100: The Big Questions by Steven E. Landsburg

by Gerard


100: Landsburg, Steven E. The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics. New York: Free Press, 2009. 248 pp. ISBN 978-1-4391-4821-1.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 100: General works on philosophy

I’m going to be open-minded here. I will be. First, I will address the book on its style, its writing, and the information presented. Then, there will be a rant and I do not apologize for that.

Steven E. Landsburg’s The Big Questions is an intriguing foray into the use of non-typical sciences to look at macroscopic philosophical questions. The questions in questions range from why is there something rather than nothing, is there a God, is logical disagreement a sign of inherent meaninglessness, can we really know everything, and so on. These are indeed interesting and challenging questions. Looking into philosophy using physics and economics is kind of fun and gets one thinking laterally and not directly, which on the whole is a good skill to have.

Landsburg’s tackling of these questions is in many ways logical and rich. There are indeed mathematical bases for following both morality and human perception of color (as well as other things in the universe). His main premise is that once you have math, everything else follows. One of the very mind-boggling assertions me makes is that almost no one is deeply religious because crimes are committed on a fairly regular basis and acts of martyrdom are not. That part makes for fun reading. And for the most part, Landsburg’s theories are engaging, flow well, and get you to think a little more critically about the larger picture.

Now for the rant: The whammy comes near the end of the book. Landsburg unequivocally advocates for the near dismissal of English departments in education. He starts with the basis that reading is a leisure activity and is not a serious use of educational time. He argues that one could get just about as much educational content from a night spent watching The Simpsons. To completely dismiss an entire branch of study as useless when you just spent an entire book using disparate fields to look at philosophical questions seems to me both self-defeating and insulting. You never know where the next great piece of information or idea will come from, but apparently according to Dr. Landsburg, literature will never contain it. Boo, Mr. Landsburg, boo to you, sir.