Book Review: The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch


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 for 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?

Posted in Books, Science & Evolution | Tagged , | 22 Comments

Congratulations to Sadiq Khan – An Inspiration to UK Muslims


Despite a very dirty Tory campaign which sought to portray him as a friend of extremists, Sadiq Khan is poised to win the long and tough campaign to be the new Mayor of London.

It is wonderful news and hugely symbolic to see the son of a Pakistani bus driver having worked hard through the grassroots of the Labour Party to become the Mayor of the UK’s capital. It is also a powerful counter-narrative to the anti-Western propaganda of the likes of ISIS. Many younger British Muslims will surely see Sadiq Khan’s victory today and wonder whether they too could play an active role in the politics of our country. That has to be a good thing.

Sadiq certainly had many detractors from within the UK’s Muslim community, not least due to his support for gay marriage. As I argued at the time, Sadiq’s support for gay marriage was a principled position in favour of equality and against discrimination and it was the right and progressive thing to do.

Nevertheless, that stand cost him the support of the many Muslims, not least his own local Imam Suliman Gani. When it comes to supporting bigotry and making excuses for unfair discrimination, it is regrettable that the most overtly religious amongst Muslims often tend to be at the front of the queue.

I remember Sadiq as a new Labour MP who withstood immense internal Labour Party pressure back in November 2005 when he opposed Tony Blair’s plan to detain terror suspects for up to 90 days without trial. It was a very courageous stand and at the time he was told by a number of senior Labour figures that his career was effectively over for having had the audacity to defy the Labour Prime Minister at the time.

So, congratulations Sadiq! Hope you do us all proud, insha’ Allah.


Posted in Government, Islam | Tagged , | 26 Comments

Bradford Man Admits Killing Ahmadi Shopkeeper

Police on Minard Road, Shawlands, Glasgow, investigating the death of popular shop keeper Asad Shah following an incident at his shop. March 25, 2016. See SWNS story SWMUSLIM; A popular Muslim shopkeeper has been stabbed to death in the street - just four hours after wishing "a very happy Easter to my beloved Christian nation". Peace-loving Asad Shah, 40, was set upon with a knife and had his head stamped on in a shocking attack outside his Glasgow newsagents shop just after 9pm last night (Thurs). The appalling attack came just hours after deeply religious Mr Shah, who was keen to reach out from the Muslim community to Christian neighbours, posted heartfelt Easter messages on social media. And the messages revealed that he was today (Friday) due to be hosting a Google hangout with Christian friends about the importance of Easter.

Various news outlets including the BBC are reporting that Tanveer Ahmed, 32 – the Bradford man arrested and charged with murdering the Glasgow shopkeeper Asad Shah – has admitted killing him for allegedly “disrespecting” Islam.

Ahmed’s lawyer, John Rafferty, said that his client had instructed him to release the following statement:

My client Mr Tanveer Ahmed has specifically instructed me that today, 6 April 2016, to issue this statement to the press, the statement is in the words of my client.

“This all happened for one reason and no other issues and no other intentions.

“Asad Shah disrespected the messenger of Islam the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him. Mr Shah claimed to be a Prophet.

“When 1400 years ago the Prophet of Islam Muhammad peace be upon him has clearly said that ‘I am the final messenger of Allah there is no more prophets or messengers from God Allah after me.

“‘I am leaving you the final Quran. There is no changes. It is the final book of Allah and this is the final completion of Islam. There is no more changes to it and no one has the right to claim to be a Prophet or to change the Quran or change Islam.’

“It is mentioned in the Quran that there is no doubt in this book no one has the right to disrespect the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him and no one has the right to disrespect the Prophet of Islam Muhammad Peace be upon him.

“If I had not done this others would and there would have been more killing and violence in the world.

“I wish to make it clear that the incident was nothing at all to do with Christianity or any other religious beliefs even although I am a follower of the Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him I also love and respect Jesus Christ.”

It is a truly horrifying statement.

The murdered man, Asad Shah, was an Ahmadi – a sect which believes that a 19th century Indian religious teacher called Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, was a prophet. Ahmadis are routinely persecuted in Pakistan. To find evidence that the scourge of that same vile sectarianism that has so riven Pakistan now arising in the UK, is frightening.

