Monday, June 4, 2012
Favorite Science Writers: William Poundstone
Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge
We conceive of and describe the world in ways that usually work just fine, but in the far corners of the labyrinth of reason, our best intentions fold back on themselves, and we end up trapped in an intractable loop or tumbling down a chute of infinite regress. Labyrinths of Reason is a collection of classic philosophical thought experiments and other imponderables that push reason and language to their logical limits. Beyond just idle brainteasers, William Poundstone shows that these mental exercises have profound implications for such fields as cryptography, decision theory, subatomic physics, and computer programming. But most of all, they're good, clean philosophical fun.
When it flourished in the 1950s, game theory, the construct of Hungarian-born mathematician John von Neumann (1903-1957), was the dominant metaphor for nuclear war debates. Game theorists today operate on more modest economic and organizational models but this reevaluation of game theory's development is nevertheless interesting. Poundstone's three-dimensional outline of the mathematics of game theory sketches von Neumann's life and offers game theory scenarios of Cold War history. The "prisoner's dilemma" is the classic model of conflict situations in which strategies leading to either individual gain or the common good are examined. Featuring much of the think tank/parlor game quality that makes game theory so seductive, Poundstone wisely restricts his discussion of von Neumann to that which serves his theme. The West's Cold War policy was formed around the structure of game theory at the RAND Corporation and other think tanks; Poundstone makes essential connections among the theory, von Newmann's politics and historical forces.