“It is inevitable that we face problems but no particular problem is inevitable we survive and thrive by solving each problem as it comes up, and 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”
In this episode of Made You Think, Neil and Nat discuss The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch
. It’s a playful, meandering book on explanations that transform the world, covering evolution, physics, philosophy, politics, ecology, money, memetics, epistemology, history. It ties everything to the central idea that with enough knowledge anything possible, is achievable. “Every putative physical transformation to be performed in a given time with given resources or under any other conditions is either impossible because it is forbidden by the laws of nature or achievable given the right knowledge.”
We cover a wide range of topics, including:
- Wrapping our brains around the concepts of advanced topics like infinity
- Thinking of problems as a gap in our knowledge that can be solved
- The repeating cycle of problem > solution > new problem
- Tangents on Aquatic Apes, Egyptology and Sphinxes
- Universality of systems
- Optimistic vs Pessimistic view points
And so much more! Please enjoy, and be sure to grab a copy of The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch
If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out our episode on Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter
for a similar kind of book covering a wide range of topics. Also our episode on Leverage Points by Donella Meadows
for how we should approach complex systems.
Be sure to join our mailing list to find out about what books are coming up, giveaways we’re running, special events, and more.
Links from the Episode
Mentioned in the show
2:47 – In this book the author, David Deutsch, calls out some of the other authors that we have covered on the podcast before. He calls out Nassim Taleb on some of his ideas, which is something we almost hold sacred on this podcast. This book made us change the way we think about some of these things.
5:03 – Diving into advanced concepts like multiverse, quantum entanglement, relativity and infinity. You have to take your time to wrap your head around this. Our minds are not used to grasping these concepts. Explaining what’s the highest number to a kid.
7:00 – In the introduction the author says “all progress both theoretical and practical has resulted from a single human activity, the quest for what I call good explanations”. Everything is possible if it is not prohibited by the laws of physics.
8:10 – Deutsch uses the example of disease and cholera. People dying of diarrhea when they were right next to a fire and could have boiled their water. The problem was actually a problem of knowledge. A lot of problems we have today are the same and given the right amount of knowledge, can be solved.
8:55 – All other books that we have looked at, Seneca, Taleb and even the book Denial of Death. They all are predicated on the idea that we all will die. Deutsch says most likely yes we will die, but it doesn’t mean it’s not possible to solve. He isn’t saying there is one solution but there maybe solutions to each of the discrete problems - accidents, cancer etc, they are all problems waiting for the right knowledge to be able to solve them.
10:40 – Wealth as a society was another thing he called out in this book, as a species having the resources as well as the knowledge. Even if you had given cavemen the knowledge of how to build a plane, they don’t yet have the resources to get the metals out of the ground and shape the parts needed. Progress is a factor of both knowledge and wealth.
11:25 – He starts the book off in the intro with his refutation of empiricism, where we gain knowledge by experiencing things then learning from them. He makes this good distinction: “Experience is indeed essential to science but its role is different from that supposed by empiricism, it is not the source from which theories are derived its main use is to choose between theories that have already been guessed”.
You really can’t learn from experience unless you have some guess about what should happen. You need to have conjecture or a hypothesis before you can actually test something. You’re trying to figure out what the truth might be. Startups “finding” insights in Big Data without an hypothesis to test.
15:00 – “Fallabilsts expect even their best and even most fundamental explanations to contain misconceptions in addition to truth and so they are predisposed to try to change them for the better.” This is like a life philosophy - anything you assume is true you should also assume part of it is wrong. Always look for ways to improve your understanding.
17:46 – Deutsch rounds out the first chapter by saying that “every problem is a signal that our knowledge is flawed or inaccurate.”
Our goal as humans is to come up with better explanations which then inevitably leads to a new set of problems. That is this beginning of infinity, each problem leads to infinitely many more problems and the solutions that come with them. We are stuck with this continual loop of solve problem > discover new one > solve problem etc. The Principle of Mediocrity idea and Anti-Anthropocentrism.
23:20 – Deutsch says that humans can understand anything with enough time and knowledge. He is referencing John Haldane who said “The universe not only queerer than we suppose it is queerer than we can suppose”. Deutsch says that nothing is beyond our potential comprehension.
30:43 – Tangent. Aquatic Apes fringe theory. Go listen to Darwin’s dangerous idea episode. We don’t want the aquatic apes theory to be refuted, plus it would make a really good band name.
31:42 – Chapter 4. Form of infinities in the Universe: the process of biological evolution and knowledge growth. Ideas can be replicators same as genes can.
