Book review: The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.
This is an ambitious book centered around the nature of explanation, why it has been an important part of science (misunderstood by many who think of science as merely prediction), and why it is important for the future of the universe.
He provides good insights on jump during the Enlightenment to thinking in universals (e.g. laws of nature that apply to a potentially infinite scope). But he overstates some of its implications. He seems confident that greater-than-human intelligences will view his concept of “universal explainers” as the category that identifies which beings have the rights of people. I find this about as convincing as attempts to find a specific time when a fetus acquires the rights of personhood. I can imagine AIs deciding that humans fail often enough at universalizing their thought to be less than a person, or that they will decide that monkeys are on a trajectory toward the same kind of universality.
He neglects to mention some interesting evidence of the spread of universal thinking – James Flynn’s explanation of the Flynn Effect documents that low IQ cultures don’t use the abstract thought that we sometimes take for granted, and describes IQ increases as an escape from concrete thinking.
Deutsch has a number of interesting complaints about people who attempt science but are confused about the philosophy of science, such as people who imagine that measuring heritability of a trait tells us something important without further inquiry – he notes that being enslaved was heritable in 1860, but that was useless for telling us how to change slavery.
He has interesting explanations for why anthropic arguments, the simulation argument, and the doomsday argument are weaker in a spatially infinite universe. But I was disappointed that he didn’t provide good references for his claim that the universe is infinite – a claim which I gather is controversial and hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves.
He sometimes gets carried away with his ambition and seems to forget his rule that explanations should be hard to vary in order to make it hard to fool ourselves.
He focuses on the beauty of flowers in an attempt to convince us that beauty is partially objective. But he doesn’t describe this objective beauty in a way that would make it hard to alter to fit whatever evidence he wants it to fit. I see an obvious alternative explanation for humans finding flowers beautiful – they indicate where fruit will be.
He argues that creativity evolved to help people find better ways of faithfully transmitting knowledge (understanding someone can require creative interpretation of the knowledge that they are imperfectly expressing). That might be true, but I can easily create other explanations that fit the evidence he’s trying to explain, such as that creativity enabled people to make better choices about when to seek a new home.
He imagines that he has a simple way to demonstrate that hunter-gatherer societies could not have lived in a golden age (the lack of growth of their knowledge):
Since static societies cannot exist without effectively extinguishing the growth of knowledge, they cannot allow their members much opportunity to pursue happiness.
But that requires implausible assumptions such as that happiness depends more on the pursuit of knowledge than availability of sex. And it’s not clear that hunter-gatherer societies were stable – they may have been just a few mistakes away from extinction, and accumulating knowledge faster than any previous species had. (I think Deutsch lives in a better society than hunter-gatherers, but it would take a complex argument to show that the average person today does).
But I generally enjoyed his arguments even when I thought they were wrong.
See also the review in the New York Times.