Back in April 2015 I wrote a short blog listing my top ten favourite books of all time. The list included the Oxford physicist David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity. I think I might have been on to something because in his list of 23 books which he thinks we all should read, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg also included The Beginning of Infinity!
Published in 2011, I first came across The Beginning of Infinity the following year while browsing in a book store at St Pancras station in London. In the four years since then, I have reread the book each year. Parts of the book, especially the chapters about the Infinity Hotel and the Multiverse, I have found pretty hard going and difficult. Other chapters are simply brilliant and very persuasive – the chapters on Optimism and The Dream of Socrates are surely worth the price of the book (and indeed much more) all by themselves – and have quite simply changed the way I look at the world.
So, what is the book about?
Deutsch states that rapid progress that has continued over a number of generations has only occurred once in human history and that coincides with the start of the scientific revolution from approximately the beginning of the 17th century and it is still underway. He argues that whenever progress has been made, it has resulted from a single human activity which he calls the quest for good explanations.
Humanity has known many bad types of explanation throughout its history. Thunder was once believed to be the result of the gods being angry. Later we learned of a better explanation involving atmospheric conditions, electrical discharges and sound waves.
The changing seasons and the onset of winter were once thought by the Greeks to be due to the sadness of Demeter, the goddess of the earth and agriculture. Once again, we learned of a better explanation, thanks to science, involving the tilting axis of the earth.
The search for good explanations is no mere intellectual exercise. Deutsch says it is fundamental to making progress. All evils, he asserts, are due to insufficient knowledge. To create knowledge, we need to seek good explanations.
“Since the Enlightenment, technological progress has depended specifically on the creation of explanatory knowledge. People had dreamed for millennia of flying to the moon, but it was only with the advent of Newton’s theories about the behaviour of invisible entities such as forces and momentum that they began to understand what was needed in order to go there.
“This increasingly intimate connection between explaining the world and controlling it is no accident, but is part of the deep structure of the world.” (p55)
Problems are inevitable. On one page in the book, Deutsch actually – and very memorably – carves this maxim out in stone for us so that we are left in no doubt as to its importance along with a second maxim which is also carved out in stone: Problems are soluble.
Climate change, meteors, disease pandemics, cancer etc., – the list of problems we are facing and will face in the future is long indeed. However, if we are to overcome those problems then knowledge creation has to be made a top priority for all of us.
Deutsch attributes the progress made by the West in recent centuries to the values of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was, Deutsch informs us, a rebellion, “specifically a rebellion against authority in regard to knowledge.” (p12)
He directs us to the motto of the Royal Society – established in 1660 – which is “Nullius in verba”: it means “take nobody’s word for it”.
History has known a number of mini-enlightenments, including during the Islamic Golden Age, which Deutsch dates to between the 8th and 13th centuries.
“…there have always been a few individuals who see obstacles as problems, and see problems as soluble. And so, very occasionally, there have been places and moments when there was, briefly, an end to pessimism. As far as I know, no historian has investigated the history of optimism, but my guess is that whenever it has emerged in a civilisation there has been a mini-enlightenment: a tradition of criticism resulting in an efflorescence of many of the patterns of human progress with which we are familiar, such as art, literature, philosophy, science, technology and the institutions of an open society. The end of pessimism is potentially a beginning of infinity. Yet I also guess that in every case – with the single tremendous exception (so far) of our own Enlightenment – this process was soon brought to an end and the reign of pessimism was restored.” (p216)
These mini-enlightenments, however, were all snuffed out, often by religious repression.
To achieve sustained knowledge growth, according to Deutsch, what is essential is the practise of Fallibilism. In his own words:
“…the recognition that there are no authoritative sources of knowledge, nor any reliable means of justifying ideas as being true or probable – is called fallibilism. To believers in the justified-true-belief theory of knowledge, this recognition is the occasion for despair or cynicism, because to them it means that knowledge is unattainable. But to those of us from whom creating knowledge means understanding better what is really there, and how it really behaves and why, fallibilism is part of the very means by which this is achieved. Fallibilists expect even their best and most fundamental explanations to contain misconceptions in addition to truth, and so they are predisposed to try and change them for the better. In contrast, the logic of justificationism is to seek (and typically, to believe that one has found) ways of securing ideas against change. Moreover, the logic of fallibilism is that one not only seeks to correct the misconceptions of the past, but hopes in the future to find and change mistaken ideas that no one today questions or finds problematic. So it is fallibilism, not mere rejection of authority, that is essential for the initiation of unlimited knowledge growth – the beginning of infinity.” (p9)
The prerequisites for making progress include religious tolerance, having a tradition of criticism and dissent and being open to new ideas.
In his chapter on The Evolution of Culture, Deutsch talks compellingly about the difference between Dynamic societies and Static societies and the promotion of rational and anti-rational memes. Static societies seek to disable the critical faculties of their members by discouraging innovation and new ideas and seeking to maintain the status quo through an emphasis on obedience and false piety and by discouraging criticism of authorities. It does not take a great amount of imagination to sadly see these forces at work across many Muslim cultures.
And Deutsch issues this, quite chilling warning:
“Nations beyond the West today are also changing rapidly, sometimes through the exigencies of warfare with their neighbours, but more often and even more powerfully by the peaceful transmission of Western memes. Their cultures, too, cannot become static again. They must either become “Western” in their mode of operation or lose all their knowledge and thus cease to exist – a dilemma which is becoming increasingly significant in world politics.” (p390-391)
This is bound to be a controversial observation – but is Deutsch correct in his analysis here?
A number of Muslim societies have undoubtedly found it very difficult to adapt to the modern world and remain largely consumer societies, rather than productive and knowledge-creating members. One looks at the Satanic Verses Affair, the Danish cartoons, the Boko Haram sect, the nihilist movements of al-Qa’ida and ISIS and the recent murders of secular intellectuals in South Asia and can’t help but see a once great and proud civilisation in crisis.
The West’s scientific revolution took wings once the power of the Christian religious institutions and particularly the Catholic Church was curtailed. Could it be that the Muslim world too needs to see a lessening of the influence of religious authorities if it is to emerge as a creative civilisation once again?