Tackling 'The Big Questions' Of Life

There are questions, and then, there are BIG questions. For instance, how do we know right from wrong? Why is the Universe here? Steven Landsburg's got logic, physics and math-based answers in his book, The Big Questions.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

If you want an answer to the big questions - where the universe comes from, how to tell right from wrong, what to do with the rest of your life - you might want to head to the philosophy department. Well, wait a minute, says Steven Landsburg. There's a better way to solve those eternal questions. Prepare yourself. Study math, physics and economics.

Using those disciplines, his new book tackles the hardest concepts we will grapple with in our life - religion, morality, our bank accounts - and challenges our ideas about what we believe. He may even convince you you don't really believe much of anything.

So give us a call and tell us what idea you had about how the world works that has fundamentally changed in some way. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later, turmoil continues in Iran. Mike Shuster will join us to tell us more about the players in this conflict, who's on which side, how many of them and why.

But first, Steve Landsburg. His new book is called "The Big Questions." He's a professor of economics at the University of Rochester and joins us today from a studio at our member station there, WXXI. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. STEVEN LANDSBURG (Author, "The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics and Physics"): Thanks very much.

CONAN: And this is a talk show, so you may imagine we're no stranger to having occasionally two guests with diverse opinions, and we frequently have to agree to disagree, just to move on with things, but that, you argue, is fundamentally dishonest.

Mr. LANDSBURG: Well, you know, there's a big literature in economics about the question of whether people can honestly disagree with each other, the point being that we really ought to treat other people's opinions with the same respect that we treat our own.

If I believe something very strongly, and you believe the opposite thing very strongly, the very strength of your belief should, at some level, shake my belief. You say that the Red Sox are going to win the World Series.

I say the Yankees. You say no, the Red Sox. I say the Yankees. You say the Red Sox. Every time you come back and say the Red Sox again, that gives me more information about how very sure you are of yourself and should make me a little less sure of myself, because after all, you might know what you're talking about.

That process, it turns out, has to converge. There are - economists have been very disturbed about this for a long time. We feel like there ought to be some way we could walk away and agree to disagree, but every time you try and write down a formal model of the way this disagreement goes, you discover that honest people have to end up agreeing with each other.

And of course, in the real world, what happens is we never agree with each other, which has to lead you to suspect that maybe we are doing something in these arguments other than honestly seeking truth.

Maybe we're trying to show off. Maybe we're trying to show how smart we are. Maybe we're trying to show how dumb the other guy is. But if we were honestly seeking truth, we would agree a whole lot more than we do.

CONAN: We have to agree on the Yankees. Anyway, the - one of the ways you talk about this is by looking at what ought to be a very pure form of argument, and that's gambling - yet gamblers disagree all the time. Otherwise, there wouldn't be any gambling.

Mr. LANDSBURG: Gamblers disagree all the time, and yet you would think that a gambler who is a professional and has a whole lot of money at stake and is betting against another gambler who is also a professional and has a whole lot of money at stake, ought to account for the fact that the other guy is as likely to be right as he is. And sometimes the other guy's not as likely to be right as you are, and so you stick to your guns, but then he sees you sticking to your guns, and then he ought to change his mind.

The longer the argument goes on, the more our confidence should be shaken until somebody gives in.

CONAN: As you point out, the more it sounds like a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, too.

Mr. LANDSBURG: It does, or a Monty Python sketch.

CONAN: Oh yes, or a Monty Python sketch.

Mr. LANDSBURG: I say the Yankees. You say the Red Sox. I say the Yankees. You say the Red Sox. Economists and philosophers have fought very hard about whether there's any way out of this conclusion, whether there's not some way in which each of us could honestly trust our own opinions more than everybody else's. And again, it seems pretty plausible that you ought to be able to do that, but when you actually try to write down, very carefully, a description of the way people seek truth and the way we learn from our arguments with each other, it's very hard to write down a description that does not lead you to the conclusion that we should be agreeing all the time.

CONAN: If we were honest about it.

Mr. LANDSBURG: If we were honest.

