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The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World Kindle Edition
“Dazzling.” – Steven Pinker, The Guardian
In this groundbreaking book, award-winning physicist David Deutsch argues that explanations have a fundamental place in the universe—and that improving them is the basic regulating principle of all successful human endeavor. Taking us on a journey through every fundamental field of science, as well as the history of civilization, art, moral values, and the theory of political institutions, Deutsch tracks how we form new explanations and drop bad ones, explaining the conditions under which progress—which he argues is potentially boundless—can and cannot happen. Hugely ambitious and highly original, The Beginning of Infinity explores and establishes deep connections between the laws of nature, the human condition, knowledge, and the possibility for progress.
"[Deutsch] makes the case for infinite progress and such passion, imagination, and quirky brilliance that I couldn't help enjoying his argument. . . . [He] mounts a compelling challenge to scientific reductionism." --The Wall Street Journal
“A deep theory of why humanity is destined to make progress may be found in David Deutsch’s dazzling The Beginning of Infinity. Deutsch presents science as a force for betterment, since it impels us to explain the world while forcing us to acknowledge our fallibility.” – Steven Pinker, The Guardian
"Provocative and persuasive . . . Address[es] subjects from artificial intelligence to the evolution of culture and creativity." --The Economist
“[Deutsch’s books] are among the most ambitious works of nonfiction I have read, in that their aim is no less than an explanation of all reality. . . . They are treatises that weave together not just physics and astronomy but biology, mathematics, computer science, political science, psychology, philosophy, aesthetics, and—most important for Deutsch—epistemology, among other fields, in fashioning a profound new view of the world and the universe.” --The New Yorker’s Book Bench
“Deutsch has an important message . . . that our destiny is to be explainers of the world around us, and explaining is the key to our mastery. . . . He writes clearly and thinks wisely. His book could help the world toward better ways of dealing with its problems.” --Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books
About the Author
- ASIN : B005DXR5ZC
- Publisher : Penguin Books (July 21, 2011)
- Publication date : July 21, 2011
- Language : English
- File size : 2636 KB
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- Print length : 498 pages
- Best Sellers Rank: #59,805 in Kindle Store (See Top 100 in Kindle Store)
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Reviewed in the United States on June 1, 2011
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Here are some comments based on specific pieces of the text. Kindle locations are in brackets 
 David Deutsch states: “The misconception that knowledge needs authority to be genuine or reliable dates back to antiquity, and it still prevails. To this day most courses in the philosophy of knowledge teach that knowledge is some form of <i>justified, true, belief</i>, where ‘justified’ means designated as true (or at least ‘probable’) by reference to some authoritative source or touchstone of knowledge.” (author’s italics) First, justification involves more than knowledge from some authority. It can be any form of evidence. He also leaves out true (i.e. aligns with the universe). It goes belief needs to be justified, and these beliefs only count as knowledge if the belief is actually true. In other words we must have some form of evidence, and it must be coherent with our other beliefs. In his terms we need an explanation in order to acquire a belief. But, for it to be considered knowledge under the standard form it also has to be true, not what some authority states as true. But, we often have to rely on secondhand knowledge. There is very little that we know from firsthand knowledge. Our knowledge may even require higher degrees of handedness.
 “Holists also often share with reductionists the mistaken belief that science <i>can only</i> (or should only) be reductive, and therefore they oppose much of science.” (author’s italics) I share Deutsch’s view on holists, but I call myself a reductionist because I hold out that science might indeed be successful in providing a complete reduction of science. He should also not argue against this belief because we have nothing to show it cannot be done with his optimism about what we can know. Having said this I also agree with him that different levels of explanation are possible. When we ask someone why they forgot to take out the trash, we do not want a reductive answer down to particles and forces.
 “Such an event [a gamma-ray blast in our galactic vicinity] is thousands of times rarer than an asteroid collision, but when it does finally happen we shall have no defense against it without a great deal more scientific knowledge and an enormous increase in our <i>wealth</i>.” (my italics) Wealth is one key ingredient that many (maybe all I have read) futurists ignore.
