Jim Holt and the Nexus of Silly and Profound

Jim HoltBecause of what I think is a lot of simplistic thinking from atheists, I found myself again reading Jim Holt’s book, Why Does the World Exist? It’s almost like comfort food, because like me, Holt is an atheist who still thinks that these spiritual or religious questions are interesting and worth discussing. Reading him makes me feel less alone, even though I think there are a lot of people like us around. But then I thought something else — something very personal.

As far as I know, Jim Holt has only written two books. Why Does the World Exist? is about ontology — the most serious issue that I can imagine. And one very close to my heart. This other book is, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This — basically a history of jokes. This is about the most silly issue that I can imagine. But I see myself in Jim Holt. In particular, my plays are the combination of these two things: very serious, profound stuff combined with total silliness: Arthur Schopenhauer meets Kermit the Frog. Maybe there is something to this. Maybe it makes perfect sense that Jim Holt would write about ontology and jokes, and I would write about Thích Quảng Đức and the effects of MP3 files on dogs.

I’ve discussed before how in half of Schopenhauer’s photos, you can see that he is smirking. I feel certain that he was in on the joke of existence.

Jim Holt’s Puppets

Now I don’t mean to compare myself to Jim Holt, much less one of the greatest philosopher in all of human history. But I think we are all in the same category, just as the people who perform puppet plays at the local library are in the same category as Lope de Vega. There is something about the analytic mind that causes it to bifurcate. You think about the nature of existence until you can take it no more and out comes the silly.

In the following video, it should surprise no one that at the the 12:40 mark, Jim Holt pulls out puppets to make a point about Thomas Aquinas’ criticisms of the ontological argument:

Of course, Jim Holt doesn’t pull out puppets. But I suspect that most of you were willing to believe me. The truth is that his discussion of ontology is largely a stand-up comedy routine. Towards the end of the talk he says:

My professor at Columbia, Sidney Morgenbesser, a great philosophical wag — when I said to him, “Professor Morgenbesser, why is there something rather than nothing?” he said, “Oh, even if there was nothing, you still wouldn’t be satisfied.”

Privilege and Play

Maybe it’s also privilege. Maybe it’s only if you have a pretty good life that such issues occur to you. So we’re all happy and sometimes we get thinking about the profound stuff while eating fine dinners. The truth is, none of my closest friends of interested in this subject. It’s not that their lives are horrible. But they all suffer from depression. They have issues close to home that need thinking about.

I actually think it is just that the nature of our lives is play. We are all very lucky that through a combination of genes and luck, we see the world of ideas as our play things. And though we may sometimes think about deep and important issues, we only do it because it’s fun. For me personally, I’m only interested in ontology for so long. Then it’s back to the puppets.


I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not a total nutcase; I am. Although I do suffer from depression, it isn’t my primary dysfunction. Primarily, I’m a nervous wreck. But over the years, I’ve come to see this as something of a gift. If I suffered from depression to the extent that I suffer from anxiety, I would not be here to play with puppets and marvel at the fact that the universe exists and that against all probability, I’m part of.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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