Artist: Gerald Alper

Why Does the World Exist?

A Conversation with Journalist Jim Holt

By Gerald Alper

I’ll put my cards on the table. Why Does the World Exist is an emerging classic in a new field, as yet unnamed. We can call it existential cosmology. That’s in homage to the late, great Oliver Sacks who fifty years ago not only coined the term, existential neurology, but proceeded to single-handedly put the discipline on the map.

We meet at the Copper Still, a cozy nook of a place about a block away from the St. Mark’s Church, the place I meet my agent to discuss what’s left in the age of runaway digitalization for the writer of books. I know from his email that he’ll be wearing “a dark brown and rather bulky down jacket” but I instantly recognize the famous critic sitting at the end of the bar not two feet away who is scribbling on an index card. Although I am exactly on time for our meeting, I can sense I’m about to interrupt him.

“Hi, Jim Holt… I’m Jerry Alper.”

He jumps to his feet, looking momentarily flustered, and I realize he had absolutely no idea, until now, what I looked like.

Holt, quickly regaining his poise, gestures expansively with his arm:

“Where do you want to sit?”

The bar is almost completely empty (which is why I picked it), so we can sit anywhere. I indicate a side table, as as far from the bar as possible, the table where I usually sit with my agent. I place a copy of his book on the table as a place marker and begin at the beginning.

“I’ve been reading your essays in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books for the past 10 years. The first one was called Unstrung, about the string wars?”

Jim Holt hesitates, reflects… as though proofreading his memories to make sure the date, the title and the subject are correct.

“Yes… Yes… I remember.”

“They were always good, I thought in the book you went to a new level… you became, you allowed yourself to become much more vulnerable.”

I place my hand on the book for what I hope is appropriate emphasis:

“I think it’s a great book…”

For a reason I do not understand (but will shortly) Holt is looking at me quizzically, as though he wonders where I’m going with this. As though he thinks I am needlessly complimenting him and is wondering what my true agenda is. Feeling an anxious need to impress him with my sincerity, I continue,

“This morning, before I came here, I was rereading your book. I kept stopping at one page or another… surprised by how many memorable sentences there were, how many rich ideas that would resonate with me… that would set me to musing as to what their true meaning might be…”

A light seems to go off in Holt as he realizes, or as I think he does, that right or wrong, I am at least a serious person:

“Oh… oh… and thank you… thank you for saying that…”

Holt, I am about to learn, is one of the most courteous people I have ever met. He never fails to acknowledge a kind word or an appreciative thought with less than a heartfelt “thank you.”  When I give him a copy of my new book (which will hardly surprise my readers) he seems deeply grateful. Picking it up, pausing to examine the book and waving it in my direction he states emphatically, “I will read this!” — a common enough response — but when Holt says it, I believe it. Yet when I tell him the story, the true story of how my good friend, upon hearing that I was scheduled to have lunch with Jim Holt, reacted — his eyes widening as though I had just scored a front row seat at a rock concert — Holt will not believe it.

“What…? No one ever reacted that way before! Why would anyone want to see me?”

“Well, my friend and I often have discussions (again, which is true) about the book... I was the one who recommended it to him…”

“You recommended my book to him?”

He says it as though this was an unheard of thing to do.

“We’ve both seen you on YouTube.”

“What have you seen me on?”

“Well, I’ve seen you on The Big Think. I’ve seen you on a live televised discussion in Los Angeles with Sean Carroll. I’ve seen you on a panel show moderated by Brian Greene, with Lawrence Krauss, David Albert and some other world-famous scientists. I’ve seen you in a televised discussion before a packed of audience in Manhattan with Daniel Dennett.  I’ve seen you interviewed in your Manhattan apartment by a female journalist shortly after the publication of Why Does the World Exist. I’ve seen you recite a poem in which you associate each letter of the alphabet with with a series of signature words, each beginning with the designated letter… a strikingly original, clever poem…”

At this point, Holt recognizes (I think) that I am not about to recant on the accuracy of my statements. Just as he is not about to admit he has written a great book on existential cosmology (he has too much fun doubting himself).

To my surprise, I see that Holt has a genuinely fuzzy memory of these TV appearances. It takes prodding on my part to get him to recall anything about these appearances and when he does so it’s only in the most general sort of way. When I mention that my friend (who was so impressed that I was actually going to have lunch with no less than Jim Holt) had gone to see him at the Gramercy Arts Club in Manhattan soon after the publication of Why Does the World Exist — he has to struggle to recall It.

“He told me how impressed he was in the ensuing Q and A with just how unfailingly empathic you were—no matter how uninformed or addled the questioner happened to be…”

The comment struck a chord in Jim Holt:

“Thank you… That means a lot to me… You don’t know how much that means…”

 Encouraged, I press on:

“He also said you seemed very pleased, proud of yourself for having written Why Does the World Exist…”

And that’s all it takes for Holt to snap back into the old Holt, his default position as an incorrigible self-doubter.

