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The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics 0th Edition

3.0 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1439148211
ISBN-10: 143914821X
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With an folksy style and overly reductive economics, Landsburg (The Armchair Economist) solves, to his own satisfaction, a host of such philosophical problems as the limits of knowledge, what reality is and why we should reject liberal social policies based on fairness. With a founding claim that mathematical objects are real (albeit real in a way that is never made quite clear) the author argues for the necessity of the universe, before offering refutations of intelligent design and St. Anselm's proof for the existence of God. The possibility of knowledge is demonstrated by familiarizing the reader with a few ideas the author simply knows to be true such as Gödel's theorem and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Sections on morality and the life of the mind apply the Economist's Golden Rule to questions of right and wrong before advising the reader not to bother studying English literature. While serving up plenty of sound economics, the book falls short on the philosophy, displaying not only conceptual inconsistencies but an intolerance for the irrational dimensions of human existence. (Nov.)
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"In "The Big Questions", Steven Landsburg ventures far beyond his usual domain to take on questions in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. . . . [T]his must make Steven Landsburg history's most courageous mathematician because for Landsburg mathematical abstractions are not like Mount Everest, rather Mount Everest is a mathematical abstraction. Indeed, for Landsburg, it's math all the way down--math is what exists and what exists is math, A=A. Read the book for more on this view, which is as good as any metaphysics that has ever been and a far sight better than most." -- MarginalRevolution.com

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (November 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 143914821X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439148211
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.9 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #438,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Edward A. Meissner on March 11, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book was a purchase based on an interview with the author on NPR, which, sadly, was terribly misleading. There are very few instances where I've felt the need to literally throw a book violently to one side, but this was one such time.

Though Landsburg does attempt to "tackle the problems of philosophy", he only succeeds in creating a patchwork chain of unreason as support of his views. This is immediately evident from the start in a discussion of physics, where the wonderful language of mathematics is mistakenly put in the role of being Prescriptive rather than Descriptive. Basic reasoning goes merrily along, until Landsburg suddenly and inexplicably makes a huge leap of causation where none exists. Worse, when even that won't do the trick, he simply redefines terms from their standard use to suit his conclusions.

"If your brain can conjure colors into existence, why can't it conjure physicality?"

"Indeed arithmetic must be more complex than life, because all the complexity of life derives from the complexity of arithmetic -- in particular, the combinatorial patterns that manifest themselves in DNA and protein synthesis."

The list goes on and on. Horribly flawed logic, redefining terms, and declarations by fiat is not valid reasoning and should not be used as "proof" for anything.
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Format: Hardcover
If you are reading The Big Questions merely for a playful romp you may be a little disappointed. Oh, it's a terrific romp, and well worth the price of admission. However, the book is a romp for the truly intellectually curious as it delves head on into theories of beliefs, epistemology, fairness, existence and more using the rigorous logic of physics, math and economics. Professor Landsburg's ability to cover all of these ideas so clearly, so enjoyably and so convincingly in less than 300 small pages is no less impressive than conceiving of the fabulously enormous schnoogol (see p. 102).

I only say "disappointing" because reading the book makes one wish they had the ability to learn more about each of its subjects. The paradoxes and puzzles are tantalizingly interesting, and the logic behind their resolutions so refreshingly solid, that reading it might lead one to believe that they have the capability to master the deepest insights into these fields. Have you ever wanted to grasp what the Uncertainty Principle really means? Well, you'll certainly be able to relay it to your friends after reading this book. But if you are like me, I am not sure you will be any closer to fully appreciating the weirdness that is quantum physics even after wrestling with this neat and short chapter.

The risk with explaining phenomena so clearly or with simple logic, is that one might be lured into believing that addressing the solution to the phenomenon is simple, or perhaps impossible. Take for example the discussion of activities that disturb your neighbors (pp. 113-121). The logic is airtight that, "when the cost of your activities spill over onto your neighbors, you engage in more of those activities than you ought to." Every economist worth their salt understands this.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was expecting to be bowled over with irrefutable logic and powerful insights. I was not.

He used a great deal of logic, but some of the premises were dubious and some of the logical reasoning did not follow, even on critical strands of his major thesis.

On page 17, in order to prove his point that "math must be the fabric of the universe," everything not math is defined as "baggage." He explains that there is no natural division between heart particles and lung particles from an atomic or sub-atomic level, and that we, as humans, create the boundaries between heart and lungs for our own classification system, adding "even though it's not a fundamental aspect of reality."

That is a false statement. Because the atoms in lung tissue may be identical to the atoms in heart tissue, that does not prove that, in reality there is no fundamental difference. Those very real differences, which guide our decisions, are defined as baggage, and thus discarded, leaving, in the end, only math.

From this he derives the false dichotomy that "Either everything is baggage, in which case there is no external reality whatsoever beyond the subjective creations of human brains. Or something is real, completely independent of us humans," implying that it is either math or nothing. The argument defines away everything that does not support his contentions and uses logical juggling to arrive at nonsense. Similar lapses in reasoning pervade much of the first two thirds of the book.

I was glad I read it to the end. The economic reasoning in later chapters was, for the most part, very solid, as well as his insights on "how to think," partly redeeming the work.

Overall, I was disappointed. The meat of the book let me down.
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Format: Hardcover
To paraphrase Pauli, this book is so bad it's not even wrong.
Amazon, aren't 12 words enough? Steven E. Landsburg would have some twisted logic for 20.

But to add verbosity ala SEL, it's the jumps from some supposed proposition to an other paradigm anecdote to prove such, that is irksome.
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