Frequent Slashdot contributor Bennett Haselton changes things up today by reviewing The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics and Physics. Questions that big need a big review and you can learn what Bennett has to say about it all by reading below.The first thing that I have to admit as a reviewer is that I enjoyed
the book -- not just reading it, but scribbling out pages of scratch paper
working on the puzzles inspired by the book -- that I probably would have
paid up to about $200 for it (despite the fact that I disagreed with
many of the conclusions, and even thought some of the arguments were pretty weak).
I certainly don't mean that it's better than books by
Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell, or Steven Levitt and Steven
Dubner (the Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics team), but it
will appeal to many of the same people.
Those authors' books typically marshall a large amount of research data and evidence in support of a thesis that seems contrarian but turns out to be probably true. The Big Questions (released November 3rd with a companion website and blog doesn't do that. The book is divided into many self-contained vignettes and side topics and independent arguments, which are based more on logic and reasoning than externally gathered evidence, and the arguments don't always convince you of the conclusions. But that's part of the fun: many of the arguments in the book are structured so rigorously, almost like mathematical proofs, that if you disagree the conclusion, the challenge is to figure out why you think the conclusion is wrong. (Nobody ever scribbled equations in the margins of Malcolm Gladwell's books trying to figure out if he was "right".)
You'll probably enjoy the book the most if the following are true for you:
- You enjoyed math all the way through high school, especially the paradoxes that seemed to grow out of elementary rules of logic or probability. Sometimes the paradoxes resulted from a flaw in one of the reasoning steps, so that identifying the flaw led to a deeper understanding of how to conduct those steps. And sometimes there really is no flaw in the reasoning, so that the conclusion, no matter how counterintuitive, must be true.
- Eventually, though, you ran out of "paradoxes" that could be described in the language of intermediate mathematics. There are other paradoxes lurking in mathematics, of course (like the celebrated Banach-Tarski paradox), but most of them require you to learn so much mathematics just to understand the paradox, that there aren't enough hours in the day.
- So, you'd be delighted to discover paradoxes in an entirely new field, where arguments built from elementary rules of logic, lead to a conclusion that seems at first to make no sense, but leads to a deeper understanding the more you think about it.
The core philosophy of The Big Questions -- not embodying any of the conclusions, but rather the rules of the game by which those conclusions should be reached -- is expressed in two lines near the end:
If you're objecting to a logical argument, try asking yourself exactly which line in that argument you're objecting to. If you can't identify the locus of your disagreement, you're probably just blathering.
(This quote makes Landsburg sound grumpier than he is; at this point in the book,
he's just coming off of describing
an exhausting round of e-mail argument with another professor who he felt was not playing
by these rules.) I've believed this passionately for a long time, and to me it seems
trivially true anyway: If an argument is organized into a series of steps, and you disagree
with the conclusion, then some step in the argument must be the first step
you disagree with, and if the author feels like each step in their argument follows by
airtight logic from the previous step, then that's the point at which one of the two
players is wrong.
more exasperating to me than writing what I think is a well-reasoned logical argument,
sending it to the intended audience, and getting back a reply which makes it obvious that
the recipient simply read my conclusion, disagreed with it, cleared their throat, and
started typing out paragraphs describing their own view. Which they're entitled to,
but they missed the point -- I was hoping that if they disagreed with my argument, they
could pinpoint exactly what part they disagreed with. (If they had replied with
their own argument structured like a sequence of logical steps, then that would at least
be a tit-for-tat exchange, but that rarely happens -- people who believe in forming their
arguments like rigorous proofs, usually also like to find the error in logical arguments
that lead to the opposite conclusion.)
To give you some of the flavor: One chapter in The Big Questions contains an elegant argument against protectionist tariffs: Suppose that an American sells cameras for $80 but a foreigner wants to sell cameras in America for $60 apiece. An American who would have bought the $80 camera will now buy the $60 camera and hence is better off by $20. The seller now has to sell their own cameras for $60 to stay competitive, so they are worse off by at most $20 -- however, if they voluntarily switch to some other business, then they'll be better off than they were when they were selling cameras for $60, and therefore worse off by some amount less than $20 from their original position. So on balance, abolishing protectionist tariffs would be good for Americans. "Therefore," writes Landsburg, "it seems to me that the protectionist's position is even less respectable than the creationist's. If you're convinced that most scientists are liars -- that everything they say about fossils, for example, is false -- then you can be a logically consistent creationist. But you can't be a logically consistent protectionist."