 “Yet there have been a few individuals who see obstacles as problems, and see problems as soluble.” I am mostly an optimist in my own life, where I do see problems as soluble. However, I do not hold out much hope that the world can solve all of its problems through science. Not that science may not be useful, but person to person issues, such as that involving religious disagreement do not seem likely to be solved anytime soon, no matter what science might discover. Having said this I do not hold it impossible. After all who would have thought the enlightenment (which Deustch thinks is so central in our advancement) would have occurred and would have had such an impact that it has had.
 In an imaginary dialogue Plato says in part: “Because they don’t want their kids to dare to question anything, so that they won’t ever think of changing anything.” Sounds like today’s fundamentalists, which Deustch may have been having a dig at here.
 “If a drug passes that test [saying they are happier], the issue of whether it really makes the patients happier, or merely altering their personality to have lower standards or something of the sort, is inaccessible to science until such time as there is a testable explanatory theory of what happiness is.” While I have issues with happiness studies too, does he really think people are so clueless when it comes to their own happiness.
 “They [voters] are choosing which experiments are to be attempted next, and (principally) which are to be abandoned because there is no longer a good explanation for why they are the best. The politicians, and their policies, are those experiments.” I began to wonder at this point if his explanation seeking was not just good old pragmatism and truth seeking here.
 “That gives all parties the incentives to find better explanations, or at least to convince more people of their existing ones, for if they fail they will be relegated to powerlessness at the next election.” I wish he would have provided some real voting examples to illustrated his political philosophy.
 “Arguments by analogy are fallacies. Almost any analogy between any two things contains a grain of truth, but one cannot tell what that is until one has an independent explanation for what is analogous to what, and why.” This was said in response to Marx’s use of biological evolution. However, the same could be lodge against meme theory, which Deutsch defends.
Here is some more commentary on the book not link to any specific piece of text:
(1) Deutsch’s major focus is to explain science and all knowledge acquisition as finding the best explanation. Under Karl Popper’s influence he sees that these explanations need to be testable. They need to be able to be discarded when they no longer provide the best explanation we can devise. And, they need to be narrow enough that to shade off to the side a little bit destroys it, and it needs to have reach—able to explain more than previous explanations. His reliance on Popper is problematic. For a good critical examination of Popper’s philosophy of science see Susan Haack’s <i>Putting Philosophy to Work</i>.
(2) He argues against knowledge’s criteria—what counts as knowledge—as justified true belief. His main qualm is the use of evidence to justified an evidence claim. However, evidence is just one component to justification. The other is coherency—does it contradict other knowledge (i.e. how well does it fit in with other things we know already). See Haack’s <i>Evidence and Inquiry</i> for a good attempt to nail down what makes up or gives us knowledge. He seems to ignore the truth component. No matter how justified we our about our beliefs they have to jive with reality (this maybe all his testability comes to). He is correct that given this definition of what knowledge is that it is not unproblematic.
(3) He also believes in conjunction with his focus on explanations that we have the capability to solve all problems we may encounter. And, this capability has no limit. He severely criticizes that there are limits to our growth as a human species. He basis this primarily on the fact that such predictions have all been wrong in the past (e.g. energy and resource depletion, environmental destruction). And, now possibly climate change (although, not as from the fashionable conservative debunkers). He calls the limits to growth sustainability arguments. His solution is not to purposely stop our growth, but to be optimistic that more solutions will be found in the future. The fact that such environmental predictions have failed in the past, does not necessarily imply that they will continue to fail, but neither does it show that these limits can ultimately be overcome.
(4) He believes that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics is the currently the only option to explain quantum effects. This is that all possible outcomes occur; it is just that each one occurs in a different universe. At the same time he is critical of multiverse theories. In my mind neither version has the necessary experimental backup to show that either of them are true. But, because of his reliance on explanations carrying the load in science he believes the many-worlds interpretation is the best one we have at the moment.
(5) I am not a fan of meme theory as he appears to be. The analogy with the gene as the unit of genetic inheritance is not as tight as it would need to be to make the meme’s use anything more than metaphor. Does this make the meme concept worthless? I do not believe so; it is just that caution is need until such time, if any, we have a bona fide theory of memes. See <i>The Electric Meme</i> by Robert Aunger for a good book on producing such a theory—its pluses and minuses.
(6) Finally, he is a big proponent of quantum computing. However, I have a knowledgeable goodreads’ friend that thinks it is not the computing panacea for computational complexity that it is most often portrayed as in popular science works if I understood him right.