CONAN: Thereby lies the rub. There's also something you post called the economist's golden rule, that doesn't seem to very a lot from the golden rule we all learned.

Mr. LANDSBURG: My formulation of the economist's golden rule is that you should account for the effects you're having on other people the same that you account for effects on yourself.

If you are inclined to leave your grass unmowed so that you can sleep late on Saturday night - on Saturday morning, that's good for you, it's bad for your neighbors. How should you weigh the good for you against the bad for your neighbors?

Well, you should essentially treat the bad for your neighbors as if it was just as bad for you as it is for them. Is this a rule that I'm saying that you should absolutely always follow? Of course not, because we do care more about ourselves than we care about neighbors. We care more about our family than we care about our neighbors and more about ourselves than we care about our family, sometimes.

But the economist's golden rule I offer as a good, general guide to what most people seem to think of most of the time as a first-pass attempt to distinguish good from bad behavior. And the point of formulating it precisely, is that once you've formulated it precisely, you can ask what it tells you to do in specific situations. And sometimes it really surprises you. Sometimes, the conclusion of treating everyone's costs and benefits equally, ends up leading you places that you're very surprised to be led to. And then you need to reconsider, at that point, what you really mean by the difference between right and wrong.

CONAN: And we're establishing some ground rules here, and we're going to be talking within these constructs. One more, and then we'll get to callers' questions. And the one more has to be with our ideas of beliefs. You argue that most of our beliefs are ill-guided, ill-considered, and that if something really important was on the line, we'd happily jettison most of them.

Mr. LANDSBURG: Of course, and the reason for that is that most of us are spending most of our time and most of our energy trying to be very good at one or two things - we're trying to be good parents, we're trying to be good carpenters, we're trying to be good taxi drivers, we're trying to be good writers, we're trying to be good radio announcers.

And that takes a lot of effort, and it takes a lot of mental dedication, and it means that we don't have that energy and effort available to think about other subjects. And so most of the things that we think we have strong opinions about, whether it's free trade or God, or the way the laws of physics work, most of us, we express what we saw are strong views, but in fact, they are unexamined views. In fact, they're views that we've thought about very, very little, and if we were forced to think about them, I claim we would jettison most of them.

There's a lot of evidence for that just in the fact that most people, most of the time, do not let their daily behavior be guided by these views. The people who say that they believe that bad behavior will lead you to eternal damnation seem to be just about as willing to rob liquor stores as anybody else is. Which is - suggests to me that at some deep level, they're aware that the beliefs they state are not really the beliefs that they hold.

CONAN: You also posit that if you ask most philosophers how hot water gets from the heater in the basement up to the showerhead on the second floor, they'll say a pump is involved. Well, plumbers, of course, know better.

Mr. LANDSBURG: Absolutely, and that's again because the plumbers are concentrating on being good plumbers while the philosophers are concentrating on being good philosophers.

CONAN: We're talking with Steven Landsburg, the author of "The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics and Physics."

What idea have you had in your life that you have changed? It doesn't have to be about how the universe works. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Andy(ph) calling from San Francisco.

ANDY (Caller): Hi, Neal. My question is very apropos with the New Year approaching, and I have a party tonight and I have a neighbor coming and another friend, and they're pretty much the opposite ends of the political spectrum.

In fact, ironically, they have the same name. And I kind of want to avert having to turn up the music really loud or just say let's change the subject here, no religion or politics.

CONAN: How 'bout those 'Niners, yeah.

ANDY: Yeah, exactly. If it comes to current events, I could see things getting out of hand. So I just wanted to get some insight on how to deal with my holiday festivities.

Mr. LANDSBURG: Well, as I said earlier, honest truth-seekers would state their views and account for each other's views and come to a consensus pretty quickly.

Your friends presumably, like most of us, are more interested in showing off than they are in honestly seeking truth. Probably they enjoy that. It's the kind of thing that a lot of people enjoy. I'm not sure whether you should try and put a stop to it or not.

ANDY: Okay, thank you. I always have the back-pocket option of turning up the radio.

CONAN: That's always a good idea, always in favor of that. Andy, have a happy New Year's.