But the best part of reading an argument like that is to try and come up with a counter-argument that is equally rigorous. I think Landsburg is right, but only insofar as it applies to benefits to Americans. That leaves out another part of the equation: whether the production of cheaper foreign goods is harmful to foreigners providing the cheap labor. The textbook answer from economic theory is that the factory jobs must make workers better off (or at least no worse off) than they were before, otherwise they wouldn't have taken the jobs voluntarily. On the other hand, conditions in overseas sweatshops are so notoriously dangerous and unpleasant that it seems hard to believe the opportunities leave workers better off on balance. So you could be a logically consistent protectionist if you believe that: (a) sweatshop workers systematically underestimate how much the factory jobs are harming them; and (b) the harm done to the workers outweighs the benefits of lower prices for Americans. I'm not sure if these statements are true, but they are logically consistent. Still, Landsburg's argument is about as concise as possible and seems to refute any argument that protectionism makes
Americans better off on average.
In another chapter, Landsburg discusses the recent atheist bestsellers such as Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and suggests that these books are really directed against a non-existent enemy, because the evidence is quite strong that most adults do not really believe the tenets of any major religion anyway. There is the argument that "interfaith dialog" makes no sense if you really believe (as many major religions teach) that your own religion's tenets are settled beyond discussion. There is the argument that since economic theory consistently shows that people respond to threat of punishment, virtually no one behaves as if they actually believe in everlasting damnation after death as punishment for sin. And the fact that the voluntary martyrdom of suicide bombers is vastly more rare than most people believe, and a disproportionate number of those are children (as Landsburg says, "I do not deny that many children believe in God, just as I do not deny that many children believe in Santa Claus"). I'd wondered before about how many people really did believe in God, but in just a few pages this argument had me thinking that the number was a lot lower than I'd ever thought before.
On the other hand, there were some arguments that I didn't spend much time puzzling over at all. Landsburg summarizes the paradox of "free will", and his dismissal of the paradox, basically as follows: The interactions of atoms that make up our brains and our environments, are deterministic processes, so if you know the state of a system at a given point in time, you could predict the state at any future point in time if you had enough computational power (with a caveat about the randomness possibly introduced by quantum physics). "Where, then, is there room for free will?... Easy: There is room for free will on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, as the human being in question engages in deliberations that ultimately cause his actions." He says that just as "weather" is shorthand for the aggregate of the interactions of trillions of water molecules, "free will" is the same kind of shorthand:
"What caused your decision to get drunk and watch Mystery Science Theater the night before your philosophy final? Free will. An insane person might object that free will can't be it at all, because free will is just a shorthand term for an indescribably complex process involving trillions of neurons, which in turn can be described in terms of quadrillions of atoms and quintillions of subatomic particles. So what? You still have free will, and you know it."
I wrote Landsburg to object
that this misses what people really mean by "free will" -- it's not just
a shorthand term for the aggregate of particle interactions that make up human choices.
It means, very specifically, that you could possibly have done something other
than what you did. Landsburg replied to this objection by e-mail:
"I dispute that there is any way to make sense of a phrase like
'could possibly have done something else'. I know what it means
to say you did something; spacetime consists of all the things
that get done; it is what it is." And I agree; it's hard to pin down what
the statement means.
But it underlies all of our instincts and intuition about human choices and blame:
"You could have called yesterday, but you didn't." "I should have studied harder last
If determinism is true, then these statements make no sense, and therein lies what I think
most people mean then they refer to the paradox of determinism vs. free will. I think the
issue deserves more thought than it's given in the book.
This is followed by a passage arguing that the controversy over "ESP" is silly, because of course everyone knows certain things by "extra-sensory perception", if by that you mean "things perceived not through the senses" -- like mathematical truths, which are arrived at through thought and not sensory input. Writes Landsburg: "Some of those phenomena have one additional characteristic: They are physically impossible. But if you're going to define ESP by its impossibility, then of course there's no point in debating it... And if impossibility is not a criterion, then mathematical insight is as good an example of ESP -- in the everyday sense of the term -- as any instance of clairvoyance or telepathy." Actually, I think the everyday use of the word "ESP" refers to perceiving facts that do not logically have to be true (so mathematical facts are excluded) -- like "Someone is watching me right now" -- without sensory input. And, once you clarify the definition, most people agree there's no evidence for it, so the whole discussion seems uninteresting.
