- Paperback: 496 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (May 29, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780143121350
- ISBN-13: 978-0143121350
- ASIN: 0143121359
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.1 x 8.4 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 182 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #38,182 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World Reprint Edition
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"Brilliant and exhilarating . . . Deutsch is so smart, and so strange, and so creative, and so inexhaustibly curious, and so vividly intellectually alive, that it is a distinct privilege to spend time in his head." --The New York Times Book Review
"[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
Born in Haifa, Israel, David Deutsch was educated at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a professor of physics at the University of Oxford, where he is a member of the Centre for Quantum Computation. His papers on quantum computation laid the foundations for that field, and he is an authority on the theory of parallel universes. His honors include the Institute of Physics' Paul Dirac Prize and Medal. The author of The Fabric of Reality, he lives in England.
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Deutsch, equal parts physicist (his actual day job) and philosopher, creates a carefully constructed argument designed to prove that there are no theoretical limits on human knowledge. Can we stop the aging process? Given enough knowledge, sure. After all, the complexity of the problem is finite, and the biological processes underlying the aging process are relatively well understood. Given enough time and resources for the necessary research, there’s no reason that humans can’t prevent aging from occurring. (The practical implications of such an outcome would be fascinating, but that’s not the focus of the book.) Basically, Deutsch argues that any physical process that is not precluded by laws of nature (like traveling faster than the speed of light, for example) is achievable given sufficient knowledge and that if we don’t have that knowledge right now, we can obtain it.
The foundation of his proof rests on two basic truisms: that in any endeavor problems are inevitable, and that all problems are soluble given sufficient knowledge.
One of the many meanings of “infinity” (which he carefully lays out at the end of each chapter’s summary) is that there are no limits on what can be known. He says that suggesting that there are “bounds on the domains in which reason is the proper arbiter of ideas is a belief in unreason or the supernatural.” He buttresses his argument by offering a brief tour of history and The Enlightenment. Western civilization of the Pre-enlightenment remained stagnant during the Dark Ages specifically because organized authority squelched free inquiry and the creation of original conjectures which could be tested to conclusively rule out false ideas. Deutsch says that it is only through the creation of original conjectures that knowledge can be expanded. All assertions must be tested, and proof sought. Whatever is true withstands any degree of testing that one can muster, while that which is false crumbles. With the Enlightenment, explanatory knowledge became the most important determinant of physical events, not superstition or human authority. Once that occurred, the curve of charted knowledge growth became steep indeed with no end in sight.
Accepting that humans have the theoretical power to become infinitely knowledgable, doesn’t mean that getting there is easy. Here, Deutsch delves into his theories of “optimism.” Continuing to pursue knowledge through the solution of problems is fundamentally an exercise in optimism. We believe that a solutions exist, even if we haven’t yet found them. If we try to improve things and fail it's because we did not know enough in time. Civilizations that have collapsed did so because they had insufficient knowledge of how to save themselves or they ran out of time before a solution could be found. The inhabitants of Easter Island are highlighted as an example as well as (somewhat controversially) our own current predicament as a civilization faced with the challenge of dramatic climate change. Deutsch suggests that climate change is simply another example of a problem that needs sufficient knowledge with which to devise a solution.
Arguments like this can cause Deutsch to come across as cold and rational to a fault. While it’s hard to argue with the logic of his carefully constructed propositions, it can leave one searching for a little humanity behind the words. In this regard, “The Beginning of Infinity” can sometimes feel less like a late night conversation with a buddy and more like a lecture from Mr. Spock.
But, just as that begins to happen, he manages to branch off into another fascinating exploration of Ideas writ large, covering topics such as quantum mechanics, the Multiverse, the mathematical impossibility of truly representational government, memes, beauty, creativity, sustainability, artificial intelligence, and the concept of mathematical infinity. Each one of these explorations is tied to the basic premise of the infinite expansion of knowledge, though some less successfully than others. For example, his exploration of beauty is completely devoid of the ineffable emotions that most of us associate with that quality. This is perhaps one of the only realms where logic has less to offer than unjustifiable irrationality.
While not all of these topics hold together as a completely coherent whole, each is utterly fascinating in its own way (particularly his exploration of the multiverse, a concept so foreign to human experience, that the chapter calls for repeated readings to promote comprehension). Everything is so carefully laid out that you’re likely to be persuaded of Deutsch’s position that given enough time, there’s nothing that we can’t learn and that there are no problems which are insoluble. Overall, this book is a great source of brain food for anyone looking to sharpen their mental acuity, step out of the ordinary, and go for a walk with a brilliant mind.
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.
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At times too mathematical in its discussion of infinity but the take-home messages regarding the importance of optimism and creativity are...Read more