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Frustrating and Dissatisfying!
on 8 August 2011
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!) .