Reviews

Click here for reviews of The Armchair Economist. Click here to read the preface.

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What’s being said about The Big Questions:

“This is one of the strangest and most compelling
books I’ve ever read. Whatever you think and believe
about any one of dozens of the biggest questions in
life, be prepared to have your deepest presuppositions
challenged and your most cherished beliefs shaken, if
not overturned. Landsburg fearlessly wades into icons
and ideologies with fresh insights I’ve encountered
nowhere else. Landsburg’s mind is like a bizarre amalgam
of Godel, Escher, and Borat, with a little Wittgenstein
thrown in for good measure. I’ll buy a beer for anyone
who can read this book and not be stunned by its
originality.”
–Michael Shermer
Publisher of Skeptic magazine
monthly columnist for Scientific American
author of The Mind of the Market

From Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution:

In The Big Questions, Steven Landsburg ventures far beyond his usual domain to take on questions in metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Beginning with Plato, mathematicians have argued for the reality of mathematical forms. Rene Thom, for example, once said “mathematicians should have the courage of their most profound convictions and thus affirm that mathematical forms indeed have an existence that is independent of the mind considering them.” Roger Penrose put it more simply, mathematical abstractions are “like Mount Everest,” they are, he said, “just there.”

All this 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. Moreover, Landsburg’s view is not empty, it does have real implications. Since there is no uncertainty in math, for example, Landsburg’s view supports a hidden variables or multiple-worlds view of quantum physics.

Speaking of quantum physics, The Big Questions, has the clearest explanation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle that I have ever read. In fact, this is a necessary consequence of Landsburg’s metaphysical views; since it’s all math all the way down, the explanation of the uncertainty principle is the explanation of the math and any true uncertainty or mystery is simply a fault of our own misunderstanding.

Turning to epistemology, the theory of beliefs and knowledge, two chapters stand out for me. I learned a lot from Landsburg remarkable clear explanation of Aumann’s agreement theorem–and I say that despite the fact that in the office next to mine is Robin Hanson, one of the world’s experts on the theorem (see Robin’s papers on disagreement and also his paper with Tyler, but read Landsburg first!).

Landsburg’s skills of explanation are also brought to bear in a wonderful little chapter explaining the theory of instrumental variables and of structural econometric modeling – and this from an avowedly armchair economist!

Finally for those, like me, who loved The Armchair Economist and More Sex is Safer Sex there is also lots of economics in The Big Questions. Highly recommended.

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From James Pressley at Bloomberg.com:

Nov. 25 (Bloomberg) — 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.” He put the pop in popular economics long before “Freakonomics” came along.

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.”

Written as a chain of essays, the book dips into physics, mathematics and economics to answer the eternal questions of philosophy: Where did the universe come from? How do we know right from wrong? Why does my computer hate me?

(Answer: “Your computer doesn’t hate you; it just seems that way when you run Microsoft products.”)

The alpha and the omega of existence for this homo economicus all boils down to mathematics. I count, therefore I am? No, Landsburg means something much more fundamental.

“I believe that everything — you, your consciousness, and the Universe that you and I inhabit — exists because everything is a mathematical structure,” he writes.

Peano’s Axioms

This assertion leads by degrees into discussions about Intelligent Design, Giuseppe Peano’s axioms, Kurt Goedel’s incompleteness theorem, and all manner of stuff that Landsburg can’t explain “without more mathematics than you want to see.”

Landsburg can get a tad supercilious for a guy who’s often just rambling on, as he puts it, “not to make any particular point but because it seemed to fit in and I think it’s interesting.” Yet he kept me coming back for more, thanks to his wit and crisp explanations of why we see color, how to identify a spy, and what he calls the Economist’s Golden Rule, which bases decisions on costs and benefits.

“Like more traditional versions of the Golden Rule, it enjoins you to love your neighbor as yourself,” he explains. “A cost is a cost and a benefit is a benefit, whether they’re felt by you, your neighbor, or a stranger in Timbuktu.”

Quantum Mechanics

Along the way, he explains quantum mechanics and reminds us of why “more sex is safer sex.” When the promiscuous few dominate the market for one-night stands, it raises the risk of infection for everyone, the argument goes. So if relatively chaste people would just loosen up and have a few more sexual partners, HIV would spread more slowly, Landsburg says, drawing on research by economist Michael Kremer.

Whoever goes home with the relative prude is “destined for a night of safe sex,” Landsburg writes. “They’re getting even luckier than they realize.”

Landsburg is an atheist, and he goes to great lengths to argue that believers are deluded. He doesn’t really define what he means by the word “God,” though his remarks suggest that he views deity as an anthropomorphic Zeus with a William Blake beard slinging thunderbolts from the heavens.

If so, I have news for him: Many devout people see God as a Principle, not a Person. In that sense, his belief in the primacy of mathematics makes him more religious than he thinks.

Headache Cure

The convenient thing about being irreligious is that it frees you to think the unthinkable. Hence, Landsburg revels in discussing a paper in which a philosopher posed this scenario:

“The Headache Problem: A billion people are experiencing fairly minor headaches, which will continue for another hour unless an innocent person is killed, in which case they will cease immediately. Is it okay to kill that innocent person?”

The obvious answer is yes, Landsburg says. Here’s why: Virtually no one will pay $1 to avoid a one-in-a-billion chance of death. Yet most people would pay $1 to cure a headache. Ergo, most people “think a headache is worse than a one-in-a-billion chance of death,” he says. Killing one person would “replace your headache with a one-in-a-billion chance of death.”

Sophistry is the word that comes to mind. Unless, of course, Landsburg is willing to sacrifice his first-born child on the altar of headaches.