The Beginning of Infinity: David Deutsch on the Potential of Human Knowledge, Planetary Colonisation, and Optimism

I try to read only books that either stretch or confuse me, or that fiercely challenge both my intellectual capacity and sentiments. What this means, of course, is that reading is rarely pleasurable; without doubt, spending time on twitter, browsing the blogs and losing myself in light fiction certainly gives rise to more joy, and is far less exhausting. That being said, I do find some form of pleasure from attempting to converse with a mind that is far beyond mine in breadth and profundity. There is something about the struggle of trying to comprehend text that, on the surface, may as well be gibberish, and the uncomfortable feeling of having my own cherished sentiments torn apart, that induces a sort of perverse delight in my psyche — that is, delight in the fact that I am learning. Unfortunately it’s the greatest learning — the most important learning — tends to be the most painful. If you can get comfortable with this pain, you can learn an awful lot. The easiest way to start is by the works of eminent geniuses.

One such example is David Deutch’s dazzling The Beginning of Infinity. This book is a masterpiece. Having almost come to the end, I’m nowhere near finished with it; profoundly dense, beautifully written, half a thousand pages in length and dealing with arguably the most complex subject of all, this book demands at least two concentrated reads. The whole book is based on a single premise, namely, that all the progress we have made as a species, in both the theoretical and the practical sense, has resulted from a single human activity: the quest for good explanations. To quote from the book:

‘Though this quest is uniquely human, its effectiveness is also a fundamental fact about reality at the most impersonal, cosmic level – namely that it conforms to universal laws of nature that are indeed good explanations. This simple relationship between the cosmic and the human is a hint of a central role of people in the cosmic scheme of things.’

I pulled this from the introduction; the eighteen chapters that follow are dedicated to educating you about The Beginning Of Infinity, a term for which Deutsch gives numerous definitions:

– 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.
– Fallibilism.
– The universality of reason.
– The infinite reach of some ideas.
– Choice that involves creating new options rather than weighing existing ones.

and many more. They’re all tied together, however, by the idea that progress in human knowledge is fundamentally reliant on a certain type of thinking:

‘There is only one way of thinking that is capable of making progress, or of surviving in the long run, and that is the way of seeking good explanations through creativity and criticism. What lies ahead of us is in any case infinity. All we can choose is whether it is an infinity of ignorance or of knowledge, wrong or right, death or life.’

Deutsch has the most brilliant knack for simplifying terribly complicated and high-IQ ideas; his remarkably clear prose, clever employment of fables, perfectly timed interjections of quotes and anti-grandose way of explaining make him one of my favourite writers. At the risk of upsetting many of theoretical physicist, I will say that reading Deutsch seems to subject you to yet understood quantumesque phenomena: the deeper you get into his works, the more warmth, humility and friendliness radiates of the page. Literate readers will recognize this as a symptom of fantastic writing. That, it certainly is.

If you’re going to tackle The Beginning of Infinity, you have been warned: being the greatest intellectual rollercoaster you’ll probably ever ride on, Pleasant is not the appropriate adjective.

Complement this read with why books written in gibberish are indeed the greatest books, why there is no friend like a book, and Maria Popova’s synopsis of Deutsch’s masterpiece.

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