“Why Does the World Exist?” by Jim Holt

Revised October 1, 2021

1. I started writing this post while reading the popular book “Why Does the World Exist? – An Existential Detective Story” by Jim Holt (2012). It is a good book with many thought-provoking questions. Here I would like to point out that most of those questions have answers in Buddha Dhamma.

  • On p. 269, equating the Nibbānic bliss to the annihilation of a person, he asks, “…But how can you enjoy something if you do not exist?”. To address this question, I initially started the post with the title, “Does Nibbāna Mean Annihilation of a “Person”?”. Still, I started addressing other issues in the book and eventually changed the title to be the same as the book title.
  • Even many Buddhists are terrified of the idea of Nibbāna, thinking that it means destruction. That is why even many Bhikkhus like to give “blessings” to the effect, “May you attain Nibbāna at the end of much pleasures in the heavenly worlds.” That illustrates a total lack of understanding of the profound message of the Buddha.

2. The problem is in the question itself. If a “person” is to be annihilated, a “person” needs to exist in the first place. Now, this is a deep issue that needs some knowledge of Buddha Dhamma. As the Buddha said in his first sermon, his Dhamma is, “pubbe ananussutesu dhammesu….. “ or “a concept that has not been known to the world before..”.

  • To annihilate, something “concrete” must exist. The Brahmins of the day of the Buddha believed there is a permanent “äthma” associated with a person (a “soul” in the present day.) It is very difficult for all of us to get rid of the perception of “me” or” myself”. In fact, that perception is totally removed only at the Arahant stage of Nibbāna; it keeps decreasing as one advances on the Path.
  • Thus as long as one “belongs to this world of 31 realms”, one always thinks in terms of “me” and “the external world”. This is why the Buddha rejected the concept of “no-self” even though most people incorrectly translate anatta as “no-self”; see, “The Grand Unified Theory of Dhamma“.
  • On the other hand, the Buddha said that it is also incorrect to say there is “self”. This is because any “person” changes even moment-to-moment; see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“.
  • In rejecting both “self” and “no-self” extremes, the Buddha said, “this changing being” or “a lifestream” changes moment-to-moment due to changes in the causes that support that lifestream. This is not something that I can explain in one essay and is explained via many posts at the site, including the important section on Paṭicca Samuppāda.
  • In the book there is a separate chapter on, “The Self – Do I Really Exist?”. I will discuss that chapter below, and point out a few more related facts.

3. The book’s main theme is “why is there something rather than nothing?” or “how did the world got started?”. It summarizes most of the arguments that have accumulated over thousands of years, and of course, come to the inevitable question on “the nature of the Creator God who would not need a cause for being there”.

  • However, regarding the two questions on existence as expressed above, the Buddha’s answer is the simplest: The world has existed forever and it is not possible to pinpoint a specific first cause. The proof is very simple: Suppose there is a first cause; then what caused that? QED.
  • Thus in the scientific basis of cause and effect, the absence of a first cause is built in.
  • On p. 82 of the book, Jim Holt did point out, “..Scientific thinkers, by and large, have not shared such qualms about eternity. Neither Galileo nor Newton nor Einstein had any problem conceiving of a universe that was infinite in time. Indeed, Einstein added to his field equations a fudge factor – the infamous “cosmological constant” – to ensure that they would yield a universe that was static and eternal“.
  • And a few philosophers have discussed the problem with “first cause” arguments, as Jim Holt noted. Talking about the late philosopher John Mackie on p. 206, “..Obviously, as Mackie observed, no explanation in terms of a “first cause” could answer the ultimate question of existence, for such an explanation would merely raise the further question of why that first cause -whether it be God, an unstable chunk of false vacuum, or some still more exotic entity- itself existed”.

4. If one accepts that the world has existed forever, then many other questions discussed in the book do not even arise. Thus 100% of the questions discussed are answered if we start off with the premise that the world has existed forever AND the root causes (greed, hate, and ignorance) for the existence of the world given by the Buddha.

