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Good and Real: Demystifying Paradoxes from Physics to Ethics

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Examining a series of provocative paradoxes about consciousness, choice, ethics, and other topics, Good and Real tries to reconcile a purely mechanical view of the universe with key aspects of our subjective impressions of our own existence.

In Good and Real, Gary Drescher examines a series of provocative paradoxes about consciousness, choice, ethics, quantum mechanics, and other topics, in an effort to reconcile a purely mechanical view of the universe with key aspects of our subjective impressions of our own existence.

Many scientists suspect that the universe can ultimately be described by a simple (perhaps even deterministic) formalism; all that is real unfolds mechanically according to that formalism. But how, then, is it possible for us to be conscious, or to make genuine choices? And how can there be an ethical dimension to such choices? Drescher sketches computational models of consciousness, choice, and subjunctive reasoning--what would happen if this or that were to occur?--to show how such phenomena are compatible with a mechanical, even deterministic universe. Analyses of Newcomb's Problem (a paradox about choice) and the Prisoner's Dilemma (a paradox about self-interest vs. altruism, arguably reducible to Newcomb's Problem) help bring the problems and proposed solutions into focus. Regarding quantum mechanics, Drescher builds on Everett's relative-state formulation--but presenting a simplified formalism, accessible to laypersons--to argue that, contrary to some popular impressions, quantum mechanics is compatible with an objective, deterministic physical reality, and that there is no special connection between quantum phenomena and consciousness.

In each of several disparate but intertwined topics ranging from physics to ethics, Drescher argues that a missing technical linchpin can make the quest for objectivity seem impossible, until the elusive technical fix is at hand.

347 pages, Hardcover

First published May 5, 2006

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Gary L. Drescher

3 books9 followers

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Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews
Profile Image for Morgan.
109 reviews11 followers
March 18, 2016
This book is amazing. The author uses a series of thought experiments to explore some conundrums about everyday life. The book addresses how consciousness may work, why time seems to flow in one direction, why the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics makes no sense, and how all of that ties together and supports certain common ethical prescriptions.

The thought experiments in the book are very enlightening and insightful, but are not always presented well. In particular, the quantum mechanics thought experiment was so complicated that I had a lot of trouble following it. Other thought experiments are simpler, but the author's pedagogical choices seemed to make things more difficult to understand.

In spite of the sometimes confusing presentation, the concepts presented were all thought provoking and exciting. I'm left wanting to re-read the book so I understand it better.
7 reviews
June 4, 2020
Gary Drescher gives an inspirational case for compatibilism, and for behaving ethically even when nobody is looking -- no small feat. He starts by providing effective tools for reasoning about paradoxes, and spends most of the book providing progressively more interesting exercises and case studies for the reader to perform reps on with these tools.

What really sets this treatise apart for me is Drescher's focus on appeals to isomorphism -- demonstrating that the world, or some situation, effectively looks/feels/acts the same whether some proposition holds or not. In particular, Drescher shows that a typical notion of free will (the ability to make choices, in pursuit of goals) can be present irrespective of whether the universe is deterministic. The tools developed in pursuit of this explanation, subjunctive means-end links, give a convincing way to explain when actions are useful in pursuit of goals, even when they cannot directly, causally influence those goals. This is shown most dramatically in the transparent-boxes version of Newcomb's problem, where our intuition that our actions must *causally* influence our goals is most directly challenged.

Good and Real made a great contrast to Judea Pearl's Book of Why, and Drescher's hierarchy of means-end links (empirical/correlational -> subjunctive -> causal -> fatalist) fills in some much-needed nuance in translating counterfactual reasoning to actual human behavior (and philosophical thought-experiment edge cases).

Overall, I appreciate the way Drescher performs surgery to excise misconceptions in our assumptions of how our universe and subjective experience work, without harming the magic, spirit, and mystery involved.
26 reviews10 followers
May 27, 2010
I only went about half way through this book. If you are already exposed to the pop recapitulations of the "arrow of time," a mechanist account of consciousness, how a determinist can account for moral values etc. etc., it can be kind of dreary.

What is great is Drescher's interesting defense of the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics, and his look at how people might (mistakenly) interpret how a mirror reflects in the abscence of knowledge.
Profile Image for Adnan Ali.
Author 32 books3 followers
Shelved as 'unfinished'
June 20, 2013
One of the more challenging books I've come across.
Profile Image for James.
96 reviews
March 25, 2022
I think this is a good book presenting a really important set of ideas, but it kind of shoots itself in the foot by starting off with an intractably huge mission statement. While it doesn't actually follow up on the promise of providing mechanical solutions to consciousness, decision theory, and ethics, it does get remarkably far. The book views consciousness as algorithmic - a system is conscious if it implements a certain abstract structure Drescher calls a Cartesian Camcorder. The decision theory proposed uses subjunctive (if/would) criterion rather than causal or evidential. Ethics is then viewed as a convergent instrumental pattern of behavior arising from acausal agreements to coordinate on Prisoner's Dilemma and similar scenarios, with some appropriately similar and capable consciousnesses. Probably not worth reading after already having read the Sequences, but a really brilliant analysis nonetheless.
Profile Image for Bria.
825 reviews60 followers
November 24, 2020
Pretty ambitious attempt to justify our existence and ethics! Not a bad job - it's been a while since I got into the weeds of convoluted decision theory, and Drescher somehow makes even topics I'm sorta familiar with kinda confusing at times. Not sure I'm convinced on a lot of the counterfactual reasoning - maybe because I couldn't bear to follow it in detail, maybe because my dumb intuitions still can't accept the conclusions - but overall, a right and true perspective on life, the universe, and decision-making.
Profile Image for Felix Delong.
184 reviews4 followers
May 18, 2022
Powerful antidote to the modern day mumbo jumbo abotu all the qualia, quantum magic and consciousness of the gaps... Expresses powerful ideas, but man could it use a language overhaul. I'm fairly used to tchnical books but my mind got lost with the 20th mention of p5 going throught G6 into T44... A bit more "human" language would do wonders for the book.
Profile Image for Inga.
37 reviews1 follower
July 3, 2015
There is some circular reasoning in the book (why should we care about our future / parallel branches / past selves), and some questions on self-reciprocity are left unanswered. Also, author tries to substantiate certain strategies (e.g. transparent-boxes version of Newcomb problem) on unfounded future self / parallel branch proposals, while much simpler precommitment notion would suffice.

Overall, this is a great though somewhat dull account on subjective human experiences, thinking and deciding.
Profile Image for Augusts Bautra.
12 reviews17 followers
July 28, 2012
Drescher provides an unexpectedly clear and powerful take on several long seated, but mistaken (according to him) concepts in quantum physics and ethics. As the subtitle promises, he does indeed provide plausible answers to some paradoxes encountered in these fields. I found the book to be too technically weighty in the choice machine and Newcomb's problem sections, but nevertheless enjoyed the honest and coherent narrative.
Certainly, a must-read for every Bright interested in ethics.
Profile Image for Daniel Frank.
265 reviews34 followers
November 11, 2016
I disagree with most of Drescher's conclusions even though I'm also a determinist, but it was worthwhile reading his arguments. This book suffers from some bad philosophy (his use of definitions to solve philosophical problems is particularly awful), but that's okay because of how novel and ambitious it is. I wish this book received a greater response, because I would love to see the issues discussed in a broader context.

Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews

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