33:22 – Chapter 6. Universality. Some ideas are useful and functional in a contained, local sense and some make the jump to actually being universal and infinite. Roman Numerals were never really universal. It would always require more numerals to count higher and higher. Where as our Arabic system 0-9 they are just 10 symbols plus 1 rule, gives us an infinite number. Same as using an alphabet vs hieroglyphics, having a character represent a word, you will always need more characters. Asian scripts.
40:10 – Reductionism and the concept of the brain as a computer, the way we think about our brain is influenced by the technology of the day. Scaling problems. Knowledge creation for AI. Knowledge ownership.
“First the brain was supposed to be like an immensely complicated set of gears and levers, then it was hydraulic pipes, then steam engines, then telephone exchanges, and now that computers are the most impressive technology brains are said to be computers. This is still no more than a metaphor and there is no more reason to expect a brain to be a computer than a steam engine”
47:55 – Tangent. Hofstadter and the DARPA Turing Test, AI joke creation and changing nature of humor through generations. Consciousness Test.
54:44 – Hotel Chapter. Understanding Infinity. Being at the beginning of infinite progress. Time subjective to our mental processing power.
1:00:11 – Optimism Chapter. All problems and evils in the world are caused by insufficient knowledge. All can be solved with enough knowledge. Evils are just situations where we haven’t solved the problem yet. There is never going to be a Garden of Eden state as you always unlock new problems.
Deutsch says “We do not yet know what we have not yet discovered.”
Sounds similar to the idea of blind faith, that we will just figure it out. We can be optimistic because if there is a necessity to solve something the market really impacts it, it’s a powerful corrective force. Investment and money gets put towards solving the problem. Ebola example.
1:08:33 – Multiverse Chapter. Funny dialogue between Socrates and Plato.
1:10:20 – Tangent. Sphinx theories, Egyptology and the Semmelweis reflex. Respecting and disproving Fringe Theories. Politics vs science in Medicine.
1:17:05 – Tangent. Anthropomorphising food. Now low cholesterol is tied to mortality causes. Where as previously high cholesterol was considered a huge health issue. Eating fat doesn’t make you fat, like Taleb says eating a cow doesn’t make you bovine. The cause for bull penis powder.
1:20:07 – Bad philosophies. Philosophies that prevents you from developing other philosophies. Religions, top-down theories, bad company traits. Crony beliefs. if you feel personally attacked when someone questions your belief, that shows it’s not a well reasoned idea and a bad philosophy for you – that may show you what you are believing because you want to. You often only believe things that are socially beneficial. Vegans, palm sugar, plastic activism, foreign orphanages and stupid activism.
1:29:40 – Postmodernism as bad philosophy. Problems in different types of Sciences. Explanational science. Tossing old knowledge requires an explanation. Chemical imbalance for depression. Second and third effects of drugs use.
1:39:41 – Politics Chapter. Separate essay. Beauty Chapter. There is objective universal beauty. Beauty in flowers and music.
1:45:33 – Evolution of Culture. Rational and anti-rational beliefs. Memes as a way of spreading ideas “Consider how you would be judged by other people if you went shopping in your pajamas or painted your house with blue and brown stripes - that gives a hint of the narrowness of convention that govern these objectively trivial inconsequential choices about style and the social cost of violating them. Is the same thing true of the more momentous patterns in our lives, careers, relationships, education, morality, political outlook and national identity. Consider what we expect to happen when a static society is gradually switching from anti-rational to rational memes
”. Liberalism-conservatism conflict. Turning child into political statements.
1:58:15 – The Unsustainable Chapter. Easter Island culture diminished as they didn’t solve their problems. We often think things are finite when they can be solved in other ways. Pessimistic and Optimistic conceptions. “Pessimistic conception is that humans are wasters - they take precious resources and madly convert them into useless coloured pictures. This is true of static societies those statues were what my colleagues were what color televisions which is why comparing our culture with the old society of Easter Island is wrong - we are not a static society. The optimistic conception is that 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 - sustainability is the disease and people are the cure.”
Trying to get people to work against their selfish desires isn’t going to work, so find a way to make what you want to work out for the greater good. For example with hotels and reducing washing. It’s a win-win for both the hotel and the environment. They will then encourage environmental acts like that. If it cost them money then they would not encourage that. "What lies ahead of us in any case, is in any case infinity - all we can choose is if it is an infinity of ignorance or of knowledge, wrong or right, death or life."
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