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Jackie Connor

Review of 101 Philosophy Problems by Martin Cohen

'What is the universe in?'

'How big is infinite?'

'How fast can light travel?'

'Can something be true and not true at the same time?'

'How can you talk a crocodile out of eating you?'

For the answers to these questions and more read this book, but take it slowly.

101 Philosophical Problems is Martin Cohen's attempt to simplify the world of philosophy. He does this by using simple stories to illustrate the main basic ideas of the subject. There are, you will not be surprised to know, 101 of these, luckily for us the answers are in the back. Here he can show us what he thinks the answers might be. Although he has some very definite opinions of other philosophers' work, he tries to provide both sides to each argument. Then at the back of the book is a glossary, which is more like a condensed history of the great minds of philosophy.

I found the stories to be of varying degrees of interest and difficulty. Having read a few, I tried them out on friends and family only to realise that a story that seems quite simple on paper is actually quite complex when you try to explain it. Therefore, I think when reading this book it is a good idea to talk it through with someone afterward. It is also important to read it a bit at a time, or your head may explode. I found it all too easy when reading alone to draw my own conclusions without looking more deeply into the problem. I was also surprised to find just how much philosophy pokes it's nose into all aspects of our lives, nothing is sacred.

Some of the answers in the back of the book were even more complex. Although many had a satisfying 'ah' quality to them. Some refused to change into a good shape to fit in my head, a good reason to take your time and go back and read it again. It cannot be said that this is an easy book, if you find it easy you are probably missing the point. But the rewards already seem enormous to me and I have just touched the tip of the iceberg.

All the usual subject matter is to be found in this book (e.g. free will, ethics, mind/body) but you won't find a chapter on each like in other philosophy books. They are all mixed in together, which is probably a good idea. If this book is your first book maybe you could read it, get some of the ideas sorted out, then read the other books and find the names for everything.

One of my favourite stories is Protagoras' Problem which at first glance seems to be a perfect paradox. A man is taught the art of being a lawyer on the condition that when he wins his first case he should pay his teacher back. When the pupil decides he'd rather be a musician, his teacher takes him to court. Both men are convinced they can't lose, but, of course, both can't win. The teacher is convinced that if his pupil loses, then he will have won, but that if his pupil wins, the pupil will have to pay as he will have won his first case. On the other hand the pupil is happy that if he loses, his teacher will have lost the right to re-enforce their contract and yet if he wins his teacher has lost anyway.

The ingenuity of Cohen's story telling means that we get all that first time, leaving us free to try and figure out which man is right. At first my head was hurting trying to figure out how a real paradox could exist, but then I realised it is just an example of how ambiguously we see the world. And this was just one problem, there are 100 more to get your teeth into, all different from one another. Some are even sequential, I like these because you read the first one and think you have solved the problem but in the next one the worst possible case scenario occurs and you say to yourself 'oh no, bad decision.'

Another I liked was 'A Relative Problem' involving a professor doing research on a tribe of people and their traditions. He finishes his work and decides that each society has a right to have its beliefs respected. Then he is invited to dinner at the home of the head family. And what's for dinner? his best mate, the granddad of the tribe. All his life it was the man's belief that when he reached 80 his family should kill him and eat him. If anyone at the party doesn't partake of the feast, the old man believed he would go to the equivalent of hell. Does the professor follow his own beliefs about cannibalism and insult the man's family or does he hold his nose and chew. A toughy, don't you think?

As a complete beginner in the world of philosophy I have enjoyed this book on many levels. Although I feel that there is still a few thousand layers of the onion skin to peel off, I have enjoyed the few the book has enlightened me about. It has opened a whole new world where nothing is sacred and everything must be questioned. I shall read it again and again, and am confident that each time I will understand a little more. Although I gather that in this subject no-one ever knows 'it all'.

101 Philosophy Problems
Martin Cohen
Routledge 2001
ISBN-10 0415261295
ISBN-13 978-0415261296