Derek Sivers

The Beginning of Infinity - by David Deutsch

The Beginning of Infinity - by David Deutsch

ISBN: 0670022756
Date read: 2021-06-10
How strongly I recommend it: 6/10
(See my list of 200+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

For the first three chapters, I thought it might be the best book I've ever read. But then chapter four and onwards lost my interest. Still, its core idea is brilliant and wonderful — that if something is permitted by the laws of physics, then the only thing that can prevent it from being technologically possible is not knowing how. Progress is unbounded. We are at the very beginning of an infinitely long Enlightenment, and will eventually figure out everything.

my notes

The beginning of infinity = the possibility of the unlimited growth of knowledge in the future.

If something is permitted by the laws of physics, then the only thing that can prevent it from being technologically possible is not knowing how.

All progress is the quest for good explanations.

Progress is unbounded.

One of the most remarkable things about science is the contrast between the enormous reach and power of our best theories and the precarious, local means by which we create them.
The fact that the light was emitted very far away and long ago, and that much more was happening there than just the emission of light – those are not things that we see. We know them only from theory. Scientific theories are explanations: assertions about what is out there and how it behaves.

Scientific theories are not ‘derived’ from anything. Human minds create them by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas. We guess.

Experience's main use is to choose between theories that have already been guessed.
That’s what ‘learning from experience’ is.
If one repeatedly has similar experiences under similar circumstances, then one is supposed to ‘extrapolate’ or ‘generalize’ that pattern and predict that it will continue.
Thus one supposedly obtains ever more reliable knowledge of the future from the past, and of the general from the particular. That alleged process was called ‘inductive inference’ or ‘induction’, and the doctrine that scientific theories are obtained in that way is called inductivism.

Since inductivism is false, empiricism must be as well.

Knowledge doesn't need authority to be genuine or reliable.
‘How do we know…?’ is transformed into ‘By what authority do we claim…?’
It converts the quest for truth into a quest for certainty (a feeling) or for endorsement (a social status).
This misconception is called justificationism.
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.

Rejecting authority was a necessary condition for progress, because, before the Enlightenment, it was generally believed that everything important that was knowable had already been discovered, and was enshrined in authoritative sources such as ancient writings and traditional assumptions.

A sustained, rapid growth of knowledge needs a tradition of criticism.

The Enlightenment was a revolution in how people sought knowledge: by trying not to rely on authority.

Conflicting ideas are the occasion for all rational thought and inquiry. For example, if we are simply curious about something, it means that we believe that our existing ideas do not adequately capture or explain it.

Meet a problem. See its beauty and fall in love with it.

If you do obtain a solution, you may then discover, to your delight, the existence of a whole family of enchanting, though perhaps difficult, problem children.

No amount of observing will correct the misconception until after one has thought of a better idea.

The universe is not there to overwhelm us; it is our home, and our resource. The bigger the better.

The computers that nowadays catalogue galaxies may or may not do it better than the graduate students used to. But they certainly do not experience such reflections as a result.
The fact that a computer or a robot can perform a task mindlessly does not imply that it is mindless when scientists do it.

Observing a galaxy via specks of silver is no different in that regard from observing a garden via images on a retina.
Instead of looking at the sky, they look at those objects.
They are focusing their eyes on human artefacts that are close enough to touch.
But their minds are focused on alien entities and processes, light years away.

All observation is theory-laden.

People are significant in the cosmic scheme of things.

The Earth’s biosphere is incapable of supporting human life.

There is a life-support system in Oxfordshire today, but it was not provided by the biosphere. It has been built by humans. It consists of clothes, houses, farms, hospitals, an electrical grid, a sewage system and so on. Nearly the whole of the Earth’s biosphere in its primeval state was likewise incapable of keeping an unprotected human alive for long.

Most populations, of most species, are living close to the edge of disaster and death. It has to be that way, because as soon as some small group, somewhere, begins to have a slightly easier life than that, for any reason – for instance, an increased food supply, or the extinction of a competitor or predator – then its numbers increase. As a result, its other resources are depleted by the increased usage.

The overwhelming majority of species that have ever existed on Earth (perhaps 99.9% of them) are now extinct.

Only human knowledge made our planet even marginally habitable by humans.
Before the designs created by humans, it was not a vehicle, but only a heap of dangerous raw materials.

Don't cast humans as ungrateful for gifts which, in reality, they never received. It casts all other species in morally positive roles in the spaceship’s life-support system, with humans as the only negative actors. But humans are part of the biosphere, and the supposedly immoral behaviour is identical to what all other species do when times are good – except that humans alone try to mitigate the effect of that response on their descendants and on other species.

