Customer Reviews


93 Reviews
5 star:
 (55)
4 star:
 (16)
3 star:
 (10)
2 star:
 (7)
1 star:
 (5)
 
 
 
 
 
Average Customer Review
Share your thoughts with other customers
Create your own review
 
 

The most helpful favorable review
The most helpful critical review


141 of 147 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Beginning of Infinity is a masterpiece
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...
Published on April 2, 2011 by Elliot Temple

versus
159 of 176 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Bit Short of Infinity
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...
Published on October 23, 2011 by Daniel Murphy


‹ Previous | 1 210 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

141 of 147 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Beginning of Infinity is a masterpiece, April 2, 2011
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.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


159 of 176 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Bit Short of Infinity, October 23, 2011
This review is from: The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (Hardcover)
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.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch - a book review, September 12, 2011
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (Hardcover)
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.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


90 of 101 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Book for the Thinking Person, August 1, 2011
By 
Book Fanatic (Houston, TX, United States) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (Hardcover)
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.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars no charity ..., December 11, 2012
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 ...
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


78 of 94 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book may change the world, July 21, 2011
This review is from: The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (Hardcover)
David Deutsch's explanation of the transforming power of knowledge to change not only ourselves, but everything around us, has the potential to challenge and eliminate multiple parochial beliefs that hinder humanity's pursuit of its highest moral purposes.

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
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Capable of rewiring your world view, May 29, 2011
The claims in this book are so radical that it's not possible to be neutral on it. Either it's garbage, or it will come to be regarded as truly seminal work, setting out a view of the world that they'll teach in school in 50 years time.

The fundamental claim is that knowledge has significance at cosmic scale, and that there is a category of being called "people" (which includes modern humans) who are capable of indefinitely acquiring and using that knowledge by virtue of the fact that they are a) universal explainers and b) universal constructors.

Some notable aspects of the book include...

The Structure: incredibly broad-ranging. There are chapters on quantum physics, "sustainability", bad philosophy, political voting systems, and "why are flowers beautiful?" Amazingly, they weave together to make his case. I suspect you will find some much more understandable and convincing than others. But ultimately the multi-pronged approach is necessary to put all the blocks in place. And every chapter makes more sense with the benefit of having read the others. In other words, this is a book which is intriguing first time round, and mind-blowing on second read as the pieces snap into place. But it's always been Deutsch's view that in a sense you can't understanding anything, without at least partially understanding everything. His structure reflects that.

The Arguments: always provocative and fun. eg. everything from Why David Attenborough's conclusions from the demise of Easter Island's civilization, to the problem of predicting the future motion of the cork in the bottle of champagne in the fridge at SETI. He takes on everyone: Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Sir Martin Rees, Stephen Hawking... An unsympathetic reader would feel there was a giant ego being exercised, but to me this is more just the mind of a man driven by wherever reason takes him.

The Implications: couldn't be much more significant. If Deutsch is right our obsession with current thinking on Sustainability, Politics, Education, Public Policy all need serious revamp.

More important than that, though, this book will change your view as to who YOU are. Your (partial but growing) ability to understand and explain the world will come to seem something of extraordinary beauty and significance. Life will seem richer, and with infinite promise of more to come.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars power of good explanations, August 19, 2011
By 
MV (East Bay, CA) - See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (Hardcover)
I have no science background (except college biology) and my own reading, so my understanding of The Beginning of Infinity is somewhat limited (particularly the chapter on the multiverse). But even with that limitation, I found this to be one of the best books I've read in years in terms of developing and pushing my own understanding of the world. I reread two chapters just to try to get some inkling of their meaning (the multiverse and the jump to universality). I also read the infinity chapter twice and on the second reading I finally got the point of the infinite hotel (or at least one point). Even after two reads though, with those chapters I still felt lost. I really need to reread them all, but this is my review with just one reading.

Despite my ignorance, I still felt it worthwhile to write a review to encourage others who might think that this book is not for them to tackle it. It is worth the effort to comprehend even for those who are not versed in the sciences.

This is what I understood from the book. Deutsch argues that we are at the "beginning" of the creation of good explanations about our world (the infinity of the title is the endless knowledge that humans have the potential to create). We will always be at the beginning (such is the nature of infinity I think--at least that's what the infinite hotel suggested), and this leads to optimism about our world. Our world is filled with (overflowing with might be a better way to think of it because we don't even really know where the world ends)problems and potential solutions. Through conjecture and criticism, humans "solve" many of these problems and this leads to new problems (solutions are not truths but they are the best explanations for the problem after much testing--and stand as objective truths, I think).

D systematically builds his case, looking at other science approaches like empiricism or instrumentalism and shows why these are not good explanations. This is not an attack on alternative perspectives as much as it is the building of good explanations around the topics that are discussed (which range from beauty (D argues that beauty is objective), philosophy, psychology, elections, choices, creation and physics). There seems to be rhetorical room for disagreement, meaning that D posits his position, criticizes the other positions and then argues that his position currently stands up to available criticism. Again, the criticism isn't an attack though; it's how knowledge is created. D's conjecture and refutation approach (to use Popper's terms) seems to make so much more sense then the usual way arguments are presented: here is a claim, here is why you should believe my claim, because I have lots of support for my claim you, the reader, should agree I'm right. Even if you have 500 pages of support for your claim, one piece of criticism could refute it.

