Book Summary & Highlights: The Beginning Of Infinity By David Deutsch

Book Summary & Highlights: The Beginning Of Infinity By David Deutsch

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Pub Date: 2011

Amazon Summary

Throughout history, mankind has struggled to understand life's mysteries, from the mundane to the seemingly miraculous. In this important new book, David Deutsch, an award-winning pioneer in the field of quantum computation, argues that explanations have a fundamental place in the universe. They have unlimited scope and power to cause change, and the quest to improve them is the basic regulating principle not only of science but of all successful human endeavor. This stream of ever improving explanations has infinite reach, according to Deutsch: we are subject only to the laws of physics, and they impose no upper boundary to what we can eventually understand, control, and achieve.

In his previous book, The Fabric of Reality, Deutsch describe the four deepest strands of existing knowledge-the theories of evolution, quantum physics, knowledge, and computation-arguing jointly they reveal a unified fabric of reality. In this new book, he applies that worldview to a wide range of issues and unsolved problems, from creativity and free will to the origin and future of the human species. Filled with startling new conclusions about human choice, optimism, scientific explanation, and the evolution of culture,The Beginning of Infinity is a groundbreaking book that will become a classic of its kind.

About Author: David Deutsch

Other Book Summaries

Big Book Ideas

The future is better than we can predict

When we make predictions of the future, we do so from our current knowledge-base. For example, consider natural resources. When we project into the future, we consider two variables:

  • Amount of known resources
  • Current usages of resources (and perhaps expected use)

Then we extrapolate those variables forward and time and can see that we will run out of the resource. Then, we feel a sense of doom or panic if that resource is vital to society.

What’s extremely hard to predict about the future is our future resourcefulness and ability to create new knowledge. For example:

  • We can find new resources that perform the same job, but even better
  • We can be more efficient with the resources we do use
  • We can find ways to create the scarce resource we want from resources we currently don’t have.

For example, consider oil, which powers human civilization. Now, there are several working alternatives such as solar power, wind power, and nuclear power, and each of these is becoming exponentially more efficient. Furthermore, down the line, there is the prospect of fusion energy.

Other examples might include jobs and automation.

So what does this mean to our life? How do we apply it?

  1. We can be more hopeful, while still being careful. While we should be careful to not dismiss threats, we can shift more of our attention toward increasing the ability and putting more time toward creating new knowledge for ourselves and for others.
  2. We can make better predictions of the future. We can take our future ability to create new knowledge as a key variable when thinking about the future.

We should classify knowledge by the knowledge that is missing and then figure out why it is missing

Deutsch puts knowledge at the center of everything. In his worldview, when we can’t accomplish something, the root cause is always one of two things:

  1. Physics. Your goal needs to be possible according to the laws of physics. If it isn’t, then no amount of knowledge will make it possible. You cannot get to Mars in your Chevy Suburban, no matter how much you know about space travel.
  2. Knowledge. If it’s physically possible, then the fundamental obstacle is always knowledge.

I go deeper into this idea in this article:

One implication of this worldview is that we should classify problems by the knowledge that is missing and then try to understand why the knowledge is missing. Deutsch goes deeper in the following video clip:

In this clip, Deutsch classifies the following fundamental types of problems:

  • Things moving to the laws of physics (ie - Volcano eruption, asteroid)
  • Organisms that replicate and harm humans (ie - pandemic)
  • Unknown (ie - problems caused by new technologies that take awhile to diagnose - ie smoking)
  • Unknowable (ie - other entities that create explanatory knowledge, which is people right now and maybe AGI in the future).

The solution to knowledge risk is more knowledge

Deutsch makes the claim that knowledge production is inherently risky. Which is not super surprising. Most people would agree based on lots of personal experiences that new technologies often have side effects.

What’s unique in Deutsch’s worldview though is that we should not put moratorium’s on new knowledge creation or slow it down via regulation. Rather, the best approach is more and faster knowledge creation.

He goes on to even say that no society has ever destroyed itself with more knowledge. The only knowledge that can destroy a society, in Deutsch’s mind, is knowledge of how to suppress people’s ability to create more knowledge.

Deutsch provides a great metaphor to explain this. Imagine an urn with lots of balls. These balls represent new knowledge. Each unit of knowledge we create is the equivalent of pulling a new ball out of the urn. Now, imagine that there are two types of balls that represent different types of knowledge:

  • Black balls: harmful knowledge
  • White balls: helpful knowledge

Deutsch’s big point here is that each new white ball we pick out of the urn turns balls that were previously black into white balls and balls that are still in the urn black.

Deutsch explains more in the following video clip:

Outcomes can’t be thought of using probabilities unless it is known to be random.

Deutsch gives the example of an existing extinction asteroid that could already be heading to Earth right now without us knowing about it. He makes the argument that we can’t project the probability of this asteroid hitting us. Whether we know about it or not, the asteroid is already heading for us. What’s left to do is get the knowledge to be able to track the asteroids.