Our night vision is poor and monochromatic because not enough of our ancestors died of that limitation to create evolutionary pressure for anything better.

Any assumption that the world is inexplicable can lead only to extremely bad explanations.

All technological knowledge can eventually be implemented in automated devices.
‘1% inspiration and 99% perspiration’ is a misleading description of how progress happens: the ‘perspiration’ phase can be automated.

We are accustomed to thinking of the Earth as hospitable and the moon as a bleak, faraway deathtrap.
But that is how our ancestors would have regarded Oxfordshire.
The difference between a hospitable environment and a deathtrap depends on what knowledge they have created.

Every cell is a chemical factory.

Humans are factories for transforming anything into anything that the laws of nature allow.

An unproblematic state is a state without creative thought. Its other name is death.

No utopia is possible, but only because our values and our objectives can continue to improve indefinitely.

Problems are inevitable, but no particular problem is inevitable.

Since the human ability to transform nature is limited only by the laws of physics, none of the endless stream of problems will ever constitute an impassable barrier.

Neither the human condition nor our explanatory knowledge will ever be perfect. We shall always be at the beginning of infinity.

A simple nuclear-fusion reactor is currently beyond our technology. But physicists are confident that it is not forbidden by any laws of physics, in which case, as always, it can only be a matter of knowing how.

The rule is person-friendliness to people who have the relevant knowledge. Death is the rule for those who do not.

If such-and-such a load were put on the proposed bridge it would collapse, says the engineer. Such statements can be true and immensely valuable even if the bridge is never even built, let alone subjected to such a load.

Champagne bottles are stored in other laboratories. The popping of each such cork signals a discovery about something significant in the cosmic scheme of things. Thus the study of the behaviour of champagne corks and other proxies for what people do is logically equivalent to the study of everything significant.

Humans, people and knowledge are not only objectively significant: they are by far the most significant phenomena in nature – the only ones whose behaviour cannot be understood without understanding everything of fundamental importance.

Utilitarianism acted as a liberating focus for the rebellion against traditional dogmas, while its own positive content contained little truth.

Progress depends on explanation, so trying to conceive of the world as merely a sequence of events with unexplained regularities would entail giving up on progress.

Without error-correction all information processing, and hence all knowledge-creation, is necessarily bounded.

A system should take for granted that errors will occur, but correct them once they do.
‘Problems are inevitable, but they are soluble’ at the lowest level of information-processing.

A catalyst is a kind of constructor – it promotes a change among other chemicals while remaining unchanged itself.
As a language for specifying organisms, the genetic code has displayed phenomenal reach.

If you can’t program it, you haven’t understood it.

Ultimately a non-AI program cannot fake AI. The path to AI cannot be through ever better tricks.

I doubt that any ‘artificial evolution’ has ever created knowledge.
Instead of using a robot designed to evolve better ways of walking, use a robot that is already in use in some real-life application and happens to be capable of walking. And then, instead of creating a special language of subroutines in which to express conjectures about how to walk, just replace its existing program, in its existing microprocessor, by random numbers. For mutations, use errors of the type that happen anyway in such processors (though in the simulation you are allowed to make them happen as often as you like). The purpose of all that is to eliminate the possibility that human knowledge is being fed into the design of the system, and that its reach is being mistaken for the product of evolution. Then, run simulations of that mutating system in the usual way. As many as you like. If the robot ever walks better than it did originally, then I am mistaken. If it continues to improve after that, then I am very much mistaken.

The field of artificial (general) intelligence has made no progress because there is an unsolved philosophical problem at its heart: we do not understand how creativity works. Once that has been solved, programming it will not be difficult.

The best explanation of anything eventually involves universality, and therefore infinity.

The unbounded growth of knowledge:
We are only just scratching the surface, and shall never be doing anything else.

We do not know why the world is explicable. But eventually we shall. And when we do, there will be infinitely more left to explain.

Many civilizations in history were destroyed by the simple technologies of fire and the sword. Indeed, of all civilizations in history, the overwhelming majority have been destroyed, some intentionally, some as a result of plague or natural disaster.
Virtually all of them could have avoided the catastrophes that destroyed them if only they had possessed a little additional knowledge, such as improved agricultural or military technology, better hygiene, or better political or economic institutions.
Very few, if any, could have been saved by greater caution about innovation.

Blind optimism and blind pessimism both purport to know unknowable things about the future of knowledge.

They all thought they were making sober predictions based on the best knowledge available to them. In reality they were all allowing themselves to be misled by the ineluctable fact of the human condition that we do not yet know what we have not yet discovered.

