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

Overview

In the wake of his enormously popular books The Armchair Economist and More Sex Is Safer Sex, Slate columnist and economics professor Steven Landsburg employs concepts from mathematics, economics, and physics in this sprightly tour of the deepest problems in philosophy: What is real? What can we know? Why is there something instead of nothing? And how should we live?

Beginning with the broadest philosophical issues—theories of existence, knowledge, and ethics—Landsburg then ...

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

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Overview

In the wake of his enormously popular books The Armchair Economist and More Sex Is Safer Sex, Slate columnist and economics professor Steven Landsburg employs concepts from mathematics, economics, and physics in this sprightly tour of the deepest problems in philosophy: What is real? What can we know? Why is there something instead of nothing? And how should we live?

Beginning with the broadest philosophical issues—theories of existence, knowledge, and ethics—Landsburg then turns to a dazzling variety of specific applications. He gives us a mathematical analysis for arguments for the existence of God; explains the real meanings of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem; and carefully dissects the meaning of social responsibility on the playground, in the marketplace, and in the voting booth.

Stimulating, illuminating, and always surprising, The Big Questions reveals the relationship between the loftiest philosophical quests and our everyday lives.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Slate columnist and Economics professor Steven Landsburg (The Armchair Economist; More Sex Is Safer Sex) thinks that it's high time that we utilized other disciplines to gain true glimmers of problems that furrowed the brows of Plato, Heidegger, and even Marcel Duchamp. Landsburg's topics and strategies are various; he approaches the existence of God mathematically and explains what economics can teach us about decisions confronting us on Election Day. He even describes what commonly misunderstood concept such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and the Gödel Incompleteness Theorem really mean. Authentically stimulating brain food.
From the Publisher
"Steven E. Landsburg's latest book of economic brain teasers resembles one of those Hanayama metal puzzles that you're supposed to pull apart: They drive me crazy, yet I can't put them down. Landsburg is the University of Rochester professor who brought us The Armchair Economist and More Sex Is Safer Sex.... In The Big Questions, he attempts something more ambitious and slightly less flip: to sum up his ideas about 'the nature of reality, the basis of knowledge and the foundations of ethics."' Be prepared for a diverting journey into the maze of one man's mind, a supply-and-demand version of the movie Being John Malkovich.Bloomburg News

"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

"The Big Questions is a funky book, like an intellectual roller coaster ride through some of the most fascinating ideas in science, math and economics. These are the ideas, says the author - a University of Rochester professor of economics - that unlock the most perplexing mysteries in philosophy and life, in general. His book is a thought provoking blast." — David Henderson

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.)
Library Journal
Landsburg (economics, Univ. of Rochester; The Armchair Economist; More Sex Is Safer Sex) grasps that the bedrock of physics is mathematics, that certain truths exist (e.g., there is no integer between two and three; there is no largest prime number), and that mathematics is our best hope for organizing the mass of data we have about our society and our money. From there, he swings into theology, philosophy, and morals, advising students to stay away from English departments except for recreation and writing that philosophers mostly talk about "dead white guys" who might be better left alone. He cuts down Richard Dawkins and some of the current "intelligent design people" (but he seems not to have read some of the more convincing writers on both sides of that debate). His own case against God disposes of 2500 years of philosophical theology in a few sentences. VERDICT Landsburg is entertaining and sometimes right, but anyone who wants a quick rundown of these questions that will not mislead would be advised to read instead David Bohm's Science, Order, and Creativity, 2d ed.—Leslie Armour, Dominican Univ. Coll., Ottawa, Ont.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439148228
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 10/19/2010
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,383,045
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven E. Landsburg is a Professor of Economics at the University of Rochester. He is the author of The Armchair Economist, Fair Play, More Sex is Safer Sex, The Big Questions, two textbooks in economics, a forthcoming textbook on general relativity and cosmology, and over 30 journal articles in mathematics, economics and philosophy. His current research is in the area of quantum game theory. He blogs daily at www.TheBigQuestions.com. For over ten years, he wrote the monthly "Everyday Economics" column in Slate magazine, and has written regularly for Forbes and occasionally for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He appeared as a commentator on the PBS/Turner Broadcasting series "Damn Right", and has made over 200 appearances on radio and television broadcasts over the past few years.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Beginning of the Journey xiii

Part I Reality and Unreality 1

1 On What There Is 3

2 Unfinished Business: Going Bananas 21

3 How Richard Dawkins Got It Wrong: The Case Against God 29

Part II Beliefs 39

4 Daydream Believers 41

5 Unfinished Business 45

6 What Do Believers Believe? 55

7 On What There Obviously Is 67

8 Diogenes' Nightmare 75

Part III Knowledge 87

9 Knowing Your Math 89

10 Unfinished Business: Hercules and the Hydra 99

11 Incomplete Thinking 105

12 The Rules of Logic and the Tale of the Potbellied Pig 111

13 The Rules of Evidence 123

14 The Limits to Knowledge 135

15 Unfinished Business: Quantum Entanglement 143

Part IV Right and Wrong 151

16 Telling Right from Wrong 153

17 The Economist's Golden Rule 163

18 How to Be Socially Responsible: A User's Guide to the Economist's Golden Rule 171

19 On Not Being a Jerk 181

20 The Economist on the Playground 191

21 Unfinished Business: Let the Rabbi Split the Pie 205

Part V The Life of the Mind 215

22 How to Think 217

23 What to Study: Some Advice to College Students 237

Appendix 249

Acknowledgments 257

Index 259

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