Probability might be more relevant for a pandemic and measuring future probabilities of mutations occurring. But Deutsch makes that case that we often use probabilities for the wrong things arbitrarily. Thus we create a false sense of authority.

The following video explains more:

Chapter Summaries

At the end of each chapter, Deutsch provides a short summary of that chapter. Below are excerpts of those chapters.

Chapter 1: The Reach Of Explanations

Deutsch Summary

Appearances are deceptive. Yet we have a great deal of knowledge about the vast and unfamiliar reality that causes them, and of the elegant, universal laws that govern that reality. This knowledge consists of explanations: assertions about what is out there beyond the appearances, and how it behaves. For most of the history of our species, we had almost no success in creating such knowledge. Where does it come from? Empiricism said that we derive it from sensory experience. This is false. The real source of our theories is conjecture, and the real source of our knowledge is conjecture alternating with criticism. We create theories by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas with the intention of improving upon them. The role of experiment and observation is to choose between existing theories, not to be the source of new ones. We interpret experiences through explanatory theories, but true explanations are not obvious. Fallibilism entails not looking to authorities but instead acknowledging that we may always be mistaken, and trying to correct errors. We do so by seeking good explanations – explanations that are hard to vary in the sense that changing the details would ruin the explanation. This, not experimental testing, was the decisive factor in the scientific revolution, and also in the unique, rapid, sustained progress in other fields that have participated in the Enlightenment. That was a rebellion against authority which, unlike most such rebellions, tried not to seek authoritative justifications for theories, but instead set up a tradition of criticism. Some of the resulting ideas have enormous reach: they explain more than what they were originally designed to. The reach of an explanation is an intrinsic attribute of it, not an assumption that we make about it as empiricism and inductivism claim.

Michael Summary

  • Empiricism (deriving reality from our sensory experiences) isn’t the best way to understand the world. For example, everyday we see the sun revolving around the Earth when we look at the sky. But, in reality, the Earth is revolving around the sun.
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  • The power of conjecture. The real source of our knowledge is conjecture alternating with criticism.
  • All knowledge is conjecture. Nothing is 100% true. You can’t prove anything with confirmatory evidence. You can only find less wrong theories.

