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Book Review: David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity

February 5, 2023

When I began reading The Beginning of Infinity I was a little miffed to see how seldom the percent completed marker on my kindle changed when I flipped a page. Only an additional percent every fifteen page turns? How long is this book?? This admission betrays my laziness, but I’ve been burned before by dense tomes with more anecdotes than original ideas. As Shakespeare said, brevity is good. Besides, I’m a product of my time, baby.

As I drew near to the end of this book, around 90% completion, I began to have the opposite feeling. My pace of reading slowed down. I began to highlight more and more passages, as if trying to take them with me to go. I never know how much of a book’s end contents are going to be references and marginalia, so I feared with every page turn I’d be at the closing remarks.

Such was my experience of The Beginning of Infinity. A central idea so good that any number of words spent elaborating on it I would have consumed hungrily.

I can’t say definitively all of the ways that my thinking has been changed by this book. That self-knowledge will need time to percolate. But I can try to list some of them.

Progress is infinite. We are not “nearly there”. We don’t live at the end of a rapid period of scientific discovery in which our main objective is to learn how to live “sustainably” with our existing knowledge and riches. We are still in early days of progress, assuming that we choose for that to be so. What’s more, due to the nature of infinity, we will always be near the beginning of all possible progress.

Problems are solvable, and problems are infinite. Solving our known problems reveals more, better problems to be solved.

Knowledge is not derived from experience. Knowledge exists through our explanations. We arrive at explanations through conjecture and criticism. Experience serves as evidence from which we can create conjecture. But the process of conjecture exists entirely within the human mind, namely through our capacity for creative thinking. We still do not know what “creative thinking” really is or how we do it.

Sustainability is not an achievable or desirable goal. The only sustainable state of humanity is continual progress. A static society will eventually be destroyed by something it can’t foresee. The only way to prevent unforeseeable threats it to have the knowledge and wealth to react to them. Static societies suppress humans natural urge towards creative thought.

These ideas and more are elaborated on in this book. Plus, there are some interesting (if at times hard for me, a non-physicist to understand) detours: an explanation of the many universe theory of quantum physics, an exploration of genes and memes, and a somewhat cringeworthy (but nonetheless enjoyable) Socratic dialogue on the nature of wisdom.

As of writing this, the top Goodreads review for the Beginning of Infinity contains this passage:

As I read through Deutsch's many provocative assertions, I often reacted with instinctive scorn and disbelief. But with only a few exceptions, I found myself within a few pages not only persuaded but convinced of the utter obviousness of his ideas.

This is how I felt also, particularly towards the beginning of the book before I had been more or less fully won over to Deutsch’s philosophy. My scorn was always temporary, and I was always eventually convinced of the ideas presented.

Here’s to an infinity of ever better problems.