The Beginning of Infinity (Book Review)

In some books I’m searching for a philosophy of life. Some guidelines, if you can call them that, that direct you to a better life. One that is more ‘true’, makes you happy, adds positive things to the world. This book is definitely one where I think I’ve found a piece of the puzzle.

The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch is a book where you get taken on a journey of understanding where David is relentless in breaking with other perceptions of the world (e.g. Spaceship Earth) and relies on theory and explanation.

One thing I think best shows what he argues for is his case for optimism. He (and I) believes that the world can get much better (even infinitely better). And that the problems that are created by technology – by the solutions of today – need solutions that we will have to invent (which will cause new problems, etc).

Many people nowadays have become pessimists. Just today I read the same tendency by Jon Evans (technology blogger) who said (article here): “
But just because fire is dangerous doesn’t every new use of it is a malevolent threat. ” (read the article for more, also on the Three Body Problem). I hope that we can instill some positivism, some believe in a better future, and my hope is that I can entice more people to think alike.

Below are some of my notes from the book:

  • “Scientific theories are explanations: assertions about what is out there and how it behaves”. They are conjectures/guesses and are not derived (only) from observations (empiricism). Science can make predictions about things we have never experienced before
  • (good) Science comes forth from a tradition of criticism, not relying on authority. A theory must be testable, it should make predictions, that if tested could be contradicted (criterion of demarcation)
  • Solving a problem means creating an explanation that does not have the conflict (theory and reality not matching)
  • A good theory makes it harder for you to fool yourself
  • “Reach: The ability of some explanations to solve problems beyond those that they were created to solve”
  • (chapter 2) Almost everything we experience is the end of a chain of interpretations (e.g. what we ‘see’ in our mind and what is out there in the world) The closer we come to reality, the ‘truer’ our theories become
  • “The growth of knowledge consists of correcting misconceptions in our theories”
  • (chapter 3) Many ancient believes (if not all) were false and mostly centred around humans (anthropocentric). This trend has gone the other way with the principle of Mediocracy
  • Deutsch argues that this is taking things too far. Humans are unique and we’re in quite a unique place
  • The earth (Spaceship Earth) isn’t made for us and is not very hospitable (just try and go outside in the winter in Europe without clothes and see how many days you survive). But it’s special, we’re in a place near a star, not somewhere in deep space where there is virtually no matter around
  • What is also special about us is that we find new solutions to problems. Most species don’t do this and constantly live on the edge of disaster and death. The world also isn’t made for them to survive, most species are extinct
  • If we are on Spaceship Earth, we are its designers and builders!
  • We (humans) can achieve anything with the resources at our hands unless it’s forbidden by the laws of nature. This is an extremely optimistic prediction and is one of the ways in which Deutsch defines the beginning of infinity.
  • For instance, living on another planet isn’t limited by if we can breathe oxygen there (heck, even the need for it might someday not be there), it’s about what habitat we can build
  • The developments for this are way out there, but remember that once we have discovered one thing, we can keep using this knowledge indefinitely
  • Deutsch even mentions the question of extending our lives (see (Ending Aging)
  • All we need is matter, energy, and evidence (the information to test scientific theories)
  • Deutsch postulates two other maxims: Problems are inevitable, problems are soluble. I think this is quite profound and I think it has changed my view a bit on the climate change problem. Instead of only look at prevention/limiting our impact, I think we can focus even more on the solutions and new things we can do to make the planet more hospitable (for humans)
  • (chapter 4) Human knowledge is created by evolution; variation in existing knowledge (via conjecture) and selection by criticism and experiment
  • Good adaptations, like good explanations, are distinguished by being hard to vary while still fulfilling their functions
  • Deutsch argues (successfully) that Creationism and other old theories are crap. He argues that Neo-Darwinism is the best explanation: evolution favours the genes! that spread best through the population. Not the species or the individual, the genes (also see The Selfish Gene)