I found the book to be interesting. However, at times it seemed to drag under the weight of repetition. While I have my qualms about all of his views displayed in the book, I would agree that pessimism about our future capabilities to continuing to grow are knowledge is more or less misplaced. And, while I would temper his optimism toward solving all of our problems now and in the future, there is not any good reason to throw up our hands and surrender. Solutions may indeed be found; there is no necessarily impossibility to solving all our problems with an advance in our knowledge.
This would be a good book for those interested in a sort of nonstandard view on philosophy of science. If you do not like or have the capacity to entertain different views on what science is, where it leads to, and its ability as a problem solver, than I would not suggest this book.
Note – hmtl commands<i></i> marks of text that should be in italics.
I really liked Deutsch’s first (1997) book, but I was disappointed by this one. He is always somewhat prolix, but at times here he seems to go on and on in his speculative elaborations. (He even includes a dialogue, “A Dream of Socrates,” that didn’t interest me at all.) His statements about progress are interesting, but his explanations about, say, the multiverse were better-presented in ‘The Fabric of Reality.’
Nevertheless, he wrote in the Introduction to this 2011 book, “In this book I shall argue that all progress, both theoretical and practical, has resulted from a single human activity: the quest for what I call good explanations… this quest… conforms to universal laws of nature that are indeed good explanations. This simple relationship between the cosmic and the human is a hint of a central role of PEOPLE in the cosmic scheme of things. Must progress come to an end---either in catastrophe or in some sort of completion---or is it unbounded? The answer is the latter. That unboundedness is the ‘infinity’ referred to in the title of this book. Explaining it, and the conditions under which progress can and cannot happen, entails a journey through virtually every fundamental field of science and philosophy. From each such field we learn that, although progress has no necessary end, it does have a necessary beginning… a necessary condition for it to take off and to thrive… they are all facets of a single attribute of reality, which I call THE beginning of infinity.”
In the first chapter, he argues, “The conventional wisdom was that the key is REPETITION: if one repeatedly has similar experiences under similar circumstances, then one is supposed to ‘extrapolate’ or ‘generalize’ that pattern and predict that it will continue… From this we supposedly ‘derive’ the theory that under similar circumstances we shall always have that experience, or that we probably shall… That alleged process was called ‘inductive inference’ or ‘induction’… But no one has ever managed to formulate a ‘principle of induction’ that is usable in practice for obtaining scientific theories from experiences… inductivism purports to explain how science obtains PREDICTIONS about experiences. But most of our theoretical knowledge simply does not take that form… The second fundamental misconception in inductivism is that scientific theories predict that ‘the future will resemble the past’… But in reality the future is unlike the past… Science often predicts … phenomena spectacularly different from anything that had been experienced before… since inductivism is false, empiricism must be as well. For is one cannot derive predictions from experience, one certainly cannot derive explanations.” (Pg. 5-7)
He recounts, “The scientific revolution was part of a wider intellectual revolution, the Enlightenment, which also brought progress in other fields, especially moral and political philosophy, and in the institutions of society… it was a REBELLION, and specifically a rebellion against authority in regard to knowledge… However, rebellion against authority cannot by itself be what made the difference… What was needed for the sustained, rapid growth of knowledge was a tradition of criticism.” (Pg. 11-12)
He asserts, “The reach of an explanation is not a ‘principle of induction’… it is not part of the creative process at all. We find out about it only after we have the explanation---sometimes long after. So it has nothing to do with ‘extrapolation,’ or ‘induction,’ or with ‘deriving’ a theory in any other alleged way. It is exactly the other way round: the reason that the explanation of seasons reaches far outside the experience of its creators is precisely that it DOES NOT have to be extrapolated… Thus the reach of an explanation … is determined by the content of the explanation itself.” (Pg. 28-29)
He observes, “So fruitful has been this abandonment of anthropocentric theories been… that ANTI-anthropocentrism has increasingly been elevated to the status of a universal principle, sometimes called the ‘Principle of Mediocrity’: ‘there is nothing significant about humans (in the cosmic scheme of things).’… Another influential idea about the human condition is sometimes given the dramatic name ‘Spaceship Earth’… Outside the spaceship, the universe is implacably hostile, but the interior is a vastly complex life-support system, capable of providing everything that the passengers need to thrive.” (Pg. 43-44) But he adds, “the two ideas generate a rich conceptual framework that can inform an entire world view. Yet… they are both false… they are so misleading that, if you were seeking maxims… you could do a lot worse than to use their NEGATIONS.” (Pg. 45)
