The Beginning of Infinity

The Beginning of Infinity contains an inspiring message for humanity. Author David Deutsch describes the processes through which our species has emerged from a dirt-scratching purgatory to today's towering technological heights. And how, in the future, we have the potential to achieve our wildest possible dreams.

Deutsch shows that, if we choose, no problem is beyond us. With the right Knowledge humanity can have a cosmically-sized impact upon our universe. We can solve all of our problems from hunger, to global-warming, to disease, to interstellar travel. We are limited solely by the laws of nature. Our progress is but at the start of a road to infinity.

These are some notes on the book, but we encourage you to read the real thing.

We have made virtually no Progress over the vast majority of human history. Only recently (mostly since the European Enlightenment) has progress been discernible inside a human lifetime.

The Enlightenment showed us progress is both achievable and desirable. It instituted a culture of Conjecture and Criticism, the two key components for any kind of rapid progress across any discipline from Science to Morality.

Science is the practice of finding Good Explanations, statements about what is there, what it does, and how and why. Morality is about the problem of what to do next and, more generally, what sort of life to lead, and what sort of world to want. Both disciplines are explanatory, rational, and objective.

There are many misconceptions about where scientific theories are derived from. A popular one is Empiricism, that we derive theories from our senses. Another is Inductivism, that the future will resemble the past. Testability is also generally accepted as a defining characteristic of the scientific method. All of these are wrong - there are many examples of valid theories that violate them. In reality, theories are a form of knowledge and thus born from Conjecture and honed through Criticism. Not all theories can be tested. Instead, they can only be evaluated by whether or not they're Good Explanations.

Good Explanations objectively differ from Bad Explanations because they are Hard to vary. Explanations are inherently error prone (see Fallibilism) which is why we need Criticism and Error Correction. Explanations can have unbounded Reach (i.e. apply to solve unforeseen problems).

All Problems can be solved with the right explanations limited only by the laws of nature. However the search for Explanations will create new problems. Hence problems are inevitable.

Once those explanations are recorded somewhere they become Knowledge. For billions of years Knowledge Creation was limited to our biological Evolution, slow and random changes over time inscribed in our DNA. Then 7,000 years ago we invented language, 5,000 years ago writing, 582 years ago printing-presses, and very recently computers and hard-drives. Each stage has been a step change in the rate of knowledge creation, especially the jump from biological evolution to the thoughts of People.

Explanations are a form of information, and information can only be processed in basically one way, with Universal Computation of the kind invented by Babbage and Turing.

A Universal System is one capable of representing all states. Our DNA was the first known universal system. With a combination of ATG and C you can encode a chicken or a T-Rex. Jumps from non-universal to universal systems are the milestones on the road of human progress. For example moving from hieroglyphics to the alphabet, or from tally systems to the Indian numeral system. In each case we upgraded from an inefficient and unscalable system, where each step was customized, to an efficient scalable universal system, leapfrogging human progress.

Universal Systems have Reach, unintended potential. For example the computer in your washing machine could, given enough memory and time, do astrophysics calculations. Oddly most jumps to Universality have been accidents. Only since the Enlightenment has their significance been understood and sought after.

Both the Principle of Mediocrity (we are nothing special in this universe) and Spaceship Earth (Earth provides the ideal environment for us) are mistaken. Earth no more provides us with a life-support system than it supplies us with radio telescopes. And People, as Universal Explainers, can have a cosmically sized impact upon the universe.

Knowledge creating entities (aka People) can exist almost anywhere in the universe. With the right knowledge People could feasibly create an ideally suited environment in an empty area of space by hoovering up and transmuting hydrogen atoms into a space-station.

Technology, once created, is automatic. We will not have to think about vacuums or the complexities around surviving in space (the same way you don't think about your house's insulation).

Biological Evolution was a precursor to the main story of evolution, the unbounded evolution of Memes: ideas that cause themselves to replicate (aka Replicators). In many ways memes are analogous to genes, but there are also profound differences in the way they evolve.

Think of Memes as any ideas that are passed between lots of people. For example, a language, scientific theory, or religious belief are all memes. Memes have to be actively replicated to survive (i.e. spoken or written and distributed). A Rational Meme is a Good Explanation that relies on the recipient's critical faculties to cause itself to be replicated. An Anti-rational Meme is a Bad Explanation and invariably relies on hijacking base emotions for replication (tapping into fear or anger). A collection of Memes forms a Culture.

