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The Big Questions 229

Posted by samzenpus
from the read-all-about-it dept.
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 Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics and Physics
author Steven E. Landsburg
pages 288 pages
publisher Free Press
rating 8/10
reviewer Bennett Haselton
ISBN 978-1439148211
summary Steven Landsburg uses concepts from mathematics, economics, and physics to address the big questions in philosophy
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. There's nothing 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 night." 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 true argument. 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.

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The Big Questions

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  • by eldavojohn (898314) * <eldavojohnNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:35PM (#30036142) Journal

    What caused your decision to get drunk and watch Mystery Science Theater the night before your philosophy final?

    My god, it's like looking into a mirror.

    Free will.

    Oddly enough when I responded to the last question on the final by drawing parallels between getting drunk and watching MST3K with Krishnamurti's The First and Last Freedom [wikipedia.org], my professor assured me that it was sloven stupidity--not free will--and graded me accordingly.

    • by Brian Gordon (987471) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:58PM (#30036396)

      That free will section is embarrassing. I assume the days is a reference to this logic puzzle [xkcd.com]? His answer is just stupid. "So what? You still have free will and you know it." Wow, how convincing. You should write a book or something.

      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)

      Even without quantum physics this isn't true, as it solves the halting problem. See Laplace's demon [wikipedia.org].

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by VernonNemitz (581327)
        The part about free will is ignoring the fact that neurons are "fine" enough to be affected by such things as the Uncertainty Principle. This introduces some fundamental randomness in the system, which in turn means human actions are not necessarily purely deterministic.
        • by Toonol (1057698)
          Quantum uncertainty doesn't really solve the problem of free will. Replacing 'determinism' with 'chance' isn't a particular improvement. I think it's a problem with our definition of free will; it's so OBVIOUS what we mean by it, that it's hard to put into words.

          Free will exists, in my opinion, but due to a different kind of 'uncertainty principle'... chaos theory. The brain is a very chaotic system, and there is no way to predict its future behavior short of making an exact copy of the brain and feed
          • The introduction of randomness into a system dramatically increases the POSSIBILITIES. Purely deterministic systems are inherently limited as to the possibilites. But give even a somewhat deterministic "ability to make choices" a greater list of choices, and that alone is a kind of freedom. An example of this comes from religious teachings, where it is supposedly superior to turn the other cheek than to strike a blow, as a response to receiving a blow. But where did the THOUGHT come from, regarding turn
            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by Evil Pete (73279)

              I have never understood this whole debate. Randomness does not mean free-will. Just because there is a random factor does not mean you have a "real" choice, any more than if you lived your life by a roll of the dice. And I have never heard anyone give me a satisfactory definition of free-will. It always seems like a sloppy notion that human beings use but have never worked out. No wonder we get confused.

              • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                by Toonol (1057698)
                There's some sort of decision-making mechanism in the human brain, but I think that our observations about it are distorted by an extreme perspective problem. It's difficult to study anybody else's consciousness, and we're right in the MIDDLE of our own consciousness. The way 'choice' feels is important, and probably reveals much, but it's hard to tell what. Feelings aren't proof of anything, but when we're studying our own consciousness, feelings ARE part of what we're studying.

                The choice we make doe
          • by smaddox (928261)

            FREE WILL as in you are FREE to attempt to rigorously define it, but you never WILL. That's the problem.

        • by noundi (1044080)

          The part about free will is ignoring the fact that neurons are "fine" enough to be affected by such things as the Uncertainty Principle. This introduces some fundamental randomness in the system, which in turn means human actions are not necessarily purely deterministic.

          Don't mix random and undeterminable. The observer is not the centre of the universe, so don't put yourself in that position. Even if you're able or unable to observe certain actions and reactions they are not bound to your observing. The fact that you are even able to observe is the product of a reaction, so the action has already taken place. Thus fate may very well still exist.

      • by elrous0 (869638) *

        Well, in a sense, he's right. Since "free will" is a construct of language that we all *basically* agree on, that itself gives it about as much meaning as we are capable of. Just the fact that we believe we have options implies that we do from our own limited perspective, otherwise the possibility that we could even consider this to be the case would be insanity. Now our perspective is limited, granted, but if you're going to just throw it out completely because of that limitation, then you would also have

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:38PM (#30036184)

    Precisely because the big questions will never be answered by mathematics, economics and physics, but in the minds of mad apes trapped in a pointless existence.

    As I get older, I still find myself an atheist, but I now longer feel logic and reason and math will ever prove God doesn't exist, and I no longer expect everyone to agree with me.

       

    • by MightyMartian (840721) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:44PM (#30036248) Journal

      You mean you actually thought that any of these things could prove the non-existence of such a being? The way that God, or at least the Judeo-Christian god is formulated, it cannot be done. Such a being is quite beyond any rational ability to disprove, by its very nature. But that's hardly an argument for God's existence. If I claim "Ten thousand invisible massless non-radiating faeries live in your left testicle", I have formulated similar beings whose existence is beyond science, mathematics, logic or any other rational approach. Does that mean they exist, or does it simply mean humans can create hypothetical or imaginary beings of that can't be disproven?