  • Human knowledge (ideas) are similar to genes (both replicators) but human knowledge can be explanatory and can have great reach
  • (chapter 5) Abstractions can be quasi-autonomic (of underlying/smaller) parts of it, this is called emergence
  • This should not be mistaken for reductionism, that it’s only just the cumulative effect of the underlying parts
  • “All knowledge creation depends on, and physically consists of, emergent phenomena”
  • The parts around 118-121 are somewhat convoluted and something to read again later
  • (chapter 6) Small changes in a system (like language) can make it jump to universality
  • Instead of tallying numbers (IIIIII), the current system (0-9) is universal
  • The same goes for movable-type printing (and maybe will do so for 3D printers?)
  • Computers are for many things a universal machine (and will maybe one day generate A(G)I (through emergence from a lower level)
  • Error-correction (in computer/humans) is part of the beginning of infinity
  • RNA/DNA can be seen as the first universality
  • What I learned from this chapter is that only a small change will lead to universality, it’s really a jump instead of gradual improvements
  • (chapter 7) “Turing did understand that artificial intelligence (AI) must in principle be possible because a universal computer is a universal simulator”
  • But attempts to create A(G)I have not gone anywhere in the last 60+ years, the jump to universality still hasn’t happened (although I think some algorithms have quite a bit of reach like Watson and AlphaZero)
  • “if you can’t program it, you haven’t understood it”
  • “judging whether something is a genuine AI will always depend on explanations of how it works” (and this can be on the emergent/abstract level)
  • Deutsch also argues that many of the AI’s we have now are evolutionary algorithms and although they are clever, the outcome is still just the creativity of the programmer (and with a lot of computational power, but still no true/new knowledge that is created during the running of the program (instead of during its development by the programmer))
  • I wonder where AI is now and if some of it adheres to the criteria in chapter 7
  • “we do not understand how creativity works”
  • (chapter 8) “The beginning of infinity – the possibility of the unlimited growth of knowledge in the future – depends on a number of other infinities” 1) universality of the laws of nature (local symbols/formulas that apply everywhere/when), 2) existence of physical objects that are universal explainers (people), and 3) universal classical computers
  • The rest of the chapter deals with infinity in the mathematical sense (Hilbert’s Infinity Hotel) and is very interesting to read (see here for more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elvOZm0d4H0 )
  • The laws of nature seem so computational-friendly, etc. So are we not in a simulation? Nope, or at least, that could mean it’s simulations all the way down
  • (chapter 9) What I like about Deutsch approach is that he argues for innovation, for new thinking, for finding new solutions. In many cases, people say we are doomed if we do the same things again, and that is true but also not what our history shows. “the future of civilization depends entirely on what we think and do”
  • “The possible outcomes are not yet known, let alone their probabilities”
  • prediction = conclusions about future events that follow from good explanations
  • prophecy = anything that purports to know what is not yet knowable
  • Stopping innovation (and new ‘weapons’) is not what is going to save us, we messed up before with fire and swords. Only by expanding our knowledge will we make ourselves more capable of surviving
  • So we can say: “unless we solve certain problems in time, we are doomed” (so lack of knowledge is bad, but that is exactly the thing that at least some of us are working on improving)
  • With more knowledge, we can weather more storms (even literally, by building more insulated houses, better weather models, etc)
  • Criticism and good explanations!!!
  • The principle of optimism: All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge
  • Deutsch also refers to the Enlightenment (see Sophie’s World) and that this time we have a chance of really going through with our own Enlightenment
  • (chapter 10) This chapter is about Socrates and uses a dialogue as another way of explaining good theory (exceedingly hard to vary while still remaining a viable explanation). And that by converging on the truth, we will have a chance of better understanding each other
  • (chapter 11) The multiverse is one of those counterintuitive and hard to grasp ideas. Many tv series have been made about it (Man In The High Castle, Fringe, Counterpart)
  • Deutsch argues for the ‘many-universes interpretation’ (a minority view within physics)
