“The Beginning of Infinity” – an injection of optimism.

After an enforced hiatus, I’m picking up on my reading list, specifically continuing David Deutsch’s “Beginning of Infinity” to completion. It remains very good, maybe my previous “highest level of discourse available on the planet” is overstating it, (and previously here) but still very good.

The target chapter – the reason for reading – was a bit of a let-down personally. The memetic arguments for cultural evolution were recommended perhaps without realising that was already my thing. The counter-intuitive “creativity suppresses innovation” quip seems no more than the idea that you can have too much of  good thing – too much creative innovation can be counter-productive, the basic fidelity-fecundity principle of evolution, and the sense that in some phases of evolution, steady as she goes is a virtue. All change, anything goes, creativity doesn’t allow the stable speciation & growth aspects of the “innovation” cycle to happen. All covered in a previous Twitter exchange (footnote here).

The other let-down was the chapter on the multiverse interpretations of quantum physics. He really does hold it to be a high-quality explanation of reality which I’m afraid neither I, nor the other philosophical physicists I subscribe to, actually hold. In his earlier work he justified the value of Bohm & Wheeler multiverse interpretations as part of a larger explanatory whole. Here he seems to justify it in its own right, though “quality of explanation” continues to be his whole thrust on the truth of any matter at any level.

Perhaps surprisingly, given he is a quantum physicist, there is an excellent chapter on choices of electoral systems in the US and UK which turns out to be an excellent vehicle for the whole topic of decision-making as a human process, individually as well as socially. Like both positivism and logical-positivism, which get panned in his chapter critiquing philosophy, they harbour a myth that observation of pre-existing “objects” determine theories of future outcomes. Decision-making is rarely of ever simply a matter of choice between available options. That is really only ever a temporary post-rationalisation of what is primarily a creative process until hi-quality explanations – with reach – are discovered.

Anyway, back to electoral systems in particular, he makes a fascinating defence for FPTP over PR. Basically that the practical reality of changing our minds and rejecting previous error, whilst nevertheless having time-limited opportunities to risk new policies, gives FPTP the edge.  PR has it’s own change-limiting drawbacks. For me, this is really about timescales of institutions and policies and policy change processes, so as usual I see this as a matter of balance – when I say PR I always indicate “Proper-PR“. And like Deutsch, when I say proper I don’t mean perfect or idealised, I just mean best in practice, taking proper note of all intended and unintended consequences of each option. The thing we all have to let go of is the idea of any system being both 100% fair and 100% consistent – he doesn’t mention Godel in this respect, but I do. This is one reason FPTP’s ability to share-out unfairness in the long-run, over many electoral cycles gives it the edge for him. Fascinating read as I say.

I won’t dwell on his “bad philosophy” chapter. His real point is that good philosophy, like good science (and good electoral systems) must have in-built processes of challenge and change. Not too much, not too little, just right I’d say. The point being that some have hidden dogmatic inhibitors to real deep change. Hear, hear I say. (One of my long-standing agendas is that science as an enterprise has some huge flaws holding back real progress and keeping us anchored to mythic tenets in ways that few scientists actually notice, and therefore inevitably rail against in denial when pointed out.) As well as panning the positivists which I would agree with, he dismisses the seeming nihilism of the post-modernists and post-Wittgensteinian word-gamers. He dismisses any value in the issues raised – the processes of dialogue – and anyway, he clearly missed the memo that we’re all post-post-modernists now and specifically forwarded to physicists. In some ways that denial of value in alternative thinking – even if the immediate answers are wrong (bad explanations that is) – is part of that hidden inhibitor to progress.

Love the fact that the works of Bronowski feature highly in his references and reading recommendations, as well as the inevitable Popper.

His optimism, that most of history is still ahead of us, that we’ve barely started our human journey and always will be in that state is very strong. Life is only ever at the beginning of an infinite future. As universal constructors of creative solutions to ever newer unpredictable problems, only complete destruction of the species and its cultural resources would represent the end. Science has its limits – but they’re limits to domains of absolute eternal knowability and certainty – not limits to the content and scope of the body of knowledge., scientific or otherwise.

One, perhaps counter-intuitive, example is Deutsch’s take on sustainability. We need to be careful not to treat it as an aspiration or even a thing. Objectifying it can make it another inhibitor to real creativity, a hidden dogma. Our cultural wealth, including our science and technology, and our processes of creativity and change, are our key resources. Not seemingly objective aims elevated to religious importance.

“This is Earth. Not the eternal and only home of mankind, but the starting point of an infinite adventure.” – Isaac Asimov

Problems are never solved, once and for all. They’re just work-arounds until the next one, and often the next one is just a newer version of one of the old ones. Ho hum, wish I’d read it 8 years ago. Onward and upward.


Also published on Medium.

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