ANDY: Happy New Year to you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Glen(ph), Glen with us from Macon, Georgia.

GLEN (Caller): Good evening, Happy New Year to you.

CONAN: And to you.

GLEN: This is my favorite subject. My great-grandfather's dying words were: It's the friction of minds that causes a spark of truth. That was kind of drilled into me from infancy. And I love a good argument, and I found one of the secrets is to listen more than you talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's a rare quality.

GLEN: And I'd say I come out about 20 to 25 percent of the arguments, we end up with a at least general agreement on the principle of whatever we were talking about. The rest of the time, quite often more religion and politics, it's almost impossible. But I just found that if you just listen to the other person and try to get a better idea of their point of view, you get a better indication of where their thoughts and their thinking is, and you can make your argument a little bit better.

Mr. LANDSBURG: Or sometimes you get a better indication of where the fault in your thinking is.

GLEN: Oh, that's true, too. I could be completely dead wrong and not know it.

Mr. LANDSBURG: You know, and I - as I say in "The Big Questions," one of the best things that can happen to you is to lose an argument, because when you lose an argument, that's when you've learned something.

The fact that you're coming to an agreement 25 percent of the time, I think you're doing a whole lot better than most folks, and I think that's great, but I also think it's very interesting that you say that the topics where you don't come to agreements are religion and politics, and I want to suggest that the reason that you're not coming to agreements on those subjects is that those are precisely the subjects where people don't really care whether they're right or wrong. It's not going to affect their lives.

If I go into the voting booth and vote for the wrong guy, I'm probably not going to elect him with that one vote. I can afford to be wrong about that. We can afford to be wrong about religion. We can afford to be wrong about politics. And because we can afford to be wrong, we can - that's exactly why we can afford to stick to our opinions and ignore what the other guy has to say.

It's the things where we stick to our opinions the strongest, I want to claim, where really our beliefs are the most fragile and the flimsiest.

CONAN: Glen, thanks very much for the call. And again, Happy New Year to you.

GLEN: You, too.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Steven Landsburg about his book. It's called "The Big Questions," and we're taking your questions at 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As we go into the new year, some of you may be reflecting on your goals, your principles, your choices. Well, I've got some help for you as you sort out those concepts.

Steven Landsburg is here with us today. His book is called "The Big Questions." In it, he uses math, physics, economics and cold, hard numbers to get some big answers.

If you'd like to read a thorough explanation of why numbers not only do exist, they must exist, check out an excerpt from his book, "The Big Questions," on our Web site. That's at npr.org.

And of course, we want to hear from you. What idea that you had about how the world works has fundamentally changed in some way? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go next to Ben(ph). Ben's with us from Fresno.

BEN (Caller): Hi. First off, I have to disagree with you. It would have to be the Red Sox, not the Yankees.

CONAN: We can go back and forth on this for some time, but anyway.

BEN: Oh, indeed, but I'd probably win. Steven, my question is for you. I'm a mathematician, and I'm getting into what's called economic epidemiology. And what I found is that when you're looking at people, like, making opinions on how to behave or what the ideas are to have, a lot of it depends on the time component, like is there a lag in information or essentially who states their opinion first. And so when you were talking a little earlier about, like, people who have an equally strong but opposite opinion, and they should converge to either saying the same thing or maybe agreeing to disagree, I was wondering if you guys looked at, like, any explicit time components, or are they just both arguing simultaneously or what sort of thing?

CONAN: Well, actually, Steve Landsburg, the model you uses - two spies who come back and hope to unveil the mole.

BEN: Oh, okay.

Mr. LANDSBURG: Yeah, the - first, more directly to your speaker's question, the computer scientist, Scott Anderson - Scott Aronson, excuse me - and I talk about this in the book, in "The Big Questions," and I also talked about it recently on my blog, at thebigquestions.com. Scott Aronson, the computer scientist, has actually modeled the process and the speed by which people should converge to agreement - not converging to agree to disagree but always converging to agreement. And he's found that with the right protocols, it's possible to converge very, very quickly to agreement, which makes it all the more striking that people never seem to do that.

