- Audible Audio Edition
- Listening Length: 20 hours
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Gildan Media, LLC
- Audible.com Release Date: August 18, 2011
- Whispersync for Voice: Ready
- Language: English
- ASIN: B005HTYBCM
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
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The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.