What I found most beneficial to me was the emphasis on optimism. Humans are great creators, testers and explainers. That's exciting. I still don't understand how to apply the theories and truths discussed here to human behavior, however. Deutsch does mention psychology and its bad theories, but I'm not really talking about that. I'm wondering if humans can achieve all possibilities that do not defy the laws of physics,and does this mean things like balancing the budget? Or agreeing on good laws? How does the human ability to develop good explanations work in these instances? Deutsch (referencing Popper, who he references a lot)states that reforming politics is more a matter of setting up laws that allow us to get rid of bad rulers and bad laws (as opposed to trying to somehow fix the system to make sure only "good" politicians got elected, or good laws passed). Is the assumption that if those laws were in place than politicians would develop/accept good explanations for fear of being got rid of (or would we just end up overturning things over and over again? Now I'm prophesying which D condemns; what could we predict about human behavior? that is really the question . . . ). Do the principles raised in this book work with human behavior just as they do with physical and technical problems?

Deutsch starts with some fundamental principles (lots more than the ones I'm listing but these are what stood out to me and that I remember):
1. there is no authoritative way to knowledge
2. Humans are unique; what makes us unique is our ability to criticize our ideas and to generate new ones
3. The best knowledge for anything is a good explanation (we ask, is this the best explanation?). Good explanations are the ones that withstand heavy and sustained criticism
4. All observation is theory driven
5. evolution favors the genes that can spread through the population
6. morality, beauty, abstract concepts exist objectively (through good explanations)
7. the laws of physics determine mathematical principles
8. The universe is not random; but determined by the laws of physics.
9. prophecy is bad explanation; prediction from good explanation is better
10. Humans are creative but we have to be open to our creativity in order to feed it (the enlightenment was the first large scale example of this). We have to recognize that problems exist, that people can solve them and that this is the best plan for humans.

When I finished I had lots of questions. I don't really get the concept of "fine tuning", and I don't understand the multiverse at all. I understand what the words say, but I can't get my head around the idea of these multiple planes and people all existing simultaneously and then when he starts talking about the photons hitting the plate and going off I get really lost.

Not sure I get the anthropic principle. I did go do more reading on it and what I understood it to mean was that human existence (that humans are here) puts limits on the explanations for our existence. I think D disagrees with this.

A final wondering. . . Deutsch doesn't really address emotions. Emotions, particularly fear, seem to power much human behavior (and certainly the stagnancy he discusses that kept us from moving forward with our creativity). In the rational world offered by this book, how do people "deal with" emotional resistance? Perhaps Deutsch would say that question isn't really relevant. There are good explanations for why emotion overpowers reason (I think they are good, but maybe they aren't--such as the part of our brains that powers emotions is much more powerful than that which powers reason), but such explanations do not help us to overcome this problem.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book may change the world, May 4, 2011
David Deutsch's explanation of the transforming power of knowledge to change not only ourselves, but everything around us, has the potential to challenge and eliminate multiple parochial beliefs that hinder humanity's pursuit of its highest moral purposes.

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); The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World; Beginning of Infinity (Allen Lane Science)
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Scientist's Science Writer, September 25, 2011
This review is from: The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World (Hardcover)
I have now purchased this book three times: when it first came out in electronic form on amazon.co.uk (I don't know why publishers still insist on releasing books at different times in different places!), then as soon as the hardback arrived on Australia's shores and just now the audiobook from audible.com. This book is fantastic!

If you find writing about the rational world view exhilarating, you'll love this book. If you're a fan of Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Sam Harris, Paul Davies or any of the other great professional scientist science writers of our time, you'll love Deutsch. He's the next rung up the ladder once you've got a taste for the reach of scientific explanations. This book has surprises at every turn, but one great surprise is that you aren't hearing more about it. Rather than go over the praise others have written here, I might concentrate more upon the emotional reaction I had to it than comment on particular sections.

The Beginning of Infinity is a continuation of the intoxicating brilliance that began with The Fabric of Reality. Each page is infused with ultra rationality. Each paragraph is a cool draft of reason. And the ideas are a mixture of the new and the newly explained.

Deutsch does what many other science writers like Dawkins have been at pains to explain: demonstrate how rationality is not devoid of either high emotion or the beauty of great art. Indeed the contrary. I am a passionate reader of fiction, I watch movies and television and listen to music like anyone - but I don't think I've ever been quite so moved as I have by a book about science and philosophy. Somehow Deutsch has done more than other science writer, especially in this latest book. "The Beginning of Infinity" steals the ground from beneath your feet. It is probably classed by bookstores as "Popular Science" but it's far loftier than this. As others have said: it's ground breaking. This is not a mere re-presentation of amazing scientific ideas - it's a wholesale offering of a rational world-view.