Pleased…? Why would I be pleased? I’m not pleased…”

“You’re not?”

“Not at all…”

“You don’t like genuine compliments do you?”

“No I don’t… I mean I do… But you have to understand… When I receive compliments I always think of how much I could have made it better… I know I’m hard on myself… sometimes I wonder if I’m a fake…”

It’s something I’ve heard many times from prominent artists, especially actors, sometimes from my own patients, most of whom are struggling, although often brilliant artists. Still, I’m not quite ready to give up.

“Do you consider Why Does the World Exist your magnum opus?”

“Magnum opus? Oh no… I don’t think like that…”

“Your homepage describes you as an American philosopher... an essayist… a critic. Which one should I pick to describe you for the article?”

“Philosopher?... Well, I’m hardly a philosopher… I don’t teach... I’m not tenured… I don’t have any position…”

“You don’t have to.  You can be an amateur philosopher… In the best sense of the term… In the sense that Darwin described himself as an amateur naturalist… In the sense that Salinger described himself as an amateur reader…”

“I’m not an essayist. Why do they call me an essayist?”

“I got it from your homepage.”

“I don’t have a homepage…”

“O.K., then I got it from Wikipedia… or someplace.  I guarantee you it’s on the internet….”

I try another tack:

“You often say in your televised debates, that, of course, you’re ‘only’ a journalist. It’s obvious that you aspire to something more than a journalist.  So how do you see yourself? How would you like to be perceived?”

“There’s nothing I aspire to that’s more than a journalist. That’s what would I like, what I hope to be…”

Thus a pattern is set. Whenever I ask Jim Holt, howsoever honestly, or empathically, a direct question, he will deflect it to something more general and less personal. His enormous fund of knowledge, and his amazing ability to tap into it at a moment’s notice make it easy for him to do this. All he needs is just a name, a word, an idea, or a topic and he’s off. Once off, he is not easily reigned in. I am about to launch a new strategy, one that is just as meaningful although considerably more tangential, when something unexpected happens: Holt, beginning to trust me more and more, for the first time begins to take the initiative:

“I do remember the Daniel Dennett conversation. Something was off. I don’t know what it is was but it didn’t go well…”

I try to help him:

“Well, I remember that talk. You definitely didn’t seem to be yourself. But just before the end you suddenly said, you revealed to Dennett that you were ‘kind of insulted that you (Dennett) said you never read a cosmology book that you admired.  I mean, I had just published Why Does the World Exist and you said that…’ At which point Daniel Dennett, looking quite concerned, leaning gently towards you, said ‘I said that before I read your book. Since then I’ve read your book and it’s very good.’ Do you remember that?”

“No… I don’t…”

I have a very reliable memory, so I added some more precise details to the exchange:

“Do you remember now… you do remember, don’t you?”

I could see that Holt, trusting me more and more, this time really wanted to remember but couldn’t. Just as well, as our server at long last was in the process of bringing over our food. Rather he was bringing over my food as Holt, despite my prodding and inquiries, was firm in his decision to neither eat nor drink anything. His reasons, murky and unconvincing, all involved time: he had had a particularly late night doing something; he had had a late breakfast; and he didn’t want to be late for an early dinner party to which he was going right after our talk. That meant I had to sit for about three hours nursing my cheeseburger and French fries and taking small sips of my single glass of Chardonnay in a hopeless effort to draw attention away from the fact that I was eating and drinking alone (and I admit enjoying it, as I had deliberately starved myself in order to take full advantage of only the second publisher's luncheon in my life) while he was nursing a bottle of water. I had come armed with a generous expense account that would hopefully pave the way for a productive creative conversation (a true meeting of minds) but had only served to highlight our differences.  Despite enjoying my food I found myself wishing I hadn’t been given an expense account, that I had already eaten lunch before arriving.

That state of mind may have contributed to a very uncharacteristic irritability. I had explicitly asked the server to put the lettuce, tomato and pickles on the side and not on the burger. When I saw that hadn’t been done, I wasted no time asking the waiter to take it back, explaining to Jim Holt:

“I never send it back.”

“But you just did.”

“What?”

“You said you never send food back but you just did. That’s a logical mistake. You made a statement that includes all cases and then you immediately go on to violate it by making an unallowable exception...”

Jim Holt, I see, is not only quite excited about having caught me in my first logical mistake, but he sees it as an opportunity to give me a brief tutorial in basic logic. I want to say,

“I was only talking metaphorically. It’s called ‘fuzzy logic’ and it’s not only allowable it’s often vastly preferable to strict logic. If I went by the rules of strict logic I would be forced to say something like, ‘I almost never send food back. But once in a great while, if something incredibly easy to do, like putting lettuce and tomato on the side, is blatantly ignored, I make an exception. Saying I never send food back is just a useful metaphorical shortcut.’”