He explains, “the biosphere is incapable of supporting human life. From the outset, it was only human knowledge that made the planet even marginally habitable by humans, and the enormously increased capacity of our life-support system since… has been entirely due to the creation of human knowledge. To the extent that we are on a ‘spaceship,’ we have never been merely its passengers… we are its designers and builders.” (Pg. 50-51)
He states, “That PROGRESS is both possible and desirable is perhaps the quintessential idea of the Enlightenment… every attainable state can be indefinitely improved… Neither the human condition in particular not our explanatory knowledge in general will ever be perfect, nor ever approximately perfect. We shall always be at the BEGINNING of infinity.” (Pg. 65)
He argues, “Creationism is the idea that some supernatural being or beings designed and created all biological adaptations… a putative designer of any organism must also have created the knowledge of how that organism works. Creationism thus faces an inherent dilemma: is the designer … one who was ‘just there,’ complete with all that knowledge---or not? A being who was ‘just there’ would serve no explanatory purpose … since then one could more economically say that the biosphere itself ‘just happened,’ complete with that same knowledge, embodied in organisms.” (Pg. 79)
He suggests, “If the laws of physics ARE fine-tuned, as they seem to be, then there are two possibilities: either those laws are the only ones to be instantiated in reality (as universes) or there are other regions of reality---parallel universes---with different laws. In the former case, we must expect there to be an explanation of why the laws are as they are… If there are many parallel universes, each with its own laws of physics, most of which do not permit life, then the idea would be that the observed fine-tuning is only a matter of parochial perspective. It is only in the universes that contain astrophysics that anyone ever wonders why the constants seem fine-tuned.” (Pg. 98)
He concludes, “while anthropic reasoning may well be part of the explanation for apparent fine-tuning and other observations, it can never be the whole explanation for why we observe something that would otherwise look too purposeful to be explicable as coincidence. Specific explanation, in terms of specific laws of nature, is needed… The solution of the fine-tuning puzzle is going to be in terms of an explanation that will specifically explain what we observe. It will be… ‘an idea so simple… that… we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise?’ In other words… the problem has been … that it is so SIMPLE that we cannot yet understand it.”” (Pg. 103-104)
He notes, “considered as a language for specifying organisms, the genetic code has displayed phenomenal reach. It evolved only to specify organisms with no nervous systems… And yet the same language today specifies the hardware and software for countless multicellular behaviors that had no close analogue in those organisms, such as running and flying … But then the evolution stopped, at a point where it had already attained enormous reach. Why? It looks like a jump to come sort of universality, does it not?” (Pg. 144-145)
He acknowledges, “Quantum theory is the deepest explanation known to science… I had better warn the reader that the account that I shall give---known as the ‘many-universes interpretation’ of quantum theory… remains at this time of writing a decidedly minority view among physicists… suffice it to say that the very idea of ‘science as explanation’ … is itself still a minority view even among theoretical physicists.” (Pg. 262-263)
He says, “the information in the fictional multiverse flows along a branching tree, whose branches---histories---have different … measures and never rejoin once they have separated. Each behaves exactly as if the others did not exist. If that were the whole story, that multiverse’s imaginary laws of physics would still be fatally flawed …there would be no difference between their predictions and those of much more straightforward laws saying that there is only one universe… in which the transporter RANDOMLY introduces a change in the objects that it teleports… Thus the entire stupendously complicated multiverse that we have imagined… would collapse into nothing… The multiverse explanation of the same events would be a bad explanation, and so the world would be inexplicable to the inhabitants if it were true.” (Pg. 281-282)
He asserts, “Bad philosophy is philosophy that denies the possibility, desirability or existence of progress. And progress is the only effective way of opposing bad philosophy. If progress cannot continue indefinitely, bad philosophy will inevitably come again into the ascendancy---for it will be true.” (Pg. 324) Later, he adds, “the laws of nature cannot possibly impose any bound on progress… In other words, progress is SUSTAINABLE, indefinitely. But only by people who engage in … the problem-solving and problem-creating kind characteristic of the Enlightenment. And this requires the optimism of a dynamic society.” (Pg. 423)
