The Beginning of Infinity

Reviewed on , book by David Deutsch

What a ride seeing the world through David Deutsch’s eyes for 500 pages. “Infinity” refers to the endless search for explanations, and how each explanation compounds on others. I especially loved his take on a good explanation is: one that keeps explaining beyond what it initially set to explain. A bad explanation is one you keep trying to fit, like a gambler continuing to up their hands to make back losses (or astrology).

“It is the ability of some of them to solve problems beyond those that they were created to solve. The axis-tilt theory is an example: it was originally proposed to explain the changes in the sun’s angle of elevation during each year. Combined with a little knowledge of heat and spinning bodies, it then explained seasons. And, without any further modification, it also explained why seasons are out of phase in the two hemispheres, and why tropical regions do not have them, and why the summer sun shines at midnight in polar regions – three phenomena of which its creators may well have been unaware.” (David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity)

Another phrasing I’ll take with me is whether something is untestable, which means a pretty high probability that it’s bullshit.

A fascinating thing I find is common among those with a strong rooting in physics is that they only see what’s possible and not possible based on laws of physics. That’s it. Musk tends to talk like that too.

When we talk about “500 pages in Mr. Deutsch’s mind, this is the type of thing you can get accustomed to:

“What exactly would it come to steal? Gold? Oil? Perhaps our planet’s water? Surely not, since any civilization capable of transporting itself here, or raw materials back across galactic distances, must already have cheap transmutation and hence does not care about the chemical composition of its raw materials. So essentially the only resource of use to it in our solar system would be the sheer mass of matter in the sun. But matter is available in every star.” (David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity)

Probably my all-time favourite line from the book is this one:

“The Principle of Optimism: All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.” (David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity)

A supremely optimistic take that most stress, evil, problems, .. Are caused by lack of knowledge. Scales down to the mundane: if your toilet leaks, you’ll be aggregated, but if a plumber’s toilet leaks, he won’t stress much about it because he knows what to do.

Another mental model that I like is the ‘Malthusian prophetic fallacy’:

“we had now reached the physical limit of conspicuous consumption could be proved, said my colleague, by analysing the resource constraints scientifically. The cathode-ray tubes in colour televisions depended on the element europium to make the red phosphors on the screen. Europium is one of the rarest elements on Earth. The planet’s total known reserves were only enough to build a few hundred million more colour televisions. After that, it would be back to monochrome.” (David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity)

“I asked him how he knew that no new source of europium would be discovered. He asked how I knew that it would. And, even if it were, what would we do then? I asked how he knew that colour cathode-ray tubes could not be built without europium. He assured me that they could not: it was a miracle that there existed even one element with the necessary properties. After all, why should nature supply elements with properties to suit our convenience?” (David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity)