Do Llamas Fall in Love? 33 Perplexing Philosophy Puzzles

February 24, 2011

Do Llamas Fall in Love? has almost nothing to do with llamas, but plenty to do with love, especially that love of wisdom that is philosophy. This smart and funny jaunt through philosophy's core issues serves as a fine introduction for the phi-curious and the wonderers about wisdom who may have had no prior exposure to philosophy. It is also a delightful read for those who may already have a bunch of philosophy under their belts.

The highly abstract nature of philosophy often leads to dry and inaccessible expositions. Attempts to overcome this problem often result in dumbing-downs that are effectively useless in accurately conveying what's really going on in the field. Peter Cave masterfully balances the need to inform and the need to entertain.

The 33 "perplexing puzzles" that he discusses in 33 short chapters manage to cover many, if not most, of philosophy's key topics: ethics, rights, knowledge, mind, rationality, aesthetics, logic, law, politics, metaphysics, language and religion. The chapter titles are quirky and intriguing, enticing one to keep on reading to find out what could possibly be intended. Here are a few: "A goat with gaps"; "Time for zoological investigations - from the bedroom"; "Creamy philosophers: who knows who knows..."; and "Preferences: avoiding the money pump".

Cave's conundrums range from the puzzle of what justifies certain religious-based legal exemptions (turban-wearing Sikhs are exempt from helmet laws in some countries) to the puzzle of whether some infinite sets can be bigger than others (how is it that the set of even whole numbers is the same size as the set of whole numbers?).

Each chapter ends with three or four pointers to other related chapters, encouraging a playful, browsing-friendly approach that further adds to the casualness of the reading experience. Many chapters also include amusing cartoons and illustrations.

So, what's the deal with the llamas? As explained in the chapter "Addicted to love", many non-human animals form monogamous pair bonds. In their outward behaviour at least, they resemble people who are deeply in love. And there are certain biochemical similarities between the nervous systems of humans in love and these animals. But are such similarities sufficient to ascribe similar mental states to humans and non-humans? And if such similarities don't suffice to justify treating animals as psychologically similar to humans, what similarities would suffice?

One of two main approaches to introducing philosophy, and the approach that Cave takes, is to focus on core problems. The other approach is historical and focuses more on the who-said-what-and-when. While the whos and whens take up less of Cave's focus, the reader for whom this matters will nonetheless receive some guidance, mostly in the form of the first two of the book's three appendices, which offer pointers to further readings. (The third appendix serves as a master index of the puzzles covered in this and other books by Cave.)

I really like Cave's style and am hard pressed to find many flaws in this book. Here are some, and I think you'll see that they are quite minor. Chapters 10 and 20 unfortunately share the title "Misfortune, Miss Fortuna - and malicious delight". (Or is this a deliberate joke? Chapter 10 is, after all, about Schadenfreude.) It seems clear from context and internal cross-referencing that Chapter 20 is really titled "Mercy: tempering and tampering with justice". And on the subject of titles, I can't help but complain that the titles of Cave's previous "Perplexing Puzzle" books - What's Wrong with Eating People? and Can a Robot Be Human? - are much better suited to piquing interest while simultaneously conveying a core philosophical problem. But these are, in the end, small problems. This is a great book.

Do Llamas Fall in Love? 33 Perplexing Philosophy Puzzles

By Peter Cave. Oneworld Publications, 2pp, £7.99. ISBN 9781851687671. Published 1 October 2010

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