Auto Ads by Adsense

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Review: The Beginning of Infinity

 My wife bought a copy of The Beginning of Infinity, so it popped right onto my kindle and I just read it as a matter of course. I started the book expecting something about physics, but it turned out to be a philosophy book! Let me see if I can summarize it. Basically, the central thesis of the book is that there is no observation/empirical evidence without a theory. The world is full of so much data and evidence that unless you have an underlying theory to explain it, you won't even know what to look for.

But what is a theory? The idea then is that a theory is an explanation of the underlying mechanism for the observations you see. That explanation is what enables prediction, which is what allows an experiment to be made that allows you to have more confidence in your explanation, or which proves that your explanation is wrong. From this, David Deutsch generalizes his philosophy to encompass governments, culture, the arts, and the approach to the future.

Using knowledge to cause automated physical transformations is, in itself, not unique to humans. It is the basic method by which all organisms keep themselves alive: every cell is a chemical factory. The difference between humans and other species is in what kind of knowledge they can use (explanatory instead of rule-of-thumb) and in how they create it (conjecture and criticism of ideas, rather than the variation and selection of genes). It is precisely those two differences that explain why every other organism can function only in a certain range of environments that are hospitable to it, while humans transform inhospitable environments like the biosphere into support systems for themselves. And, while every other organism is a factory for converting resources of a fixed type into more such organisms, human bodies (including their brains) are factories for transforming anything into anything that the laws of nature allow.  (pg. 58)

What's great about human beings, then, is that we're universal explainers and constructors, able to comprehend and construct theories  about the universe we find ourselves in. He then draws attention to the length of human history, and wonders why it took so long for humans to construct modern society and achieve the enlightenment. He points to memes as an explanation --- human society constructs and propagates memes, and long lived memes (i.e., religion) constructs a static society where new ideas or improvements on existing ideas are viewed with excessive suspicion, and so despite certain societies being particularly enlightened, such enlightened societies are short-lived:

long-lived religions typically cause fear of specific supernatural entities, but they do not cause general fearfulness or gullibility, because that would both harm the holders in general and make them more susceptible to rival memes. So the evolutionary pressure is for the psychological damage to be confined to a relatively narrow area of the recipients’ thinking, but to be deeply entrenched, so that the recipients find themselves facing a large emotional cost if they subsequently consider deviating from the meme’s prescribed behaviours. (pg. 384)

In fact, his claim is that the current modern Western society is the only reason-based society that has survived more than a few generations, and even then, we don't do a good job propagating it:

 Despite modern talk of encouraging critical thinking, it remains the case that teaching by rote and inculcating standard patterns of behaviour through psychological pressure are integral parts of education, even though they are now wholly or partly renounced in explicit theory. Moreover, in regard to academic knowledge, it is still taken for granted, in practice, that the main purpose of education is to transmit a standard curriculum faithfully...we live in a society in which people can spend their days conscientiously using laser technology to count cells in blood samples, and their evenings sitting cross-legged and chanting to draw supernatural energy out of the Earth. (pg. 393)

 Deutsch then points out that there has never been an age of humanity where we didn't have new problems, urgent problems, or impending doom heading down our way. His take on it is that we have to be optimistic and try to use reason to find technological solutions to our problems --- this includes climate change, etc., rather than trying to turn the clock back. Deutsch has the most persuasive case for cautious optimism that I've ever seen about the climate crisis --- he points out that until the solution was implemented, very few people had any idea how the food crisis would have been solved, and yet today we have an abundance of food. I'm reminded of the time when someone at a startup said to his team, "At a startup you have to plan for success, because if you plan for failure, you're going to fail! That means that when you build a solution you have to plan for scaling it up."

In any case, the book presented a good idea, took it to its natural conclusions, doesn't mince words or hold back from criticism. There's a self-indulgent place in the book where Deutsch writes historical fiction about Socrates and his students, but you can skip that section with no loss of fidelity to the ideas in the book. Well worth your time reading!

No comments: