The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch Summary
On physics, evolution, computers, and philosophy.
- The 4 main strands of the fabric of reality: (1) Quantum theory. (2) Evolutionary theory (primarily evolving from living organisms). (3) Epistemology (the theory of knowledge). (4) Computation theory (about computers and what they can and cannot, in principle, compute).
- Much of science is about editing what our senses wrongly lead us to believe. Ex) Just because you can go outside and see that the ground is flat does not mean that the earth is flat.
- A good explanation has 2 components: (1) it can describe something in a causal way, and (2) every part of the explanation is essential.
- “The real source of our theories is conjecture [guessing], 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.”
- Instruments (tools) bring us closer to reality because we cannot see most things—we cannot see bacteria without a microscope, planets without a telescope, or certain actions without slow-motion cameras.
- Problems are inevitable. No matter how much we fix, there will always be problems. But the right knowledge can solve any problem.
- Rational Optimism: All problems can be solved with sufficient knowledge. All evil comes from a lack of knowledge.
- Nothing is easy without prior knowledge. Everyone must learn before they can be good at something.
- Knowledge transfer is not lossless—when someone tells you something there is always some level of misunderstanding.
- The laws of physics state that the human brain is a computer.
- The present is always primitive compared to the distant future.
- Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge. Its key tenet is error correction.
- “Facts” are up to interpretation by the researcher. Each researcher thinks they have conclusive evidence that proves their point. In reality, science and philosophy cannot be separated. The only way to come to a scientific conclusion is to think deeply about the philosophy and morality of the topic.
- A huge part of decision-making is creating new options (not just choosing from the presented options).
- Democracy is really about being able to remove leaders without violence (this is the best metric to judge the quality of a democracy). Democracy is not about equal representation. True democracy is often undesirable as most people are ignorant and uneducated.
- "Anything that says ‘Let us suppress criticism of our idea because it is true,’ suggests static-society thinking."
- Free speech is essential to enlightenment, evolution, and positive change.
- Nothing is a resource until the knowledge of how to use it is discovered. Only knowledge can turn rocks into pure metals or uranium ore into electricity. Resources are plentiful when knowledge is sufficient.
The Reach of Explanations
- 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.
Meanings of ‘the beginning of infinity’ encountered in Chapter 1:
- The fact that some explanations have reach.
- The universal reach of some explanations.
- The Enlightenment.
- A tradition of criticism.
- Conjecture: the origin of all knowledge.
- The discovery of how to make progress: science, the scientific revolution, seeking good explanations, and the political principles of the West.
“The real source of our theories is conjecture [guessing], 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 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.”
You have to publicly put out ideas (based on and built upon previous ideas) and have others critique them. This iterative process is true science.
Prior to the work of scientific philosopher, Karl Popper, we had empiricism—the idea that knowledge is developed by going out into the world, observing it, and deriving facts from your observations. But we know that empiricism is not correct because viewing something does not necessarily make it true. Prior to empiricism, we had superstition and appeals to authority. Ex) if you observe stars at night you would think they are small, dim points of light. But that is not what a star actually is.
Now, we have conjecture—we guess and then criticize our guesses (with experiments and observations). Experiments and observations are tools that help us choose between potential good explanations.
A good explanation has 2 components: (1) it can describe something in a causal way, and (2) every part of the explanation is essential.
Closer to Reality
Instruments bring us closer to reality because we cannot see most things—we cannot see bacteria without a microscope, planets without a telescope, or certain actions without slow-motion cameras.
We need to account for errors in our instruments and senses. Ex) an artifact in the telescope lens or a limitation of our eyes to see what is really happening.
Enlightenment would be futile if knowledge of the world (universe) was parochial.
Communication cannot go faster than the speed of light. How fast is the speed of light? How long would it take light to go around the earth? The earth is 1.255 seconds from the moon at light speed.
Anything that is not forbidden by the laws of nature is possible with sufficient knowledge. This is why there is no biological limit to what humans can do. Only humans have the knowledge potential (because we have language—the ability to explain concepts) to create things up to what the laws of nature permit.
What if to unlock the unlimited potential or “infinity” you needed 2 opposable thumbs per hand or 2x the mental capacity of a human? Humans could make robots with 2 opposable thumbs per hand and we could make computers with more than 2x the human mental capacity.
Matter, energy, and evidence are the only things we need to prove scientific theories (we could do science on the moon or any other planet).
Problems are inevitable. No matter how much we fix, there will always be problems. But the right knowledge can solve any problem.