      The real question isn't whether God exists or not, but whether or not such a being is even necessary. I can't disprove the existence of Thor, but I think we sufficiently understand lightning and thunder that we no longer need to invoke him as an explanation for these phenomena.

      • by JimboFBX (1097277)
        Then how do you explain that hot girl from high school messaging me after not talking to me for over three years, and me having a dream with her in it the prior night? Or what about the stock market always moving in the direction opposite I want it to after I buy or sell stock, reversing often times a week long trend just moments after I execute my order?

        Clearly this proves there is a god, and he likes to torment me.
        • by nacturation (646836) * <`moc.liamg' `ta' `noitarutcan'> on Monday November 09, 2009 @02:31PM (#30036872) Journal

          Then how do you explain that hot girl from high school messaging me after not talking to me for over three years, and me having a dream with her in it the prior night?

          Feynman explained this one quite well in "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman". I don't remember exactly how the story went, but here's a retelling that gets a similar point across:

          "I was fast asleep and I had the most vivid dream that my grandmother had died. Then, the phone rang and woke me up in the middle of the night. With hesitation, I answered the phone. It was a wrong number."

          The point being that coincidences happen all the time. You only tend to remember the ones that match up. How many times have you thought about somebody and they didn't get in touch with you? Nobody tells the story of having dreamed about someone and they didn't call them.

          • I prefer to think of it in this way: although the likelihood of any given improbable coincidence occurring is incredibly low, there are an even greater quantity of opportunities for such improbable coincidences to occur. In fact, since just about anything can be qualified as improbable the number is infinite. Why, just now the dishwasher in my kitchen clicked at the same time as a bird out side my window chirped! That is an amazing coincidence, no?

            Given that there are so many possible improbable coinc

      • by martyros (588782)

        The way that God, or at least the Judeo-Christian god is formulated, it cannot be done.

        I won't address this question; but I will say that the way Christianity is formulated it can be done. The Bible says: "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. ...And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep[i.e., died] in Ch

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by MightyMartian (840721)

          Well, to the limits that we can test things, we know that dead people don't come back to life, particularly after three days, at which point in most normal temperate environments putrefaction is well on its way.

          That being said, again we run up against a being of unlimited powers. Once you invoke such a being, why even reversal of putrefaction and rescucitation is possible. You simply cannot falsify the claim "Christ rose from the dead" because it relies once again upon the actions of an alleged omnipotent

          • by martyros (588782)

            So, suppose that Jesus really did just die. Then, inexplicably, a bunch of his followers, within 40 days after him being killed, run around telling everyone that he's alive and risen from the dead. Were they lying? Were they deceived? Were they crazy? Or were they telling the truth? There have been lots of examples of charismatic leaders gathering a following who thought he was something special. But how many other leaders, after being killed in a very public way, had their followers proclaim them st

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by MightyMartian (840721)

              Sadly, ludicrous stories can gain ground incredibly quickly (look up urban legends). Ignoring for the moment the fact that we have no actual first hand accounts of any of the events (the Gospels are highly problematic and the earliest was written down decades after the events). Even sources like Josephus (which really is the only other source outside the New Testament which mentions Jesus), discounting where his work was tampered with later on, only really mentions that the guy was a preacher from Nazaret

              • by martyros (588782)

                The Mormons believe Joseph E. Smith was in congress with angels and recorded what he saw on metallic scrolls to make the Book of Mormon. Scientology is an even younger and equally absurd religion.

                You're not making a distinction between what people will believe other people tell them, and what people will say they saw themselves. Joseph Smith was murdered; but he was never captured by the government and told that he had to recant all this nonsense about metallic scrolls and so on or be fed to lions. And he

                • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                  by MightyMartian (840721)

                  I don't think one needs to invoke fraud. People can be quite positive of things like alien abductions, certainly sure enough to pass polygraphs, when it clearly didn't happen. Clearly the notion of "ecstatic truth" comes into play. Basically, the fact remains, that people can believe absurd things, even things that they believe themselves to have experienced, when all rational evidence indicates that they could not have. Call it self-delusion if you like.

                  The fact is that the earliest accounts of the Res

            • by tomhudson (43916)

              So, suppose that Jesus really did just die. Then, inexplicably, a bunch of his followers, within 40 days after him being killed, run around telling everyone that he's alive and risen from the dead. Were they lying? Were they deceived? Were they crazy? Or were they telling the truth? There have been lots of examples of charismatic leaders gathering a following who thought he was something special. But how many other leaders, after being killed in a very public way, had their followers proclaim them still ali

              • What about El Ron Hitler ?

              • by martyros (588782)
                I wasn't aware that Scientologists claim that L. Ron Hubbard rose from the dead, or that Hitler had a group of followers who claimed that he'd risen from the dead. (Hitler didn't die in public anyway.) You're going to have to give me some references if you want me to believe it. :-)
    • by pitchpipe (708843)

      I still find myself an atheist, but I now longer feel logic and reason and math will ever prove God doesn't exist

      Just because we believe that logic and reason as we presently know them do not have anything to say about the existence/non-existence of a god does not mean that in the future they will not, and I think that part of the book is in a way saying as much. By what means do you arrive at such a conclusion that from now until forever a way will not be found in reason and logic so that they will have something to say on the existence of a god?