But even if you throw out 75% of the book's arguments (which is far more than I rejected), you should still enjoy puzzling through the remaining 25% and forming your own conclusions. The most interesting argument in the book, to me, is about how to properly answer the question: How much should the government be willing to spend, to save the life of one of it's citizens? Of course if you're Ayn Rand, the answer is zero, but if you want to answer the question according to the laws of economic efficiency, it's a tough one. Landsburg originally got into the debate by writing a column arguing that ventilator support was not the most efficient way to help the poor. (Unfortunately, he couched it in the language of "ventilator insurance", which I think clouded the issue. I think it would have been more clear to say: "If we're going to spend this money to help the poor at all, it would make more sense to spend it on groceries for a far larger number of people, than to spend it on ventilator support for one person.") Another more liberal economist, Robert Frank, responded with a New York Times editorial arguing with Landsburg's methods and coming up with his own reasoning. I think there are problems with the reasoning on both sides (not logical errors, but rather situations in which the rules that they have adopted, lead to paradoxes and untenable positions -- suggesting that both sides' axioms have to be thrown out), but I still don't know the answer. (My own opinion about the flaws in their logic, and an alternative answer, is at this link: "How much should government spend to save a single life?")
The Big Questions also has excursions into areas of science and mathematics that I had never fully understood before, and in some cases hadn't even thought about. Landsburg describes how he had first learned that colors could be arranged continuously into a color wheel, and later learned that they could be arranged continuously along a line according to their wavelengths, and then a friend pointed out the contradiction. Which is it? Do colors vary continuously in two dimensions (forming a wheel) or one (forming a line)? Or, wait a minute, we measure colors according to the strength of their red, green, and blue components, so don't they vary continuously in three dimensions? Well, the answer is in there.
There are also chapters on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Gödel's incompleteness theorem, and the quantum phenomenon of "spooky action at a distance", which explain all of the concepts more clearly than I'd ever heard them explained anywhere else. I think that most writers attempting to explain these concepts err either on the side of being too precise -- determined that everything they right be correct, with no regard for whether they reader grasps it or not -- or too vague -- giving the general air of mystery, but not explaining the rules governing how a phenomenon works, and how to work with those rules to derive other conclusions from them. Landsburg's chapter simply begins, "This chapter is full of lies. That's because I'll be explaining the foundations of quantum mechanics, and I assume that if you wanted a careful accounting of every detail, you'd be reading a textbook." The text then gives an example of considering an electron that moves in a conceptual "circle", where at some points on the circle it has a greater probability of manifesting itself in one location if you examine it, and at other points it has a greater probability of manifesting itself in another location. He uses this to dispel a common misconception about the uncertainty principle:
You're just idly wondering where the electron is. In most circumstances, quantum mechanics says that it's quite impossible for you to know the answer to that question.
Aha! A fundamental limitation on human knowledge, no? No. Here's why: Most of the time, the electron is nowhere. Asking "Where is the electron?" is akin to asking "What is the electron's favorite movie?". It's a nonsense question. The inability to answer nonsense questions is not a fundamental limitation on knowledge.
How can the electron be nowhere? Because electrons behave nothing at all like anything you're familiar with. Instead of a location, the electron has a quantum state.
This clarified something for me that had bugged me for years.
I never took a course in quantum physics, but I had indeed always assumed that
electrons did have a "location" and the uncertainty principle referred to a limit on our ability
to determine that location.
Unfortunately there are probably many people who get through an
entire course in quantum physics without getting this cleared up.
Balanced against these valuable insights are some libertarian arguments that are probably nothing you haven't heard before, especially if you have read of one of Landsburg's earlier books, Fair Play -- subtitled "What your child can teach you about economics, values, and the meaning of life", although the book was clearly about what he was teaching to his daughter. Many reviewers of Fair Play took note of passages like this one:
Most people have instinctive sympathy for the man who says "I tried for months to get a job and nobody would hire me. Only in desperation did I turn to theft." The same people have only scorn for the man who says "I tried for months to get a date and nobody would go out with me. Only in desperation did I turn to rape."
