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THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY by David Deutsch Kirkus Star

THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY

Explanations that Transform the World

By David Deutsch

Pub Date: July 25th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-670-02275-5
Publisher: Viking

A philosophical exploration of progress, surprisingly lucid and thought-provoking.

Deutsch (Physics/Oxford Univ.; The Fabric of Reality, 1998) asserts that until a few centuries ago, all cultures assumed everything worth knowing was known. Discoveries occurred (fire, tools, iron, gunpowder) but so rarely that no one thought the world could improve—until the scientific revolution in 17th-century Europe. Since then, new knowledge and discoveries have occurred at a steadily increasing rate with the sky being the limit (the “infinity” in the title). What changed? Deutsch maintains that this was part of a wider movement—the Enlightenment—which revolutionized other fields including moral and political philosophy. Its essence was rejecting authority in regard to knowledge, replacing it—not with another authority, but with a tradition of criticism. This simply means that scientists seek good explanations. A good explanation is hard to vary but does its job. Thus, Newton’s laws worked beautifully for centuries; Einstein’s relativity worked better but didn’t alter it greatly. A bad explanation changes easily. Every prescientific culture had an explanation for human origins, the cause of disease or how the sun shines. All were different and wrong. Both skeptical and optimistic, Deutsch devotes ingenious chapters to refuting ideas (empiricism, induction, holism) and philosophies (positivism, most modernism, post-modernism) that limit what we can learn. Today’s fashionable no-nos include explaining human consciousness or building an intelligent computer, but putting these off-limits is to believe in magic.

Scientists will eventually understand every phenomenon that obeys the laws of the universe, writes the author in this provocative, imaginative investigation of human genius.