Humans make planets hospitable through knowledge and manipulation. Humans will make space hospitable. Enlightenment will spread throughout the universe.
This chapter covers Darwinism and evolution.
The best gene is simply the one that spreads best.
Biological evolution’s genetic variations are like guesses (conjectures). Those guesses are “criticized” by natural selection and, in the end, only the fittest survive (the best explanation). The evolution of ideas (conjecture) is more important than biological evolution because biology only leads to minor improvements over long time periods to make living organisms better adapted to their environment. The evolution of ideas can create radical changes in short time periods.
The opposition to evolutionary biology (called biological creationism) is also found in physics. Some argue that the physical laws are too perfect and must have been created by someone (a god), but this argument has the same flaws as biological creationism.
The Reality of Abstractions
Abstractions (things that don’t exist in physical reality) can cause events in physical reality. Ex) The next known prime number (an abstraction) does not yet exist in physical reality but it can cause people to try to find it.
Free will is likely the most controversial of all abstractions.
Ideas are the most important abstraction. When analyzing an event, people often focus on what happened in the physical world but we also need to think about the ideas that caused those events.
The Jump to Universality
Universality: numbers -> computers -> quantum computers.
The laws of physics state that the human brain is a computer—it’s not an analogy, the brain actually is a computer.
We have made no progress on artificial general intelligence (AGI) because there is a philosophical question we must answer first: what is creativity? Once that question has been answered, creating AGI will be easy.
Computers do not disobey. Humans disobey. This is essential for creativity. An AGI needs to be able to, for instance, be able to learn to walk but then decide to salsa dance on its own and then decide to make up a new kind of dance on its own.
If you cannot program it on a computer, you don’t understand it. We don’t understand the simulation of biological knowledge (evolution) or explanatory knowledge (the human brain).
A Window on Infinity
Universal explainers are universal constructors.
Infinity hotel example.
The present is always primitive compared to the distant future.
Mini enlightenments took place in:
- Athens w/ Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc.
- Florence, Italy Renaissance
Blind pessimism = avoiding everything not known to be safe.
Enlightenment = continually innovate and be radically open to criticism (avoid dogma).
The key to enlightenment: Knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors. There may have been several short enlightenment movements in history. The current enlightenment movement is uniquely long-lived.
Rational Optimism: All problems can be solved with sufficient knowledge. All evil comes from a lack of knowledge.
Not all problems are evil. Trying to figure out how to make better computer CGI for a movie is a problem but it is not evil (because there is no suffering).
Serial killers, tornadoes, and earthquakes are evil (because they cause suffering). We could solve all of these problems with sufficient knowledge. Ex) We have already reduced the casualties of earthquakes by designing buildings with a margin of safety against earthquakes.
We cannot predict what knowledge people of the future will have. Ex) we can try to model out when AGI or the singularity will occur but we really have no idea because we don’t know what information people in the future would have created or what knowledge is necessary to solve the problems of AGI & singularity.
A Dream of Socrates
Nothing is easy without prior knowledge. Everyone must learn before they can be good at something.
We all use conjecture (guessing) and criticism to analyze all information that comes in—whether it is from a friend or a book. Knowledge transfer is not lossless—when someone tells you something there is always some level of misunderstanding. Hopefully, you can get them to 90-95% of your understanding. A heuristic is a fast way to transfer most of the necessary information. Some degree of misunderstanding can be good because it can lead to new ideas.
The Spartans were dogmatic and against change. They did not have philosophers because philosophers create new ideas that bring change. They had harsh schooling that taught kids dogmatic ideas. They only read dead poets because nobody was allowed to write new poems. This kept them stagnant.
The Athenians sought out innovation and change. They had philosophers to develop about new ideas. Their education system was relaxed so the kids could learn what they wanted. They had living poets. This allowed them to improve and gain accolades and achievements.
A leader should know history, literature, arithmetic, and geometry.
It is possible that Plato misinterpreted Socrates in much of his writings. It is also possible that Plato used Socrates to push some of his own ideas.
It is possible that Plato used the Socratic dialogue writing format in order to teach lessons better.
Knowledge is not about what our senses lead us to believe. Ex) Just because you can go outside and see that the ground is flat does not mean that the earth is flat.
Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge. Its key tenet is error correction.
The physical universe is far larger than what we can ever hope to observe. We call the region close to us the universe. Put together, all the other universes are called the multiverse.
