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.
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.”An excellent quest it (mostly) turns out to be? Scripted reviewer, please!
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.
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 begins Holt's "quest." Let's note how silly this is.
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.
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?At least on that occasion, that's what Moyers actually asked. And that's what Amis said in reply.
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.
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