The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform The World – By David Deutsch
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 multi-verse 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.
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 pre-emptively 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 neuro-anatomy, 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 co-opt 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 multi-verse, 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 possessors 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 Multi-verse, in all its Information, has more in store for the future than Mankind Uber Alles.
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.
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 humour 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 favour 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.