While I think most rape victims would have some choice words about the comparison,
I was more unpersuaded because the passage wasn't structured like a
In a good argument -- like Landsburg's earlier argument against protectionist tariffs --
-- you start with premises that seem apparently true, proceed
by steps that seem apparently valid, and end with a conclusion that may not have been
obvious from the outset. But in this case, the premise is the argument --
either you think rape and theft are comparable, or you don't. I don't think they are,
because (a) the harm to a rape victim is out of proportion to the "benefit" to the rapist,
and (b) notwithstanding the claims of college males, you won't actually die without sex.
(Just as a thought experiment, if you would die without sex, and a man hadn't
been able to get any women to sleep with him, and the government didn't provide any sort
of sex "safety net", more people probably would feel sympathy for the rapist, if he only
did it to save his own life.)
Some passages in The Big Questions are recycled from Fair Play and require a (just) slightly more thoughtful rebuttal. Landsburg argues that most parents, deep down, must not believe in redistributive taxation because
"I have never, ever, heard a parent say to a child that it's okay to forcibly take toys away from other children who have more toys than you do. Nor have I ever heard a parent tell a child that if one kid has more toys than the others, then it's okay for those others to form a 'government' and vote to take those toys away."
OK, but... I have also never
heard a parent tell their child that it was OK to build a "jail" and put other kids in that
"jail" for wrongdoing. And yet almost everyone, even libertarians, supports some form of
imprisonment for lawbreakers. The lesson here is that there are some powers that are appropriate
to delegate to a democratically elected government, with all the right checks and balances, but
that you don't want random vigilantes seizing for themselves. So if you want a principled
argument against taxation, it would take more than that.
And other passages in Fair Play deservedly did not make the cut of being imported into The Big Questions:
The massacre at Waco took place only days after my daughter (then aged six) had asked me how the government uses our tax dollars. When she walked in on the television coverage of flamed and carnage, I told her that now she was seeing the answer to her question. And when she heard that there were children in there, that they were burning children, her eyes grew wide with horror, and I both hope and believe that she will never forget that moment.
If you want 230 pages of that, then Fair Play is the book for you!
Of the libertarian arguments that did get carried over into The Big Questions, I think the problem with most of them is not that I think the conclusion is wrong, but, again, that the whole argument is the premise, and if you disagree with the premise then there's nothing to think about. For example:
Bert wants to hire an office manager and Ernie wants to manage an office. The law allows Ernie to refuse any job for any reason. If he doesn't like Albanians, he doesn't have to work for one. Bert is held to a higher standard: If he lets it be known that no Albanians need apply, he'd better have a damned good lawyer.
These asymmetries grate against the most fundamental requirement of fairness -- that people should be treated equally, in the sense that their rights and responsibilities should not change because of irrelevant external circumstances.
But I think the laws do treat all people equally, because they apply equally whether Bert is
discriminating in deciding whether to hire Ernie, or whether Ernie is discriminating in
deciding whether to hire Bert. The laws don't apply equally to all roles that people
play, which is the distinction that Landsburg is highlighting -- but laws never apply
equally to different roles, since roles are defined by what we do, and what is the point of
laws, except to draw distinctions based on behaviors? So there may be some other argument
against anti-discrimination laws, but "symmetry" by itself wouldn't be enough.
A footnote in this chapter of The Big Questions says, "Portions of this chapter are adapted from my earlier book Fair Play." In the margin where I'd been scribbling all of my notes and equations and counterarguments, I wrote, "That's what's wrong with it!"
And yet, as I said, I would probably have paid up to about $200 for the book, based on how much I enjoyed the parts that I did like. At one point Landsburg praises an insight from Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter and adds, "You should read all their books." Yes, and all of Richard Dawkins's and Malcolm Gladwell's and Steven Pinker's and Dubner's and Levitt's books, for starters. Landsburg himself would probably agree that it's more important to read those books, than this one. But there's time in your life to read The Big Questions as well. It's even structured so you can consume it in bite-sized portions while taking a break from working your way through those other books -- which are, in truth, more valuable, but not as much fun.
You can purchase The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics and Physics from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.