With regard to the spies, yes, the example I give in "the Big Questions" is where the two agents report to the boss. They've both been seeking the mole in the organization. One of them says it's a man named Curly; the other says it's a man named Shemp. The first one says no, no, it's Curly. The second one says no, no, it's Shemp. The first says no, Curly. The second says no, Shemp. And first one says yeah, I think you're right - it is Shemp.

That seems a little odd at first, that the first guy should suddenly change his view at that point in the conversation, but the point is that at every single point in that conversation, new information is being conveyed. It's one thing to know that he believes it's Shemp strongly enough to say it; it's another thing to know that he believes it strongly enough to say it, even after he's heard that I think it's Curly. And it's yet another thing to hear that he believes it strongly enough to persist in saying it's Shemp, even knowing that I've persisted that it's Curly, even knowing that he persisted in saying it's Shemp.

So at each stage in that conversation, we each learn more about the strength of each other's beliefs, and it becomes more and more compelling that we should perhaps take those beliefs seriously and change our own minds.

CONAN: I kept waiting for them to start sticking fingers in the other guy's eye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANDSBURG: Well, that of course is what happens in the real world, as opposed to what the model tells you should happen.

CONAN: Ben, thanks very much for the call.

BEN: All right, thank you.

CONAN: All right, let's go next to Matthew(ph), Matthew with us from Flemington in New Jersey.

MATTHEW (Caller): Hi. I was raised Roman Catholic. So you know - and I did care a lot about, you know, religion and everything, but at the same time, I was well aware, my entire life, that I'm also homosexual.

So I think those are two conflicting beliefs, and I know, like, you know, you said religion and politics that people would be so willing to, you know, throw those beliefs out the window in the face of some necessary opposition. But for me, they were both very important, and at some point in my - well, I'm in college, I have to reconcile that, and I did.

But I feel like I - there's one belief that I would be more willing to throw away than the other one, and it's the one that I have the empirical evidence for. So I think personal experience plays a big role in it, and that defined a lot of, you know, for me how I live my life and what I believe and, you know, how I look at evidence.

CONAN: Sounds like you thought about it a lot, though.

MATTHEW: I've tried to.

CONAN: Steven Landsburg?

Mr. LANDSBURG: Of course, also it's - you know, it's the thing that you have to live with every day, and our sexuality is something that's a lot more immediate to us, usually, than our beliefs about God or our beliefs about the afterlife. And the fact that that's more immediate to us, the fact that we have to live with that every day, every moment of our lives, causes us, I think, to probably think a little harder and a little more deeply about that than we do about some of the big, lofty, philosophical religious questions - even when it feels to us like we're thinking equally hard about them. It's the stuff that we actually have to live with the consequences of that I think we really, really try our hardest to get right.

I'm also struck that you mentioned the role of empirical evidence. In "The Big Questions," I talk a lot about the sources of our knowledge: mathematics on the one hand, logic on the other hand and empirical evidence on the other hand are really the three big sources of our knowledge.

Empirical evidence is always difficult to sort out, because you observe something happening, you never know what other confounding variables were going on at the same time. You see a bunch of smokers getting cancer. You don't know, from that alone, whether it's the smoking that causes the cancer or some other related thing that goes on at the same time. Maybe it's lighting matches that causes cancer.

I talk a lot in "The Big Questions" about how economists have learned to sort of empirical evidence, to extract causality from correlation. We have thought very hard about those questions, and we have a lot to say about them, and it turns out that there are many occasions when you actually can, through techniques that I've, again, tried to explain in a non-technical way in "The Big Questions." You actually can extract causation from correlation sometimes when it looks like that would be very hard to do.

I explain how economists do that and how we actually can increase our knowledge of the world in that way, which I think is, again, one of the very biggest source of our knowledge.

CONAN: Of those three, though, approaches that you talk about, is one more powerful than the others?

Mr. LANDSBURG: Well, each is more - look, my toaster is more powerful than my computer when it comes to making toast, and my computer is more powerful than my toaster when it comes to getting on the Internet. Each one has its powers and its place and its strength, and very much of "The Big Questions" is about the roles of those three sources of knowledge, what we can learn from them, what we can't learn from them and what their proper places are.