He suggests, “we do not know what beauty is… Flowers … have the appearance of having been evolved for a purpose which we call ‘beauty,’ which we can (imperfectly) recognize, but whose nature is poorly understood… I can see only one explanation for the phenomenon of flowers being attractive to humans… It is that the attribute we call beauty is of two kinds. One is a parochial kind of attractiveness… The other … is universal, and as objective as the laws of physics… the second kind requires knowledge with universal reach. It reaches all the way from the flower genome, with its problem of competitive pollination, to human minds which appreciate the resulting flowers as art… Now, why do HUMANS appreciate objective beauty[?]… why did we want to create aesthetic knowledge in particular? It is because we DID face the same problem as the flowers and the insects…” (Pg. 363-364)
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Progress is potentially an infinite path and therefore, no matter how far we have enriched human lives, there will always be an infinite path of future improvement open to us. That's worth repeating. No matter how magnificent humanity has become in the future, it has only just started. How refreshing is that compared to today's shrill calls of anxiety and clamour for action based on the unexamined presumption that states have a magic wand solution? But we have to take those steps along that path. It's up to us whether, for example, we invent better quantum computers or new sources of energy, or indeed use the inventions we already have, such as the thorium-reactor. Advance is not automatic.
It is also our responsibility to refrain from tampering with the free competition of ideas, especially scientific theories. For all scientific progress depends on breaks with consensus, not its consolidation. If one day all scientists agreed that "science is settled", science would die the same day. (Perhaps inadvertently, many have flouted that truth by restricting free speech.) It was this Darwinian-like, ruthless competition within science for new explanatory theories that are "hard-to-vary" that made possible our emergence from a merely self-perpetuating type of civilisation, typical of all past —and now extinct—civilisations.
In publishing this book, David Deutsch has eased and made more secure our steps along the path of infinite progress.
I loved this book. Parts of it -- the sections on ethics and aesthetics --are, I think, more in the area of his personal preferences. But his explanations about issues in philosophy and especially philosophy of science (empiricism, induction, Karl Popper) are wonderfully clarifying. And I love his view about human progress and rationality, something we're hearing too little of today.
At times I felt that Deutsch pushes his arguments a little too far. For example, he disagrees with Jared Diamond's assertion in Guns, Steel and Germs that the availability of resources such as wild animals that can be domesticated is the major determinant of how succesful a society will be, and claims that the ability to generate new knowledge is more important, without clearly explaning why some societies are better able to generate this knowledge. Deutsch's argument reminded of the sterile "nature versus nuture" debate. In biology most now agree that environmental and genetic factors overlap and are both important, and it seems likely to me that environmental factors caused by geography are highly relevant to explain the difference between societies. For me this controversy added to rather than detracted from the book, by making it even more thought provoking.
This is a very important book that should be on everyones must read list. After reading the book I found myself looking at familar topics in a new way. It is a long book, but well worth reading to the end.
However, the author ranges very broadly, and the chapters, hardly related to the main premise, had a generally negative impact on me. For example, he includes a chapter on choice concerning voting systems, which I thought irrelevant to the main thrust of the book, and uniquely for the author, it did not seem to have been thought through; he appears to put forward the argument prevalent before the Great Reform Act that it did not matter how MPs were chosen as long as they formed a body capable of weighing the matters before them. In addition, Professor Deutsch has given space to attacks on those who hold to different beliefs and philosophies to himself, such as empiricists, instrumentalists, and those of religious belief. I would be on his side in at least some of these cases, but the problem is that he is only able to make his views known forcefully, but cannot possibly present the fully developed arguments that characterise the rest of the book. The effect of what I have to call digressions, together with the 25 page dialogue with Socrates, is to make the book significantly longer than it might have been. To do justice to it, I found myself reading one or two chapters at a time so I read it over a time span of 3 weeks. As a result of this and what I found a slightly haphazard ordering of the chapters, I found myself referring back far more often than normal. I think that with tighter editing, the book could have been shortened by close to a third, reducing my problems significantly, and I really hope that this is done for some future edition.