      Side note: I characterize myself as an atheist as well, but in reality

      • How could you ever apply a meaningful metric to whether God exists or not? By what means could you ever test it? I don't care how far into the future we go, the nature of testability will not change. An allegedly omnipotent, omniscient being is beyond the capacity of anything less than another omniscient being to prove or disprove.

        Science takes the a-theistic (not atheistic, mind you) approach that the question, being unanswerable, should not play a part in naturalistic research. Science leaves the ques

      • "By what means do you arrive at such a conclusion that from now until forever a way will not be found in reason and logic so that they will have something to say on the existence of a god?"

        No, no, no... that's not the case: It's terribly easy for reason and logic to say something on the existance of God: it's only needed for God to come down on His Holly Glory and go to Letterman's for an interview. It is about the *non*existance of God where problems begin.

        And then, "Just because we believe that logic and

  • by DriedClexler (814907) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:49PM (#30036290)

    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."

    Wow, he dismisses a major issue in the free will debate offhand. That tells me all I need to know about him.

    Well, that, plus this post [thebigquestions.com] on his blog:

    In fact, the most complex thing I'm aware of is the system of natural numbers (0,1,2,3, and all the rest of them) together with the laws of arithmetic. That system did not emerge, by gradual degrees, from simpler beginnings.

    If you doubt the complexity of the natural numbers, take note that you can use just a small part of them to encode the entire human genome. That makes the natural numbers more complex than human life.

    Um, no. Just ... just, no.

    • spacetime consists of all the things that get done; it is what it is."

      Wow, he dismisses a major issue in the free will debate offhand.

      It seems to me that 'space-time' is not only all the things that get done, but is also, inseparably, many more things that could be done that might not be. And there's no clear line that divides the two. If you take away the ambiguity, it doesn't work.

    • He wants to prove that everything is essentially deterministic (waving his hands a bit, possibly justifiably, at the QM stuff), and claims that free will is a sort of emergent property. And does that by assuming that everything is deterministic. Um, ok.

      I haven't read the book, but from the summary it seems as if it's part of a genre of books popular in recent years, in which experts in some field try to apply what they know to some other field that they don't know anything about... with sort of dubious resu

  • I'm glad (Score:3, Funny)

    by Cornwallis (1188489) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:57PM (#30036392)

    the guy who played Dietrich in Barney Miller finally put his years of thought-provoking comments in a book. I can't wait to read it.

  • Protectionism (Score:2, Insightful)

    by benjamindees (441808)

    I have never seen an economist or "libertarian" give a convincing argument against protectionist tariffs.

    however, if they voluntarily switch to some other business

    Every argument always hinges on some inane assumption like a free market for labor or ignores production and instead focuses on individuals trading finished goods or promotes sacrificing long term gains for short term profit or assumes that new and better industries and business opportunities will always spring up or ignores the reality that the reason tariffs exist is to protect a nation's industry agai

    • Re:Protectionism (Score:5, Interesting)

      by vlm (69642) on Monday November 09, 2009 @02:18PM (#30036666)

      I have never seen an economist or "libertarian" give a convincing argument against protectionist tariffs.

      OK I'm an amateur at both, I'll give it a try in support:

      Suppose that an American sells cameras for $80 but a foreigner wants to sell cameras in America for $60 apiece.

      OK, if it were a free market between equal players, you'd have a point. But it is not, because at least some players in the market are not free (the Chinese) and some players are kept ignorant thus cannot play the game fairly (the USA). The $80 camera was made in a facility that is at least semi-environmentally sound and respects at least some human rights, and the Chinese one is made by slaves working in an ecological disaster. We pretend that is unacceptable for humans to live like the Chinese, at least its unacceptable if they are Americans. So either its OK to save money by skipping all those human rights things, in which case we should do the same here (please don't be that stupid), or the Chinese are not humans like us (please don't be that stupid). Protectionist tariffs level the playing field at least partially, and are therefore critical economically for a free, libertarian market.

      • Protectionist tariffs level the playing field at least partially, and are therefore critical economically for a free, libertarian market.

        I don't think those words mean what you think they mean. What you describe is exactly the opposite: a coercive, authoritarian market.

        If you have protectionist tariffs then your market is neither free nor libertarian. If these tariffs were in fact "critical economically" then free, libertarian markets would be a contradiction. Fortunately, they're not.

        • Re:Protectionism (Score:4, Insightful)

          by vlm (69642) on Monday November 09, 2009 @03:21PM (#30037554)

          I don't think those words mean what you think they mean. What you describe is exactly the opposite: a coercive, authoritarian market.

          If you have protectionist tariffs then your market is neither free nor libertarian. If these tariffs were in fact "critical economically" then free, libertarian markets would be a contradiction. Fortunately, they're not.

          Oh, I agree with you completely, tariffs ALONE would result in a coercive authoritarian market.

          But we already have a coercive authoritarian market because of a seemingly infinite collection of government social engineering regulations.

          At least some of the time, one simple tariff can cancel out the distorting effects of hundreds of govt social engineering regulations, leaving an almost free market. Thats why they are critical economically, not subtracting out the cost of regulations via tariffs is like not subtracting expenses from incomes to get profit, or something truly basic like that.

