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David Deutsch


Explanations that Transform the World

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
David Deutsch is a theoretical physicist who is at the forefront of research in computer science, for which he has received two major awards. In this book he presents his thoughts about the future of science in the broadest sense. His view is essentially 'Whiggish' - that is, optimistic in contradiction of the pessimistic estimates of our future voiced today by many others.

Nearly all previous societies, Deutsch believes, were static. There was active rejection of innovative ideas. To succeed in such a society you had to conform. Since the Enlightenment our society has followed a different path and our culture is unique in its 'sustained, rapid creation of knowledge with ever-increasing reach'. And this trend, according to Deutsch, is unstoppable—hence the 'beginning of infinity'.

There are eighteen chapters, most of which have a handy summary at the end. As he makes clear at the outset, Deutsch's concept of science owes much to Karl Popper, who is quoted a good deal in the book. Thus, Deutsch holds that scientific advance comes about through the forming of conjectures, and the role of experiment is to test the validity of these conjectures.

At the end of his first chapter he lists a number of misconceptions about science, including the idea that repeated experimental confirmation of a theory increases the probability that it is correct. He also firmly rejects the view, fashionable in some quarters, that science is merely a cultural phenomenon and does not tell us anything about how the world is. Two other fashionable ideas that come in for criticism are 'spaceship earth' and the 'principle of mediocrity' (the notion that there is nothing special about humans). Both are hopelessly parochial and mistaken.

Deutsch describes himself as an optimist. By this he means that all failures—all evils—result from insufficient knowledge. And there are no fundamental limits to the creation of knowledge. There will always be problems because our knowledge will always be incomplete, but objective truth does exist, not only in science but also in morals and even in aesthetics. Artificial intelligence is attainable, but it is not a threat; we shall always be on equal terms with computers.

The contrary view, pessimism, appears today in many guises. Deutsch takes this up when he discusses the prevailing view of Easter Island. We are told that the islanders brought disaster on themselves by using up their natural resources, especially trees, until the environment was unable to sustain them and their society descended into civil war and chaos. David Attenborough has been prominent in popularising this version of what happened; Easter Island is seen as a miniature version of Spaceship Earth and we are likely to go the same way as the Islanders if we don't mend our ways. But Deutsch questions this interpretation, holding that if the islanders had had more knowledge (and had not wasted their time in the construction of huge numbers of ugly and useless statues) they could have avoided their fate.

In Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond finds that the differences in wealth and power that exist in the world today are not due to any inherent superiority on the part of the more successful peoples but arise instead from geographical and other differences in the environments in which the different groups chanced to find themselves. But Deutsch questions this. The failure of South American civilisations to match the developments that took place in Europe was due, he believes, to the fact that there was no Enlightenment in mediaeval South America.

This a big book in every sense, with a huge number of ideas. It challenges many kinds of received wisdom, which is excellent. It is not particularly easy reading, not because of the writing, which is always commendably clear, but because of the intrinsic difficulty of some of the ideas discussed. This is particularly true of Chapter 11, which explains Deutsch's 'many worlds' interpretation of quantum physics. There are no equations here but Deutsch does not pull his punches in attempting to convey extremely counter-intuitive ideas in verbal form.

Deutsch's thesis certainly runs counter to almost all conventional wisdom—see, for example, Martin Rees's Our Final Century. Being perhaps a pessimist by nature, I am more inclined to believe Rees. But I hope I'm wrong.

We have lit only a few candles here and there. We can cower in their parochial light until something beyond our ken snuffs us out, or we can resist, … What lies ahead of us in any case is infinity. All we can choose is whether it is an infinity of ignorance or of knowledge. wrong or right, death or life.

30 July 2012

%T The Beginning of Infinity
%S Explanations that Transform the World
%A Deutsch, David
%I Allen Lane
%C London
%D 2011
%G ISBN 9780713991748
%P viii+487pp
%K philosophy of science
%O hardback