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Customer Review

212 of 234 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.
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Showing 1-10 of 37 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 21, 2011 1:46:59 PM PST
I tend to agree generally with your review, with one very glaring exception--your characterization of the book including an excellent review of quantum physics, and that the author has succeeded in making it less mysterious and more comprehensible than other authors. He has done nothing of the sort at all. There is actually very little discussion of 'quantum physics', which itself is a rather nebulous phrase. Deutsch certainly discusses quantum mechanics and a bit of how it is part and parcel of existential implications, but that's it. There is nothing however anywhere close to a 'review' of quantum physics, either in a qualitative or technical sense. To that end, he couldn't possibly have made it more comprehensible and less mysterious.

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 21, 2011 4:06:59 PM PST
Smith's Rock says:
I'm not an expert on quantum physics, Sam, so if you are I'll gladly defer to you on this point. I will say that I personally found the author's explanations quite helpful.

Posted on Feb 6, 2012 12:28:50 PM PST
GDP says:
Dan,

Very good review of Deutsch's book, you clearly have an excellent command of the science behind it and a viewpoint worth considering.

Deutsch has the confidence of a super intelligent person, who believes that his native intelligence translates into his knowing 'everything' (or at least thinking so). On several occasions he strays into historical analysis and reveals his weaknesses. The discussion of Sparta and Athens (pp. 217-8) is particularly naive. A weak understanding of history is unlikely to lead to a Good Explanation.

It was just this sense of overconfidence in "reason" that Edmund Burke warned against, suggesting that the traditions, customs and practices of a society embody the accumulated knowledge of generations and they should only be overturned with great caution. Deutsch seems to inadvertently acknowledge this by preferring the British Enlightenment to the Continental Enlightenment (his terms - pg. 65). Imagine, Deutsch and Burke on the same "page".

The reviews of this book that proclaim it "brilliant" seem to result from an uncritical reading. Cheers.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 6, 2012 3:02:37 PM PST
Smith's Rock says:
GDP,
Very thoughtful comments, you come across as a philosopher in the original sense of the word. Thanks for the reference to Edmund Burke. Though I carry a quote by him on my phone, I've done woefully little reading of his writing. Which you've stimulated me to remedy! Especially liked your statement that a weak understanding of history is unlikely to lead to a Good Explanation.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 23, 2012 12:10:30 PM PDT
This book is brilliant and so was the chapter discussing Sparta and Athens. His point was about how essential the mentality is which seeks to understand the world, which is a product of reason; so I now challenge you to explain how "reason" is dangerous. (Yes, please give me 'reasons' for why society must embrace irrationality.)

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 23, 2012 7:22:47 PM PDT
Smith's Rock says:
Hi Brad,
Not sure what you are referring to. Something I said? I certainly don't think society must "embrace irrationality", though I'm forced to ACKNOWLEDGE irrationality every day, as I presume that you are too. Can you clarify a bit?

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2012 10:41:54 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 24, 2012 11:26:36 AM PDT
Hi Dan,
I was referring to GDP's response above, which you seemed to agree with (namely, where he discusses an "overconfidence" in reason that we should all be "warned against"). Such a position is intellectually bogus and self-refuting (for one cannot rationally argue against reason), and it completely fails to capture Deutsch's argument in discussing Athens versus Sparta: which was merely to illustrate why and how human wellbeing and progress is a function of creativity combined with critical reasoning, apposed to dogmatic convention and stagnation; this is because there exist no a priori (in principle) reasons limiting what humanity is capable of--thus, survival in this world shall be viewed as a complex of problems to be overcome; however, our thinking is inherently fallible, so, in order to solve problems and progress, we need to correct for errors in our knowledge; and creativity and rationality are the only tools that allow for this and so also allow for infinite (unbounded) progress.
This is the point of his book, and is one worth reiterating a bazillion times over; and if one didn't get this from his book, then one MUST re-read it.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2012 11:21:24 AM PDT
Smith's Rock says:
Thanks for the clarification, Brad. I was agreeing with his statement that a weak understanding of history is unlikely to lead to a good understanding. I'm not enough of a Greek historian to evaluate his thoughts on Sparta versus Athens. Rationality and creativity are, indeed, powerful tools, but they seem not to prevent rational and creative folks from going to literal or metaphorical war with each other. They may be an incomplete recipe for forward movement, if one believes in the notion of progress.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2012 11:52:16 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 24, 2012 2:23:25 PM PDT
Dan,
I think any honest look at humanities history of conflict and suffering will conclude, in the end, that they were the product of dogmatic, irrational, AUTHORITATIVE modes of thought--which are the antithesis of rationality (i.e. I challenge one to present ONE single example in history of a society failing because of people behaving TOO rationally--i.e. trying to draw coherent conclusions and justify ones beliefs with evidence). The fact is that rationality is the only tool of thought that allows absurdities to be acknowledged and corrected for.
And as for a notion of progress, I believe Deutsch identifies progress with the type of problems a civilization is working on; for example, there is simply no questioning that working to understand atmospheric change, neurobiology, agriculture, etc. is much better than seeking to produce fire, exorcise demonic possession, appease Zues (or Yahweh) so it may rain, etc; there is no doubt that our (grasp of) problems are much better than our ancestors, and so progress has been achieved.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 25, 2012 6:10:50 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 25, 2012 6:16:01 AM PDT
Smith's Rock says:
Brad,
It would probably take a coffe house or pub conversation to make sure we understood one another. I'm a rationalist, but as such, I have to accept the psychological, sociological, and neuroantomical evidence: man is not a rational creature. As a family physician (and the research backs this up), it is ineffective to simply appeal to reason, as in "You should stop smoking because it is bad for you." Only about 10% of smokers that have a heart attack quit smoking. Only about 3% of diabetics (adult onset) lose weight when presented with the facts. My guess is that there are multiple things in your own life that would be rational for you to do, yet you don't. Neuroanatomically, our primate brains are not wired like a microchip, rather, the parts of the brain that are responsible for our rational thought are very deeply interconnected with our memories, and with our emotions. Big changes in human behavior mirror this. The Civil Rights movement in the U.S. was far more affected by scenes of Ruby Bridges, a small child, being escorted to class by armed marshalls, by protesters being attacked by snarling German Shepherds, by Rosa Parks' refusal to move from her seat on the bus, than by rational discourse. Similarly, if you're a fan of history, you must admit that that the American Revolution, articulated by those that were there, was powered at LEAST as much by emotion as by rational thought (e.g. Patrick Henry's "Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!).

If one doesn't acknowledge the neuroanatomy of our species of the primate family, one is simply ineffective in getting change to take place, as the debate on climate change so clearly illustrates. It takes an appeal to several different parts of the brain to move humans in a different direction. Rational thought is a very powerful tool, but calling it the "only tool of thought that allows absurdities to be acknowledged and corrected for"......does not fit the evidence that is abundantly available. It takes convincing the brain both logically, and emotionally, to get a lasting change in behavior. It's simply the way the brain is built. Respectfully, Dan
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