A Physicist's History of Bad Philosophy
David makes a good point about explanatory science (science without philosophy). Ex) A group of people are trying to determine if hunting is immoral. A researcher finds that hunting causes lots of stress chemicals in the brain that we would say are unpleasant or harmful to humans, so it is immoral to hunt animals. But then another researcher tries to disprove them, they run the same experiment but conclude that hunting is moral because it releases the same chemicals in the brain that are related to excitement, like one gets when playing football, for example. The “facts” are up to interpretation by the researcher. Each researcher thinks they have conclusive evidence that proves their point. In reality, science and philosophy cannot be separated. The only way to come to a scientific conclusion is to think deeply about the philosophy and morality of the topic.
There is also “bad philosophy”—philosophy that limits scientific progress. A common example is authoritative conjecture and dogma.
Theoretical physics said that particles were simultaneously in multiple places at once. But when we observed them, they were only in one place. The early 20th century physicists wrongly chose observable reality and disregarded the theory. Much of science is actually about editing what our senses wrongly lead us to believe.
Instrumentalism is when scientists think the aim of science is to predict the result of an experiment. This leads to all kinds of problems. It prevents the growth of knowledge by denying reality, truth, or the possibility of finding good explanations.
Determining the number of seats the US House of Representatives should have is a difficult problem. It is a difficult problem because you want to limit the amount of total seats (so that you are not bogged down by the sheer number of reps. But it also cannot be too small otherwise you cannot fairly distribute reps between the states. (It creates decimals when you add up the state population sizes.) Ex) Delaware may have the population for, say 4.6 reps. Do you round that up or down? That changes the total number of reps. If you increase the total size of the House to make rounding negligible, then you could end up with a House that is thousands of people.
A huge part of decision-making is creating new options (not just choosing from the presented options).
Democracy is really about being able to remove leaders without violence. This is the metric to judge a democracy. Democracy is not about equal representation. True democracy is often undesirable as most people are ignorant and uneducated.
Why are Flowers Beautiful?
This chapter is on objective beauty.
Scientific understanding trends toward the beautiful.
Flowers are an example of objective beauty. They attract bugs and animals even though they are imperfect and use mechanisms that don’t necessarily cause beauty, like symmetry and color.
An expert musician’s music is objectively more beautiful and harmonious than a beginner's.
The Evolution of Culture
Ideas and ideological movements have slightly different interpretations—even by their followers. When the leader of a movement dies, their subordinates often form factions that have slightly different interpretations or ideas about what to do going forward.
Religions tell people to only fear their god because that will make people follow the rules of their religion but not be fearful in general.
“Another thing that should make us suspicious is the presence of the conditions for anti-rational meme evolution, such as deference to authority, static subcultures and so on. Anything that says ‘Because I say so’ or ‘It never did me any harm,’ anything that says ‘Let us suppress criticism of our idea because it is true,’ suggests static-society thinking. We should examine and criticize laws, customs and other institutions with an eye to whether they set up conditions for anti-rational memes to evolve. Avoiding such conditions is the essence of Popper’s criterion.”
Nations that did not thrive in history were the ones that did not use their creativity to adapt and evolve.
Culture is a shared set of ideas or memes that all members believe in.
Free speech is essential to enlightenment, evolution, and positive change.
Being open-minded to criticism is essential to correct wrong ideas and evolve.
The Evolution of Creativity
Creativity (which came from language) was the beginning of infinity (meaning growth is unlimited).
Humans, unlike other animals, can create new knowledge. Other animals merely copy memes—like a parrot that can repeat words. Humans can “download” complex memes to spread theoretical information and use creativity to create new memes.
The way to be accepted in a static society is to be more conformist, more obedient. In a dynamic society, the way to be accepted (praised) is to innovate and be creative.
David argues that we do not know how to prevent climate change. We should try to prevent it, but you cannot prevent what you do not know. Therefore, our climate change fate will largely be determined by how we respond to specific climate change problems as they arise.
Nothing is a resource until the knowledge of how to use it is discovered. Only knowledge can turn rocks into pure metals or uranium ore into electricity. Resources are plentiful when knowledge is sufficient.
Getting all of the world connected to the internet is essential. It allows them to connect to education platforms like Khan Academy for free. Then we will have exponentially more brain power to solve major global problems like climate change.
Parochial: When people focus on small sections of an issue instead of considering its wider context.
Humans will never have perfect knowledge. Innovation will never stop. We will never fully understand the brain, or physics, or other complex concepts because there will always be more to learn.
Seeking good explanations though creativity and criticism is the only path to success.