Deustsch defines Optimism as the theory that all failures are due to lack of Knowledge. That doesn't mean proceeding as if there won't be bad outcomes (since problems are inevitable) - he calls that Blind Optimism. In contrast Blind Pessimism is avoiding everything not known to be safe.

Dynamic Societies tend towards Optimism and Rational Memes. Because they embody the principles of the Enlightenment they make rapid progress. Static Societies fear change, are dominated by Anti-rational Memes, and stifle Conjecture and Criticism.

There are no mathematically provably fair forms of Governing and therefore the most important aspect to get right is to be able to remove leaders (see Criticism and Error Correction) when necessary.

Humanity was never sustainable. It is a myth that there ever was a time of tranquility where we lived peacefully at one with nature and each other. Existence was absolutely brutal until very recently. And eventually, unless we choose otherwise, we will be wiped out by an extinction event. Only by creating the right Knowledge can we be saved.

We should not use (the semblance of) Sustainability as an aspiration or a constraint on planning. For example, we shouldn't just try and solve the 'human' part of global warming. If the earth goes into a new ice-age, or warms dangerously, we should solve that regardless of how much of the problem is man-made or not.

Since all problems can be solved with the right Knowledge and we humans, as Universal Explainers, have the potential to obtain any knowledge, we can have a cosmically sized impact upon the universe. Not only can we survive, but we can explore, learn, and thrive throughout our galaxy and more. If we so choose.

Knowledge is information which when physically embodied in an environment tends to cause itself to remain so.

Examples of Knowledge:

  • Payprus scrolls
  • Wikipedia stored on a hard disk

See also:

The growth of Knowledge consists of correcting misconceptions in our theories. Ever since the Enlightenment this had happened through a tradition of criticism. New explanations are proposed, criticized, and then refined. Since the tradition of Conjecture and criticism has created all Knowledge and Progress it's absolutely imperative that we keep it. Free speech is critical. No idea should be beyond criticism.

The theory that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience (i.e. from experimentation). When empiricism was first introduced it played a positive role for Progress by providing a defence against traditional authorities and dogma. All claims of the supernatural now had to be backed up by hard evidence, which meant that 'provable' science superseded religious mysticism and superstition.

Moral philosophy is basically about the problem of what to do next–and, more generally, what sort of life to lead, and what sort of world to want. Morality is a type of Knowledge. This means that moral 'truths' can be discovered by the usual methods of reason, which are essentially the same as those of science (although there are important differences).

The misconception that there is nothing significant about humans (cosmically speaking) and anything claiming the opposite (e.g. sun revolves around the earth) is wrong. While this philosophy has been a useful rule of thumb to refute Anthropocentric explanations of the universe it is ultimately wrong because humans are Knowledge creating People (thus have infinite potential).

The misconception that the earth is a unique biosphere that humans are limited to, and that nature readily presents us with all our needs (food, shelter, water, etc). In reality earth never had our priorities in mind. Since the earliest times we had to create technology to survive. Even today, without such technology, we would only survive a few hours in say Oxford's winter.

The term has two almost opposite, but often confused, meanings: to provide someone with what they need, and to prevent things from changing. Homo-sapiens was never sustainable. No species is - 99% of them have gone extinct. Eventually the human-race will be, unless we choose otherwise, wiped out by some ice age, a meteor, a supernova, etc.

A practice or lifestyle that cannot able to be maintained at the current rate or level. Often used in an environmental context: e.g. human population growth is not sustainable. In practice, nothing is sustainable. Problems are inevitable and eventually one big enough will come along to prevent you from sustaining an existing course of action.

Almost all environments, suitably primed, could play host to knowledge creation. Even in the vacuum of space you could feasibly hoover up hydrogen atoms and transmute them into a space station. This space-station could then start receiving evidence about the universe by the light of the stars around it, while also performing physics experiments, generating new streams of knowledge.

We would normally regard a lunar colony, even after it has become self-sufficient, as having originated on Earth. But what, exactly, will have originated on Earth? In the long run, all its atoms have originated on the moon (or the asteroids). All the energy that it uses has originated in the sun. Only some proportion of its knowledge came from Earth, and, in the hypothetical case of a perfectly isolated colony, that would be a rapidly dwindling proportion.