our ignorance of the universe is so vast that it would be premature. We're about eight Einsteins away from getting any kind of handle on the universe. So there's not going to be any kind of anthropomorphic entity at all.
At least on that occasion, that's what Moyers actually asked. And that's what Amis said in reply.

That exchange occurred in 2006. Seven years later, the Moyers site was still linking to the transcript of that program, while posting the videotape of that specific exchange. To convince yourself, click here.

Holt, who's extremely light on sourcing, provides no source for the exchange he describes. We're prepared to consider the possibility that it never occurred, at least not in this part of the multiverse.

Whatever! Holt's presentation does supply the tiny gist of what Amis actually said. That said, what Amis actually said is this:

Amis said that he doesn't think that three-year-olds could build a ladder to Mars. He also doesn't think that we the humans have anything like the ability to answer the kinds of questions Holt pretends to explore in his flimflam-laden book.

Amis said we're "eight Einsteins away." That's what his statement meant.

To Holt, Amis' statement seems to suggest something different. He cut "eight Einsteins" down to five, then handed his readers a hero quest—a hero quest starring himself and driven by servings of flimflam.

Charlatan, please! Einstein (1879-1955) is popularly considered the greatest physicist since Newton. Newton was born in 1643. In short, an Einstein, in the sense Amis meant, comes along every 236 years.

(Full disclosure: When Amis said we're eight Einsteins away, he wasn't suggesting that the eight Einsteins would show up all at once.)

Holt says that he himself couldn't aspire to be one of these Einsteins, thereby lodging the idea that he maybe possibly could. But he imagines that he might be able to find as many as four such people just by flying around on somebody's dime and talking to people he's heard of.

Humblebragging skillfully, Holt imagines himself discovering as many as four new Einsteins, within just a couple of years! After finding these four people, Holt was further planning to "arrange them in the right order."

Holt assumed that book reviewers would ignore the absurdity of this idea. Quite correctly, he assumed they would respectfully describe his "quest" as if it made some sort of sense.

"So that is what I set out to do," our humble hero says. In the rest of his page 11, he proceeds to describe three of the "promising leads" which actually "failed to pan out."

But alas! Even when his leads fail to pan out, Holt skillfully humblebrags in the course of describing the failures. This incessant elevation-of-self is basic to this style of flam, which is widely observed in "cable news" and within the types of silly books the New York Times adores.

At any rate, our humble hero assigns himself a quest. He plans to jet around the world in search of maybe four Einsteins.

What isn't explained is why we should think that he would be able to spot a new Einstein even if he stumbled upon one. He didn't even provide a source for his nugget anecdote, which he seems to have misrepresented and which doesn't seem to make sense. But somehow, he's going to find a string of Einsteins as he flounces about in the finer cafes—with time out for talking about his dead dog, "the best part of the book."

Holt seemed to feel sure that the New York Times wouldn't notice small matters like these. That they wouldn't mention a basic fact—again and again and again and again, his utterly silly and ludicrous text makes no earthly sense.

Tomorrow: On to the text-in-itself


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  3. The very fundamental problem with Holt's book is that when one tries to explain everything, one explains nothing. Questions can only be answered by limiting their scope. In The Blind Watchmaker (or maybe The Selfish Gene), Richard Dawkins outlines the context of his discussion. He does not attempt to explain evolution from the cosmology standpoint; he presumes certain laws of physics and chemistry and the ability of self-replication. It's from that platform that he proceeds with his arguments.

    1. Holt presumes his own existence. Isn't that kind of circular when questioning the existence of everything else?

    2. Right, like Baron Munchhausen he's pulling himself up by his own hair. Maybe Holt does not presume his own existence and he's trying to establish it by writing this book.

  4. This book wasn't on the required reading list that Dear Leader passed out in January, so I think I will skip it. If you don't like a book on page 3, there is no reason to continue reading it, even if you paid $14.95 for it.

    Is Somerby contesting the validity of asking such questions, does he think philosophy is stupid and shouldn't ask them? Is he quibbling about the number of Einsteins needed (or existing) or the order in which they need to be "discovered"? Or is he urging us all to go back to being theists? He never really states his objections to things, but the aggrieved tone comes through pretty clearly.

    Holt has as much right to make a dollar using his pen and publishing connections as anyone else, including Sheryl Sandberg with her advice on how to nurture resilience (she pretends to have answers to such questions, just as difficult as the ones Holt poses).

    Somerby doesn't like it when Holt says he cannot aspire to be Einstein because that is humble-bragging because he put the equation into our heads. On that basis, every man who says "I'm not a woman and cannot pretend to understand their experience" is also humble-bragging about his deep understanding of women's lives, and every person who says "I don't pretend to know why people voted for Trump" is actually bragging about being in tune with the miscreants who cast their votes to elect a monster. Why would anyone brag about that, humble or otherwise? If I could answer that, I might understand Trump voters myself, and then I could go on and answer the larger questions about why anything exists to be written about by fools like Holt and Somerby.

    Editing needed today -- maybe he had a bad night.

