The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World Hardcover – 2011
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Top Customer Reviews
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 ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our current understanding of the laws of physics is that they describe a world, the structure of which can be modeled by general purpose (universal) computers as long as they have sufficient memory and processing speed. This was explained in David Deutsch's first book, The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications, and in this new masterpiece, The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World.
What logically follows is that with the aid of computers that increase our own effective memory capacity and speed, human beings can become increasingly powerful universal computers, thereby gaining the ability to model and understand, with ever increasing accuracy, all aspects of reality.
But current laptops are also universal computers and their speed and memory capacity can be increased, as well. So what is the difference between us and them?
According to David Deutsch, it is our ability to explain things. We do not yet understand how to design this ability to explain things, otherwise we would be able to create computers that are intelligent, though David Deutsch has no doubt that one day we will.
Our ability to explain is a precious evolutionary advance with far-reaching consequences. This is so because the ability to explain one aspect of reality can have universal reach (apply not just to the circumstances that the explanation was designed for, but to the rest of the universe, as well, if the explanation correctly incorporates aspects of the universal laws of physics).
For example, understanding that the seasons are caused by the tilt of the earth relative to the sun allows us not only to understand the change of seasons on the planet earth, but also the universal idea that planets orbiting distant stars throughout the universe have changing seasons, even if we never experience any of their different seasons. David Deutsch points out that physicists in a laboratory have created temperatures so low that there is no natural state of the universe in which these temperatures are found. Though we may have initially wanted to learn about refrigeration and heating to be able to protect our food, regulate climate in our homes, and other reasons specific to survival: As far as we know it is possible that these extremely cold temperatures have never existed before in the history of the universe.
So the extent of our past experience or the details of our evolutionary history do not limit what we can know or do, because our ideas can correctly incorporate aspects of the universal laws of physics, which then give these same ideas unlimited reach to apply whenever and wherever a particular law of physics is relevant, throughout the universe. And this idea has immense consequences.
For example, we can explain phenomena well beyond the evolutionary environment that led to the design of our brain. Although our genes influence us, we are not ultimately limited by them because, for example, we can learn about the universal properties of self-reproducing objects (like DNA) and so learn to understand the mechanisms of genes, increasingly giving us the ability to change them if we do not like their effect. Evolution therefore puts no arbitrary restriction on what we can know or do, because human explanations can include truth-content about Nature itself, and so can reach beyond the parochial experiences that motivated us to create an understanding of them.
I am reminded of an art historian who told me that no brilliant artist fully understands his own work of art. Good knowledge, like good art, reaches beyond its creator or its appearance. As David Deutsch indirectly points out, my teacher was quite right because works of art contain knowledge, not only about the physical world but about beauty itself, which he argues is as real as prime numbers and many other abstractions. Hence they can influence us well-beyond the intention of the artist, just as the explanation of the seasons applies universally to planets throughout the universe, though we developed it to understand only our own.
To the extent that our explanations correctly utilize aspects of the laws of physics, they contain the truth that makes them apply always and everywhere in relevant circumstances. This is so because truth is invariant with respect to time and space -- it never changes. Therefore, explanations with truth-content also have aspects that are invariant. They are impossible to change without making them less true; that is, ruining their explanatory content. So, for example, good explanations are well-adapted to surviving criticism in minds that think about them, regardless of the person who does the thinking.
Because of this timeless, unvarying quality, good explanations become an essential accumulating part of the reality that they also explain, as bad ideas are eliminated and good ideas survive the criticism that they are subjected to within minds. This implies that there can be evolutionary advances in ideas and subsequent problems that we can consider and solve.
But where do new ideas come from? David Deutsch explains that they come from previous knowledge subjected to random variation (essentially evolutionary mutations in ideas) and recombination, so there is really no limit on our ability to come up with new possible explanations for things -- no limit on our ability to guess an explanation for something -- ultimately because random variations are also limitless.
This is so even though most guesses are not improvements. The crucial part in this rational process is "error-correction". After trying (and letting others try) to refute a new theory -- that is, criticize it by finding a logical or experimental contradiction in it -- if it survives criticism then it becomes the best explanation that we can think of -- the one we use, once other rival explanations are refuted. David Deutsch argues that new knowledge comes from random variations applied to previous knowledge -- what the philosopher of science Karl Popper (and David Deutsch borrowing from him) call "conjectures".
David Deutsch points out some profound consequences of the above worldview. If our ability to explain things with ever-increasing accuracy is true, then our ability to use that knowledge to make things better is limitless as well. Not only are we universal computers (that can potentially explain any phenomena in the universe), we are then also universal constructors of material objects. We can make use of our explanations to create anything that is not forbidden by the laws of physics. That includes societies with more physical resources, subject only to the limitations imposed by the fixed laws of physics, not biological or ecological limitations or other seeming barriers to improvement.
So "spaceship earth" (the idea that the earth has precious resources specifically needed by human beings) is a myth. David Deutsch points out that it would be entirely feasible to survive in the darkest places in the universe once we have developed the correct knowledge. And we currently survive where we do now not because of a particular accident of available resources but rather because of our ability to transform poor resources to make an environment that is hospitable to humans. We survive because of what our knowledge has done, when before us our evolutionary ancestors lived a horrid, meager, Malthusian existence, where any improvement in resource availability was soon taken away by a consequent population increase.
There are nonetheless multiple threats to us. But if David Deutsch is correct, then all of these threats, moral or otherwise, come from a lack of knowledge, not from any foundational evil that must ultimately cause us to fail. He points out that the great leap forward of the West occurred during the Western Enlightenment, not because of resource availability in Europe, as some have claimed, but rather because of a change in mind-set in which people stopped seeking truth from authority (or other supposedly justified sources), but instead adopted an attitude of correcting errors in ideas, regardless of their source.
David Deutsch points out that a good political system has certain similar characteristics to a scientific research program, ultimately because both derive from Enlightenment ideas. Using our democracies, if a politician makes decisions that are not good (just like if a scientist comes up with an explanation that does not work) the important thing is that we can non-violently vote the politician out of office (or in the case of the scientist, non-violently challenge a scientifically bad idea.) Non-violent error correction (not justification of ideas by some other authoritative idea or by some authority, David Deutsch explains) is the key part of any moral, political, or scientific process that can grow knowledge.
David Deutsch's brilliant book, The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World, is a tour de force and is essential reading for those who recognize the ennobling aspects of rational thinking and for those who are tired of hearing ultimately irrational explanations of inherent limitations on what we can imagine or do. David Deutsch reminds us that the cause of suffering is actually stagnation and ignorance rather than progress and knowledge growth. If we reach beyond the mistaken parochial thinking that threatens the growth of knowledge, we humans can have a bright and exciting future as intelligent moral beings in the world -- and in the universe.
As anyone who has seen Professor Deutsch speak will have noticed (see, for example, his TED talk on "Our place in the cosmos"), David Deutsch has an awe-inspiringly brilliant mind. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World is not one of those quick, cute books you enjoy then forget; it's the kind of book you read and re-read, one that stays with you, informing your thinking long into the future. I myself have been profoundly influenced by David Deutsch's ideas, and I suspect that if you read this book, you will be too. Indeed, I'd go so far as to predict that this book will still be being read generations from now. It's that good.
Books cited in this review: The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications; Fabric of Reality (Penguin Science); Beginning of Infinity (Allen Lane Science); The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World