There has long been a problem with almost all modern interpretations of Islam and the concept of freedom of speech. The Salman Rushdie Affair demonstrated just how much of a problem many Muslims still have with freedom. Often it is argued away by saying “We believe in freedom but not the freedom to insult religion.” But that is a nonsense – freedom of expression has to include the right to say things which others might find very distasteful about religion, otherwise it is hardly freedom. That is the only way a world which contains followers of so many different religions can function. That is a key lesson of the Enlightenment – which sadly has yet to cast its light on much of the Muslim world.

People are free to regard Ahmadis as being non-Muslims – that is their right. To persecute them on that account, however, is just revolting.

One can only hope that those who are prepared to use this kind of violence to try and intimidate others who disagree with their beliefs are brought to justice before they can commit their awful crimes and that they are given a very long prison sentence indeed where they can coolly reflect on their interpretation of religion and the harm it can cause others.

Posted in Extremism, Islam | Tagged , | 10 Comments

The Sun Forced To Apologise Over “1 in 5 British Muslims Support ISIS” Claim


Congratulations to the Muslim advocacy group MEND for complaining to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) about last year’s appalling headline in The Sun and getting their complaint upheld today.  The official IPSO ruling about the MEND complaint can be read here.

On 23 Nov 2015, The Sun printed a front page story in which they claimed that a poll they had commissioned found that:

“…nearly one in five British Muslims has some sympathy with those who had fled the UK to fight for IS [so-called Islamic State] in Syria.”

The Sun’s story was clearly bogus and designed to stir up incitement against British Muslims.

The Sun has been forced to print IPSO’s ruling today – it appears on page 2 and can be read in full here.

IPSO is still not a press regulator with teeth though.  The original Sun headline appeared on the front page. IPSO should have insisted that The Sun’s apology was printed on the front page too.

[Btw, you were all looking at The Sun headline in the above pic, and not the top right hand corner, right?]

Posted in islamophobia | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

BBC R4’s Moral Maze – The ISIS Problem

Moral Maze

Yesterday evening, I took part in a discussion about the terrorist attacks in Brussels on Radio 4’s Moral Maze programme. The episode can be heard in full here.

I mentioned that in light of the pledge by the so-called Islamic State to continue to carry out more atrocities in European countries that European Muslims had a special responsibility to be extra vigilant and assist the authorities wherever possible to prevent those attacks. This might seem unfair – after all, why should European Muslims have a special responsibility to prevent the attacks when the overwhelming majority of them are appalled by the actions of the terrorists? Even so, it is quite likely that the closest associates, friends and family members of the ISIS terrorists are Muslims. They may well be better placed than most of the rest of the population in identifying worrying changes in attitudes and motivations on the part of those who have been seduced by the message of the extremists.

During the discussion, Claire Fox insisted that Islam should not be above criticism and critics should not be labelled Islamophobes for doing so. I wonder if most Muslims would agree with her. I responded by saying that no idea, including Islam, should be above criticism. The point, I think, is worth underlining. The scientific revolution in Europe and the Enlightenment have led to spectacular progress in recent centuries and this has been in very large part because no idea was held to be above criticism. It is only by allowing all ideas to be continually exposed to criticism that we can hope to improve our ideas about the world and identify misconceptions. Regrettably, this is not the case in most Muslim societies across the world, where many ideas, particularly those involving the place of religion and religious beliefs are held to be above criticism, and those who dare to question them are all too quickly branded as deviants or heretics.

Anyway, it was an enjoyable experience taking part in the show and I particularly enjoyed annoying Melanie Phillips once again.

Posted in Extremism, Islam, islamophobia | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Responding To The ISIS Threat


In the wake of today’s terror attacks in Brussels, ISIS have issued a statement saying:

“We promise to the states that are allied against the Islamic State that they will face dark days in return for their aggression against our state. And what will await you will become harder and more bitter through the grace of Allah.”

So, just as a number of nations, including European ones, are engaged in bombing ISIS positions in Syria and Iraq, ISIS make clear that they intend to bomb them in return. Just a few days ago it was Istanbul that was the target of ISIS bombs. More bombs. More terrifying screams. More children left orphaned.

