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BOOK REVIEW: The Beginning of Infinity
What is humanity’s place in the universe? Can we even claim to have one? Religion answers existential questions like these by putting humans at the very center. We are God’s greatest creation, and thus his main preoccupation. Science answers them by telling us that we really don’t have a place in the universe. In Stephen Hawking’s words,
“The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”
It is in this cosmic insignificance that scientists derive their spirituality. The vastness of the universe inspires awe in everyone who looks up at the sky and attempts to understand it.
On their face, these answers couldn’t seem more different. But they actually share an important feature: They both miss what truly makes humans special.
In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch pushes back against parochialism, which he defines as our tendency to mistake appearance for reality, or local regularities for universal laws. Religious explanations are parochial because they are anthropocentric. They put humanity on a pedestal because, compared to all other life on earth, it feels like we deserve to be there.
Secularists scoff at this naïve anthropocentrism, but then make the same mistake in the opposite direction by being anti-anthropocentric. Their conception of humans as “chemical scum” bleeds into how they perceive themselves as humans. You may have heard Neil DeGrasse Tyson say something like:
How can we assume that the gap between our species and space aliens is any less significant than the gap between humans and chimps? After all, the 1% difference that separates humans from chimps has endowed us with culture, philosophy, science, art, and technology. What does that mean for the aliens who are 1% more intelligent than us?
Compelling as this argument may seem, it is just as parochial as the theists’. That is, it misconstrues our cosmic insignificance as a universal principle. We are certainly smaller than we think, therefore we must also be stupider than we think. This has been called the principle of mediocrity, which claims that there really is nothing special about humans.
But humans are endowed with something special, something that has infinite reach within the laws of nature: we have unconstrained access to knowledge, and the means to transmit and build upon it.
Knowledge begins with empirical observation. If we seek an explanation, we will make guesses about what caused the observation. At this phase, our guesses are only conjecture - we still have to test them. Through examination and criticism, new explanations will emerge, leaving the false components behind, and retaining the parts that have yet to be proven wrong.
Language allows us to distribute this process across individuals. It isn’t only the individual’s responsibility to figure out what is true about the world and how it works. If you hold a belief that contradicts reality, someone’s eventually going to notice. Once noticed, false ideas become irrepressibly hard to ignore. New explanations will then be tested for their ability to make accurate predictions about the world. It is through this cooperative and iterative process of conjecture, criticism, and testing that explanations are selected for their accuracy. Call it ‘survival if the truest’.
For criticism to work, it has to be paired with fallibilism - the recognition that, just like everyone else, we are capable of being wrong. Our beliefs will not always be valid, nor will our criticisms of others’ beliefs. We are just as likely to attack an idea that we don't like as we are to believe an idea that we do. If we are unable to admit this, then we will be stuck with the same wrong opinion that we had yesterday. Indeed, every belief that you have ever updated was a direct result of the awareness that you can get things wrong, and through that awareness, you can identify errors and correct course.
When we correct a false assumption about the world, we often solve more problems than we intend to:
The tilt of the Earth’s axis was originally proposed as an explanation for the Sun’s angle of elevation, but it eventually became an explanation for the changing of the seasons.
Gunpowder is a byproduct of Chinese alchemists’ attempt to create the elixir of life.
While developing his theory to study the nature of mathematical proof, Alan Turing inadvertently created the definitive theory of universal classical computers.
Knowledge has this property of applying itself across multiple domains. This is what Deutsch calls ‘the reach of explanation’.
Reach doesn’t only arise by happenstance, but also by design. Much like how a bird’s eyesight doesn’t stop working once it flies away from its ancestral environment, human reason doesn’t stop working once we ponder questions that were irrelevant to our ancestors. We are not limited to the problems that evolution equipped us to solve. Otherwise, it would be impossible for us to understand the unfathomably small, such as the structure of atoms, or the illimitably large, such as the vastness of the universe.
The reach of our explanations is bounded only by the laws of physics. Therefore, anything that is physically possible can be achieved given the requisite knowledge. Take an example from the book:
Imagine an empty cube of space about the size of a galaxy with nothing but stray hydrogen atoms. Deutsch argues that, given the right program, a universal constructor should be able to convert these stray atoms into heavier elements until we end up with something like an intergalactic space station. This universal constructor can either be a machine that can create anything, or a machine that can create a machine that can create anything.
The kicker is that humans already know how to turn some matter into other matter, so we could be the universal constructors in this scenario. I’m not sure why we would choose to spend our time in this way, but who knows, maybe our descendants will get bored one day.
Despite the pessimists, misanthropes, and parochialists, the truth is optimistic. Humans are far from typical.
The coldest temperature in the universe exists not in the deepest outer space, but was created by humans here on Earth. Physicists were able to reach 450 trillionths of a degree celsius above absolute zero (-273 °C), the point at which the atomic particles in an object stop moving entirely. The darkest parts of space only reach about 270 °C.
Or take the notion of ‘spaceship earth’, the idea that our biosphere is perfectly suitable for humanity, and that living anywhere else in the universe would somehow be fundamentally impractical. What the proponents of this idea fail to recognize is that humans have already terraformed the Earth, which is perilously hostile, hence why 99.9% of species have gone extinct over history. None of these species - besides humans - were able to manipulate their environments to their needs, nor could they even think to try. I’ll say it again - Humans are far from typical.
Only until we learn to distinguish between hard and impossible problems can we grasp the full scope of humanity’s potential. Everything in nature has an explanation, and explanations can be utilized. Faster-than-light communication is out of the question because it is constrained by the laws of physics. Anything slower than that is within reach.
Any creature that has the ability to observe phenomena, iterate through explanations, recycle the good ones, and discard the bad ones, can exploit the laws of nature to fit its needs. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are headed toward some impeccable Utopia. Deutsch’s three laws of the human condition are that problems are inevitable, but they are also solvable. Solutions beget new problems, which can be solved in their turn. This imposes an impassable barrier to progress, but it also enables its indefinite pursuit.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the contents of this book. Missing from my review is: what separates a good explanation from a bad one, how morality can (and can only be) derived from reason (turns out you really can get an ought from an is!), the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (i.e., the “Multiverse” as featured in now almost every Marvel movie), the objectivity of beauty, the importance of fallibilism, the role that memes play in humanity’s success, and other topics. This is probably my favorite book of all time, so I sincerely hope that some of you will check it out. You can do so by clicking the image below.
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