    1. Methinks that it is more than editing that you require.

    2. Somerby finally got around to correcting the date.

  5. Bob Somerby writes:

    [QUOTE] Charlatan, please! Einstein (1879-1955) is popularly considered the greatest physicist since Newton. Newton was born in 1643. In short, an Einstein, in the sense Amis meant, comes along every 236 years. [END QUOTE]

    I wouldn't be too sure of that number, but not because of the twentieth century's population explosion. In 1978 the non-professional historian Michael H. Hart wrote his THE 100 a ranking of the most influential persons in history. Isaac Newton ranked second on his list, Albert Einstein tenth. However, Hart makes the point that Einstein may have processed a rarer type of genius than Newton.


    [QUOTE] In evaluating Einstein’s importance, a comparison with Isaac Newton is revealing. Newton’s theories were basically easy to understand, and his genius lay in being the first to develop them. Einstein’s theories of relativity, on the other hand, are extremely difficult to understand, even when they are carefully explained. How much more difficult, therefore, to devise them originally!

    While some of Newton’s ideas were in strong contradiction to the prevailing scientific ideas of his time, his theory never appeared to lack self-consistency. The theory of relativity, on the other hand, abounds with paradoxes. It was part of Einstein’s genius that at the beginning, when his ideas were still the untested hypothesis of an unknown teenager, he did not let these apparent contradictions cause him to discard his theories.

    Rather, he carefully thought them through until he could show that these contradictions were apparent only, and that in each case there was a subtle but correct way of resolving the paradox.

    Today, we think of Einstein’s theory as being basically more “correct” than Newton’s. Why, then, is Einstein lower on this list? Primarily because it was Newton’s theories that laid the groundwork for modern science and technology. Most of modern technology would be the same today had only Newton’s work been done, and not Einstein’s.

    There is another factor which affects Einstein’s place on this list. In most cases, many men have contributed to the development of an important idea, as was obviously the case in the history of socialism, or in the development of the theory of electricity and magnetism.

    Though Einstein does not deserve 100 percent of the credit for the invention of the theory of relativity, he certainly deserves most of it. It seems fair to say that, to a larger degree than is the case for any other ideas of comparable importance, the theories of relativity are primarily the creation of a single, outstanding genius. [END QUOTE]

    1. I think Newton's work is also the creation of a single genius because he originated his revision in contrast to Aristotle and the Greeks and because he was first to test his ideas using experiments (which enabled him to reject Greek ideas) and because he had to develop the mathematics himself -- he developed calculus for example, because he needed it. It is too easy to use hindsight to decide that Newton's work was obvious or collaborative when it was not. Newton rebuilt scientific understanding of the physical world from scratch using empirical methods, entirely rejecting previous knowledge. It was correct because it was empirical.

      I think Einstein had a better publicist. Already, he is not as well known to younger people as Stephen Hawking, for example. It is hard to know how much of his standing is because he was alive when the list was made.

      We are back to the hedgehog versus fox argument because Einstein's contribution was narrow but deep while Newton's was broad and transformed an entire field of knowledge, establishing modern physics on an empirical basis. Apples and oranges.

    2. It is kind of offensive that the name Einstein is used to stand for "genius" when there are any number of people who have made similarly outstanding contributions in fields other than physics. I think there have been and will be a lot of people smarter than Einstein, harder working, more important to our world. Physicists are people who have chosen to work on some of the easier questions in life.

      If no one really understands Einstein's theory and it only operates under conditions that cannot be reproduced and tested, how do we even know he was correct? We take other physicists word for it. But isn't Somerby suggesting that the people who certify the worth of other experts' work are capable of lying, especially when they themselves are befuddled and don't want to admit it. Einstein could be a charlatan too, for all we know. Do you give accolades for untestable knowledge?

    3. At 7:19 PM asks:

      If no one really understands Einstein's theory and it only operates under conditions that cannot be reproduced and tested, how do we even know he was correct?

      The assumptions here are wrong, lots of people understand Einstein's theory and it has predicted all sorts of experimental outcomes precisely. Hart wrote his book in 1978, since then Einstein's work has has become ever more important to the non-theoretical, i.e. technological developments. For instance consider [LINK]:

      [QUOTE] Global Positioning System

      In order for your car's GPS navigation to function as accurately as it does, satellites have to take relativistic effects into account. This is because even though satellites aren't moving at anything close to the speed of light, they are still going pretty fast. The satellites are also sending signals to ground stations on Earth. These stations (and the GPS unit in your car) are all experiencing higher accelerations due to gravity than the satellites in orbit.

      To get that pinpoint accuracy, the satellites use clocks that are accurate to a few billionths of a second (nanoseconds). Since each satellite is 12,600 miles (20,300 kilometers) above Earth and moves at about 6,000 miles per hour (10,000 km/h), there's a relativistic time dilation that tacks on about 4 microseconds each day. Add in the effects of gravity and the figure goes up to about 7 microseconds. That's 7,000 nanoseconds.