          Example, using political prisoners is free for the Chinese, giving them a $10 unfair advantage over free Americans. No free market can exist. Adding a $10 tariff results in something almost like a free market.

          Tariffs and government regulation must be balanced, they algebraically cancel each other, like yin and yang or whatever.

        • How to make a bomb (Score:3, Insightful)

          by copponex (13876)

          Markets are systems. Systems, if you care if they exist or not, must be regulated. The free market you're talking about is like supernova. Yes, eventually there will be some sort of equilibrium, but it's useless to everything it destroyed in order to reach that state. If you want to build a bomb, you don't throw random volatile elements into a mason jar and shake it up, unless you have a death wish.

          Let me give you an example. You probably know Adam Smith's name. Due to your simplistic interpretation of "fre

      • by tixxit (1107127)
        While your point is a good one, you are assuming "protectionist tariffs" only target countries with environmental or human rights abuses. What about tariffs whose sole purpose is to keep purchasing within the United States, and not just to "level the playing field." Many countries are being hurt by protectionist tariffs in the US, such as Canada. We have manufacturing plants that adhere to strict environmental standards, offer their employees good jobs with benefits and have lower prices to boot, yet are be
        • by vlm (69642)

          We have manufacturing plants that adhere to strict environmental standards, offer their employees good jobs with benefits and have lower prices to boot, yet are being turned down contracts they would normally receive due to protectionist requirements put in place by the US gov't.

          1st answer - Corruption has and always will exist, but it says a lot more about the human condition in general than it does about the individual tools used in that corruption. Just your bad luck the wrong corporation donated to Obama or some congressmen or whatever. Better luck next election? Bribery in our elections result in un-free markets, regardless of using tariffs or not.

          2nd answer - Misuse of one individual tool does not mean the entire class of that tool is inherently evil. Insert gun control a

        • by FooAtWFU (699187)
          Many tariffs are put in place because some industry or union has lobbied against the "unfair competition!!" overseas and basically wants a bigger slice of Americans' wallet in the end. "The environment" or "exploitation" is the excuse for the tariff, not the actual reason (like Bush taking us into Iraq- WMDs were the excuse- and sometimes the excuses are actually true.)

          In these cases, the economic winners are few and concentrated (e.g. GM autoworkers) and have a large incentive to produce political pressu

    • Ok, I haven't read the book. But the protectionism stuff laid out in the summary is yet another dumb argument - it doesn't account for a number of things: 1) people aren't perfectly free to switch from line of business to another at the drop of a hat, 2) changing businesses is risky, and people like to avoid risk, so much so that they'll pay for it, but his accounting doesn't include the cost of this risk. 3) etc, etc.

      Without having read the book it's hard to say for sure, but from the examples cited it see

    • I have never seen an economist or "libertarian" give a convincing argument against protectionist tariffs.

      Then you haven't bothered looking.

      or ignores the reality that the reason tariffs exist is to protect a nation's industry against the predatory practices of potentially hostile nation-states.

      Maybe you just like alliteration... but that statement is in no way true.

      First, "predatory" is a loaded adjective, and is meaningless in terms of economic activity. Is it "predatory" for people in one country to wor

      • Re:Protectionism (Score:4, Insightful)

        by vlm (69642) on Monday November 09, 2009 @03:12PM (#30037404)

        First, "predatory" is a loaded adjective, and is meaningless in terms of economic activity. Is it "predatory" for people in one country to work for lower wages than the people in another country? Because that's the kind of "predatory" situation that is stopped by tariffs.

        Yes, when the wage difference is due to social engineering governmental policies. Tariffs balance those differences out, thus creating a free(-er) market.

        So, there is little need for US and German automakers to put tariffs on each other, because those governments are approximately, more or less equal. (I am sorry if I just insulted the entire German slashdot readership, my defense is its true, at least relative to my other example)

        However, everything that China exports to the USA desperately needs USA import tariffs because the Chinese government actively encourages activities that the US government wisely will not permit USA companies to use, such as slave labor, no environmental controls at all, no worker safety regulations, limited/no health care (admittedly somewhat applies to USA), no product liability, no IP laws at all, industrial espionage is permitted (if not encouraged), etc.

        Can't have a free market, when the players aren't equally free (or at least brought to mostly the same level by tariffs)

        • Yes, when the wage difference is due to social engineering governmental policies. Tariffs balance those differences out, thus creating a free(-er) market.

          No, tariffs exacerbate those problems. Sure, you'll see equivalently priced goods in the short run. But this puts even more downward pressure on wages in the poorer country. This also exerts pressure on the other country to NOT bring their manufacturing-related regulations up to snuff.

          You don't create an even playing field via protectionist tariffs. T

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by benjamindees (441808)

        Okay, so let's say I want to work for zero wages to give your country free drugs. They're free. I'll refine and ship them to your citizens for free. Do you want to enact a tariff on them or would you be better off accepting them?

        What if it's poisoned children's toys instead?

        How about food subsidies. I'll send your citizens free food. Would you accept it or would it be better for your citizens to grow their own food? Don't worry, I wouldn't cut off your food supplies and then declare war on you.

