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69 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars oh yeah this is it
It has been 14 years since the publication of *The Fabric of Reality* and here at last is the sequel!

Within a few hours reading I'm confronted by explanations of how Occam's Razor is a misconception and how the biosphere cannot sustain human life. So, wow, I'm hooked!

Chapter 6: "The Jump to Universality" alone is worth the price of the book. It...
Published on 29 Mar 2011 by Popinjay

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34 of 42 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Frustrating and Dissatisfying!
450 pages is a very long read when a book is not bad enough to discard but not good enough to be a comfortable read. I have read David Deutsch on his own speciality subject and enjoyed that, but this book seems something of an overlong personal indulgence on his part, at my considerable expense.

Admittedly some interesting ideas are put forward, but he seems...
Published on 8 Aug 2011 by David E. Perkins


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69 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars oh yeah this is it, 29 Mar 2011
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It has been 14 years since the publication of *The Fabric of Reality* and here at last is the sequel!

Within a few hours reading I'm confronted by explanations of how Occam's Razor is a misconception and how the biosphere cannot sustain human life. So, wow, I'm hooked!

Chapter 6: "The Jump to Universality" alone is worth the price of the book. It explains how many systems of symbolic representation, such as written characters, numerals and the genetic code evolve slowly and steadily before wandering into universal domains with corresponding huge leaps of expressive power.

The theme of *The Beginning of Infinity* is how the search for hard-to-vary explanations is the source of all progress in science and in the rest of human affairs, and that this progress may continue indefinitely, since all problems are soluble. But it can only do so if we choose to make it happen, in part by acknowledging that problems are inevitable and that 'all evils are caused by insufficient knowledge' (Deutsch's 'Principle of Optimism'). This makes human beings precious and of central importance in the scheme of the things, including cosmological physics.

There is a lot of material here, in 18 Chapters, because Deutsch is most concerned with ideas which have 'reach', including reach into diverse disciplines such as aesthetics, morality and political theory.

My guess is that some if not many readers will be put off by this breadth, considering it arrogant for an academic to write authoritatively outside his home fields of physics and the philosophy of science. However, uniquely, this very book explains both why fundamental explanations do this and why such a response might occur (namely, through the operation of *anti-rational memes*)

Deutsch's development (in Chapters 15,16) of Dawkins and Blackmores' theory of memes is seminal stuff, and takes us into politics and sociology. The classification of memes into rational/anti-rational is novel and fascinating. Together with a careful investigation into the logic of the transition from pre-humans to humans, it leads to yet another extraordinary claim: that human creativity evolved because it promoted, not innovation, but *conformity* to the norms of static societies.

The style of the book is quite convoluted in places. I think people who haven't read *Fabric* would be well advised to do so first (mainly to make sure they understand Popper's epistemology), and also to watch Deutsch's two TED talks online (e.g. 'What is our place in the cosmos?' corresponds roughly to Chapter 3: "The Spark"). Although the concepts of quanta and the fungibility of particles did seem like simple and useful entry points into the multiverse and quantum mechanics (QM), I must confess I found it pretty hard going and re-reads of Chapter 11 are probably called for.

There is a humorous dialogue between Socrates and a god (I'll leave you to discover which god and what the circumstances are); the young Plato is gently mocked. There are some great criticisms of 'explanationless science' and other bad philosophy, such as the equivocations and evasions introduced in the early days of QM (to avoid thinking about what it says is really out there).

I hugely enjoyed this book. I didn't so much read it; it read me. We need good philosophy to guide us in science and everywhere else in life.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life, the universes and everything!, 3 April 2011
By 
Alan Michael Forrester "I exist." (Northampton) - See all my reviews
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"The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch (BoI) is a great book that explores a range of important issues in physics, maths, explanations, the theory of knowledge (epistemology) and political and moral philosophy. This may make BoI sound somewhat daunting and impractical to many people. Who needs that sort of high flown stuff? However, one of the ideas in BoI is that explanation is important and that good explanations seem obvious and expand your horizons at the same time, and every explanation in BoI illustrates this point. In addition, the author explains himself very clearly, so there isn't a steep hill to climb to understand the explanations he gives. BoI is also entertaining and often quite witty. BoI will also repay repeated reading because there are a lot of ideas in it.