CONAN: Well, Matthew, thank you very much for the call. Just let me follow up for that, and I may be misunderstanding here, but you make an argument at one point in the book that, in fact, there are an awful lot of people that believe that globalism is a very bad thing - protectionism would be very good for the American economy. And there are an awful lot of people who believe that Darwin was wrong and that, indeed, there can be different ideas about evolution and that intelligent design is a good idea. And you say, in fact, they're both wrong and that they're wrong for different reasons and that one is even wronger than the other.

Mr. LANDSBURG: True, true. You know, the evidence - it seems to me that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. We see it in the fossil record. We see it in the laboratory. We see it in the closely related DNA of various different species. There's a vast amount of evidence for evolution, which I think will lead anybody who thinks hard about the question to believe that the theory of evolution is very likely to be true.

There are a lot of people who say they've thought hard about it and have reached a different conclusion. I don't think they've thought very hard about it. But what you're - the point you're getting at and the point which I think is very interesting here is that we do need - when we say yes, I accept the evidence, I believe in evolution - we do need to take that small leap of faith that tells us that that evidence is being presented to us honestly, that the scientists are telling us honestly what they saw in the fossil record, that they're telling us honestly what they saw in the laboratory. I certainly do believe that, but there is a small leap of faith there.

When it comes, on the other hand, to the argument for free trade; the argument for free trade - which has convinced, virtually, every economist - is based not on evidence not on numbers, not on looking at something in the laboratory or looking at something in the world, it's based on pure logic. There is a purely logical argument for why free trade has got to make people on both sides of the border richer.

I give that purely logical argument in the book, and you know, when it comes to a purely logical argument, it's all right there in front of you. You don't have to trust somebody to be honest with you. I can make the argument for free trade. You might think I'm the most dishonest person on earth, but if I've given you the entire argument, and it proceeds from clear assumptions via clear logic to a clear conclusion, you're - then any beef you have with it is not with me, it's with the argument that's laid out on the piece of paper there.

So I do think it is, in some sense, more willful ignorance has to be involved in rejecting the case for free trade than in rejecting the case for evolution.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go now to Joel(ph). Joel's with us from Liberty in Missouri.

JOEL (Caller): Hello, Neal. Hey, I was just thinking - it's kind of comment. To have productive argument, you have to sort of agree with, you know, certain premises and certain facts. You have to know what the facts are. The example I thought of was the Iraq war. You know, there's estimates - I don't know exactly what they are, but, you know, between 50,000 and over a million innocent civilians killed. And then you have all these different news media, you know, organizations giving you also different facts, too. So, it's - I just see that this - seems like more and more, this is a problem.

CONAN: Agreeing on the facts, because everybody says you can have your own opinion. You can't have your own facts. But it's sometimes hard to know what the facts are.

JOEL: Yeah, and the argument isn't even - it's not really even argument when you're both disagreeing. Oh, it just complicates it, I guess.

Mr. LANDSBURG: Well, but again, we both have, in some sense, the same evidence in front of us about what those facts are. And so it's hard to see how we can honestly reach different - now, people all the time reach different conclusions about things in these cases, and I agree in the real world that happens, and that's something we've got to account for. But it is very hard when you try to give a careful account of how that can happen to explain it, because it's true. There were all sorts of conflicting facts out there, but we've both seen all the same conflicting facts.

And beyond that, even if you've seen some facts that I haven't seen, I can at least see how convinced you are. I can see how hard you are to shake in your belief, that tells me something about the fact you've seen, even I haven't seen them myself. And so ultimately, all of the facts that you've seen are going to get communicated to me through the strength - through my observation of the strengths of your beliefs. And once all that communication has taken place, we are, at some level, both working with all the same facts, all the same conflicting reports of the facts. And so we come back to it being very hard to see how we can reach different conclusions.

CONAN: Here's a follower from Ted Potledge(ph), who tweets: Is it possible that hearing a disagreeing argument can actually solidify your own view? Does reputation color the information being heard?