  • For example, on p. 7, Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason is discussed: For every truth, there must be a reason why it is so and not otherwise; and for everything, there must be a reason for that thing’s existence. This is basically “cause and effect”. The Buddha said that the world exists because of greed, hate, and ignorance; and those causes have no beginning.
  • This is related to the issue of the mind taking precedence over matter, and I am slowly building evidence for that in the website. There are some introductory posts in the “Abhidhamma” and “Dhamma and Philosophy” sections.
  • On p. 188, Jim Holt discusses the fact that all science says about the “stuff that makes up our world” is that mass is equivalent to energy, “….but it gives us no idea of what energy really is..”. This is exactly what is explained in Abhidhamma, and I will get to it eventually. He goes on to say, “…As Bertrand Russell noted in his 1927 book, The Analysis of Matter when it comes to the intrinsic nature of the entities making up the world, science is silent”.
  • He also briefly discuss another big issue in philosophy on p. 192: “The conclusion of the philosophers ……that there is more to consciousness than the mere processing of information. If this is true, then science, insofar as it describes the world as a play of information states, would seem to leave out a part of reality: the subjective, irreducibly qualitative part”. Actually, as we will see, Buddha’s answer solves both this and the issue above in one fell swoop.
  • A world without a beginning also gives an answer to the question of “why do I exist” (p. 18). We all have “existed” forever; there is no beginning so the question has no meaning. Another frequently asked question is, “what is the meaning of life?”. There is no meaning to life: The bottom line is that we all suffer in this existence ON THE AVERAGE, IN THE LONG TERM while we meander aimlessly among the 31 realms of existence; see, “Evidence for Rebirth“.

5. Now the only critical question is how do we know that the Buddha’s worldview is correct? The answer is that it can explain the complex world around us; it has the “explanatory power”. Also see, “Vagaries of Life and the Way to Seek Good Births”  and “Good Explanations – Key to Weeding out Bad Versions of Dhamma“,  among many other posts.

  • Furthermore, one can EXPERIENCE the truth of Buddha’s teachings and the results for oneself. I have described part of my experience in following the Path in, “Ariya Jhanas via Cultivation of Saptha Bojjhaṅga“. Do not be discouraged by the title of the post.

6. Now let me briefly discuss the late chapter on,  “The Self – Do I Really Exist?”. Here Jim Holt comes across the answer himself (p. 256): Talking about Descartes’ famous phrase, “I think, therefore I exist”, he says, “… ..Did Descartes here infer more than he was entitled to? As many commentators have pointed out (beginning with Georg Lichtenberg in the eighteenth century), the “I” in his ultimate premise is not quite legitimate. All Descartes could assert with certainty was “there are thoughts”. He never proved that thoughts require a thinker……” (boldface mine).

7. This is exactly what the Buddha said. There are thoughts, but no REAL thinker; there is the PERCEPTION of a thinker in “one’s mind” until one’s mind is purified to the level of an Arahant and it becomes clear that there is no “thinker”. However, the irony is that until that wisdom is gained, “one’s suffering” is real. The suffering is there simply because one thinks there is a real thinker!

  • But one cannot honestly say, “there is no-self” as most people try to do unless one is an Arahant; one is just trying to fool oneself in saying that. When something bad happens to “anything that belongs to oneself” one INEVITABLY feels the pain associated with it; see, “Anatta and Dukkha – True Meanings“.
  • When the mind is purified (i.e., is absent of greed, hate, and ignorance) perception of “self” goes away at the Arahant stage, then the suffering associated with “one’s stuff” is not there anymore. When one comprehends the concept of anicca to some extent, this will become clear to some extent. In other words, Nibbānic bliss or niramisa sukha increases as one advances on the Path, with the mind being purified at each step; see, “Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?“, and “Niramisa Sukha“.
  • Thus we cannot forcibly get rid of the sense of “I”. Only through the true understanding of the Three Characteristics of this world, anicca, dukkha, anatta, that one can slowly start getting rid of that sense of “I” or “self”. Until then there is neither a “self” nor “no-self”, but just a stream of thoughts; see, “What Reincarnates? – Concept of a Lifestream“. Only at the death of an Arahant that stream of thoughts is ended and the mind becomes free of any attachment to the material world of the 31 realms; see, “Nibbāna – Is it Difficult to Understand?“, and “What are Rupa? Relation to Nibbāna“.
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