        Ammunit

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by vlm (69642)

          Okay, so let's say I want to work for zero wages to give your country free drugs. They're free. I'll refine and ship them to your citizens for free. Do you want to enact a tariff on them or would you be better off accepting them?

          "the first hit is always free". Perhaps you meant legal drugs... Or isn't that also the business model of Doctors samples?

        • How about food subsidies. I'll send your citizens free food. Would you accept it or would it be better for your citizens to grow their own food? Don't worry, I wouldn't cut off your food supplies and then declare war on you.

          Ammunition? Tires? Steel?

          You think that security is not accounted for as a cost?

          The answer to the security issue is not tariffs. It's subsidization, which is non-directional. Tariffs have a host of problems, both economically and diplomatically.

    • by martyros (588782)

      The reviewer talks about wanting to find the flaw in the argument. One flaw in the argument against tariffs is that it stops too soon. In the "free trade" scenario, he neglects to point out that now you have a trade deficit with a foreign country. Until you understand what "trade deficit" means and why it's bad, you can't see why the argument shouldn't stop where it is.

      I'm certainly not an economist, but here's my understanding. Economy, at its heart, is just people doing things for each other. Before

    • I have never seen an economist or "libertarian" give a convincing argument against protectionist tariffs.

      The problem I see with the anti-protectionism argument is that the models used are too simple: They try to maximize total GDP over the longer run. While that's certainly a laudable goal, it should not be the only factor. As an analogy, if you want to maximize return on investments over the longer run, then start-up stocks and derivatives would be the way to go. On paper, that's what would give you the ma

  • "Big" question? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CannonballHead (842625) on Monday November 09, 2009 @01:59PM (#30036410)

    It's a "big" question to ask why there are atheistic best sellers?

    most adults do not really believe the tenets of any major religion anyway.

    Of course not. The question is, do most adults believe some of the tenets?

    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.

    Ah yes. The "you have to have an open mind" argument. I guess evolution, global warming, and government health care debates, on the other hand, really ARE settled beyond discussion. [/sarcasm]. Seriously though - I know many major religions are of the gnostic type... hvae to have higher knowledge, enlightened, etc. But what exactly does "beyond discussion" mean? Not doubting/convinced? It seems that not-being-in-doubt and being-convinced are feelings reserved for atheists, now. Only someone dogmatically believing in the non-existence of an entity are allowed to be sure of their belief. Which is odd, since most logicians will tell you that it is much harder to prove non-existence than it is to prove existence. I wonder why Landsburg didn't mention that? Seems like that is a "big question" - why are many logicians and scientists atheists, since they are so careful not to deny existence of other things that we don't even have evidence for; they simply understand that denying existence is a big logical step in that you have to disprove every possible existence first. When it comes to the supernatural/God though, they are quite willing to believe in a non-existence and not be open to discussion. Why does Landsburg only pick on those who are convinced, perhaps illogically, that God does exist?

    Incidentally, you can be illogically convinced to believe an correct thing, and you can be logically convinced to believe an incorrect thing. Logic is an argument; what you logically deduce or induce from makes a big difference, as your premise may be wrong, thus your conclusion could be wrong as well.

    virtually no one behaves as if they actually believe in everlasting damnation after death as punishment for sin.

    Most people don't behave like there is death at all. Most people don't want to talk about death, don't want to hear about death, and don't even want to think about death. Many people "defy" death and live like they won't die. I guess that means death doesn't actually exist! Cool!

    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.

    So without seeing any numbers and going entirely on the basis of logical deductions from unproved and perhaps disputed premises, you are coming to new conclusions on what people actually believe - without asking them.

    • by vlm (69642)

      why are many logicians and scientists atheists, since they are so careful not to deny existence of other things that we don't even have evidence for; they simply understand that denying existence is a big logical step in that you have to disprove every possible existence first.

      Easy, you don't have to disprove every possible existence first, because they are logically inconsistent with each other, based on the fact there are about 10000 distinct religions that all claim everyone who follows a different religion will be screwed/go to hell/reincarnated as a worm, etc Statistically, 99.99% of all religions simply must be false since only one of them can be true, because none of them are compatible. Following one of them, based on something random like your ancestors choice or whate

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Statistically, 99.99% of all religions simply must be false since only one of them can be true, because none of them are compatible.

        Heh. A non-postmodernist is a rarer find than people think these days. The illogical and irrational belief that you can have your truth and I can have mine and they are both equal is pretty prevalent, though. Religions that openly state what you just stated get labeled as intolerant.

        But regardless - the author appears to want to take these big questions logically, mathematically, etc. I have yet to see a logically fool-proof and mathematical proof that God doesn't exist. I've seen plenty of evidence gi

        • by Chelloveck (14643)

          Heh. A non-postmodernist is a rarer find than people think these days. The illogical and irrational belief that you can have your truth and I can have mine and they are both equal is pretty prevalent, though.

          That's not irrational, that's Omniquantism [purrsia.com].

      • ...will almost certainly doom you to failure.