Brett Hall Summary

Highlights

How do we know? One of the most remarkable things about science is the contrast between the enormous reach and power of our best theories and the precarious, local means by which we create them. No human has ever been at the surface of a star, let alone visited the core where the transmutation happens and the energy is produced. Yet we see those cold dots in our sky and know that we are looking at the white-hot surfaces of distant nuclear furnaces. Physically, that experience consists of nothing other than our brains responding to electrical impulses from our eyes. And eyes can detect only light that is inside them at the time. The fact that the light was emitted very far away and long ago, and that much more was happening there than just the emission of light – those are not things that we see. We know them only from theory. Scientific theories are explanations: assertions about what is out there and how it behaves. Where do these theories come from? For most of the history of science, it was mistakenly believed that we ‘derive’ them from the evidence of our senses – a philosophical doctrine known as empiricism. For example, the philosopher John Locke wrote in 1689 that the mind is like ‘white paper’ on to which sensory experience writes, and that that is where all our knowledge of the physical world comes from. Another empiricist metaphor was that one could read knowledge from the ‘Book of Nature’ by making observations. Either way, the discoverer of knowledge is its passive recipient, not its creator. But, in reality, scientific theories are not ‘derived’ from anything. We do not read them in nature, nor does nature write them into us. They are guesses – bold conjectures. Human minds create them by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas with the intention of improving upon them. We do not begin with ‘white paper’ at birth, but with inborn expectations and intentions and an innate ability to improve upon them using thought and experience. Experience is indeed essential to science, but its role is different from that supposed by empiricism. It is not the source from which theories are derived. Its main use is to choose between theories that have already been guessed. That is what ‘learning from experience’ is. However, that was not properly understood until the mid twentieth century with the work of the philosopher Karl Popper. So historically it was empiricism that first provided a plausible defence for experimental science as we now know it. Empiricist philosophers criticized and rejected traditional approaches to knowledge such as deference to the authority of holy books and other ancient writings, as well as human authorities such as priests and academics, and belief in traditional lore, rules of thumb and hearsay. Empiricism also contradicted the opposing and surprisingly persistent idea that the senses are little more than sources of error to be ignored. And it was optimistic, being all about obtaining new knowledge, in contrast with the medieval fatalism that had expected everything important to be known already. Thus, despite being quite wrong about where scientific knowledge comes from, empiricism was a great step forward in both the philosophy and the history of science. Nevertheless, the question that sceptics (friendly and unfriendly) raised from the outset always remained: how can knowledge of what has not been experienced possibly be ‘derived’ from what has? What sort of thinking could possibly constitute a valid derivation of the one from the other? No one would expect to deduce the geography of Mars from a map of Earth, so why should we expect to be able to learn about physics on Mars from experiments done on Earth? Evidently, logical deduction alone would not do, because there is a logical gap: no amount of deduction applied to statements describing a set of experiences can reach a conclusion about anything other than those experiences. 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. For instance, why do we expect the sun to rise tomorrow morning? Because in the past (so the argument goes) we have seen it do so whenever we have looked at the morning sky. From this we supposedly ‘derive’ the theory that under similar circumstances we shall always have that experience, or that we probably shall. On each occasion when that prediction comes true, and provided that it never fails, the probability that it will always come true is supposed to increase. Thus one supposedly obtains ever more reliable knowledge of the future from the past, and of the general from the particular. That alleged process was called ‘inductive inference’ or ‘induction’, and the doctrine that scientific theories are obtained in that way is called inductivism. To bridge the logical gap, some inductivists imagine that there is a principle of nature – the ‘principle of induction’ – that makes inductive inferences likely to be true. ‘The future will resemble the past’ is one popular version of this, and one could add ‘the distant resembles the near,’ ‘the unseen resembles the seen’ and so on. But no one has ever managed to formulate a ‘principle of induction’ that is usable in practice for obtaining scientific theories from experiences. Historically, criticism of inductivism has focused on that failure, and on the logical gap that cannot be bridged. But that lets inductivism off far too lightly. For it concedes inductivism’s two most serious misconceptions. First, inductivism purports to explain how science obtains predictions about experiences. But most of our theoretical knowledge simply does not take that form. Scientific explanations are about reality, most of which does not consist of anyone’s experiences. Astrophysics is not primarily about us (what we shall see if we look at the sky), but about what stars are: their composition and what makes them shine, and how they formed, and the universal laws of physics under which that happened. Most of that has never been observed: no one has experienced a billion years, or a light year; no one could have been present at the Big Bang; no one will ever touch a law of physics – except in their minds, through theory. All our predictions of how things will look are deduced from such explanations of how things are. So inductivism fails even to address how we can know about stars and the universe, as distinct from just dots in the sky. The second fundamental misconception in inductivism is that scientific theories predict that ‘the future will resemble the past’, and that ‘the unseen resembles the seen’ and so on. (Or that it ‘probably’ will.) But in reality the future is unlike the past, the unseen very different from the seen. Science often predicts – and brings about – phenomena spectacularly different from anything that has been experienced before. For millennia people dreamed about flying, but they experienced only falling. Then they discovered good explanatory theories about flying, and then they flew – in that order. Before 1945, no human being had ever observed a nuclear-fission (atomic-bomb) explosion; there may never have been one in the history of the universe. Yet the first such explosion, and the conditions under which it would occur, had been accurately predicted – but not from the assumption that the future would be like the past. Even sunrise – that favorite example of inductivists – is not always observed every twenty-four hours: when viewed from orbit it may happen every ninety minutes, or not at all. And that was known from theory long before anyone had ever orbited the Earth. It is no defense of inductivism to point out that in all those cases the future still does ‘resemble the past’ in the sense that it obeys the same underlying laws of nature. For that is an empty statement: any purported law of nature – true or false – about the future and the past is a claim that they ‘resemble’ each other by both conforming to that law. So that version of the ‘principle of induction’ could not be used to derive any theory or prediction from experience or anything else. Even in everyday life we are well aware that the future is unlike the past, and are selective about which aspects of our experience we expect to be repeated. Before the year 2000, I had experienced thousands of times that if a calendar was properly maintained (and used the standard Gregorian system), then it displayed a year number beginning with ‘19’. Yet at midnight on 31 December 1999 I expected to have the experience of seeing a ‘20’ on every such calendar. I also expected that there would be a gap of 17,000 years before anyone experienced a ‘19’ under those conditions again. Neither I nor anyone else had ever observed such a ‘20’, nor such a gap, but our explanatory theories told us to expect them, and expect them we did.

Quote

Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it – in a decade, a century, or a millennium – we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise? ——John Archibald Wheeler, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 480 (1986)

Terminology

Explanation. Statement about what is there, what it does, and how and why. Reach. The ability of some explanations to solve problems beyond those that they were created to solve. Creativity. The capacity to create new explanations. Empiricism. The misconception that we ‘derive’ all our knowledge from sensory experience. Theory-laden. There is no such thing as ‘raw’ experience. All our experience of the world comes through layers of conscious and unconscious interpretation. Inductivism. The misconception that scientific theories are obtained by generalizing or extrapolating repeated experiences, and that the more often a theory is confirmed by observation the more likely it becomes. Induction. The non-existent process of ‘obtaining’ referred to above. Principle of induction The idea that ‘the future will resemble the past’, combined with the misconception that this asserts anything about the future. Realism. The idea that the physical world exists in reality, and that knowledge of it can exist too. Relativism. The misconception that statements cannot be objectively true or false, but can be judged only relative to some cultural or other arbitrary standard. Instrumentalism. The misconception that science cannot describe reality, only predict outcomes of observations. Justificationism. The misconception that knowledge can be genuine or reliable only if it is justified by some source or criterion. Fallibilism. The recognition that there are no authoritative sources of knowledge, nor any reliable means of justifying knowledge as true or probable. Background knowledge. Familiar and currently uncontroversial knowledge. Rule of thumb ‘Purely predictive theory’ (theory whose explanatory content is all background knowledge). Problem A problem exists when a conflict between ideas is experienced. Good/bad explanation. An explanation that is hard/easy to vary while still accounting for what it purports to account for. The Enlightenment (The beginning of) a way of pursuing knowledge with a tradition of criticism and seeking good explanations instead of reliance on authority. Mini-enlightenment A short-lived tradition of criticism. Rational. Attempting to solve problems by seeking good explanations; actively pursuing error-correction by creating criticisms of both existing ideas and new proposals. The West. The political, moral, economic and intellectual culture that has been growing around the Enlightenment values of science, reason and freedom.

