Review of The Beginning of Infinity
The Beginning of Infinity is a masterpiece.
It takes disparate topics and unites them in one powerful worldview. Topics range from physics and philosophy to voting systems and alphabets to optimism and objective aesthetics to evolution and creationism, and even morality. Each topic has enlightening individual analysis, but even better than that is the worldview behind the analysis, which comes out as one reads the entire book. The Beginning of Infinity is about a way of thinking. It is the most rational way of thinking ever to be explained.
You might think that David Deutsch is a genius (and he is) and that therefore his way of thinking won't work for you. That is not the case. His worldview can help anyone with any topic. It's not equally useful for all fields — it fares better with important topics — but it always has a surprisingly large amount of relevance and use. And unlike many philosophers who want to sound impressive, Deutsch has made a concerted effort to write clearly and accessibly. This isn't a book written only for the initiated.
I've identified three main themes which I think best describe the most important message of the book.
The first theme is the titular one. Like Deutsch's previous book, chapters conclude with short summaries and terminology sections. But he's got a new section too: the meanings of the beginning of infinity encountered in the previous chapter. So what kind of infinity is Deutsch concerned with? Primarily progress. Humans are capable of an infinite amount of progress. We can improve things without limit, and learn without limit. This covers not just material improvement but also moral improvement. Some impressive types of potential progress discussed in the book include building space stations in deep space, immortality and creating a more open, tolerant and free society.
The second theme, which is the most fundamental, is epistemological. Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Deutsch discusses issues like how we learn, and the correct and effective ways of thinking. Insights from this field, such as how to be rational, the inevitability of mistakes and the need to be able to correct mistakes (rather than rely on avoiding them all in the first place) underlie everything else. For example, Deutsch proposes an epistemological principle as the most important moral idea. I won't keep you in suspense: it is the moral imperative not to destroy the means of correcting mistakes. But if you want to fully understand what this means you'll have to read the book!
The third theme, which is prevalent without usually being stated explicitly, is liberalism in its original, not left-wing, meaning. Liberalism draws on the other two themes. It is about organizing society to allow for human progress, rational lifestyles, knowledge creation, and the correcting of mistakes. To do this its biggest principle is not to approach conflicts and disagreements with the use of force because force does not discover the truth of the matter and everyone should seek to figure out the truth and do that rather than taking a might makes right approach. Liberalism is the philosophy of open societies and the only one capable of supporting unlimited progress. In contrast to open societies, Deutsch also discusses static societies which do not make progress. He explains how they will eventually fail and cease to exist because there are always new and unforeseeable problems which they cannot adapt to. Only a liberal society which moves forward has the means of dealing with the unknown problems the future holds.
There is a lot to love about The Beginning of Infinity. If you are narrowly interested in physics you should read it for the chapter explaining what the multiverse is like — and when you do you may also be challenged by the chapter on bad philosophies of science and intrigued by the chapter on the reality of abstractions. If you are only interested in math and computation, you'll want to read the chapter on AI, but you'll also enjoy the chapter about the concept of infinity. If you're an artist you'll appreciate the discussion of the beauty of flowers, and the wit of the Socratic dialog. Whatever the case may be, the philosophy running throughout has universal interest.