15 August 2012

The Beginning of Infinity: A review

On my recent travels, I read The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. His sections on physics (Deutsch's area of expertise) were obscure and shocking--to say the least--and his comments in the area of philosophy of science (based on Popper's notions about the need for critiques and falsifiable theories) were useful (although Deutsch has a tendency to chase after a few straw men here and there). I even enjoyed reading the parts where the author was playing armchair philosopher and talking about the U.S. political system. (Deutsch is a harsh critic of parliamentary systems and praises the U.S. system).

Deutsch's general message is unbounded optimism (hence the title). He makes the argument that the pace and unpredictable nature of technological development makes long-term predictions little more than prophecies. This seems to be right. That said, I think he overstates his argument in some places. For example, he sharply criticizes Jared Diamond's work on the collapse of civilizations, implying that the only factor we should consider is the openness of a civilization and the inspiration of great men. However, human creativity and cultural efflorescence don't happen in a vacuum. With the appropriate academic caviats, there's no reasons why Diamond's conclusions should be discarded.

One of Deutsch's more interesting (and controversial) ideas is that humans, having achieved a civilization capable of self-criticism and endless progress, are now cognitively equipped to understand (perhaps through much ardor and effort) any advanced extra-terrestrial civilization. I'd recommend the book. It's enlightening to read somebody with enough intellectual reach to bring together so many major strands of the scientific outlook. 

2 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Sounds interesting. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Karlo said...

You'd probably enjoy the book, although some of the chapters might seem superfluous--Deutsch does love to go into armchair philosopher mode.