        The only winning move is not to play.
        Ahhh... War Games, as relevant as it ever was.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        Easy, you don't have to disprove every possible existence first, because they are logically inconsistent with each other, based on the fact there are about 10000 distinct religions that all claim everyone who follows a different religion will be screwed/go to hell/reincarnated as a worm

        Citation needed.

        According to David Barrett et al, editors of the "World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions - AD 30 to 2200," there are 19 major world religions which are subdivided into a total of 270 large religious groups, and many smaller ones. 34,000 separate Christian groups have been identified in the world.

        For starters, there aren't 10,000 'distinct' religions. Most research I've found list there as being 20 major ones. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are all base

        • they aren't arguing with me, they're arguing with someone else.

          Or at least arguing with one conception/"view" of God. Conceptions and views of God can be wrong without God not existing, too... it just means the conception or view is wrong.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ralphbecket (225429)

      I don't believe in a god in the same way I don't believe in unicorns.

      All knowledge is contingent: at some level you have to believe things such as the past is a predictor of the future, that you can trust your senses, and so forth, in order to make any progress. Without such starting points it's hard to see how you could develop any kind of worthwhile philosophy.

      There are an infinite number of things that might be or about which I might be mistaken, but I'm not going to act as though they do exist without

  • Could take till the end of universe and a godlike intelligence to answer how to decrease entropy, or even an entire planet to figure to what question is 42 the answer.

    What matters as big questions now could not matter in the future, or the proper answer be meaningless for our current knowledge/posibilities.
  • Anyone else have a hard time following this reviewer? A little context for the many objections would be helpful.
  • by armyofone (594988) <armeeofone@hotmail.com> on Monday November 09, 2009 @02:06PM (#30036500)

    in life, the world, the universe. In everything actually...

    but we already know the answer is always 42.

    Always.

  • by Improv (2467) <pgunn@dachte.org> on Monday November 09, 2009 @02:14PM (#30036614) Homepage Journal

    Sometimes being wrong in interesting ways about interesting things is quite good for starting discussions.

  • Free will bit (Score:3, Informative)

    by gurps_npc (621217) on Monday November 09, 2009 @02:16PM (#30036642) Homepage
    1. They gloss over the quantum effects like it is irrelevant. No. I reject your premise that the human mind is 100% deterministic. Quantum effects are not only significant, they are in fact the key point of how the human mind works. Anyone that studies the human mind realizes that we DON'T do certinity. Our behavior can not be predicted (except en masse aka Asimov's Foundation books). When asked about obvious, stated things like who we will vote for, our answers changes merely based on time. Computers think determensitically. Which is why we know they have no free will. Humans think via probabilities, not certanties. When computers are asked to solve a math question, they are always 100% certain they know the answer. When humas do it, we generally are a lot less certain. We know we might be wrong. The machines don't know that.

    2. They also assume the question. If you believe in a soul, then the brain could be considered determenisitically created reception device for the soul's commands. Then everything about the brain could be determenstic, in the same way a radio is 100% predicatable, but the descisions, being made off-site in the soul, not the brain, are totally not determenistic.

    3. The heart of the problem is a definition power play. Yes, if you define the brain ahead of the time as a determenistic construct, then since determenistic constructs do not allow for free-will, then humans get no soul.

    • When asked about obvious, stated things like who we will vote for, our answers changes merely based on time. Computers think determensitically. Which is why we know they have no free will. Humans think via probabilities, not certanties. When computers are asked to solve a math question, they are always 100% certain they know the answer. When humas do it, we generally are a lot less certain. We know we might be wrong. The machines don't know that.

      I also believe that the human mind is not deterministic, but that's a weak argument. You are very close to insight when you say "our answers change merely based on time." Computers generally have very limited input, and it is carefully filtered out in most applications. You don't want your answer to a math question to be affected by mouse movements or keyboard input or what is in front of the webcam. But that's what happens with humans. We can subvert it to an extent, through concentration, but our "in

    • by paulsnx2 (453081)

      "except en mass aka Asimov's Foundation books..."

      Sorry, there isn't any proof you can do this either... In his books the threat to the predictions is "the Mule" who can force upon others his desired emotional states.... In fact we don't need "Mules" with mental powers. Charismatic leaders disrupt such assumptions and predictions all the time without the need for mental powers.

      "computers think deterministically..."

      Sorry, even this is not true. What a computer does is often based on random data, the inputs

      • I'm burning mod points saying this, but yes, computers are deterministic. As long as you know what the inputs to the system are, you can describe exactly what it will do and break it down to the exact sequence of steps that it will take. In fact, any computing device that we have right now (excluding quantum computers, to an extent) can be fully described using a Turing Machine [wikipedia.org] which is a fully deterministic device.
      • Sorry, even this is not true. What a computer does is often based on random data, the inputs into the system and the timing of said inputs. What, have we learned nothing from using computers since the 50's? Just because a program crashes on you, doesn't mean that you can't do exactly the same steps and perhaps have the program continue on....

