Friday, December 15, 2023

Review of The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by David Deutsch

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Book Club Event = Book List (03/30/2024)
Intriguing Connections = 1) What Makes Science A Science?, 2) The Evolution of Evolution

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“But, in reality, scientific theories are not ‘derived’ from anything.  We do not read them in nature, nor does nature write them into us.  They are guesses – bold conjectures.  Human minds create them by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas with the intention of improving upon them.  We do not begin with ‘white paper’ at birth, but with inborn expectations and intentions and an innate ability to improve upon them using thought and experience.  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.  That is what ‘learning from experience’ is.” – David Deutsch, Chapter 1: The Reach of Explanations, Page 12

“The better we come to understand phenomena remote from our everyday experience, the longer those chains of interpretation become, and every additional link necessitates more theory.  A single unexpected or misunderstood phenomenon anywhere in the chain can, and often does, render the resulting sensory experience arbitrarily misleading.  Yet, over time, the conclusions that science has drawn have become ever truer to reality.  Its quest for good explanations corrects the errors, allows for the biases and misleading perspectives, and fills in the gaps.” – David Deutsch, Chapter 2: Closer to Reality, Page 44

“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.  So a complementary and equally important truth about people and the physical world is that problems are soluble.” – David Deutsch, Chapter 3: The Spark, Page 67


Is This An Overview?

Progress depends on explanations.  On good explanations.  Explanations are claims about what something is and how that something behaves.  Problems are a conflict within the explanation, with problems resolved by a good explanation that resolves the conflict within them.  Problems fail to be resolved when they rely on bad explanations.  Problems are inevitable but are soluble with good explanations. 

Problems come for various sources such as communication which can create a problem with misinterpretation, and physical reality can create a problem for survival.  The various sources create potentially infinite problems.  As the potential problems are infinite, they require infinite progress to resolve them.  Resolving some or many problems, still leaves an infinite of problems.  Making progress always at the beginning of infinity.  Progress has no bounds, as there will always be an infinite more to accomplish.   

Explanations are an act of creativity.  Scientific theories start as guesses that are error corrected and improved upon.  Theories are not derived from anything, not even from experiences.  But experiences shape which theories survive.  Testable predictions are not enough in science, for predictions do not self-explain how something works.  Understanding how something works requires an explanation.  Explanations themselves are not enough for a variety of claims can be made to explain testable evidence.  A fundamental flaw of bad explanations is that they drastically vary their claims without changing the predictions.


What Are The Limits To Empiricism?

Empiricism has limits about what is not experienced.  Much of reality cannot be experienced.  Predictions about what has not been experienced, and are based on how they are.  The problem is that the future is not like the past.  Logical deductions based on experiences does not explain anything other than what has been experienced.    

Experiences are based on the senses.  The senses might not be deceptive, but the interpretations derived from the senses can be.  Making them part of the explanation paradigm for the Interpretations are fallible, and therefore can be improved through criticism and testing.  Empiricism is flawed because it requires pre-existing knowledge to know what to observe and how to interpret the information.


Does Science Need An Authority?

Science needing authority is a misconception derived from a need for certainly.  A bias called justificationism.  This leads to trying to prevent ideas from changing.

Static societies remove the source of ideas which is creativity.  They generate institutions that prevent people from coming up with new ideas.

Alternatively there is fallibilism which goes against authoritative sources of knowledge.  In this view, people create knowledge through better understanding of what is and expecting the ideas to be challenged and improved.  That the ideas will change.  Knowledge does not have an authority to rely on, it comes from any source.  The Enlightenment created a tradition of criticism. 


What Makes A Good Explanation?

Testability nor prediction is the purpose of science because appearances are not self-explanatory.  If appearances contained self-evident explanations, there would be no need for science.  Testable predictions do not explain how something works.  That requires an explanation, which are claims about reality for the workings of the appearance. 

Bad explanations, even with testable predictions, are unscientific.  Many theories are rejected without experimentation because they are bad explanations.  Removing a faulty theory is not enough, for a better explanation is needed.  Good explanations are hard to vary without being tested.  Predictions are made from good explanations, while prophecy are claims about the unknowable.

Claims have become more distant from everyday experiences, which makes misinterpretation more likely.  Science becomes better even with the misinterpretations, as science can error-correct the interpretations and fill in data gaps.  Misinterpretations can come from communication, as the same words can have different meanings for the recipient and communicator, requiring guesswork which is subject to error correction. 

Knowledge that has become common is background knowledge, rules of thumb.  They appear to be explanationless predictions, but there are always explanations for them. 


How Does Biology Effect Knowledge?

Biological knowledge is non-explanatory which makes it have limited reach and depend on random mutations.  Explanatory human knowledge has unlimited reach and are based on conjectures that are constructed intentionally for a purpose.

Evolution has created many defects in the biological species.  Evolution can make beneficial and harmful changes to biology.  Defects which are in conflict with a designer. 


What Is A Better Explanation For Earth’s Status?

Earth is sometimes portrayed as a space ship that provides all that humans needs to sustain themselves.  That humans are squandering what the Earth has provided.  That humans are insignificant.  The problem with this view is that most of the universe is cold, dark, and empty which makes Earth remarkably untypical. 

Much of Earth’s environment leads to death for humans rather than a life-supporting system made for humans.  It takes human ingenuity to designing technology to enable them to live in the life threatening system.  Extinctions of the past occurred because the beings were living the lifestyles they evolved to rather than adept to changing conditions.  Nature did provide raw materials for survival, but it took knowledge to make use of the materials to enable people to survive and thrive.  Evolution did not provide knowledge on how to transform the materials.  It is explanatory knowledge that gives people power to transform nature.  It takes the right knowledge to accommodate people no matter the environment, whether space ship or ruined biosphere.  Civilizations of the past were destroyed for lack of knowledge on how to resolve their problem. 



An explanation is needed to understand how something works, but the logic of what makes a good and bad explanation needs a better explanation, as they can appear contradictory.  Most chapters provide an example of a bad explanation, the errors contained in the explanation, how to correct the explanation, and a better explanation.  Taking the reader through the process of obtaining better explanations.  The examples are diverse, with their quality depending on the readers understanding and interest in the topic. 


Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What is an explanation?  What makes an explanation good or bad? 
•What is a problem?
•What is the beginning of infinity?
•What is empiricism? 
•What are the limits to experiences? 
•What is inductivism? 
•Does science need an authority?
•What are static societies? 
•What is fallibilism? 
•What is the purpose of science?  What is not the purpose of science? 
•What are rules of thumb?
•What is biological knowledge? 
•What effect does evolution has? 
•What is instrumentalism?
•What is relativism? 
•What is creationism? 
•How do explanations become universal? 
•How much has AI improved science Turning’s era? 
•What is the Infinity Hotel? 
•How do memes effect behavior? 
•What kind of political system is needed? 
•Is there a difference between math and physics? 
•How are explanations communicated? 
•Is Earth like a space ship given the claim Space Ship Earth? 
•What were the Enlightenment movements?

Book Details
Edition:                  First American edition
Publisher:               Viking [Penguin Group]
Edition ISBN:         9781101549827
Pages to read:          403
Publication:             2011
1st Edition:              2011
Format:                    eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    4
Content          4
Overall          4