David Deutsch is an Israeli physicist, trained at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, who is able to think about major issues in a very original way.
He seems to me an outstanding example of “out of the box” thinking that does not shy away from speculating on fundamental issues in a radical and provocative way, although he may sometimes fall into a certain self-sufficiency.
A pioneer in the field of Quantum Computing, a leading advocate of the “Many Worlds” interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, he made himself known to a more general audience with his book “The Fabric of Reality“, although I will comment on another later work published in 2011: “The Beginning of Infinity“.
The subtitle of the book: “explanations that transform the world“, is one of the fundamental theses established by Deutsch and refers to the nature and scope of scientific theories and the power they have to provide us with unlimited knowledge. I wrote down some of the characteristics it lists:
- Scientific theories are explanatory, they tell us ‘what is out there’ and ‘how it behaves’.
- They are an act of creativity of the human mind: we do not read them in Nature, nor does Nature write them into us, nor do they derived from experimentation.
- They are guesses, bold conjectures that we make in search of good explanations and that we expose to criticism and falsification; they must be testable through observation or experimentation.
- They are therefore neither immutable nor perfect, nor is any source of human or revealed authority recognized, but are predisposed to be improved, changed, evolved to create better, truer, more accurate and explanatory ideas.
- A good explanation not only describes correctly and in the most complete possible way the reality in which we are immersed, but we should also be able, from them, to make behavioural predictions of things or phenomena that we do not yet see.
- They should also explain issues that are in another context of much greater scope (for example, not only phenomena on Earth but on other planets or the Cosmos in general).
- They should remain valid even if a new element or fact is discovered that we didn’t know before.
- They are therefore of a completely different nature from the ancient Myths.
Myths explained everything without really explaining anything and did not provide any testable prediction. They were arbitrarily modified or expanded so that their explanations continued to ‘work’ and thus adapt to any new fact or situation in our reality. In the end, any Myth was interchangeable for another one and there was no way to check which one was the right one (and in a way he also attributes this to religions)
I would say that Deutsch devotes a good part of the book to exposing his epistemology -“knowledge about knowledge” as he defines it in a fictitious dialogue between Socrates and Hermes-.
He subscribes to Karl Popper’s ideas, citing him quite a bit -all theories must be falsifiable (refutable) through data or empirical observations- and reject classical inductivism.
He doesn’t believe in extreme reductionism, doubting the most basic physical components can explained everything, and above all, he is optimistic about what human beings can become and do, since he considers us to be ‘universal constructors’ of knowledge: although our senses are biochemically limited, our capacity to reason and think is of general scope.
The “beginning” of the explosion of human knowledge is associated with the “Enlightenment“, the adoption of a critical and rational way of thinking, with a rejection of authority as a source of validity, which has many similarities with the characteristics of that historical period.
Thanks to the Enlightenment, man begins to develop that toolkit of thought that provide good explanatory and scientific theories.
We move from a model of societies with static beliefs and structure with a parochial vision -condemned to extinction if there is a great alteration of the environment- to dynamic societies, based on a generation of knowledge that allows them to face life and its changing conditions.
As for the ‘infinite‘, he believes that the generation of knowledge and progress has no limits and that we cannot foresee all that we will be able to think or do, which will only be limited by physical laws. At whatever point we find ourselves there will always be more to know and to think about than what we already know.
For Deutsch, there are two maxims: “problems are inevitable“, but also that with sufficient knowledge all “problems are soluble“.
There are many more issues in the book (this article does not pretend to be a complete summary), but I will mention another idea that in these ‘Covid-19 times’ takes special relevance: according to Deutsch, only thanks to knowledge can we adapt the environment to our survival and development because the biosphere is not designed to be benevolent to us (I would say that it is something reciprocal) and one of its examples is the Plague pandemic that devastated Humanity in the Middle Ages.
Of course, he doesn’t think like Leibniz that we live in the ‘best of all possible worlds’ and he raises an interesting and provocative question:
Will we be able in the future to simulate a better, more complex, more beautiful and more ‘moral’ Universe than the one we live in today? (I put the quotes)
This intellectual challenge that it poses (and that more than one of us will have formulated before) is of enormous significance in terms of the conception of our existence and the origin of everything that surrounds us.
In short, I enjoyed the book. If you follow its reflections it’s easy to end up surprising you with brilliant, original ideas or approaches that open up new perspectives and make you reflect. That’s for me its true value.
As a ‘fault’, I believe that some ideas don’t seem to me to be sufficiently elaborated and argued, at least to present them as categorical statements without nuances. He is a very intelligent and skilled thinker, but when he moves away from the scientific field, I don’t think his mastery is that deep. I don’t go into detail because my personal vision of issues he raises about philosophy, aesthetics or morals are not relevant, but I do mention it in case the same thing happens to you after reading it.
That said, a book to keep in mind.