        While there's no such thing as a perfect environment, and discounting hardware failure, yes, a computer is a determinstic device. If you can exactly reproduce inputs,

    • by astar (203020)

      The easy way to look at most no free will arguments is as an effect of reductionism. Interestingly, a good reductionist will deny that creativity exists, or try to redefine it, much like the AI people tend to try to redefine intelligence. Yet it seem to me the continued existence of the human species shows creativity exists. Exactly how creativity happens to exist is a fine big question. In most contexts, it is convenience to call it a property of the soul, but that just begs the question. Looking at

  • by jfengel (409917) on Monday November 09, 2009 @02:26PM (#30036790) Homepage Journal

    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.

    Really? I have. They go to the parent and say, "That child has all of the toys and it's not fair." Frequently, the parent will agree, and if it's a child they have some control over (such as a sibling, or if the parent is babysitting) they will redistribute the toys.

    They may couch it as a suggestion to "share", but they're not really planning on respecting the child's preference not to share. They will use force to overcome whatever "right" the child may have to those toys, regardless of whether the child has "earned" them. Because a parent's force is overwhelming compared to the child's, the use of force comes without violence much of the time. But it's force nonetheless, and it's the child ultimately exerting it, through the parents.

    • There are, of course, at least two separate (and obvious) flaws with the original argument. First, the relationship between government and governed is nothing like that parents and their children. Second, the property (toys) being redistributed in the original argument belong to the parent, not the child. Looking at your own argument, what happens if the other child and its toys are not under the control of the first child's parent? In that case the parent isn't going to redistribute the toys on its own, b

      • by jfengel (409917)

        Very astute: it's the argument that's flawed, not the point the argument intends to make.

        I disagree that "master and slave" is any more accurate as a description than "parent and child", at least for a democratic government. For totalitarian governments, it's quite apt, but in democracies, the government is not a permanent privileged class of individuals. So both analogies are somewhat flawed in that regard.

        If we must analogize, I'd say that "roommates" is the better term: equals who must figure out how m

  • free will (Score:4, Interesting)

    by bcrowell (177657) on Monday November 09, 2009 @02:28PM (#30036814) Homepage

    I think there are at least two arguments that show that free will is not a trivial matter of definition as Landsburg apparently claims.

    (1) Psychologists and neurologists have shown that people's explanations for their own actions can be wrong. E.g., you can have situations (with split-brain patients, for example) where they perform some voluntary action that they don't know the reasons for, and when you ask them why they did it, they give a made-up explanation that they themselves believe. To me, this suggests that it may be useful to consider free will as a psychological sensation similar to color or musical pitch, in which case it's a nontrivial phenomenon with a scientific explanation -- not a "yes/no" question that is a trivial matter of definition.

    (2) Another argument is that the structure of Einstein's theory of general relativity is such that you have perfectly valid solutions to the field equations in which there are closed timelike curves (CTCs). A CTC means that you can have events A, B, and C, where A causes B, B causes C, and C causes A. We don't know if there are any realistic conditions in our universe under which they would exist (hence the chronology protection conjecture), but they're not logically or mathematically impossible. If a human being passes around such a CTC, you can get all kinds of paradoxes, e.g., older-me warns younger-me to avoid going around the CTC. Here is a nice summary of this kind of stuff: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time-travel-phys/ [stanford.edu] . Basically you have a situation where there is a physics question (are CTCs possible, and if so, how would they work?), where one of the strongest arguments available is based on the assumption of free will (the feeling that older-me can *choose* freely to warn younger-me away from the CTC). Again, there is no clearcut, trivial answer; free will comes up as one aspect of a more general, unsolved problem of how causality works. Some physical calculations suggest that there is nothing paradoxical about CTCs; see the stuff about the billiard balls in the link above.

    • Basically you have a situation where there is a physics question (are CTCs possible, and if so, how would they work?), where one of the strongest arguments available is based on the assumption of free will (the feeling that older-me can *choose* freely to warn younger-me away from the CTC).

      From my own far-too-long-and-obsessive meditation on time travel [homeunix.net]:

      A lot of people don't like this model because it would seem to eliminate any possibility of free will. Personally, I don't particularly worry about whether I have free will or not. If I do have free will, then I don't have to worry about it. If I don't, then there's no point in worrying about it. Either way...

      But this model doesn't necessarily pose problems for free will. Consider normal ideas about time and free will. Your parents freely chose to have you, right? At the very least, their free choices led them to the point where they did have you, though hopefully they were happy about it.

      Now, assuming no time travel, those choices cannot now be changed, right? They cannot now decide not to have had you. The moment of choice was back then, somewhere in the past. Once that choice was made, it was fixed. Assuming free will, it was not totally determined by what led up to it in some physical deterministic sense, but once made it could not be changed. This is not a constraint on free will.

      Now, just by adding in time travel we needn't change anything about this. Choices are freely made at the moment they are decided. It's just that now it's possible to know what those free choices "were" at a point in time "before" the choice "will be" made. (English again forces us to use strange tenses to speak about this. Oh, well.) Remember, in this model, there is no privileged point we can pick out and call 'the present'. Every moment is past to some instants, future to others. Every moment is a "present".

      (Note that some people use this idea to reconcile the idea of God knowing what we will do with the notion of free will. God, existing outside of time, doesn't ordain what people do, It just sees them doing it. I only bring it up to point out that lots of people have no problem in principle with the idea that they both have free will and yet someone knows with certainty what they will do. I don't see why it's any different if someone besides a God has that knowledge...)

