Review of The Beginning Of Infinity by David Deutsch

I became interested in reading more from David Deutsch after reading a very thought provoking article in Aeon Magazine talking about the big picture of AI. This book was most valuable to me mainly as a source of unorthodox ideas on this topic. One such idea is one that I’ve believed for a long time: "If you can’t program it, you haven’t understood it." You might disagree, but the important thing here is that this book is packed full of such things. They might not be true, provable, or appeal to you, but they will make you think and more fully develop your own thinking.

As exemplified by the "Terminology" sections at the end of each chapter, I would call this book’s organization quirky. Not a disorganized mess, but not exactly an especially elegant and compelling layout of ideas. My hypothesis is that the author drinks a lot of coffee. Unsurprisingly based on where I was first introduced to the author, I would say that this book would be better as a series of about 50 magazine articles. My apologies if I missed some grand unifying point made by the book as a whole, but it seemed like the author was just writing a book because he had a lot of ideas, not because he had a coherent point to make with more support than would be possible with a shorter form.

I personally am a bit skeptical about the eponymous idea of infinity. I’m not saying it’s not a thing, but it clearly is a ball for philosophers and mathematicians to play with. This book spent what I felt was an inordinate amount of ink on the topic, but maybe you’ll appreciate that. It did help me understand the nature of the thinking mathematicians do with respect to the topic, but it didn’t really do anything to improve my real life beyond being an intellectual curiosity.

The book really did fly all over the memesphere (I just made that word up - I hope that’s ok). I found the author’s discussion about electoral fairness to be fascinating and a good introduction to the topic. But the reason for why this topic was included escaped me.

Normally when people are being philosophical and utter the word "quantum" the discussion is over for me. I cut Deutsch some slack here because he is an actual quantum physicist who likes to think about philosophy. Despite being free from the conspicuous obfuscation and befuddlement that "quantum" theory/mechanics is usually designed to bring into philosophical discussions, I’m still not convinced that the topic is worth my attention. It is my impression that quantum theory is full of what the author would call "bad explanations". For example, I’m no expert but check out the De Broglie-Bohm interpretation of quantum experiments (and That seems like the good explanation quantum theory lacks. But what do I know? It’s just jarring when the author’s main point is that knowledge and progress move forward based on "good explanations", and then come a series of extreme science fiction sounding explanations that do not sound good at all (apparently somewhere in a multiverse I’m writing a better review and Deutsch is writing a better book).

I don’t want to leave the impression that I didn’t find the book worthwhile. I respected the author’s lack of concern for orthodox thinking. For example, I loved his brilliant (and possibly quite wrong) explanation of why human creativity seemed to accelerate very suddenly in historical terms: Creativity evolved slowly without being noticed by being used to maintain conformity. Brilliant. Thought provoking stuff like that really made this book an interesting read. I’ll definitely look forward to magazine articles by Deutsch.