Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
The Big Questions / Steven E. Landsburg
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Saturday, 30 October 2010
I've reached this book when searching for more information about the mathematical universe hypothesis. Max Tegmark's paper was an interesting read, and I was looking for supportive or criticizing views; the first chapter in Landsburg's book was about this very topic, so I decided to give it a shot.

The book ended up being a very frustrating read. It started, indeed, with the very first chapter. While I tend to believe that the general idea presented there (namely, the mathematical universe hypothesis) is true, something about Prof. Landsburg's presentation of it disturbed me. It was only later that I realized what's so wrong: the tone. Landsburg has no patience for fools (which is good), but he's also utterly decisive, and fails to back up many of his firm and resolute claims. A reader might feel slightly uncomfortable when reading such unjustified decisiveness with regard to notions he agrees with, but the text becomes intolerable as soon as you read about preposterous, absurd claims that you couldn't possibly agree with, all delivered with the same monotonic smugness.

And sadly, the book is far from being error-free. It makes no sense to enumerate all the mistakes here -- this review will become a laundry list. Let me focus on a few simple examples instead. Here's how Landsburg justifies not caring about global warming, and the future of the Earth in general, using a simple, two-step argument that “proves” we shouldn't care about the inheritance we leave to our descendants:

(From the book) Step One: Your grandchildren would rather be born with no inheritance than not be born at all. As a good consequentialist, I infer that leaving no inheritance is better than having no grandchildren.

Step Two: I feel quite sure that it's morally okay to have no children (and therefore no grandchildren!).

Conclusion: Leaving no inheritance beats having no grandchildren; having no grandchildren is okay; therefore leaving no inheritance is okay.

So feel free to squander your grandchildren's inheritance — including the quality of their air and water. Feel free, in other words, to trash the Earth (just not the part I'm living on)!

(p. 188-9.) Morals aside, how many logical fallacies can you find in this argument? For example, try replacing “would rather be born with no inheritance than not be born at all” with “would rather be born as heroin addicts than not be born at all”, which is also true. Using the exact same argument above, you could prove that it is not immoral for a heroin user to keep her habit while pregnant. Replace “no inheritance” with other alternatives to reach any desired moral consequence regarding our treatment of children (who would obviously prefer to be born to an abusive father than not be born at all).

In fact, the very assumption that moral “quantities” can be compared in a transitive manner seems unreasonable to me. Landsburg takes it for granted, because in his world view, anything can (and should) be measured by dollar value, and dollar value comparisons obviously are transitive.

It gets worse. Landsburg “proves” that it's okay for landlords to refuse to rent houses based on racial discrimination (p. 202). Such a landlord, in Landsburg's view, actually does some small amount of good to the people she discriminates against, by taking in other tenants and creating vacancies in other buildings. How very sensitive of her; by the same thinking, it's a good thing that this whole town refuses to take in black people, because this gives them ample opportunity to find houses in that other town (which happens to refuse taking in Jews). How could one possibly argue with Landsburg's iron-clad proofs that removing anti-discrimination laws would improve everybody's life?

Landsburg refuses to see the absurdities his “logical” approach leads to, and steps from one incredulous result to another with never a pause. Rich people have more right to make noise at night; Jim Crow laws were also detrimental to white people, and nothing like it exists today, so affirmative action is “punishing the innocent”; and so on, and so forth. Even if there are valid arguments against affirmative action, they are clearly not the ones Landsburg presents. At some point, I ceased being bothered and became amused. This book, apparently, documents what happens to people who lose touch with reality.

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