I'll give a brief sketch of some of the ideas you can expect to find in BoI. The first idea that I would emphasize is that explanation is central to living a rational and satisfying life. Good explanations are well adapted to solving problems - for example, the theory that the Earth orbits the sun is well adapted to explaining the seasons.

The next is that problems are inevitable because we will certainly make mistakes, and they are soluble because those mistakes can be fixed. The author explains that any way of changing the world that is not forbidden by the laws of physics is allowed. If there was some problem that we could never possibly solve, e.g. - some mathematical proofs can't be proven, then that would in itself be a fact about the laws of physics. Some people might say that parts of the world could be incomprehensible but that's a retrograde step back into the anti-rational worldview that says that something like God designed the universe for his own mysterious purposes that we can't comprehend. David Deutsch applies this perspective in interesting ways to a wide range of issues from the anthropic principle to political philosophy and global warming. He also explains why we should be optimistic: our knowledge is finite, our ignorance is infinite and the world is comprehensible so we may continue to make progress indefinitely if we choose to do so.

There is also stuff in BoI about irrational ideas that manage to propagate themselves in people despite the fact that they block progress. Deutsch explains some ideas about how to spot these ideas in yourself, so this book is not just theoretically interesting it can help you in your personal life.

Other interesting parts of BoI include a chapter in which the author explains quantum physics in english with no equations. There is a chapter about infinity in maths and physics - again with no equations. Another chapter explains why aesthetics is objective, still another discusses the reality of abstractions. I'm going to stop now, not because I've run out of things I could say about the book, but because I could write all day about it. And that's one reason why the title of this book is fitting - it is a beginning of infinity because it's a book you'll want to think about all the time after you've finished reading it.

The same is true of the David Deutsch's previous book The Fabric of Reality: Towards a Theory of Everything, which everybody should also read.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Beginning of Infinity is a masterpiece, 1 April 2011
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 fairs 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.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deutsch's explanation transforms our world!, 13 Oct 2011
I cannot stress the importance of this book enough. This book is about the power and potential of explanations and therefore also of our potential as a species, as the people who are able to create these explanations. Deutsh's book is an incredibly lucid and powerful explanation in itself and I will even go as far as to conclude that with this book Deutsch has become the most important philosopher of our time!
Do yourself a favor and read this book! Deutsch's book is not technical and understandable by anyone with a decent brain. That includes you, otherwise you would not be reading this review. The book's arguments are as rational as they are optimistic (in every sense of the word, including the definition in the book itself).
This is the kind of thinking that empowers us both as individuals and as a species. MARVELLOUS!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile and Challenging but not without Flaws, 22 Oct 2011
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The book is worthwhile and challenging, but not without flaws. The main premise is that human progress has been driven by the quest for good explanations, and the author makes his case by looking across a very wide range of endeavours and pursuits. Where he sticks to this task, many of the arguments are very powerful, and I found myself convinced, for example by chapters on `the evolution of creativity' and `sustainability'. I should confess at this point that I had been hoping to read an update and broadening of the author's earlier book, `The Fabric of Reality', and the few chapters which might have fitted into such a work, I also found satisfying.
However, the author ranges very broadly, and the chapters, hardly related to the main premise, had a generally negative impact on me. For example, he includes a chapter on choice concerning voting systems, which I thought irrelevant to the main thrust of the book, and uniquely for the author, it did not seem to have been thought through; he appears to put forward the argument prevalent before the Great Reform Act that it did not matter how MPs were chosen as long as they formed a body capable of weighing the matters before them. In addition, Professor Deutsch has given space to attacks on those who hold to different beliefs and philosophies to himself, such as empiricists, instrumentalists, and those of religious belief. I would be on his side in at least some of these cases, but the problem is that he is only able to make his views known forcefully, but cannot possibly present the fully developed arguments that characterise the rest of the book. The effect of what I have to call digressions, together with the 25 page dialogue with Socrates, is to make the book significantly longer than it might have been. To do justice to it, I found myself reading one or two chapters at a time so I read it over a time span of 3 weeks. As a result of this and what I found a slightly haphazard ordering of the chapters, I found myself referring back far more often than normal. I think that with tighter editing, the book could have been shortened by close to a third, reducing my problems significantly, and I really hope that this is done for some future edition.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Creative human beings:universal explainers, problem solvers, and constructors, 19 July 2011
By 
Serghiou Const (Nicosia, Cyprus) - See all my reviews
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The author identifies the paramount significance of the Enlightenment in that it initiated the present era in human history, unique for its sustained, rapid creation of knowledge with ever increasing reach.