But I don’t say that. I say, “I know that. I was just being metaphorical.”

“But you could have done it yourself.”

“I know that, but that wasn’t the point.”

The point is I think Jim Holt was being unnecessarily pedagogic and a little bit too eager to catch me in a logical mistake.  Not wishing to be unnecessarily adversarial, I return instead to Daniel Dennett, someone whose writings I know quite well.

“Was there tension between you and Daniel Dennett?”           

“Not at all. Daniel Dennett is the perfect philosopher. He knows cognitive science. He knows neuroscience. He knows modern philosophy. He knows logic. He knows computer science. He’s a fantastic writer. His books are bestsellers.”

“There wasn’t tension between you?”

“No. I love Daniel Dennett. We go out together. He’s my friend. You can say that.”

“I should tell you I’ve read a lot of Daniel Dennett. I think Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and especially Consciousness Explained are among the best books by a philosopher I’ve read in the past twenty years. I think he’s a genius…”

Nodding in agreement, I can see that Jim Holt is listening intently:

“But I have to say, that in many ways, I could not disagree with him more. I do not think that the computer is a useful model for the mind. Yes, there are neuronal computations that are crucial for consciousness. But that hardly applies to the emergent consciousness of human beings. For the past thirty years, as a psychotherapist, I have tried to immerse myself in the consciousness of thousands of diverse patients. And nothing I see resembles in the least the workings of a computer.  And that goes for lawyers, for computer experts, for teachers, for people who are expert in logic, in the ability to manipulate abstract symbols. They do not think by any stretch of the imagination like computers. Deep Blue may be able to crunch numbers unbelievably, to calculate billions of positions in less than a second, but Deep Blue is stupid…”

Jim Holt jumps in enthusiastically.

“It doesn’t even know its own name.”

“It doesn’t know its own name; it doesn’t know the name of its opponent. It doesn’t know the planet it’s on. It doesn’t know what it is like to be conscious. To reflect, to have a memory. It doesn’t know what a childhood is. What a friend is. What emotions are. What sensations are. It’s deaf, dumb and blind. It can’t speak, hear, or see. It cares about nothing. It doesn’t know what nothing is. Doesn’t know what science is. What knowledge is. What death is. What life is. It doesn’t know what an animal is. I agree with the great philosopher, Thomas Nagel, who said in the opening chapter of his great book, The View from Nowhere, that centuries from now people will look back and regard the quest for artificial intelligence as a gigantic mistake.”

This strikes a chord because a fired up Holt once again jumps in, but in protest:

“Wait a minute. When you look at the advances of robotics, I definitely agree with Dennett that the day will come, it is not far off, when we will have achieved true artificial intelligence. You will absolutely not be able to tell the difference between an artificially intelligent person and a human being.”

“Are you talking about zombies?”

“I don’t believe in zombies!”

“Then what do you mean by that?”

“You’re talking about opening someone’s head up and seeing some machinery inside?”

“Well, yeah… How is that not a detectable difference?”

“There won’t be any machinery. Think of The Matrix. As Dennett says the ability of computers to simulate the complex cognitive functions of humans (i.e., chess or the game Jeopardy) is already prodigious, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  We’re on the brink of simulating experience. Think of The Matrix.”

“I don’t believe that’s going to happen.”

“Then imagine an anthropologist from Mars coming to earth. He has a completely different neural chemistry than we do. But he looks, talks, acts just like us. And he has feelings, experiences just like us, feelings and experiences that have been simulated by a computer! So successfully that even he doesn’t know he’s at bottom just a computer simulation. So if he doesn’t know how would we know?”

“Well, that’s a lot of ifs isn’t it? Those are thought experiments that have never been validated, never been experimentally tried, never gotten past the stage of armchair speculation. How could you possibly go about proving or disproving such an allegation? Dennett, himself, in the introduction to one of his major books, acknowledges that he is only a philosopher. That he is not a scientist, not an experimentalist. That he has no new data, no predictions, no interesting results to offer. Note, he then proceeds to adamantly claim that he singlehandedly, while musing in his arm chair, has refuted some of the dominant belief systems of our time.”

Holt, although looking subdued, has been carefully listening:

“Yes… okay… but consider this: Suppose some great neuroscientist could actually duplicate every single molecule in your body would you then admit, you would wouldn’t you, that you have been cloned… That you have been perfectly re-created?”