Mr. LANDSBURG: You know, of course, reputation matters, and my - the case that's being made in �The Big Questions� involves two honest truth seekers who are aware that each other are two honest truth seekers. As soon as you begin to suspect the other guy maybe being dishonest, well, then, of course, anything he says is subject to question about what his motivations were. But again, here's what we've to distinguish between arguments based on facts and arguments based on logic.

When it comes to arguments based on logic, it doesn't matter what I think of the other guy's reputation. It doesn't matter what I think of his motives. It doesn't matter what I think of his background or his - or where he's coming from. All that matters is the logic itself. And as long as I'm willing to work through that logic, it shouldn't really matter what the source is.

CONAN: Joel, thanks for the call. We're talking with Steven Landsburg. He's the author, most recently, of �The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems of Philosophy with ideas from Mathematics, Economics and Physics.� You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's try to get Nick on the line. Nick's calling from Tucson.

NICK (Caller): Hey, guys. Thanks for taking my call. So the biggest idea that's changed over the course of the past 10 years for me has to do with the faculty of our thoughts and feelings. I used to believe, and the way I was raised to believe, is that we're victims of circumstance, more or less. But when I started to take philosophy courses in college and do my own esoteric studies, it became more and more clear to me that, in fact, our thoughts and our feelings do help shape and mold the reality that we exist in. So when I start to apply that instruction, to my astonishment, I actually proved it to myself. So, I don't know how you want to comment on that, but�

Mr. LANDSBURG: I'm not sure I have anything to add to that. I mean, I think it is certainly clear that our volitions, our decisions, the choices that we make affect our lives and affect the lives of people around us. I think that's obvious to everyone in the same sense that it's obvious to everyone that the people around us are conscious, just as we are. It's not something we can prove, but it's something that we need to believe in order to live our lives.

It would just be impossible to operate in the world without having that belief really ingrained. And we all know that our actions affect our lives. If it weren't for that, we would never have regret, and we all have regrets. So, on the other hand, a lot of people go around trying to deny this stuff. And that, I think, is an example, again, of people claiming that they believe things that, at some deep level, they can't possible really believe.

CONAN: Nick, thank you. And here's an email that we have. This is from Brad in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I have wondered for many years why different religions can't realize that each religion has wonderful truths and insights. I would love to see people quit arguing for their religion to be the only correct view and open up to the best of all insights. And that's something you address in your conversation about interfaith dialogue.

Mr. LANDSBURG: I don't get that at all. I mean, religions contradict each other, and two contradictory things cannot be true. If Christianity is true, then Islam is false. If Islam is true, then Judaism is false. Anybody who tries to pretend that conflicting things can be true - what greater evidence could there be that these people don't really mean the things that they're saying? I find it extremely telling that people will say yes, there are true things in religions other than my own, and yet my religion is completely true. Those things cannot both be correct.

And as soon as they say that, you know that, at some level, they don't really mean it. They may think they really mean it, and the reason they think they really mean it is because they have not actually given it any serious thought. But at the moment when they were to give it some serious thought, I don't see how anybody could say such a silly thing.

CONAN: And we just have a minute left, but I wanted to get back. We've not had enough time to discuss the economist golden rule, but I was particularly intrigued by your question that you ask yourself: can I be a lawyer?

Mr. LANDSBURG: Can I be a lawyer? You know, under the economist golden rule, it depends on what kind of lawyer you're going to be. An awful lot of lawyers devote their lives to transferring wealth from one person to another person, as opposed to actually creating wealth. That - what greater violation could there be of the economist golden rule, to leave the world no wealthier than you found it?

Other lawyers perhaps make it easier for people to create wealth by protecting their property rights, by protecting the rewards and the incentives that they get when they create wealth. That's a good thing. So, can I be a lawyer if I want to follow the economist golden rule? Sure. But think hard about what kind of lawyer you want to be.

CONAN: And Steven Landsburg, thank you very much. We appreciate your time today and have a Happy New Year's.

Mr. LANDSBURG: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Steven Landsburg's new book �The Big Questions: Tackling the Problems from Philosophy with Ideas from Mathematics, Economics, and Physics.� He joined us from the studios on our member station in Rochester, New York, WXXI.