  • A lot of the chapter is above my paygrade (at least to reproduce here) so here is the conclusion “The physical world is a multiverse, and its structure is determined by how information flows in it. In many regions 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”
  • (chapter 12) We are “an emergent, quasi-autonomous flow of information in the multiverse”
  • Deutsch argues that quite a lot of work in quantum physics is ‘bad philosophy’, “not merely false, but actively prevents the growth of other knowledge”
  • “Happiness is a state of continually solving one’s problems” (unhappiness is thus not knowing how to do this)
  • Science should have explanatory power and not just put things in ‘black boxes’ (behaviourism)
  • (chapter 13) Deutsch explains how it’s not possible to have ‘perfect’ representation and that this can be proven mathematically
  • He also argues that we should focus on expanding the choices/options and not stay focused on how to choose between the current options
  • “Rational decision-making consists not of weighing evidence but of explaining it, in the course of explaining the world”
  • A political system should be one in which bad choices are punished. He argues that a two party system is better at this (in principle) than having more parties. I think I’m biased by seeing what happens in America, but I think (for now) that in practice his theory here isn’t looking like the best choice (but again, this is the current political system, he could be right about it in principle)
  • (chapter 14) Good explanations and beautiful things share an attribute, they are hard to vary and still do the job. It’s a very interesting take on beauty. I think I do agree though.
  • “deep truth is often beautiful”
  • “Elegance is the beauty in explanations”
  • Deutsch argues that those hard to vary characteristics are what makes things like music, landscapes, symmetry in a flower, etc so beautiful
  • He also argues that this beauty is universal, it’s between species (signalling)
  • (chapter 15) “A culture is a set of ideas that cause their holders to behave alike in some way” (memes are ideas that replicate)
  • So culture is a set of ever-slightly changing memes, it’s the transition of long-lived memes over time.
  • Genes and memes are replicators, but they spread very differently (a meme has to be interpreted (mental representation) and copied (behaviour) correctly) and have vastly different outcomes
  • Creativity is a higher-level emergent phenomenon of conjecture and criticism
  • “static-societies: societies changing on a timescale unnoticed by the inhabitants” (slow/unchanging memes, taboos, customs, laws) (anti-rational memes)
  • Dynamic societies are the opposite, the memes here are the ones that change things, that survive by finding a deep truth (rational memes)
  • There have been some small enlightenments in the past and only now are we in a ‘large’ enlightenment where (at least to some degree) we have a dynamic society.
  • (chapter 16) “Of all the countless biological adaptations that have evolved on our planet, creativity is the only one that can produce scientific or mathematical knowledge, art or philosophy”
  • “The unique effects of creativity dominate our experience of the world”
  • “Creativity, as far as we know, evolved only once” (in humans, and also not yet in AI, hmm)
  • Creativity was then used the recreate memes (static society) instead of what we could use it for (new memes)
  • “Memes, like scientific theories, are not derived from anything. They are created afresh by the recipient. They are conjectural explanations, which are then subjected to criticism and testing before being tentatively adopted”
  • “Creativity is a property of software” I.e. how our brain is structured, not some magical elements. Creativity is, according to Deutch, a combination of genes and memes
  • (chapter 17) “Our civilization is unique in history for its capacity to make progress”
  • In this chapter Deutsch argues for optimism towards the problems we face. To look at climate change and other things as something we can fix and not worry ourselves to death. I can get behind this idea. At the same time I do believe we can lower our impact (also through technology), for more see Let My People Go Surfing
  • “You have to live the solution, and to set about solving the new problems that this creates”
  • “progress is sustainable, indefinitely”
  • If we look at the future, remember to make predictions, not prophecies
  • What I like most about his views here is that we can’t put our heads in the sand or try and push pause, we should go and run ahead and find solutions!
  • (chapter 18) We are still at the beginning of infinity and there is so much more to learn and discover. I hope to see much of it in the (far) future!
  • “seeking good explanations through creativity and criticism”
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