This book is about rational optimism. For the past few hundred years in the West, science and logical thinking have been changing things for the better. The author believes we are just beginning an era of continual progress that has no bound.
His key idea is that science is defined by seeking explanations for the universal laws that govern reality. Explanations go beyond simply describing what we observe, or “instrumentalism”. A good explanation has “reach” – it explains not only what we see, but continues to work in situations we never anticipated. For example, Newton’s laws of motion explain both a falling object on Earth, and the orbits of the planets.
A poor explanation, such as “God did it”, could explain anything, and therefore explains nothing. Even if God exists, this statement does not explain how he did it, which is what is relevant for science. What Deutsch calls bad philosophy is not only a poor explanation, but it also sets up a system that is immune from criticism (such as “God’s will cannot be questioned”). This prevents anyone from challenging the philosophy.
The source of our theories is conjecture, which are then subjected to criticism. All theories are wrong, or at least incomplete. Criticism permits better explanations to emerge. This kind of error correction is critical to making any system work. Deutsch states that the prime moral imperative is to never suppress the means of criticism and error correction.
Deutsch examines William Paley’s argument in 1802 that life must have been designed. He shows this argument is profound, limited only what was not known at the time.
What is the difference between a stone and a watch?Read more ›
Was this review helpful to you?
This is my first David Deutsch book. In it he explains that explanations have a fundamental palace in the universe. At first I was not sure where he was going with the beginning of infinity theme. Yet I found his arguments fascination. He looks at clouds from both sides now and can surprise you be telling you want you suspected all along but could not put it in words.
You need to have a good background in several disciplines or plan on doing a lot of side reading as I swear David peeked in my library and quoted from every author I ever read. I was really floored to find he know so much about Jacob Bronowski my hero from the 70's.
Occasionally he would light on a subject that I see different but it did not distract from the point he was trying to make. I had a different view of Persephone which included pomegranates. And when he went into base number systems he concentrated on zero not taking to time to see the beauty and simplicity of the base sixty stem that we use today for time and degrees and easy conversions in geometry.
The book itself is broken up into many text book style chapters. Each chaptere on a different subjedt leading to the same point of the meaning of infinity. Each chapter has a good summary. I also listened to the voice recorded book however you miss the diagrams.
As I dove through each chapter, some of them seemed to be making the point the hard way; I kept thinking when is he going to go off the deep; like so many people that want physics to look like old eastern religious clichés. But he never did. His argument kept getting stronger and clearer. He even pointed out bad explanations and why.
When you finish the book (and it ends too soon) you will look at the world differently. It is like the mechanic that looks at the car and does not see its glossy finish but the culmination of many tuned systems that came together for a purpose.
You of course will have to read this book again.
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
140 of 146 people found the following review helpful
The Beginning of Infinity is a masterpieceApril 2 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
It takes disparate topics and unites them in one powerful worldview. Topics range from physics and philosophy to voting systems and alphabets to optimism and objective aesthetics to evolution and creationism, and even morality. Each topic has enlightening individual analysis, but even better than that is the worldview behind the analysis, which comes out as one reads the entire book. The Beginning of Infinity is about a way of thinking. It is the most rational way of thinking ever to be explained.
You might think that David Deutsch is a genius (and he is) and that therefore his way of thinking won't work for you. That is not the case. His worldview can help anyone with any topic. It's not equally useful for all fields -- it fares better with important topics -- but it always has a surprisingly large amount of relevance and use. And unlike many philosophers who want to sound impressive, Deutsch has made a concerted effort to write clearly and accessibly. This isn't a book written only for the initiated.
I've identified three main themes which I think best describe the most important message of the book.
The first theme is the titular one. Like Deutsch's previous book, chapters conclude with short summaries and terminology sections. But he's got a new section too: the meanings of the beginning of infinity encountered in the previous chapter. So what kind of infinity is Deutsch concerned with? Primarily progress. Humans are capable of an infinite amount of progress. We can improve things without limit, and learn without limit. This covers not just material improvement but also moral improvement. Some impressive types of potential progress discussed in the book include building space stations in deep space, immortality and creating a more open, tolerant and free society.
