Rohan Roberts, 4 May 2012
“Brain the size of Birmingham, ego just as big,” is how one reviewer describes David Deutsch. Why? Because in his latest book the unassuming but frighteningly intelligent Deutsch has the temerity to disagree with the likes of Richard Dawkins, David Attenborough, and Jared Diamond—all three luminaries in the field of science. My response is ‘so what?’ So what if they are luminaries? An avowed admirer of Dawkins, Attenborough, and Diamond as I am, I’m the first to admit that they are not the last word. Science has no Authority. Everything is open to debate and discussion—and that’s exactly what Deutsch does in his paradigm-changing book. The Beginning of Infinity is a bold and all-embracing intellectual exploration about free will, creativity, artificial intelligence, beauty, infinity, and the future of humanity.
Broadly speaking, the book has three threads of thoughts:
1) The jump to universality – knowledge is unbounded and human progress can be infinite.
2) Epistemology – the study of knowledge and how we know whether something is true or not.
3) Liberalism – the most important thing to preserve is the ability to correct mistakes.
Deutsch repeatedly states that problems exist and that problems are solvable. Whatever is not forbidden by the laws of physics can be possible—if we have the knowledge and wherewithal to make it so. Perhaps the most exciting chapter in his book is ‘The Jump to Universality’ in which he talks about the tendency of gradually improving basic systems to undergo a sudden large increase in functionality and become universal in some domain. Here he discusses the difference between a writing system with an alphabet and one that uses pictograms. The former is universal in that it is capable of representing every single current and future word in that language, while the latter is severely restrictive. He goes on to discuss how Roman numerals have an inherent limit to how far one can count and how the Arabic/Indian system of counting is universal due to the rule that the value of a digit (0-9) depends on its position in the number. This system of counting allows us to count numbers to infinity. Other jumps to universality, according to Deutsch, include the movable-type printing press, DNA-based life, and digital computing.
What is particularly attractive about this book is the importance Deutsch accords the values of the 18th Century Age of Enlightenment that praised science, reason, and intellectual discourse over recourse to authority. Deutsch argues that rejecting authority in regard to knowledge is a necessary condition for progress. This is why one of the oldest scientific academies, the Royal Society, took as its motto Nullius in verba: ‘Take no one’s word for it.’ Knowledge, Deutsch asserts, consists of explanations. He discusses how good explanations are strikingly simple and hard to vary. Take for example the explanation of the seasons as being due to the tilt of the earth. This simple explanation accounts for all phenomena associated with the seasons. The Greek mythical account of the seasons as being due to Persephone and Pluto is woefully inadequate. For example, it shows complete ignorance of the seasons being reversed in the Southern Hemisphere.
In an amusing Socratic dialogue between Socrates and a young Plato, Deutsch illustrates how knowledge is obtained; how we can distinguish between true and false, right and wrong, reason and unreason; and which sorts of knowledge are possible and which are mere chimeras. By contrasting the attitudes of the ancient Spartans against the Athenians, Deutsch illustrates why the most important thing to preserve is the ability to correct mistakes. The Athenians valued being open to suggestions, tolerant of dissent, and being critical of opinions. The Spartans enjoined their citizens to refrain from questioning and held their ideas to be immune from criticism. They did not seek the truth, because they believed they already had it. The Spartans with their bloodlust and love of battle could not understand why they could not get the better of the Athenians, who were focussed on intellectual discourse and whose society was based on democracy, tolerance, and liberty. The difference between the two cities may be put as follows: fighting versus having something to fight for. Later in the book, Deutsch explains that this is the difference between the Easter Island society that went extinct because it was static and another island society like modern Britain that is thriving because it is dynamic, embraces the values of the age of enlightenment, and is dominated by rational memes.
Other interesting notions Deutsch puts forward in this book include a study on the evolution of creativity; a seminal interpretation of Dawkins’ ideas of memes; the metaphor of Hotel Infinity that he uses to explain the consequences and ramifications of infinity; the evidence for multiverses; and the current state of Artificial Intelligence.
In stark opposition to the Principle of Mediocrity, Deutsch also avers that far from being insignificant, people (universal explainers and constructors) are the most significant entities in the universe. He explains this idea by pointing out that most of space is a vacuum. A typical place in the universe is intergalactic space. What is it like there? He asks us to imagine the whole of space to be divided into giant cubes the size of our solar system. If you were within one of these cubes, the whole of the sky would be pitch black. The nearest star would be so far away that were it to go supernova, and you were staring directly at it when its light reached you, you would not even see a glimmer. That is how big and dark the universe is. In this cold, dark, empty universe it is planets like earth and people that are untypical and of cosmic significance.
The only area I felt Deutsch doesn’t make a strong case is when he talks about a scientific basis for estimating beauty. He is simply not convincing.
All in all, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best books I’ve read and is destined to become a classic. It shakes the reader out of everyday complacency and takes them on a trip to the farthest reaches of human thought. It was an enthralling read, and I found myself riveted for the entire 450 pages of cracking intellectual discourse. Perhaps what makes this book definitely worth reading is the underlying optimism it is founded upon: Whatever is not prohibited by the laws of physics is possible. It’s just a question of knowing how. We are now faced with the prospect of unlimited creation of future knowledge. This is an idea that fills me with an ineffable thrill.