There must be a way out of this. “All problems are soluble,” claims the physicist and philosopher David Deutsch, in his book The Beginning of Infinity.

Why would young men want to join ISIS in the first place? And what would convince presumably sane individuals that killing civilians indiscriminately is somehow a laudable act? Has the bombing campaign against ISIS positions brought peace closer or made us even more vulnerable to terrorism?

It seems clear that ISIS bombers genuinely believe that their terrorist attacks constitute part of a just struggle against their enemies. How that can be so is incredible to most of us living in the West.

Sadly, the legacy of the misbegotten Iraq war has left us with more chaos than ever in the region and a terrible threat that may take us decades to fully deal with.

I wrote a few months back that I was not at all convinced by David Cameron’s argument that bombing ISIS positions would make us safer.

To really pull the rug out from under the feet of ISIS and other terrorist groups, we could do worse than totally disengage militarily from all parts of the Middle East and restrict ourselves to responding economically to problems in the region.

In addition, imposing an economic blockade on Israel until it withdraws from the occupied Palestinian territories and dismantles its illegal Jewish settlements, would not only be the morally right thing to do but also a hugely popular one worldwide and would surely help undermine the noxious narrative of terrorist groups in the region.

ISIS and their ilk can offer no real future to Muslims in the region. Their blinkered and fanatical outlook can only prolong the misery of Muslims. They offer the polar opposite to what most Muslims desire: a stable, tolerant and non-interfering state, educational opportunities for their children (including girls), and rewarding jobs to look forward to.

In short, less war and more of a focus on helping people in the region economically and through better education, has to be a more promising way forward.

Posted in Extremism, Government | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Shameful Smearing of Sadiq Khan MP


We are less than three months away from London’s Mayoral election to be held on 5th May 2016 and it should come as no surprise that the front runner, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, is being targeted by the right-wing press.

Earlier today, the London Evening Standard, published an article ostensibly about Sadiq Khan headlined “Exposed: Sadiq Khan’s family links to extremist organisation”. What it actually exposed was the Evening Standard’s determination to smear Sadiq in much the same way it systematically campaigned a few years back against Ken Livingstone to make way for the right-leaning Boris Johnson.

Today’s story focuses on Sadiq’s former brother-in-law, Makbool Javaid (he was previously married to Sadiq’s sister, Farhat), who like Sadiq is also a lawyer by training. The Evening Standard tries to highlight Makbool Javaid as a hate-spewing extremist and hopes that at least some of the dirt that it throws will conveniently land on Sadiq Khan.

As it happens I have met Makbool on several occasions and there is no question that back in the 1990’s he was known to be sympathetic to the views of al-Muhajiroun (Omar Bakri’s band of loony Khilafah-seeking activists). It is also true that by the time I met him again a decade later he had already very clearly begun to moderate his views.

It is only much lower down the Evening Standard article that they actually get round to quoting Makbool Javaid’s current and far more sensible views where he says:

“Of course I regret the speech I gave and some of the things I said and did in my younger years.

“Twenty years ago I was naive. I certainly didn’t realise how easily some of my actions could be interpreted as being critical of Britain — the best country in the world.

“This was nearly two decades ago now and I have grown and changed. I love Britain, I love the rich diversity of London and I love our culture.”

That sounds very much like the Makbool Javaid that I last met a few years ago.

The story of Sadiq Khan should be an immensely inspirational one. The son of a London bus driver, he lived in a council flat in South London and indeed was sleeping in a bunk bed until he was 24. He went to university and trained as a lawyer and became a human rights campaigner. And then in 2005 he was elected as the MP for Tooting, his hometown. Now, just over ten years later, he has a very good chance of becoming Mayor of the UK’s most influential city. It is a fabulous story that serves to highlight the very best of Britain. The opportunity, the hard work, the anti-discrimination and the ever reducing number of glass ceilings. It is a narrative that deserves to be trumpeted loudly, especially to younger Muslims, to help encourage them and to counter the skewed negative propaganda of nihilist outfits like ISIS.

The London Evening Standard did all Londoners a massive disservice today.


Posted in Extremism, islamophobia | Tagged , , | 7 Comments