The second theme, which is the most fundamental, is epistemological. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Deutsch discusses issues like how we learn, and the correct and effective ways of thinking. Insights from this field, such as how to be rational, the inevitability of mistakes and the need to be able to correct mistakes (rather than rely on avoiding them all in the first place) underlie everything else. For example, Deutsch proposes an epistemological principle as the most important moral idea. I won't keep you in suspense: it is the moral imperative not to destroy the means of correcting mistakes. But if you want to fully understand what this means you'll have to read the book!
The third theme, which is prevalent without usually being stated explicitly, is liberalism in its original, not left-wing, meaning. Liberalism draws on the other two themes. It is about organizing society to allow for human progress, rational lifestyles, knowledge creation, and the correcting of mistakes. To do this its biggest principle is not to approach conflicts and disagreements with the use of force because force does not discover the truth of the matter and everyone should seek to figure out the truth and do that rather than taking a might makes right approach. Liberalism is the philosophy of open societies and the only one capable of supporting unlimited progress. In contrast to open societies, Deutsch also discusses static societies which do not make progress. He explains how they will eventually fail and cease to exist because there are always new and unforeseeable problems which they cannot adapt to. Only a liberal society which moves forward has the means of dealing with the unknown problems the future holds.
There is a lot to love about The Beginning of Infinity. If you are narrowly interested in physics you should read it for the chapter explaining what the multiverse is like -- and when you do you may also be challenged by the chapter on bad philosophies of science and intrigued by the chapter on the reality of abstractions. If you are only interested in math and computation, you'll want to read the chapter on AI, but you'll also enjoy the chapter about the concept of infinity. If you're an artist you'll appreciate the discussion of the beauty of flowers, and the wit of the Socratic dialog. Whatever the case may be, the philosophy running throughout has universal interest.
159 of 176 people found the following review helpful
A Bit Short of InfinityOct. 23 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
Books that combine an excellent review of quantum physics with a provocative world view should probably merit a baseline three stars, and this one does. That said, The Beginning of Infinity does not seem to have the makings of a classic in the genre.
As numerous reviews have pointed out, this book is a David Deutsch "Theory of Everything", not in terms of uniting all four of the basic forces of physics (though in a sense he does that), but in the sense of expanding quantum physics into a theory that encompasses everything that we humans tend to hold meaningful. Thus the book includes attempts to show that an absolute standard of beauty, a system of ethics, and even systems of politics and (loosely interpreted) parenting and education can be derived from Deutsch's unique point of view.
In The Beginning of Infinity, Deutsch goes to great creative lengths in an attempt to make quantum physics less mysterious and more comprehensible. In this he succeeds better than many other authors. As an educated person that has made an effort to keep up over the last five decades with advances in science, but still regularly gets pushed into "I'm FAIRLY sure I understand what is being said" territory, I found Deutsch's explanations illuminating and very helpful. Deutsch's explorations of the implications of the well-known single photon studies (leading many, but not Deutsch, to say that photons are "both particles and waves") are striking and deeply exciting. Deutsch is an acknowledged leader in quantum theory and quantum computing, and when he discusses topics that he knows best, he seems to be on the most solid ground (as solid as anything can be in this quantum world!). It is when he strays from his area of expertise that he begins to take on the colorations of many other great scientists that wander off into clouds of quirkiness when they leave their area of expertise. Linus Pauling on Vitamin C, James Watson on race, Lynn Margulis on the cause of AIDS come to mind.
When Deutsch jumps with all four limbs into philosophy, anthropology, politics, and education, he does so with a maximum of enthusiasm, and not a little combativeness. Often defending his positions by preemptively consigning any and all opponents to an "ism" (e.g. empiricism, reductionism, rationalism, "isms" ad infinitum), Deutsch's arguments vary wildly between seeming shockingly superficial and too profound to easily grasp. It is instructive, if you have the time, to watch the TED lecture (YouTube) that Deutsch gave in 2005: it gives a sense of just how static his points of view have remained over nearly a decade.
When Deutsch discusses Artificial Intelligence, he seems woefully out of touch with the literature that has emerged over the last five to seven years. When he discusses why mankind is a species of animal that is different in kind, rather than degree, he ignores (and is often factually incorrect) when citing animal research data regarding non-human language capabilities and levels of consciousness. When he describes humans as "universal constructors" and/or "universal explainers" (i.e. capable of infinite progress in both related arenas) his arguments often, again, seem out of touch with current research on neuroanatomy, consciousness, and far more in synch with the powerful drive we humans have to think of ourselves as unique in all the universe.
