When did human beings stop devising off-the-cuff explanations for mysteries of the natural world and really start making progress toward knowledge? According to David Deutsch, it began with the Enlightenment in Europe, which set off a flurry of scientific as well as cultural and philosophical developments. The rate at which knowledge increased during this time brought about an exciting new idea: that there is no limit to what can be discovered. In other words, those 17th-century scientific discoveries were only the beginning of an infinite number of possibilities.
Prior to that time, there was a tendency to explain the world through stories. Myths, if you will. The difficulty, of course, is that the story creators could only address the aspects of which they were aware. As an example, Deutsch points to the myth of Demeter and Persephone, which claims that the seasons are a direct result of the half-year that Persephone spends in Hades. It’s a delightful tale, certainly, but poor science, and easily shown to be wrong when one recognizes that winter in one hemisphere correlates to summer in another hemisphere.
Common sense tells us that what we see and experience must be real, and yet that turns out to be the first mistake we make when exploring for truth. Our senses are the result of electrical impulses in our brains, nothing more than an interpretation by a very fallible system of experiencing:
“Far from providing direct or untainted access to reality, even they themselves are never experienced for what they really are – namely crackles of electrical activity.” In order to determine with accuracy what is going on around us, why the planets revolve around the sun, and why human beings exist to ponder such mysteries, “physicists have to learn to think about everyday events in new ways.”
Deutsch is best known as a pioneer in the field of quantum computing, now a recognized and respected field of study. He is also a bit of a black sheep among scientists because of his support for the Many Worlds Theory. For those of us who barely made it through the required science classes, that’s the high-brow and scientifically correct version of the alternate universe episodes of our favorite sci-fi programs – worlds that are parallel to our own yet containing significant differences. (Good Spock and Evil Spock, for example). A chapter about multiverses (alternate realities, if you will) proves to be riveting even as Deutsch guides us firmly down a path of reasoning that is built around hardcore physics rather than the freewheeling television scripts.
The Beginning of Infinity contains David Deutsch’s ruminations and mini-lectures on the importance of conjecture and examination in determining the truth and developing knowledge. Heavy on the science (or so it seems to this liberal arts major), the author builds his case chapter by chapter, starting with a solid foundation and building toward a bright and desirable future.
“…if we choose … to embark on an open-ended journey of creation and exploration whose every step is unsustainable until it is redeemed by the next… then the ascent of man, the beginning of infinity, will have become, if not secure, then at least sustainable.”
Surprisingly, Deutsch proves to be capable of making his case even to those readers who don’t know or care whether Schrodinger’s cat is dead or alive. This may well be due to his own fascination with discovery; at times, it seems as if Deutsch is positively giddy with enthusiasm, euphoric over the possibilities that lie ahead. The Beginning of Infinity isn’t your beach read for the summer, but it is enlightening, entertaining, even enchanting with the author’s reverence for scientific examination.