Anyone who has ever read a book by Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett and wants to go beyond the science-religion debate would do well to pick up The Beginning of Infinity. Although Deutsch does not write much at all about religion, and this is not a book about religion by any stretch of the imagination, if you are at all interested in the current debate that seems to be raging in certain places between the `atheists' and rationalists and the religious right, then this book is like another broadsword in your armory. Without singling out the usual suspects, Deutsch provides fresh new insight into why it is that societies which are dogmatic perpetuate suffering and decline. Deutsch takes an extremely broad view of the deepest of ideas, beliefs and knowledge and through the use of clever examples shows how critical and rational thinking is what leads to progress. The Beginning of Infinity can be seen as a tour-de-force for rationalists who oppose dogma at all levels.

Recently Sam Harris' book "The Moral Landscape" explained how ethical truths are but a subset of scientific truth generally, based on the assumption that what is right or wrong has to at some level have something to do with the experience of conscious creatures. As one book claiming to provide a rational framework for how to live one's life I wondered if Deutsch's book would at all conflict with Harris' consensus shattering work. I need not have worried. These two books fit together like pieces of a puzzle - as indeed Deutsch explains such ideas should. What is true in science, philosophy, aesthetics and ethics cannot be in conflict.

Indeed readers of Sam Harris will note many parallels with his works. Sam has been concerned - as we all need to be - with the question of how one can be so well educated as to be able to become an engineer and learn to fly a plane and yet still believe they will get 72 virgins when they crash it into a building. David expands on meme theory that much of this comes down to the way we teach our children. "...people are acquiring scientific knowledge in an anaemic and instrumental way. Without a critical, discriminating approach to what they are learning, most of them are not effectively replicating the memes of science and reason into their minds. And so we live in a society in which people can spend their days conscientiously using laser technology to count cells in blood samples, and their evenings sitting cross-legged and chanting to draw supernatural energy out of the Earth."

For me, this book was spiritually enlightening through its rational approach to questions of existence and ultimate meaning (especially as I came to understand one of the core philosophies of BoI about how there can be no ultimate explanations in any arena). Soon after reading Paul Davies' "The Mind of God" in 1994 at the age of 16 I have over and again been blown away by science and philosophy writing. Taking on a physics and philosophy degree at university I read "The Fabric of Reality" by David Deutsch alongside my lecture readings of Aristotle, Plato, Descartes, Leibnitz, Spinoza and Hume while taking subjects in quantum theory, astrophysics and logic and computation. I have been impatient for the sequel.

I remember feeling "amazed" when reading Paul Davies' books about the big questions of existence that physics has begun the grapple with. Such popular science made me hungry for more. I was led to "The Fabric of Reality" and no other work has had such an impact upon me, except perhaps for "The End of Faith" and more recently "The Moral Landscape" by Sam Harris. These 3 works sit on my bookshelf above works by Davies and Dawkins and Descartes like top-shelf liquors which I can take down at any time for a draught. Perhaps it has been so many years now and I am so familiar with "The Fabric of Reality" having read and re-read and referenced and quoted in so many essays and assignments that I have forgotten just how it felt when I first encountered some of those ideas. I know they were earth shattering then. But where Descartes' Meditations have the power to shock when first encountered and Davies seems to leave one's mouth agape with wonder at the power and subtlety of science - only Deutsch seems to have the ability to truly overwhelm. This latest book is like taking a trip on every page.

I found reading this book that I was frequently, quite genuinely, overwhelmed. I would have to put the book aside and pace. Sometimes with a strange grin on my face as though I had been made privy to some profound secret of the universe - or that some cherished belief I had was now dissolving away. Whereas with Descartes I experienced a dizzying sense of vertigo - and I was thrilled that literature - ideas - had the power to do this - here the sense was of falling, flying and spinning continuously. This cooly, ultra rational work had me responding emotionally. I was thrilled but also in awe. It truly was a spiritual feeling - a sense of awesomeness and majesty. All of those adjectives that the religious use to speak about the greatness of their god - I felt here, reading this amazing work - because Deutsch really does permit one the ability to appreciate the infinite in ways they might never have considered before. I have studied philosophy, physics and mathematics at a tertiary level and have encountered earth-shattering ideas before. I did not think I could be surprised and amazed in the way I was as a teenager reading the works of the great physicists and philosophers. But I was.

And what this book has made me excited about (apart from simply turning back to page 1 to take the roller coaster again) is that there will always be new ideas just as amazing as what I have learned - just over the horizon. And that is truly a thrilling thought.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No


‹ Previous | 1 210 | Next ›
Most Helpful First | Newest First

Details

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World
The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by David Deutsch (Hardcover - July 21, 2011)
Used & New from: $1.62
Add to wishlist See buying options
Search these reviews only
Rate and Discover Movies
Send us feedback How can we make Amazon Customer Reviews better for you? Let us know here.