Deutsch's estimation of the human mind's infinite capacity requires him to climb further and further out on epistemological limbs. If one could compare Deutsch's science of the human brain to the field of astronomy, it would be fair to say that he runs a very significant risk of being a Pre-Copernican: it's probably just not true that EVERYTHING with advanced computational capacity revolves around the human mind, now and forever.
Deutsch diverges almost imperceptibly, but very significantly, from much contemporary evolutionary/complexity/emergence theory when he uses the word "knowledge" in place of the word "information". Whereas a fair amount of contemporary thought has been devoted to the emergent phenomena that occur as more and more information (down to and including the color and spin of quarks) coalesces in a process that started with whatever we think the Big Bang may have been, by using the word knowledge instead of information, Deutsch appears to coopt the evolution of information by establishing human ownership of it. If information, starting in its most basic form (quarks? Superstrings?) evolves in increasingly complex ways over the life of the multiverse, then humans are simply a particular (in this case, primate) manifestation of an inevitable process that is independent of humans. An evolutionary process that is akin, then, to what Kevin Kelly seems to allude to in his striking book What Technology Wants. If on the other hand, "knowledge" is the key evolutionary factor, then humans (who translate information into knowledge and are the sole possesors of knowledge) are absolutely necessary for forward motion. Motion toward infinity, Deutsch proposes, needs the current version of Homo sapiens (Deutsch distinguishes between current and past versions). Which is an attractive proposal to me from an egotistical point of view, I'll admit. But then....I read the morning paper. And it makes me hope that the Multiverse, in all its Information, has more in store for the future than Mankind Uber Alles.
88 of 99 people found the following review helpful
A Book for the Thinking PersonAug. 1 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
This is a fantastic book. You may not agree with all of his conclusions but I find it difficult to believe one could read this book and not be challenged by its ideas. It is a very unusual book that touches on topics in philosophy and science that aren't readily available to the average person, but David Deutsch has done a good job making the material accessible to the intelligent lay reader.
This book is optimistic about the future as the author believes that human knowledge will solve the problems created by previous human knowledge. I think he is right and he does an incredibly good job of arguing that thesis. I suspect however, that regardless of the quality of the content, many people who are anti-progress (and there are a lot of them out there) are going to dislike it. I hope somebody attempts a refutation of Deutsch. I would be interested in reading it and if anyone knows of something already available please speak up.
I highly recommend this book. It can't help but make you think. I learned a lot and thought a lot while I was reading it and I'm still thinking about it. That qualifies it for 5 stars in my world. Get it, you won't regret it even if you disagree with its conclusions.
41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch - a book reviewSept. 12 2011
- Published on Amazon.com
If this book were as difficult to understand as some of the comments on it are, it would not be one I'd want to read! I'm no scientist but I wanted to give it a try because I'd heard David Deutsch speaking and found him very easy to follow and absolutely fascinating, and I wanted more.
Having read the book three times (and the bit about the Infinity Hotel four times to figure out what happened to the puppy!) and finding that I am getting more out of it with each reading, I can understand that it may be controversial in some respects, but I don't understand why it is attracting such intense and bizarre hostility. What am I missing? For me, the writing is crystal clear, charming and riveting, like the author himself when you hear him speak -- it's a sheer delight to read. It made me laugh out loud several times -- I LOVE that the author's sense of humor comes through even in what is a very deep, important book. And it even moved me to tears.
The subject matter is super wide-ranging, including stuff about physics and mathematics (no formulas, thankfully), beauty (yes, really!), voting systems (why proportional voting systems are fundamentally unfair despite the best intentions of those proposing them), environmentalism (why we have it all wrong!), intriguing stuff about culture, history, philosophy, etc., etc. David Deutsch is truly a polymath.
But what I personally find so enthralling is the way reading this book is challenging me and changing the way I think. I love the way all the apparently disparate issues are united in a single, coherent worldview having implications far beyond just what David Deutsch discusses in this book. As best I can tell, the author's worldview is vibrantly positive, optimistic (not to be confused with unrealistic), and rational (in the sense of being in favor of progress, solving problems and ending misery and suffering) -- a fundamentally humane worldview -- a beautiful, life-affirming, shining-beacon-of-light sort of worldview. For me, it has the ring of truth. Evidently for others, it is the work of the devil. But for anyone who loves ideas and thinking about things, The Beginning of Infinity is worth reading whether or not you agree with the author's ideas.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
no charity ...Dec 11 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
The author fails in what is usually called the "principle of charity": he fails to give the view he opposes the strongest defense available, and ends up setting up weak straw men.
