Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World - Part Two

by Tom Kando

As I promised, I am sharing with you further details of David Deutsch’s marvelous book -  The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World . Last time, I summarized his main thesis. Today, I want to tell you about his attitude, his background and his love for the Enlightenment.

1. Deutsch's erudition

The author  sometimes reads like  a know-it-all who pontificates ex cathedra. He seems to  say that we should just accept his views; his authority (which is EXACTLY what he preaches against throughout his book). For example, he  tells us several times   that the “Spaceship Earth” metaphor is an error, as are  the concepts of the biosphere and a sustainable planetary environment. He calls these ideas “parochial.” He never equivocates, when telling us which ideas and  philosophers are  right, and what and who is  wrong. For instance, Plato? Somewhat of a dufus who largely misunderstood Socrates.

No wonder that some reviewers have accused him of chutzpah, of being a know-it-all.

But I, for one, have been won over to his side. That is because his  arguments are often so intelligent and sophisticated that (1) I either don’t understand them (as when he covers Quantum Theory and the mathematics of Infinity, or (2) they CONVINCE:

For example, he repeatedly reminds us that gravity does not exist (112, 345), and this is backed up by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (107), which has been proven.

Another misconception which he convincingly corrects is the oft-heard fasehood that the Roman  numerical system could not multiply and divide (and, I might add, that it did not know the concept of zero, which is supposed to have been invented by the Mayans).  I have often wondered how a civilization  could engineer better aqueducts than we can in the 21st century, with such a deficient mathematical system.

Deutsch also points out that the transition from a "tallying" numerial system to a universal arithmetic originated in India, and Arabs only transmitted it to the West.

Another error according to the author, is our mis-interpretation of Darwin's (originally Herbert Spencer's) expression  "survival of the fittest" (91): Genetic evolution does not necessarily favor the optimal adaptation of a species, and therefore its survival, but the maximal spread of a mutation through a species population - for better or for worse for the species itself. That said, Deutsch is very much a neo-Darwinist.

2. Deutsch is a disciple of Karl Popper

Throughout the book, and especially in Chapter 12 (A Physicist’s History of Bad Philosophy), it is clear that Deutsch approves of no other philosopher more than  Karl Popper, the great 20th century  Austro-British philosopher.  Deutsch studied under Popper, who clearly seems to be his principal mentor. Deutsch builds upon Popper. It was Popper who first repudiated straight empirical observationist/inductivist  science. Instead, he advocated a method based on the falsifiability and refutability of hypotheses and theories. Central to science, according to Popper, is criticism, and this  carries over into the social and political realm: Popper was an ardent supporter of liberal democracy based on social criticism.  The object of the political process, he argued, is not to attempt the  creation of a perfect utopia a la Plato’s Republic, but the removal of bad  government.  These ideals are only possible in  dynamic, open societies such as those which emerged in the West from the Enlightenment onward.

3. The Uniqueness of the Enlightenment

Deutsch doesn’t mince  words as to when and where the “Beginning of Infinity” started: It occurred during the European Enlightenment; of the 17th and 18th centuries. Only then did our species embark on the trajectory of GOOD EXPLANATIONS, a trajectory towards potentially infinite scientific and moral progress.

For most of the 100,000 years that Homo Sapiens has existed, we have stagnated.  There were  occasional advances, such as fire, the wheel, and agriculture, but by and large there was no progress. Human knowledge consisted of “rules of thumb,” which could be useful, but fell short of good explanations.  The chief reason for stagnation was that knowledge was based on authority. If one asked “why is this true?” The answer was “take my word for it.”

Since the Enlightenment, this is no longer the case. Progress became possible after authority began to be questioned.  This, then, can change the Universe.

Here, the historian in me becomes a little squeamish about some of  Deutsch’ strong assertions: According to the author, all earlier starts towards scientific progress were either not truly scientific, or they were aborted. ONLY the 17th-18th century Enlightenment is the  real thing.  The Neolithic Revolution? A dead-end. Ancient Greece (Pythagoras, Euclid, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), same thing: no thrust towards UNIVERSAL explanations.

Deutsch even dismisses the French enlightenment’s contribution,  accepting only the English part of it (66).  Gratuitously, Newton is accepted as central (as he should be, of course), but Descartes and Voltaire are not, and if a Frenchman is accepted (E.g. Condorcet)  he is conveniently described as  an Englishman “in spirit.” Laplace and other French scientists? Never mind. This is a ludicrous bit of “parochialism,” and I  dwell on  it because I have long felt that Anglo-Saxon chauvinism needs to be  counterbalanced  by French chauvinism (of which I am a guilty).

Deutsch does recognize some  mini-enlightenments which were, alas,  aborted.  For example 15th   century Florence under Lorenzo de Medici. This came to a crash at the hands of the monk Savonarola.

I would like to suggest one more mini-enlightenment which Deutsch forgot: The 18th century American Founding Fathers - including James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamiltion.  After all, what better example is there of an effort to eliminate a bad government in favor of a better one?

But not to quibble: Deutsch is absolutely  right that the Enlightenment was the pivotal turning point in  human progress. Most knowledge prior to that consisted of rules of thumb, i.e. non-explanatory human knowledge (94). Its quintessential idea is that progress is both desirable and attainable (133). It is the beginning of a scientific revolution based on  the search for UNIVERSAL explanations, a revolution which continues to gain momentum even three and half centuries later.

In the next part of my review, I will tell you about the author's critique of various philosophies, his conception of the human mind, the Universe, his values and politics, and his vision of the future -  all topics of central importance to me personally. leave comment here