Chapter 2: Closer to Reality

Summary

It may seem strange that scientific instruments bring us closer to reality when in purely physical terms they only ever separate us further from it. But we observe nothing directly anyway. All observation is theory-laden. Likewise, whenever we make an error, it is an error in the explanation of something. That is why appearances can be deceptive, and it is also why we, and our instruments, can correct for that deceptiveness. The growth of knowledge consists of correcting misconceptions in our theories. Edison said that research is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration – but that is misleading, because people can apply creativity even to tasks that computers and other machines do uncreatively. So science is not mindless toil for which rare moments of discovery are the compensation: the toil can be creative, and fun, just as the discovery of new explanations is.

Chapter 3: The Spark

Summary

Both the Principle of Mediocrity and the Spaceship Earth idea are, contrary to their motivations, irreparably parochial and mistaken. From the least parochial perspectives available to us, people are the most significant entities in the cosmic scheme of things. They are not ‘supported’ by their environments, but support themselves by creating knowledge. Once they have suitable knowledge (essentially, the knowledge of the Enlightenment), they are capable of sparking unlimited further progress. Apart from the thoughts of people, the only process known to be capable of creating knowledge is biological evolution. The knowledge it creates (other than via people) is inherently bounded and parochial. Yet it also has close similarities with human knowledge. The similarities and the differences are the subject of the next chapter.

Terminology

Person. An entity that can create explanatory knowledge. Anthropocentric. Centered on humans, or on persons. Fundamental or significant phenomenon: One that plays a necessary role in the explanation of many phenomena, or whose distinctive features require distinctive explanation in terms of fundamental theories. Principle of Mediocrity. ‘There is nothing significant about humans.’ Parochialism. Mistaking appearance for reality, or local regularities for universal laws. Spaceship Earth. ‘The biosphere is a life-support system for humans.’ Constructor. A device capable of causing other objects to undergo transformations without undergoing any net change itself. Universal constructor. A constructor that can cause any raw materials to undergo any physically possible transformation, given the right information.

Chapter 4: Creation

Summary

The evolution of biological adaptations and the creation of human knowledge share deep similarities, but also some important differences. The main similarities: genes and ideas are both replicators; knowledge and adaptations are both hard to vary. The main difference: human knowledge can be explanatory and can have great reach; adaptations are never explanatory and rarely have much reach beyond the situations in which they evolved. False explanations of biological evolution have counterparts in false explanations of the growth of human knowledge. For instance, Lamarckism is the counterpart of inductivism. William Paley’s version of the argument from design clarified what does or does not have the ‘appearance of design’ and hence what cannot be explained as the outcome of chance alone – namely hard-to-vary adaptation to a purpose. The origin of this must be the creation of knowledge. Biological evolution does not optimize benefits to the species, the group, the individual or even the gene, but only the ability of the gene to spread through the population. Such benefits can nevertheless happen because of the universality of laws of nature and the reach of some of the knowledge that is created. The ‘fine-tuning’ of the laws or constants of physics has been used as a modern form of the argument from design. For the usual reasons, it is not a good argument for a supernatural cause. But ‘anthropic’ theories that try to account for it as a pure selection effect from an infinite number of different universes are, by themselves, bad explanations too – in part because most logically possible laws are themselves bad explanations.

Terminology

Evolution (Darwinian). Creation of knowledge through alternating variation and selection. Replicator. An entity that contributes causally to its own copying. Neo-Darwinism. Darwinism as a theory of replicators, without various misconceptions such as ‘survival of the fittest’. Meme. An idea that is a replicator. Memeplex. A group of memes that help to cause each other’s replication. Spontaneous generation. Formation of organisms from non-living precursors. Lamarckism. A mistaken evolutionary theory based on the idea that biological adaptations are improvements acquired by an organism during its lifetime and then inherited by its descendants. Fine-tuning. If the constants or laws of physics were slightly different, there would be no life. Anthropic explanation. ‘It is only in universes that contain intelligent observers that anyone wonders why the phenomenon in question happens.