The book explores a vast scientific and epistemological territory and touches on a even vaster set of issues (morality, aesthetics, personal identity, ...). While nobody is expected to master the intricacies of all these fields at the same time, it should be the author responsibility to show how his point of view correlates with the ongoing discussions in the relative fields, ideally pointing to "references" to help the reader gain a deeper perspective.
Since the core of the book revolves around a certain epistemological position, roughly corresponding to Popper's Conjectures and Refutations, I would consider mandatory to answer to the objections presented by Kuhn's classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
While I could imagine that the author is not familiar with the standard literature in personal identity (e.g. Parfit's Reasons and Persons or Nozick's Philosophical Explanations), even though it would have been interesting to look at the multiverse implications for personal identity, I cannot suppose that he is not familiar with the standard arguments presented by Kuhn. He must have deliberately chosen not to address such arguments, leaving his core structure exposed to fairly common attacks, and removing much value to the edifice he builds on top of such assumptions.
The author paints a very misleading picture of instrumentalism (saying that it implies relativism: "once one has denied this [realism], the logical implication is that all claims about reality are equivalent to myths, none of them being better than the others in any objective sense. That is relativism").
He enunciates a paradoxical "criterion for reality" : "a particular thing is real if and only if it figures in our best explanation of something" (since our best explanations change over time, should we derive that the reality they describe also change over time? That's clearly not the objective world the author wanted to describe).
He falls into the easy trap of saying (pg. 26) that we should drop explanations that are falsified by observations, only for saying later on that we know that both our best physical theories (quantum mechanics and relativity) are false since incompatible with each other, while the difference between some anomaly and a true falsification can be made only after a new theory has been established and accepted (Kuhn says "The decision to reject one paradigm is always simultaneously the decision to accept another, and the judgment leading to that decision involves the comparison of both paradigms with nature and with each other.", "To reject one paradigm without simultaneously substituting another is to reject science itself.")
He argues (incredibly) that (pg.45) "the Earth's biosphere is incapable of supporting human life", that morality is objective (pg.121) "since the universe is explicable, it must be that morally right values are connected in this way with true factual theories, and morally wrong values with false theories".
He makes the mistake of saying that digital systems are not effected by errors (pg.141), while we know that normal error distributions imply there is always "some" probability that the signals falls outside the quantization threshold. Error probability can be reduced arbitrarily by adding redundancy, but can never be eliminated.
In general he doesn't clearly define his basic terms so we don't know, for example, what he really means for "explanation" and how he can ground his explanations into other terms without falling into circularity, unexplained statements, or infinity (!), as in Agrippa's trilemma.
He fails to comment on the fact that something can be unbounded without being infinite (it can for example tend asymptotically to a fixed value, so there is no max value, but there are values that will never be reached), he just says, pg. 165 "I use those concepts interchangeably, because in this context there is no substantive difference between them".
He says (pg. 221) that we should take very personally that Athens has been defeated by Sparta because "if any of those earlier experiments in optimism had succeeded, our species would be exploring the stars by now, and you and I would be immortal" (no further details given for this estimate ...). Also human will be immortal in a couple of generations (no details given ...)
and so on ...
As Einstein apparently said: "Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe.".
The author instead sees human beings at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of knowledge, since they are universal explainers. No knowledge is, in principle, impossible to them, and no "super human" mind can be possibly imagined (isn't that a very "finite" image of knowledge?)
He attacks Jared Diamond Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies while ignoring the clear arguments against historical determinism he explicitly makes in Collapse.
He attacks ecological sustainability saying that we should worry about creating more solution instead of less problems, while failing to give any argument to show that we are able to create more solutions than problems (which is what really matters). He doesn't bother to give detailed factual arguments for this position, but remains in the distant world of a priori truths, untroubled, for example, by the actual data of failing ecosystems.
The whole argument comes down to accepting that 1) all problems are solvable 2) humans are universal explainers thus 3) human will eventually solve all problems.
There's a lot of handwaiving, but no real argument there.
The picture he paints might be attractive to some, but I found it really shallow, and that is a pity because the author is clearly a very intelligent individual. He should have devoted more time to secure his arguments, instead of using the book to attack the "-isms" he doesn't like ...