The Enlightenment considered progress as both desirable and feasible. The means for progress was the creation of theories with good explanatory power;we have to caution that there is no finality in a theory but only improvement through conjecture, criticism and testing. A theory must be testable;that is a theory can make predictions which, if the theory were false could be contradicted by the outcome of some possible observations. Each successive theory has more truth that is, it is a better representation of physical reality and has correspondingly a lower level of misconception than the one it has superseded. Viewed in this light Einstein's Misconception of Gravity was an improvement on Newton's Misconception which was an improvement on Kepler's. The neo-Darwinian Misconception of Evolution is an improvement on Darwin's Misconception and his on Lamarck's. Consequently people should be conscious that science claims neither infallibility nor finality.

Two very important - I am almost tempted to say defining characteristics - of good explanatory theories are:

The first is reach: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 second characteristic is that theories with good explanatory power are hard to vary. Scientific theories are hard to vary because they correspond closely with an objective truth, which is independent of our culture, our preferences, and our biological make up. But the author also argues convincingly that there is objective truth in the beauty of music, art and nature (flowers). 'Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.' That is how Mozart's music is described in Peter Shaffer's 1979 play Amadeus. This is reminiscent of the remark by John Archibald Wheeler with which this book begins, speaking of a hoped-for unified theory of fundamental physics:'an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it... how it could have been otherwise?' Shaffer and Wheeler were describing the same attribute:being hard to vary while still doing the job. In the first case it is an attribute of aesthetically good music, and in the second of good scientific explanations.

Our ability to formulate explanations, conjectures, and criticisms is, of course, due to a uniquely human biological adaptation namely creativity which is concurrently a jump to universality.

There is an increasingly intimate connection between explaining the world and controlling it which is no accident but part of the deep structure of the world. The ability to use explanatory knowledge gives people a power to tranform nature which is ultimately limited only by universal laws e.g the speed of light. Human beings are consequently universal constructors of all technological innovations.

No good explanation can predict the outcome, or the probability of an outcome, of a phenomenon whose course is going to be significantly affected by the creation of new knowledge. This is a fundamental limitation on the reach of scientific prediction, and, when planning for the future, it is vital to come to terms with it. Following Popper, the author uses the terms 'prediction' for conclusions about future events that follow from good explanations, and 'prophesy' for anything that purports to know what is not yet knowable.

The perennial pessimism about the future so familiar in the human condition is often due to the mixing of prediction and prophesy. A famous example was that of Malthus which mixed the reasonable prediction of the increase of population and the prophesy of the level of future food production which proved spectacularly wrong.

The sustained creation of knowledge depends on the presence of certain kinds of idea, particularly optimism, and an associated tradition of criticism. There would have to be social and political institutions that incorporated and protected such traditions:a society in which some degree of dissent and deviation from the norm was tolerated, and whose educational practices did not actively extinguish creativity.

In the optimistic conception - the one that was unforseeably vindicated by events - people are problem solvers:creators of the unsustainable solution and hence also of the next problem. In the pessimistic conception that distinctive ability of people is a disease for which sustainability is the cure. in the optimistic one, sustainability is the disease and people are the cure.

Reading the book was for me a life enriching bordering on a life changing experience.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding progress. A new tool., 1 May 2011
David Deutsch has the rare gift of asking the right questions.
His analysis of scientific progress is at par with Karl Popper's.
I was just asking myself why Kabbalah is a sealed book, and why its masters always dicouraged its disclosure.
David Deutsch gave me a reasonable answer, he made me say - "It's so simple! Why I didn't see it before?".
Interesting, deep, seminal.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Certainly a beginning and hopefully an end to pessimism!, 17 April 2011
By 
This was absolutely wonderful to read and it is a token to the reach and power of that humans have when they try to explain the world. I am recommending it to all my friends. It is such a powerful message, especially in regards to the distinction between static and dynamic societies and the category errors that we are all making in regards to trying to maintain stasis or be sustainable. The book is worth its money simply for the chapter on sustainability and the power (and reach) of the phrase "the only thing that is sustainable is progress"... I'll read it again very soon! And again and again until it sinks in and becomes second nature (or rather it should be first nature...)