Chapter 5: The Reality of Abstractions

Summary

Reductionism and holism are both mistakes. In reality, explanations do not form a hierarchy with the lowest level being the most fundamental. Rather, explanations at any level of emergence can be fundamental. Abstract entities are real, and can play a role in causing physical phenomena. Causation is itself such an abstraction.

Terminology

Levels of emergence Sets of phenomena that can be explained well in terms of each other without analysing them into their constituent entities such as atoms. Natural numbers The whole numbers 1, 2, 3 and so on. Reductionism The misconception that science must or should always explain things by analysing them into components (and hence that higher-level explanations cannot be fundamental). Holism The misconception that all significant explanations are of components in terms of wholes rather than vice versa. Moral philosophy Addresses the problem of what sort of life to want.

Chapter 6: The Jump to Universality

Summary

All knowledge growth is by incremental improvement, but in many fields there comes a point when one of the incremental improvements in a system of knowledge or technology causes a sudden increase in reach, making it a universal system in the relevant domain. In the past, innovators who brought about such a jump to universality had rarely been seeking it, but since the Enlightenment they have been, and universal explanations have been valued both for their own sake and for their usefulness. Because error-correction is essential in processes of potentially unlimited length, the jump to universality only ever happens in digital systems.

Terminology

The jump to universality. The tendency of gradually improving systems to undergo a sudden large increase in functionality, becoming universal in some domain.

Chapter 7: Artificial Creativity

Summary

The field of artificial (general) intelligence has made no progress because there is an unsolved philosophical problem at its heart: we do not understand how creativity works. Once that has been solved, programming it will not be difficult. Even artificial evolution may not have been achieved yet, despite appearances. There the problem is that we do not understand the nature of the universality of the DNA replication system.

Terminology

Quale (plural qualia). The subjective aspect of a sensation. Behaviourism Instrumentalism applied to psychology. The doctrine that science can (or should) only measure and predict people’s behaviour in response to stimuli.

Chapter 8: A Window on Infinity

Summary

We can understand infinity through the infinite reach of some explanations. It makes sense, both in mathematics and in physics. But it has counter-intuitive properties, some of which are illustrated by Hilbert’s thought experiment of Infinity Hotel. One of them is that, if unlimited progress really is going to happen, not only are we now at almost the very beginning of it, we always shall be. Cantor proved, with his diagonal argument, that there are infinitely many levels of infinity, of which physics uses at most the first one or two: the infinity of the natural numbers and the infinity of the continuum. Where there are infinitely many identical copies of an observer (for instance in multiple universes), probability and proportions do not make sense unless the collection as a whole has a structure subject to laws of physics that give them meaning. A mere infinite sequence of universes, like the rooms in Infinity Hotel, does not have such structure, which means that anthropic reasoning by itself is insufficient to explain the apparent ‘fine-tuning’ of the constants of physics. Proof is a physical process: whether a mathematical proposition is provable or unprovable, decidable or undecidable, depends on the laws of physics, which determine which abstract entities and relationships are modelled by physical objects. Similarly, whether a task or pattern is simple or complex depends on what the laws of physics are.

Terminology

One-to-one correspondence. Tallying each member of one set with each member of another. Infinite (mathematical). A set is infinite if it can be placed in one-to-one correspondence with part of itself. Infinite (physical). A rather vague concept meaning something like ‘larger than anything that could in principle be encompassed by experience’. Countably infinite. Infinite, but small enough to be placed in one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers. Measure. A method by which a theory gives meaning to proportions and averages of infinite sets of things, such as universes. Singularity. A situation in which something physical becomes unboundedly large, while remaining everywhere finite. Multiverse A unified physical entity that contains more than one universe. Infinite regress. A fallacy in which an argument or explanation depends on a sub-argument of the same form which purports to address essentially the same problem as the original argument. Computation. A physical process that instantiates the properties of some abstract entity. Proof. A computation which, given a theory of how the computer on which it runs works, establishes the truth of some abstract proposition.

Chapter 9: Optimism

Summary

Optimism (in the sense that I have advocated) is the theory that all failures – all evils – are due to insufficient knowledge. This is the key to the rational philosophy of the unknowable. It would be contentless if there were fundamental limitations to the creation of knowledge, but there are not. It would be false if there were fields – especially philosophical fields such as morality – in which there were no such thing as objective progress. But truth does exist in all those fields, and progress towards it is made by seeking good explanations. Problems are inevitable, because our knowledge will always be infinitely far from complete. Some problems are hard, but it is a mistake to confuse hard problems with problems unlikely to be solved. Problems are soluble, and each particular evil is a problem that can be solved. An optimistic civilization is open and not afraid to innovate, and is based on traditions of criticism. Its institutions keep improving, and the most important knowledge that they embody is knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors. There may have been many short-lived enlightenments in history. Ours has been uniquely long-lived.

