The Beginning of Infinity – Summary and Insights

Below are some of my key takeaways from reading the book, The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. If you are interested in more detailed notes from this book, they are available here.

The Beginning of Infinity - David Deutsch
The Beginning of Infinity – David Deutsch


A brief synopsis of the book is reprinted below from Amazon.

“In this groundbreaking book, award-winning physicist David Deutsch argues that explanations have a fundamental place in the universe—and that improving them is the basic regulating principle of all successful human endeavor. Taking us on a journey through every fundamental field of science, as well as the history of civilization, art, moral values, and the theory of political institutions, Deutsch tracks how we form new explanations and drop bad ones, explaining the conditions under which progress—which he argues is potentially boundless—can and cannot happen. Hugely ambitious and highly original, The Beginning of Infinity explores and establishes deep connections between the laws of nature, the human condition, knowledge, and the possibility for progress.”



How Knowledge is Created

The author begins by reviewing this history of the philosophy of knowledge creation. Scientific theories are explanations – assertions about the world and how it behaves. For most of history and science, people mistakenly believed that humans derive scientific theories from our human senses. However, the truth is that scientific theories must first be conjectured and then tested. Human minds, not human senses, create these theories by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas with the intention of improving upon them. A good explanation must be testable. These explanatory theories are improved through conjecture, criticism and testing which leads to a sustained and rapid growth of knowledge. Thus, while scientific theories aren’t derived from human senses, they can be tested by experience – by observation or experiment.

The great discovery that launched the scientific revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions. This sea change in the values and patterns of thinking of a whole community of thinkers, which brought about a sustained and accelerating creation of knowledge, happened only once in history, with the Enlightenment and its scientific revolution. That progress is both possible and desirable is perhaps the quintessential idea of the Enlightenment. This accepting of criticism was the key trigger for unbounded knowledge creation and progress.

Problems are Inevitable but Soluble

Given that knowledge is created through human conjecture and improved via criticism and testing, it is inevitable that errors will be found. Solving our problem just uncovers further and more challenging problems. This is the nature of progress. Problems are inevitable, yet problems are soluble. They can be solved by imaginative, critical thought that seeks good explanations.

The human ability to transform nature to solve a problem is limited only by the laws of physics so no single problem should be considered an impassable barrier. Our environment has all the minimal requirements necessary to enable open-ended knowledge creation: matter, energy, and evidence (the information needed to test scientific theories). People are not supported by their environments, but support themselves by creating knowledge. Once they have suitable knowledge, they are capable of sparking unlimited further progress.

The challenge is thus to solve problems in a timely fashion before the problem has catastrophic impacts. It is always true that unless we solve certain problems in time, we are doomed. That will always be true since problems are inevitable. We shall always be faced with the problem of how to plan for an unknowable future. We shall never be able to afford to sit back and hope for the best. But we do have all the ingredients necessary to solve any problem presented to us.

Whether a particular attempt to make progress will succeed or not is profoundly unpredictable. No good explanations can predict the outcome, or the probability of an outcome, of a phenomenon whose course is going to be significantly affected by the creation of new knowledge. It can be understood in retrospect, but not in terms of the factors that could have been known in advance. Don’t be distracted by the naysayers and pessimists.

Lessons for Government

Knowledge creation applies to all domains, even ones that appear subjective. Government policies, like scientific theories, are conjectures. According to Popper, we can take the concept of detecting and eliminating errors that is used to drive scientific progress and apply it to political progress. The primary question being, “how can we rid ourselves of bad governments without violence?”

We must recognize that policy creation, like knowledge creation, results in a continual stream of errors that require correcting. We need a political system that supports this process. Political institutions should not make it hard to oppose rulers and policies, non-violently, and should embody traditions of peaceful, critical discussion of them and of the institutions themselves and everything else.

Modern political institutions face a challenge: when society as a whole faces a choice, and citizens differ in their preferences among the options, which options is best for society to choose. In a representative democracy, citizens are elected and assigned decision making authority. Elections are one of the means for creating, testing, modifying, and rejecting ideas and policies. The right policies aren’t derived from the voters. Voters are choosing which experiments are to be attempted next and which should be abandoned because there is no longer a good explanation for why they are the best.

There is no political system that provides only good leaders and good policies, nor a scientific method that provides only true theories. The only rational policy is to judge institutions, plans and ways of life according to how good they are at correcting mistakes. Static societies eventually fail because their characteristic inability to create knowledge rapidly must eventually turn some problem into a catastrophe.

How Ideas Propagate

The author explores the characteristics of an idea that make it exceptionally resistant to change throughout many replications as it’s passed down through generations. Ideas that can replicate themselves with great fidelity must contain a significant amount of true knowledge. True ideas are useful. They are replicated because diverse people under diverse and unpredictable circumstances found them useful and adopted them many times in succession. The ideas with the best chance of surviving through many generations of change are truths with reach – deep truths.

This reminded me of Taleb’s book, Antifragile, where he talks about the “Lindy effect”. The the longer a period something has survived to exist or be used in the present, the longer its remaining life expectancy. Longevity implies a resistance to change, obsolescence or competition and greater odds of continued existence into the future. Ideas that have been around for generations are robust and must contain some objective truth and utility.