David Deutsch: The Beginning of Infinity

Daisy Stanton
7 min readJul 31, 2016

Book Review, from http://www.asanet.org/sites/default/files/savvy/sectionevol/documents/news-spr12.pdf
The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World
by David Deutsch (2011: Allen Lane Science)
Rosemary L. Hopcroft University of North Carolina at Charlotte
This wide ranging book is unified by the idea of the central role of explanation in creating all human knowledge. Deutsch argues that ever improving explanations have infinite reach, hence the title, the “beginning of infinity.”
Deutsch argues that all our knowledge of the universe consists of explanations that work. Good explanations are explanations that are hard to vary in the sense that changing the details would ruin the explanation. If an explanation can easily explain anything in a given field, then it actually explains nothing. For most of the history of our species, we had almost no success in creating such good explanations. Most good explanations have been generated since the Enlightenment, which began a culture of the criticism and debate of existing ideas.
Empiricism suggests that we derive knowledge from sensory experience, but this is false. All observations are “theory laden” as Karl Popper put it. Deutsch relates the story of Karl Popper going into a classroom, and telling his students to observe. Their first question, of course, was observe what?
Deutsch argues that the real source of theories is not observation but conjecture, and the real source of our knowledge is conjecture alternating with criticism. The role of experiment and observation is to help us to choose between existing theories, not to be the source of new ones. He notes that when we make an error, it is an error in the explanation of something. The growth of knowledge consists of correcting misconceptions in our theories. Can this creativity, the growth of knowledge, continue indefinitely? Deutsch argues that it can. He suggests that in the development of good explanations about the world, only two things are certain: 1. Problems are inevitable 2. Problems are soluble.
Detusch debunks what he calls the “Principle of Mediocrity” (the idea that people are really insignificant in the scheme of things). He argues that people are the most significant entities, because they are the only ones we know of who are capable of creating knowledge.
Deutsch suggests that the only other process besides human creativity known to be capable of creating knowledge is biological evolution. The evolution of biological adaptations and the creation of human knowledge share deep similarities, but also some important differences. Genes and ideas are both replicators. The main difference, human knowledge can be explanatory and have great reach, adaptations are never explanatory and rarely have much reach beyond the situations in which they evolved.
He also debunks what he calls the notion of “Spaceship Earth” (that the biosphere of earth is a life-support system for humans). People are not supported by their environments, they support themselves by creating knowledge that allows them to survive in their environments. He points out that people could not live in Oxfordshire (where Deutsch lives) without substantial knowledge. Deutsch deals with the twin problems of explanation: reductionism (science must always explain things by analyzing them into components) and holism (all significant explanations are of components in terms of wholes rather than vice versa). He argues that there are different levels of emergence, and explanations at any level of emergence can be fundamental. He suggests that there is no inconsistency in having multiple explanations of the same phenomenon at different levels of emergence. Deutsch also deals with the idea of the separation of science and morality (p. 120). This is the idea that you can’t derive an ought from an is, therefore morality cannot be justified by reason. Deutsch argues that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”, but you can’t derive a factual theory from an “is”, either. That is not what sciences does. The growth of knowledge consists of finding good explanations. Further, facts can help challenge immoral doctrines. Advocates of highly immoral doctrines almost invariably believe associated factual falsehoods as well.
Deutsch notes that success at science entails commitments to all sorts of values. The individual scientist has to value truth, and good explanations, and be open to ideas and to change. He says we should not be surprised at these connections. The truth has structural unity as well as logical consistency. Since the universe is explicable, it must be that morally right values are connected in this way with true factual theories, and morally wrong values with false theories.
This also illustrated the emptiness of reductionism in philosophy. He notes that if I ask you for advice as to what objectives to pursue in life, it is no good telling me to do what the laws of physics mandate. I shall do that in any case.
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. He uses the benefits of the DNA code in biological evolution, and the introduction of Indian numbers and alphabets as examples of the benefits of the introduction of universal systems.
The largest benefits of any universality, beyond whatever problem it is intended to solve, come from its being useful for further innovation. And innovation is unpredictable. So universal systems are usually introduced not for the purposes that they eventually come to be useful for.
Optimism is the theory that all failures- all evils- are due to insufficient knowledge. Truth exists in all fields, and progress towards it is made by seeking good explanations. Problems are inevitable, because our knowledge will always be infinitely far from complete. 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.
The communication of new ideas — even mundane ones like directions- depends on guess work on the part of both the recipient and the communicator, and is inherently fallible. If a theory is good a theory then it is exceedingly hard to vary while still remaining a viable explanation. So the learners, through criticism of their initial guess and with the help of their books, teachers, and colleagues, seeking a viable explanation will arrive at the same theory as the originator. That is how a good theory manages to be passed faithfully from generation to generation, despite no one caring about its faithfulness to the original version put forth by the first innovator.
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 behavior. He particularly attacks correlational studies, such as between individual happiness and certain genetic traits, mostly because they do not involve causal explanations.
There are many different topics explored in the book, including the theory of the quantum multiverse. There is also a chapter on beauty, on voting systems, and the evolution of creativity.
There is also an interesting chapter relevant to section members arguing against treating cultural evolution as analogous to biological evolution, and modeling it accordingly. He notes that the idea that cultures evolve is at least as old as that of evolution. He says that such arguments by analogy are fallacies. Almost any analogy between any two things contains some grain of truth, but one cannot tell what that is until one has an independent explanation for what is analogous to what, and why. The main danger in the biosphere-culture analogy is that it encourages one to conceive of the human condition in a reductionist way that obliterates the high-level distinctions that are essential for understanding it — such as those between mindless and creative, determinism and choice, right and wrong.
Although biological and cultural evolution are described by the same underlying theory, the mechanisms of transmission, variation and selection are very different. That makes the resulting ‘natural histories’ different too. There is no close cultural analogue of a species, or of an organism, or a cell, or of sexual or asexual reproduction. Genes and memes are about as different as can be at the level of mechanisms and of outcomes; they are similar only at the lowest level of explanation.
I liked this book for it for its rationality, clarity and optimism. It propounds a philosophy of knowledge similar to that of Karl Popper’s, and like Popper, he stresses the role of criticism of ideas in the growth of knowledge.
If I have any criticisms of the book, it is in part because of those very qualities of rationality and optimism, and Deutsch’s avoidance of the problems to the posed to the creation of knowledge created by humans themselves. I think the barriers to continued creative construction of ideas are not just mindless adherence to static rule structures (see Chapter 16). Certain types of rules help foster the kind of creative destruction of ideas and explanations that Deutsch has in mind.
Deutsch speaks from physics, which has already progressed from preenlightenment stages, through what Deutsch refers to as empiricism or instrumentalism, toward explanatory science. In my view sociology is at best in the second stage. Can we even get to the kind of explanations Deutsch talks about? In my view, we can do a lot better than we are doing. We can continue to focus on our emergent wholes — societies, groups, etc –but our explanations must mesh with the best explanations we have of the individuals who make up those wholes. We can have explanations at different levels of analysis, as Deutsch argues in Chapter 5, but they must be consistent!
The book is long (nearly 500 pages), and has some mind boggling physics (see especially Chapter 11 on the multiverse). But it is a delight to read, entirely clear, and for me challenged many things I held to be true (for example, in chapter 5, on the lack of separation between morality and science). In other places he made some things I thought to be true very clear — for example, in chapter 15, the problems with modeling cultural evolution the same way biological evolution is modeled. I do not agree with all the chapters — in particular the chapter on beauty (Chapter 14) and his reasoning for the evolution of creativity (Chapter 16). However, others will disagree, and I encourage you to read the book for yourself.

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