Terminology

Blind optimism (recklessness, overconfidence). Proceeding as if one knew that bad outcomes will not happen. Blind pessimism (precautionary principle). Avoiding everything not known to be safe. The principle of optimism. All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge. Wealth. The repertoire of physical transformations that one is capable of causing.

Chapter 10: A Dream of Socrates

No summary

Chapter 11: The Multiverse

Summary

The physical world is a multiverse, and its structure is determined by how information flows in it. In many regions of the multiverse, information flows in quasi-autonomous streams called histories, one of which we call our ‘universe’. Universes approximately obey the laws of classical (pre-quantum) physics. But we know of the rest of the multiverse, and can test the laws of quantum physics, because of the phenomenon of quantum interference. Thus a universe is not an exact but an emergent feature of the multiverse. One of the most unfamiliar and counter-intuitive things about the multiverse is fungibility. The laws of motion of the multiverse are deterministic, and apparent randomness is due to initially fungible instances of objects becoming different. In quantum physics, variables are typically discrete, and how they change from one value to another is a multiversal process involving interference and fungibility.

Terminology

Chapter 12: A Physicist’s History of Bad Philosophy

Summary

Before the Enlightenment, bad philosophy was the rule and good philosophy the rare exception. With the Enlightenment came much more good philosophy, but bad philosophy became much worse, with the descent from empiricism (merely false) to positivism, logical positivism, instrumentalism, Wittgenstein, linguistic philosophy, and the ‘postmodernist’ and related movements.

In science, the main impact of bad philosophy has been through the idea of separating a scientific theory into (explanationless) predictions and (arbitrary) interpretation. This has helped to legitimize dehumanizing explanations of human thought and behaviour. In quantum theory, bad philosophy manifested itself mainly as the Copenhagen interpretation and its many variants, and as the ‘shut-up-and-calculate’ interpretation. These appealed to doctrines such as logical positivism to justify systematic equivocation and to immunize themselves from criticism.

Terminology

Chapter 13: Choices

Summary

It is a mistake to conceive of choice and decision-making as a process of selecting from existing options according to a fixed formula. That omits the most important element of decision-making, namely the creation of new options. Good policies are hard to vary, and therefore conflicting policies are discrete and cannot be arbitrarily mixed. Just as rational thinking does not consist of weighing the justifications of rival theories, but of using conjecture and criticism to seek the best explanation, so coalition governments are not a desirable objective of electoral systems. They should be judged by Popper’s criterion of how easy they make it to remove bad rulers and bad policies. That designates the plurality voting system as best in the case of advanced political cultures.

Terminology

Representative government A system of government in which the composition or opinions of the legislature reflect those of the people. Social-choice theory The study of how the ‘will of society’ can be defined in terms of the wishes of its members, and of what social institutions can cause society to enact its will, thus defined. Popper’s criterion Good political institutions are those that make it as easy as possible to detect whether a ruler or policy is a mistake, and to remove

Deutsch, David. The Beginning of Infinity (p. 352). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Chapter 14: Why are Flowers Beautiful?

Summary

There are objective truths in aesthetics. The standard argument that there cannot be is a relic of empiricism. Aesthetic truths are linked to factual ones by explanations, and also because artistic problems can emerge from physical facts and situations. The fact that flowers reliably seem beautiful to humans when their designs evolved for an apparently unrelated purpose is evidence that beauty is objective. Those convergent criteria of beauty solve the problem of creating hard-to-forge signals where prior shared knowledge is insufficient to provide them.

Terminology

Aesthetics. The philosophy of beauty. Elegance. The beauty in explanations, mathematical formulae and so on. Explicit. Expressed in words or symbols. Inexplicit. Not explicit. Implicit. Implied or otherwise contained in other information.

Related Resource

Chapter 15: The Evolution Of Culture

Summary

Cultures consist of memes, and they evolve. In many ways memes are analogous to genes, but there are also profound differences in the way they evolve. The most important differences are that each meme has to include its own replication mechanism, and that a meme exists alternately in two different physical forms: a mental representation and a behaviour. Hence also a meme, unlike a gene, is separately selected, at each replication, for its ability to cause behaviour and for the ability of that behaviour to cause new recipients to adopt the meme. The holders of memes typically do not know why they are enacting them: we enact the rules of grammar, for instance, much more accurately than we are able to state them. There are only two basic strategies of meme replication: to help prospective holders or to disable the holders’ critical faculties. The two types of meme – rational memes and anti-rational memes – inhibit each other’s replication and the ability of the culture as a whole to propagate itself. Western civilization is in an unstable transitional period between stable, static societies consisting of anti-rational memes and a stable dynamic society consisting of rational memes. Contrary to conventional wisdom, primitive societies are unimaginably unpleasant to live in. Either they are static, and survive only by extinguishing their members’ creativity and breaking their spirits, or they quickly lose their knowledge and disintegrate, and violence takes over. Existing accounts of memes fail to recognize the significance of the rational/anti-rational distinction and hence tend to be implicitly anti-meme. This is tantamount to mistaking Western civilization for a static society, and its citizens for the crushed, pessimistic victims of memes that the members of static societies are.

Terminology

Culture. A set of shared ideas that cause their holders to behave alike in some ways. Rational meme An idea that relies on the recipients’ critical faculties to cause itself to be replicated. Anti-rational meme An idea that relies on disabling the recipients’ critical faculties to cause itself to be replicated. Static culture/society. One whose changes happen on a timescale longer than its members can notice. Such cultures are dominated by anti-rational memes. Dynamic culture/society. One that is dominated by rational memes.

Chapter 16: The Evolution Of Creativity

Summary

On the face of it, creativity cannot have been useful during the evolution of humans, because knowledge was growing much too slowly for the more creative individuals to have had any selective advantage. This is a puzzle. A second puzzle is: how can complex memes even exist, given that brains have no mechanism to download them from other brains? Complex memes do not mandate specific bodily actions, but rules. We can see the actions, but not the rules, so how do we replicate them? We replicate them by creativity. That solves both problems, for replicating memes unchanged is the function for which creativity evolved. And that is why our species exists.

Terminology

Imitation Copying behaviour. This is different from human meme replication, which copies the knowledge that is causing the behaviour.

Chapter 17: Unsustainable

Summary

Static societies eventually fail because their characteristic inability to create knowledge rapidly must eventually turn some problem into a catastrophe. Analogies between such societies and the technological civilization of the West today are therefore fallacies. Marx, Engels and Diamond’s ‘ultimate explanation’ of the different histories of different societies is false: history is the history of ideas, not of the mechanical effects of biogeography. Strategies to prevent foreseeable disasters are bound to fail eventually, and cannot even address the unforeseeable. To prepare for those, we need rapid progress in science and technology and as much wealth as possible.

Terminology

The ascent of man. The beginning of infinity. Moreover, Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man was one of the inspirations for this book. Sustain. The term has two almost opposite, but often confused, meanings: to provide someone with what

Highlights

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In this book I argue that all progress, both theoretical and practical, has resulted from a single human activity: the quest for what I call good explanations.
As the ancient philosopher Heraclitus remarked, ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.’
So much for inductivism. And since inductivism is false, empiricism must be as well. For if one cannot derive predictions from experience, one certainly cannot derive explanations. Discovering a new explanation is inherently an act of creativity.
So it is fallibilism, not mere rejection of authority, that is essential for the initiation of unlimited knowledge growth – the beginning of infinity.
But one thing that all conceptions of the Enlightenment agree on is that it was a rebellion, and specifically a rebellion against authority in regard to knowledge.
What was needed for the sustained, rapid growth of knowledge was a tradition of criticism.
Testability is now generally accepted as the defining characteristic of the scientific method. Popper called it the ‘criterion of demarcation’ between science and non-science.
The reason that testability is not enough is that prediction is not, and cannot be, the purpose of science.
The quest for good explanations is, I believe, the basic regulating principle not only of science, but of the Enlightenment generally.
An entire political, moral, economic and intellectual culture – roughly what is now called ‘the West’ – grew around the values entailed by the quest for good explanations, such as tolerance of dissent, openness to change, distrust of dogmatism and authority, and the aspiration to progress both by individuals and for the culture as a whole.