“That’s a preposterously big if. A long way off, if at all... Well, maybe, if we allowed your fantastical if. But look, even if this miraculous, science fiction-like, molecule by molecule substitution took place all you would have succeeded in doing is to have cloned my past. Because the moment you achieved the initial molecular transfer, we would start to diverge. In the same way that two identical twins—like Tennis’ famous Bryan brothers—the moment they are separated begin to have divergent experiences. Dennett overlooks that even if you could simulate a person’s past experiences you can’t simulate either their present or future experiences. Armchair philosophers, even genius ones like Daniel Dennett, give away too much. They pay a steep price for their thought experiments, for wanting the freedom to go anywhere in the infinite universe of thought without the restrictions of space time or reality. They give up any possible hope of arriving at anything more than a tantalizingly memorable speculation…”

At this point, it seemed as our conversation had taken a distinctly philosophical turn that both of us were finding entertaining. But time was running out. Three hours had gone by and Jim Holt had begun to glance at his watch and refer pointedly to his upcoming dinner party. I assumed he must be hungry by now. Despite frequent coaxings to share my delicious tasting food he had only consented to eating a single French fry. I had learned that Jim Holt was on a first name basis with some of the deepest thinkers on the planet (some of whom could easily have been Nobel laureates). Although the odds were stacked against me (ravenous hunger plus the lure of a possible Nobel laureate in the offing) I still had its some key questions that I had yet to broach. So I played my Lieutenant Colombo card. Whenever he made the slightest movement – indicating he was about to get up and leave – I quickly said, “there is just one more thing.”

It bought me the time I needed. When I mention Sean Carroll, who is one of my absolute favorites, he revealed that Sean Carroll is “his friend;” that he socializes with him; that he had been asked to review his long-awaited new book, The Big Picture and would gladly have done so were it not for ethical restrictions barring friends from reviewing friends. He told me that he knew, had met and greatly admired the wonderfully innovative physicist Lee Smolin; that he was especially fond of Noble Laureate Steven Weinberg and that he revered the great philosopher Thomas Nagel.

But he also told me about the dark side of being a well-known critic. About the woman sitting next to him at a dinner party who whispered in his ear, “my husband hated your review of his book. He intends never to speak to you again.” The famous scientist who keeps texting him at ungodly hours in a futile attempt to refute what he perceives as a grossly unfair review of his book by Holt.

When I ask Holt the extent of his education, he tells me he has a masters in mathematics (which entailed teaching calculus to undergraduates). When I ask him if he is capable of reading any of the great papers such as Einstein’s special and general theory of relativity he says “yes.”

When I ask him to what extent he has been educated in physics, he says he hasn’t taken any courses. When I ask him how it is possible that he could understand the field equations of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, equations which are famous for being notoriously difficult, he says “Because I taught myself.” When I ask him how does he know quantum mechanics, he says “I taught myself.” This summer he adds, when he has some free time, he plans to “teach himself” some advanced quantum mechanics.

Although I certainly believe him, I find this quite astonishing. I have never met anyone who can teach himself, without the help of a teacher, quantum mechanics and the theory of general relativity. If I had to calculate the odds, I would say there is less than one in a million people who are able and willing to do that. And the odds of someone anytime soon writing a book on existential cosmology half as good as Why Does the World Exist are lower than that.

It adds up to a remarkable accomplishment. Five minutes after I met him for the first time I realized he is not going to be comfortable with the high praise I have for his book. The three hours I spent talking to Jim Holt have only reinforced my opinion. The two cultures — the culture of the sciences and the culture of the humanities — that C.P. Snow famously saw as being split apart, in some rare way have been remarried in the mind of Jim Holt. So although Jim Holt may continue to be his own toughest critic, I am pretty sure — that if C.P. Snow were around today —he would be pleased.

For readers wishing to pursue these ideas further see my new book God and therapy: What we believe when no one is watching (iBooks, Alper).

Published March 16th, 2016


Gerald Alper is an internationally recognized psychotherapist who is the author of 20 books.  These include besides the celebrated Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Patient, The Paranoia Of Everyday Life, The Dark Side Of The Analytic Moon, The PuppeteersThe Elephant In The Room: The Denial of The Unconscious Mind, and more recently the just published God And Therapy: What We Believe When No One Is Watching (I Books, Alper). He's been a Fellow of The American Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis since 1985, a reviewer for The Journal of Contemporary Psychology, a contributor of articles and essays to leading professional journals, a frequent guest author appearing on public access radio programs throughout the United States and Canada.  His classic paper, A Psychoanalyist Takes the Turing Test, was included in the 2004 pioneering interdisciplinary anthology by Italian neuroscientist Franco Salzone who brought together seminal papers from both psychoanalysis and neuroscience. He lives with his wife in New York, stays in close contact with his two grown sons who remain hunkered down in Los Angeles and has been a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan for the past 25 years.