      The difference is very real: if no relativistic effects were accounted for, a GPS unit that tells you it's a half mile (0.8 km) to the next gas station would be 5 miles (8 km) off after only one day. [END QUOTE]

      Wikipedia says [LINK]:

      [QUOTE] The GPS project was launched in the United States in 1973 to overcome the limitations of previous navigation systems, integrating ideas from several predecessors, including a number of classified engineering design studies from the 1960s. The U.S. Department of Defense developed the system, which originally used 24 satellites.

      It became fully operational in 1995. Roger L. Easton of the Naval Research Laboratory, Ivan A. Getting of The Aerospace Corporation, and Bradford Parkinson of the Applied Physics Laboratory are credited with inventing it. [END QUOTE]

  6. If we all sign a petition can we get Somerby to skip any further discussion of this book?

  7. Newton's ideas may seem obvious to us today, but they weren't obvious in his day. If you push a ball, it rolls a while, then stops. It does not keep going in a straight line forever, as supposed by Sir Isaac.

    Things fall to the ground because they're heavy, and God only knows why the planets move as they do. Newton would have us believe there's a force that pulls everything toward everything else, and he makes no hypothesis about the nature and cause of this mysterious force. He gives a mathematical rule: the force between two bodies is proportional to their masses and the square of the distance between them, but he doesn't explain any underlying mechanism. It's just a neat formula he pulled out of his back pocket.

    The tides come in and go out because that's God's intelligent design of the sea. Newton says the moon pulls the water harder where it's closer, less hard where it's farther, so the ocean has two bulges: toward the moon on the near side, away from it on the far side. Well, when I'm at sea, I don't feel any pull from the moon.

    No, Newton's ideas seem obvious just because we're used to them. If you think about them, they're vary strange.

    1. impCaesarAvg,

      All that is true, and yet Newton had access to a lot of data; the circumference of the earth, the distance to the moon, the force of gravity at sea level.


      [QUOTE] ...The idea that the planets were attracted to the sun by such an “inverse-square” force law had by [1684] occurred to several people, including the architect Christopher Wren, the scientist Robert Hooke, and to Newton himself, following the publication by Huygens of [his equation] for the “centrifugal (outward) force” of a particle of mass m moving in a circular path of radius r with angular speed w. This is equivalent to Kepler’s third law...

      Wren, Hooke, and Halley had discussed the problem at a coffee house following a meeting of the Royal Society in January of 1684, and Wren had offered a cash prize to whoever could provide a derivation of the shape of planetary orbits under the assumption of an inverse-square central force of attraction toward the (presumed stationary) sun. Hooke had claimed to have a proof that the paths were ellipses, but never provided it.

      Against this background, Halley paid a visit to Newton, who later told Abraham De Moivre about the fateful meeting. According to De Moivre

      >>>In 1684 Dr Halley came to visit him at Cambridge. After they had been some time together, the Dr asked him what he thought the curve would be that would be described by the planets supposing the force of attraction towards the sun to be reciprocal to the square of their distance from it. Sir Isaac replied immediately that it would be an ellipse.

      The Doctor, struck with joy and amazement, asked him how he knew it. Why, saith he, I have calculated it. Whereupon Dr Halley asked him for his calculation without any farther delay. Sir Isaac looked among his papers but could not find it, but he promised him to renew it and then to send it him…

      As is well known, Halley’s question prompted Newton to formulate his ideas about mechanics and universal gravitation. The answer to Halley grew and became progressively more comprehensive until, in a remarkably short time (about 18 months), Newton had composed the three-volume work entitled The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, usually called by the Latin title “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica”, or simply “Principia”, comprising the foundation of modern physics. [END QUOTE]

      Not to diminish this or any of the other intellectual feats accomplished by Newton, Einstein's work was of a much more theoretical nature, the very question for which Einstein was pursing an answer was largely one he, himself, had originally posed.

    2. Let me turn over all the cards. As to whether the author of "The 100: a ranking of the 100 most influential people in history," the non-professional historian Michael H. Hart, would have a full appreciation of the merits of the Newton's work, I would think so. He is an astrophysicist with a PhD from Princeton.

      Whether the author of such a book might have put a thumb on the scales on behalf of Einstein's genius because Hart is Jewish or whether Hart's list inflates the importance of the roles played by members of Western Civilization, specifically, over the course of human history because of his prejudices are questions which I would think should not concern us, ordinarily. Such work should stand on its own. However, given the givens, we might keep these questions in mind [LINK].

  8. Infinite Einsteins couldn't and won't answer the question. The question will not be answered by human beings. Anyone who would assert that five Einsteins might get closer to these answers should be dismissed as having nothing important to say.

    The Big Bang, discovered by a priest, didn't get us any closer to understanding first causes. Logic brings us closer to intelligent forces than random, but nothing asserted by any member of our or any other fully natural species that should come into existence will ever be provable.

    1. Therefore,as Bob Said, "He also doesn't think that we the humans have anything like the ability to answer the kinds of questions Holt pretends to explore in his flimflam-laden book."

  9. Poor Bob!

  10. Very funny, Mr. Somerby. This is why I read you every day, you spot the phony better than anyone I know.

  11. Reading this post I was sorta reminded of "Confessions of an economic hitman" which struck me as a series of "And then I had a two hour private conversation with National President X and we predicted the future."