Coming up: Turmoil in Iran continues. Mike Shuster will join us to tell us what's going on and what's at stake. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'The Big Questions'

Cover of 'The Big Questions'

On What There Is

God wrote the Universe in the language of mathematics.

Galileo Galilei

Why is there something instead of nothing? Why is there a Universe, and why isn't it empty? Whence all these galaxies and mountain ranges, centipedes and rainbows? Where did all this stuff come from?

For many years these questions struck me as fascinating but impossible to think about. I couldn't even imagine what an answer might look like. This bothered me, but there didn't seem to be much I could do about it.

It's possible there are no answers. Perhaps the questions are simply misguided, like "Why does my computer hate me?" Your computer doesn't hate you; it just seems that way when you run Microsoft products. But when your cursor freezes, some part of your brain makes the mistake of looking for malicious intent.

Perhaps it's some equally misguided part of my brain that looks for fundamental causes. Perhaps the Universe just is, and that's all there is to it. But I think it's generally good policy to assume that things have causes. They often do, and even when they don't, you generally learn more by looking for nonexistent causes than by refusing to look for existent ones. Besides, I can't seem to stop myself.

So I assume — at the risk of grave error — that the Universe is no mere accident. There must be some reason for it. And if it's a compelling reason, it should explain not only why the Universe does exist, but why it must.

A good starting point, then, is to ask whether we know of anything — let alone the entire Universe — that not only does exist, but must exist. I think I know one clear answer: Numbers must exist. The laws of arithmetic must exist. Two plus two equals four in any possible universe, and two plus two would equal four even if there were no universe at all.

I'm not just saying that the laws of arithmetic are eternal and immutable; I'm saying more than that. Eternal means for all time, but mathematics exists outside of time. Even if there were no time, there would still be mathematics.

Why do I say that? Maybe it's just another brain malfunction. You could argue that numbers are a human invention, and the laws of arithmetic are empirical regularities, not necessary truths. You put two stones on the table, you put another two stones on the table, you notice there are now four stones, the same thing happens over and over, you summarize your results by saying "two plus two equals four," and that's all there is to it.

I feel quite sure that's wrong. I take my stand with those who believe that "two plus two equals four" is not a truth about stones or about physical objects generally, but a truth about numbers, which existed long before there was anyone around to count with them.

The philosopher Paul Benacerraf once proposed a thought experiment that neatly distinguishes the two points of view. Suppose you put two stones on your kitchen table, then two more, then count and discover that there are five stones altogether.

Whenever you've done this in the past there have been four stones, but this time, oddly enough, there are five. Your first thought will probably be that you miscounted, or failed to notice that there was already a stone on the table before you began.

But over the course of the day, the same thing keeps happening. Two friends join you for lunch, then another two, and somehow you've now got five companions. You climb two flights of stairs from the basement, then another two, and somehow you're on the fifth floor.

Eventually you're forced to conclude that something has drastically changed. But what? You might say that mathematics has changed — two plus two used to make four, but now it makes five. Or you might say that physics has changed — two plus two make four, just as always, but the physical world no longer seems to care.

In many ways, it doesn't matter which description you pick. Either way, all you're saying is that the old laws of mathematics are no longer useful for describing physical reality. But your choice of description says a lot about your instincts. If you view mathematics as a human construction, designed to explain the world, then you'll be comfortable saying, "Okay, it's time to throw out the old math and create a new math," and to believe that once we stop maintaining it, the old math sort of falls into disrepair and rusts away to nothing.

But if, like me, you view the laws of mathematics as necessary truths, you'll describe things very differently. Instead of throwing out the old math, you'll want to throw out the old physics.

The old physics said that when you put two bunches of objects together, you could predict the total by using addition. The new physics says you've got to use something more complicated than addition. But addition itself has not changed.

Excerpted from THE BIG QUESTIONS: Tackling the problems of philosophy with ideas from mathematics, economics, and physics by Steven E. Landsburg. Copyright © 2009 by Steven E. Landsburg. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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