- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Free Press (November 3, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 143914821X
- ISBN-13: 978-1439148211
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 41 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,651,334 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics 0th Edition
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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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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.
Therefore, to use a lesser field to analyze greater questions, one would want to start with rigor, with carefully applied thought. Instead, this author is breezy, scattered, off the top of his head, and biased towards what he has read, what he believes. This book becomes very much his own little seminar.
It is not that he makes bad arguments, though on occasion he does. It is rather than he makes totally incomplete arguments, so that even if you agree with him, you feel like someone must have said it better, in a more fair and complete way, and if you disagree, then tons of examples bubble forth in your mind... and you realize that you cannot debate a thinker who uses birdshot to take on the biggest arguments of existence.
The breezy style is supposed to keep us engaged during weighty topics, and instead is off-putting and incomplete, and sorta insulting to the reader. Which makes putting the book down and losing it under the bed very easy...
There are also surprising arguments such as the one against creationism. Arithmetic is irreducibly complex (Gödel's theorem), but nobody says that arithmetic was designed, ergo the creationist's argument is false. Other statements, although not entirely new since Galileo, are perhaps brought to an exaggeration: "Math must be the fabric of the universe". Some people would sustain that, at present, the part of nature (or even human nature) that can be modeled by mathematics is a very small part. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on vision (two spectrally different lights can look equal to your eye, but not to the vole's eye which decodes the light in a different way) and the chapter on "Hercules and the Hydra", with a specific example of a sentence that is true but not provable.
However, the most controversial part of the book is when the author applies what I could label "impeccably sound economic arguments" to some moral dilemmas such as the well-known Trolley Problem or its modification the Doctor Problem or its second modification, the Headache Problem. Landsburg claims that it is OK to kill an innocent person to stop a minor headache that will last for an hour to one billion people!
Another idealization is the claim that two rational people left in a room to argue about facts will come out agreeing with each other.
A further example of controversial statement (page 175): "the best way to be sure that you're doing something useful is that somebody's willing to pay you to do it...your compensation is probably a pretty good measure of your social contribution". That is, Cristiano Ronaldo is contributing much more than Obama.
Another defect of the book is that the author seems to want to include all the smart things that he has learnt in his life, whether they pertain to the Big Questions of the title or not. Chapter 21, for example, with the subtitle "Let the Rabbi Split the Pie" is a nicety that does not have a place among the big questions.
It would be interesting to read a book that debates Landsburg's arguments. After all, this is what philosophy for the last three millennia has been about, arguments and counterarguments. Be sure you read the book, but read it with an open mind.
Most recent customer reviews
Amazon, aren't 12 words enough? Steven E. Landsburg would have some twisted logic for 20.Read more