How can we detect and eliminate errors in politics? = How can we rid ourselves of bad governments without violence?
A rational political system makes it as easy as possible to detect, and persuade others, that a leader or policy is bad, and to remove them without violence if they are.
Systems of government are to be judged not for their prophetic ability to choose and install good leaders and policies, but for their ability to remove bad ones that are already there.
That entire stance is fallibilism in action.
It assumes that rulers and policies are always going to be flawed – that problems are inevitable.
But it also assumes that improving upon them is possible: problems are soluble.
The ideal towards which this is working is not that nothing unexpected will go wrong, but that when it does it will be an opportunity for further progress.

The Principle of Optimism:
All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.
Nearly all failures, and nearly all successes, are yet to come.

Engage with projects that will involve creating new knowledge.

A pessimistic civilization considers it immoral to behave in ways that have not been tried many times before, because it is blind to the possibility that the benefits of doing so might offset the risks. So it is intolerant and conformist.
Athens benefitted from contact with new, unforeseeable ideas.
An optimistic civilization is open and not afraid to innovate, and is based on traditions of criticism. Its institutions keep improving, and the most important knowledge that they embody is knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors.

Obviously I can’t be sure of anything. But I don’t want to be. I can think of nothing more boring than to attain the state of being perfectly secure in one’s beliefs.

By refusing to hold any of our ideas immune from criticism – we may learn.

You doubted and criticized fallibilism itself, as a true fallibilist should.

Knowledge held immune from criticism never can be improved.

All knowledge comes from persuasion.

You have to guess to acquire knowledge.
When we hear something being said, we guess what it means, without realizing what we are doing.
Although guesswork is the origin of all knowledge, it is also a source of error, and therefore what happens to an idea after it has been guessed is crucial.
A guess might come from a wild speculation or random combination of ideas, or anything.
But we do not just accept it blindly or because we imagine it is ‘authorized’, or because we want it to be true.
Instead we criticize it and try to discover its flaws.
Then we try to remedy those flaws by altering the idea, or dropping it in favour of others.
The alterations and other ideas are themselves guesses. And are themselves criticized.
Only when we fail in these attempts either to reject or to improve an idea do we provisionally accept it.

I have no direct knowledge of the physical world at all, but can only receive arcane hints of it through flickers and shadows that happen to impinge on my eyes and other senses.
What I experience as reality is never more than a waking dream, composed of conjectures originating from within myself.

The original sources of scientific theories are almost never good sources.
How could they be?
All subsequent expositions are intended to be improvements on them, and some succeed, and improvements are cumulative.

When physicists read a textbook on the theory of relativity, their immediate objective is to learn the theory, and not the opinions of Einstein or of the textbook’s author.
If that seems strange, imagine, for the sake of argument, that a historian were to discover that Einstein wrote his papers only as a joke, or at gunpoint, and was actually a lifelong believer in Kepler’s laws. This would be a bizarre and important discovery about the history of physics, and all the textbooks about that would have to be rewritten. But our knowledge of physics itself would be unaffected.
If it is a superb theory, then it is exceedingly hard to vary while still remaining a viable explanation.
That is how the theory manages to be passed faithfully from generation to generation, despite no one caring about its faithfulness.

Fungible refers to the legal fiction that deems certain entities to be identical for purposes such as paying debts.
For example, dollar bills are fungible in law, which means that, unless otherwise agreed, borrowing a dollar does not require one to return the specific banknote that one borrowed.
Barrels of oil (of a given grade) are fungible too.
Horses are not: borrowing someone’s horse means that one has to return that specific horse.
Many applications of quantum theory require us to wonder what it would be like to be fungible, and then to become differentiated.

For a typical physical quantity, there is a smallest possible change that it can undergo in a given situation.
For instance, there is a smallest possible amount of energy that can be transferred from radiation to any particular atom.
The atom cannot absorb any less than that amount, which is called a ‘quantum’ of energy.
Since this was the first distinctive feature of quantum physics to be discovered, it gave its name to the field.

Define ‘bad philosophy’ as philosophy that is not merely false, but actively prevents the growth of other knowledge.

If it would be wrong for science to adopt that ‘democratic’ principle, why is it right for politics?

Art is self-expression?
Expression is conveying something that is already there, while art is about creating something new.

It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.

What replicates human memes is creativity; and creativity was used, while it was evolving, to replicate memes.
In other words, it was used to acquire existing knowledge, not to create new knowledge.
But the mechanism to do both things is identical, and so in acquiring the ability to do the former, we automatically became able to do the latter.