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“Some people become depressed at the scale of the universe, because it makes them feel insignificant. Other people are relieved to feel insignificant, which is even worse. But, in any case, those are mistakes. Feeling insignificant because the universe is large has exactly the same logic as feeling inadequate for not being a cow. Or a herd of cows. The universe is not there to overwhelm us; it is our home, and our resource. The bigger the better.
“Like every other destruction of optimism, whether in a whole civilisation or in a single individual, these must have been unspeakable catastrophes for those who had dared to expect progress. But we should feel more than sympathy for those people. We should take it personally. For if any of those earlier experiments in optimism had succeeded, our species would be exploring the stars by now, and you and I would be immortal.”
“All fiction that does not violate the laws of physics is fact.”
“an unproblematic state is a state without creative thought. Its other name is death.”
“Like an explosive awaiting a spark, unimaginably numerous environments in the universe are waiting out there, for aeons on end, doing nothing at all or blindly generating evidence and storing it up or pouring it out into space. Almost any of them would, if the right knowledge ever reached it, instantly and irrevocably burst into a radically different type of physical activity: intense knowledge-creation, displaying all the various kinds of complexity, universality and reach that are inherent in the laws of nature, and transforming that environment from what is typical today into what could become typical in the future. If we want to, we could be that spark.”
“As the physicist Stephen Hawking put it, humans are ‘just a chemical scum on the surface of a typical planet that’s in orbit round a typical star on the outskirts of a typical galaxy’. The proviso ‘in the cosmic scheme of things’ is necessary because the chemical scum evidently does have a special significance according to values that it applies to itself, such as moral values. But the Principle says that all such values are themselves anthropocentric: they explain only the behaviour of the scum, which is itself insignificant.”
“Feeling insignificant because the universe is large has exactly the same logic as feeling inadequate for not being a cow.”
“Base metals can be transmuted into gold by stars, and by intelligent beings who understand the processes that power stars, but by nothing else in the universe.”
“The ability to create and use explanatory knowledge gives people a power to transform nature which is ultimately not limited by parochial factors, as all other adaptations are, but only by universal laws. This is the cosmic significance of explanatory knowledge – and hence of people, whom I shall henceforward define as entities that can create explanatory knowledge.”
“Without error-correction all information processing, and hence all knowledge-creation, is necessarily bounded. Error-correction is the beginning of infinity.”
“It is a mistake to conceive of choice and decision-making as a process of selecting from existingoptions according to a fixed formula. That omits the most important element of decision-making,namely the creation of new options.”
“Although, through the vagaries of international politics, Athens became independent and democratic again soon afterwards, and continued for several generations to produce art, literature and philosophy, it was never again host to rapid, open-ended progress. It became unexceptional. Why? I guess that its optimism was gone.”
“SOCRATES: No, I am not sure of anything. I never have been. But the god explained to me why that must be so, starting with the fallibility of the human mind and the unreliability of sensory experience.”
“objective knowledge is indeed possible: it comes from within! It begins as conjecture, and is then corrected by repeated cycles of criticism, including comparison with the evidence on our ‘wall’.”
“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. Unfortunately, the term ‘the Enlightenment’ is used by historians and philosophers to denote a variety of different trends, some of them violently opposed to each other. What I mean by it will emerge here as we go along. It is one of several aspects of ‘the beginning of infinity’, and is a theme of this book. But one thing that all conceptions of the Enlightenment agree on is that it was a rebellion, and specifically a rebellion against authority in regard to knowledge.”
“Good political institutions are those that make it as easy as possible to detect whether a ruler or policy is a mistake, and to remove rulers or policies without violence when they are.”
“Because we are universal explainers, we are not simply obeying our genes. For”
“Sparta has no philosophers. That’s because the job of a philosopher is to understand things better, which is a form of change, so they don’t want it. Another difference: they don’t honour living poets, only dead ones. Why? Because dead poets don’t write anything new, but live ones do. A third difference: their education system is insanely harsh; ours is famously lax. Why? Because they don’t want their kids to dare to question anything, so that they won’t ever think of changing anything. How”
“It follows that humans, people and knowledge are not only objectively significant: they are by far the most significant phenomena in nature – the only ones whose behaviour cannot be understood without understanding everything of fundamental importance.”
“To interpret dots in the sky as white-hot, million-kilometre spheres, one must first have thought of the idea of such spheres. And then one must explain why they look small and cold and seem to move in lockstep around us and do not fall down. Such ideas do not create themselves, nor can they be mechanically derived from anything: they have to be guessed – after which they can be criticized and tested.”
“We never know any data before interpreting it through theories. All observations are, as Popper put it, theory-laden,* and hence fallible, as all our theories are. Consider”
“Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves.’ By”
“Amending the ‘data’, or rejecting some as erroneous, is a frequent concomitant of scientific discovery, and the crucial ‘data’ cannot even be obtained until theory tells us what to look for and how and why.”
“the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
“history is the history of ideas, not of the mechanical effects of biogeography. Strategies to prevent foreseeable disasters are bound to fail eventually, and cannot even address the unforeseeable. To prepare for those, we need rapid progress in science and technology and as much wealth as possible.”
“The most general way of stating the central assertion of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is that a population of replicators subject to variation (for instance by imperfect copying) will be taken over by those variants that are better than their rivals at causing themselves to be replicated. This”
“Optimism is, in the first instance, a way of explaining failure, not prophesying success. It says that there is no fundamental barrier, no law of nature or supernatural decree, preventing progress. Whenever”
“Those two overarching concerns are these: we Athenians are concerned above all with improvement; the Spartans seek only – stasis. Two opposite objectives. If”
“Whenever we observe anything – a scientific instrument or a galaxy or a human being – what we are actually seeing is a single-universe perspective on a larger object that extends some way into other universes. In”
“Because pessimism needs to counter that argument in order to be at all persuasive, a recurring theme in pessimistic theories throughout history has been that an exceptionally dangerous moment is imminent.”
Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it – in a decade, a century, or a millennium – we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise? John Archibald Wheeler, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 480 (1986)

Books David Deutsch Thinks Everyone Should Read

  • Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (BBC Publications, 1973)
  • Jacob Bronowski, Science and Human Values (Harper & Row, 1956)
  • Richard Byrne, ‘Imitation as Behaviour Parsing’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B358 (2003)
  • Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976)
  • David Deutsch, ‘Comment on Michael Lockwood, “‘Many Minds’ Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics”’, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 47, 2 (1996)
  • David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality (Allen Lane, 1997)
  • Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations (Routledge, 1963)
  • Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Routledge, 1945)