      If you see a movie of yourself from the future doing certain things tomorrow, from a certain perspective it doesn't mean that you are "fated" to do those things. It just means that you know, when that time comes around, that doing those things will seem to you to be the best available choice.

      Perhaps the future choice seems silly, or even terrible. Well, can't you think of a moment where you've made a choice, and then later (perhaps only a second later) thought, "What was I thinking?" The fact that it seems unlikely to you that you will make that choice doesn't mean that you won't make it. People do things they never expected to do, even said they wouldn't do, all the time.

  • ... considered a seperate "branch of knowledge" since if you study people like plato, Plato says thus:

    "And those whose hearts are fixed on Reality itself deserve the title of Philosophers."
    (Plato, Republic, 380BC)

    I think many ancient philosophers would find it strange we consider things seperate, in the last little while we've tended not to see things holistically like ancient philosophers did.

    • ... considered a seperate "branch of knowledge" since if you study people like plato, Plato says thus:

      "And those whose hearts are fixed on Reality itself deserve the title of Philosophers." (Plato, Republic, 380BC)

      I think many ancient philosophers would find it strange we consider things seperate, in the last little while we've tended not to see things holistically like ancient philosophers did.

      Most well known ancient greek philosophers would also be baffled that our "natural philosophy" comes from observation of evidence rather than constructing internally consistent arguments with no basis in the natural world.

      • "Most well known ancient greek philosophers would also be baffled that our "natural philosophy" comes from observation of evidence rather than constructing internally consistent arguments with no basis in the natural world."

        Sigh you missed the point of the post, they would laude our passion and commitment to truth had they still lived through the ages and saw the rise of science, etc. What we call "philosophy" of those ancient philosophers was a people's attempts to come to grips with the nature of underst

    • I don't. I believe you may be mis-representing what Socrates/Plato is saying in that line. To me, this says: "Those who seek and desire _complete_, objective truth deserve the title of Philosophers." The term 'reality' is used to represent what could be called a 'complete and truthful understanding' of the world.
  • There is a kind of person out there who is absolutely sure, with no evidence whatever, that basic numerical logic can be applied to complex human phenomena such as government, philosophy, and peace of mind with great success. I suspect that they are probably correct, if your measure of "great success" is also measured purely by basic numerical logic, i.e. a few additional points of efficiency that amounts to pennies in the pockets of people who could have done without them. And what they get in return is

  • by rbrander (73222) on Monday November 09, 2009 @04:20PM (#30038410) Homepage

    I read his "More Sex is Safer Sex" and spent about half of it muttering "but you're ignoring a relevant factor...".

    I see that the reviews at the Amazon page for that book:

    http://www.amazon.com/More-Sex-Safer-Unconventional-Economics/dp/1416532226/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_2 [amazon.com] ...agree with my assessment. Give the first couple a quick skim before buying this one. Many of his arguments read like he started off with the intention of writing somethingn entertainingly contrarian and counter-intuitive, then assembled an argument to defend it. And, of course, a book author has the advantage of only taking on arguments that he himself allows in the book, gets to decide which factors of the problem are relevant, and so on.

    I did pass the test the reviewer offers here: I had specific points at which I disagreed with his argument. But I didn't find that fun; it's no fun halting all agreement with an argument at step 4 and having to go on and read steps 5-9 while holding a little asterisk in your head that says "none of this matters because 4 is clearly wrong".

    As an example, the heart of his "more sex is safer sex" argument used in the title is that overall risk is reduced if *certain* *people*, those with lower odds of having disease, have more sex. Then the people they have sex with are having safer sex than if with someone else. Alas, it rests on the contention that if the "safer" people have more sex, every act *displaces* another sexual interaction - the possibility that simply more sex will occur, the added interactions being safer, but *not* displacing a less-safe one, is not allowed for. Recommending that certain prudent people have more sex, while assuming that the amount of total sex in the world will remain a constant, is not, to my mind, a safe assumption. But it wasn't slashdot; all I could do was sit there, frustrated at my inability to argue with the book.

    So I'll give this one a miss. Thanks anyway.

  • That argument assumes there is unlimited demand for everything, and than more jobs will be created and there will be not welfare costs from lost jobs. But, the best things in life are free or cheap. It probably assumes some other things too.

    See:
    "Why limited demand means joblessness (and what to do about it)"
    http://www.beyondajoblessrecovery.org/2009/10/03/why-limited-demand-means-joblessness/ [beyondajob...covery.org]

  • Unimpressed. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tjstork (137384) <todd.bandrowsky@gm a i l.com> on Monday November 09, 2009 @04:55PM (#30038914) Homepage Journal

    Because he forgets a bazillion things that matter. It's almost like this book is really more about how to lock in some ideas by surrounding them with logical sounding puffery, rather than any of the rules that it says.

    I mean, "I consider the protectionist to be worse than a creationist", seems to me a loaded statement. A political writer like me should have no problem saying that free traders should all be tortured to death and executed, but a professor? I think not.

"In the face of entropy and nothingness, you kind of have to pretend it's not there if you want to keep writing good code." -- Karl Lehenbauer

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