Honestly this is a life-changing book. Even if you feel you know what science is and what it is about, this book really does show you the reach that knowledge can have in a way that is not simply blind optimism. It is a rational optimism which we will continue to develop and improve upon. Who knows where we will end up?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Explanations Have Infinite Reach., 2 Aug 2011
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For the none science and technology graduate this is quite heavy going in my opinion.The chapter on infinity added several wrinkles to my forehead as I'm not one who finds it easy to skip things I don't understand.This book really was running on the edge of my intellectual abilities at times ,as was his last work,but I did gain knowledge that makes sense to me in a sublime way that I found beneficial and gave me an insight into how to criticize theories,not just scientific ones.The chapter subjects are wide ranging and all tie into the theme of good explanations having infinite reach,as with the authors previous work there are summaries at the end of each chapter which is a nice touch for those of us with medium sized intellects or those wishing to use it as a reference.
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34 of 42 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Frustrating and Dissatisfying!, 8 Aug 2011
By 
David E. Perkins (East Herts, UK) - See all my reviews
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450 pages is a very long read when a book is not bad enough to discard but not good enough to be a comfortable read. I have read David Deutsch on his own speciality subject and enjoyed that, but this book seems something of an overlong personal indulgence on his part, at my considerable expense.

Admittedly some interesting ideas are put forward, but he seems far too offhand and dogmatic in his frequent ventures outside his specialism. I was not expecting a discourse (never mind a whole chapter!) on the merits of the 'first past the post' electoral system - I'd go for a different sort of book for that.

And his brash (over) confidence in his understanding and interpretation of other disciplines, such as biology and paleontology was not convincing. Again a whole chapter was on memes, presented as if they are an absolutely 'cut and dried' physical reality, when even their creator Richard Dawkins, seemed to see them more as a mental analogy to help understand his argument (unless he's got more dogmatic as well!). Not to mention (but I am) page upon page about computer-simulated realities.

I can't be sure his assertions are false, as he is a very clever person, but neither can I be confident that he is telling me anything I can confidently relay in my pub! An overblown book with an overblown and misleading title - I was expecting a real physical science exposition but seemed to get one that meandered over all sorts of areas he had taken a fancy to - and the 'pseudo textbook' structure of a chapter summary + definition of terms + a never-ending series of 'meaning of the beginning of infinity used in this chapter' got quite tedious.

And the chapter and a bit he devoted to personal (apparently fictitious) Plato-type discussions between protagonists to try and highlight his points was too much for me - maybe I missed something crucial, but I just HAD to skip over them!

This review may of course say more about me than David Deutsch, who I do admire, but I have to speak as I find. Maybe other cleverer people will find gems in there that I am not up to spotting - good luck to them!

Adding (later) to my thoughts, so as not to appear too negative, I would say that some very interesting ideas ARE put forward. I did like the discussion of static versus dynamic societies - something to worry about with all the fundamentalists around nowadays (both in the US and elsewhere) trying their damnedest by fair means or (mostly) foul to take us back there. Also his emphasis on good and bad explanations (though even this was not really original, coming some years after Steven Pinker's same discussion re 'cranes' and 'sky-hooks'), and on the need to accept that problems will occur but that solutions will be found (eg by new, 'unexpected' technology), so not to assume that even serious issues are beyond our long-term ingenuity, and not to adopt a doomsday 'nothing can be done except STOP' philosophy. Plus the argument that progress is dependent upon the interconnected societies, and is much less likely in isolated ones.

Yet I still feel his central tenet is somewhat flawed. He disagrees, rightly, with John Horgan's argument a decade ago that we have reached 'the end of science', exactly as was assumed by some at the turn of the 19th century. But he seems to go to the opposite extreme that there is NO limit However, looking 'upwards' (at the great, but relatively few, 'geniuses'), 'downwards' (at those sadly mentally compromised in one way or another), and 'sideways' at the vast majority of people like myself (IMHO!) who rely on the relatively few for our technological, etc., environment and progress, it seems clear that one simply cannot ASSUME a limitless human capacity to understand, but can only HOPE for it and keep trying. Clearly there IS much extra scope in the human brain, as evidenced by many 'savants'. Over evolutionary time, will more of us develop indefinitely superior powers? Who Knows? (BTW 'upwards, downwards and sideways' are certainly not meant in any perjorative way at all - couldn't think of an alternative way of expressing it just now!) .
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The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform The World (Penguin Press Science)
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