The Beginning of Infinity is jam-packed with amazing ideas. It's so dense, that these book notes are a source of a vast amount of thoughts and models of how the world works. To me, this book is simply insane. It's not without reason that Naval Ravikant thinks of this as one of the best books out there.
The book introduces a single concept - The Beginning of Infinity - from many different angles. What the book means by Infinity is the open-ended journey of cosmic exploration. Other people might call this the "Cosmic Endowment" of humanity. And we are at the beginning of it.
Conscious beings, like us, with a certain amount of intelligence, are a beginning of infinity, because they can undertake this journey. Multicellular life and the enlightenment movement are also Beginnings of Infinity. Generally, things that can become sentient and intelligent and do something about their continued existence in the universe are Beginnings of Infinity.
Deutsch also argues that the large-scale organization of the cosmos in the future will be determined less by the laws of physics, and more by the actions of the conscious agents (life) within it. Deutsch uses the word "people" to describe such agents. People to him mean any form of intelligent organization that can explore the cosmos. People of any kind are a Beginning of Infinity. Humankind is such a people.
Another idea from this book I enjoyed a lot, is the explanation of scientific theory as the quest for better explanations. And that the only worth of a theory is measured by its explanatory power. Theories that explain more with less are generally better and this quest for more understanding and simplicity is at the heart of science.
According to Deutsch, who borrows heavily from Karl Popper's ideas of what science is, this quest can be ongoing and endless. We just improve our guesses and our conjectures over time. And we can even find new branches of science that explore our creations. An example would be computer science, something that wouldn't exist without us having built computers. Deutsch thinks that there will always be more to discover, layers to unpeel, and things to find out and learn about. Because we will keep building increasingly complicated machines, just like we built computers, for which we will need new sciences to understand them. And in that sense science is also a Beginning of Infinity.
Another important idea from the book is the idea of comprehensibility and compressibility. Our universe can be comprehended and we can store this comprehension in physical matter. We can map ideas about the universe to material states and thereby store information and develop ways of processing it. Without this property of the universe computation therefore life would be impossible. Life is just a mapping of facts about the universe that help reproduction into a form that can not only store but exploit those facts. Life is carrying out computation and derives new ideas because it undergoes evolution.
Evolution and creative thought are fundamentally the same things. They operate on the same principle, permutation of information and then selection of that information according to some metric of "usefulness". Thought is much faster at this iterative process and can therefore extract and generate knowledge much more quickly than evolution can. In the future, there will be more processes akin to thought and evolution, that work yet faster at knowledge generation. Both are Beginnings of Infinity.
Computational Machines can achieve a state of generality. This is illustrated by the idea of Turing's Completeness. Everything a Turing Machine can do, any other computer can do as well. All computers at a certain level are equivalent. They are "general". There is one exception though. Quantum Computers, can use quantum interactions to do computations a normal Turing Machine can't do. Human brains are at the level of universality. We are Turing complete. Language is also universal. It can express and code for any idea out there. Including ideas about language itself.
The last idea I want to mention in the summary is one of the most hopeful views out there. I would like to quote Deutsch himself:
Every putative physical transformation, to be performed in a given time with given resources or under any other conditions, is either 1. Impossible because it is forbidden by the laws of nature; or 2. Achievable given the right knowledge.
In other words, given the right knowledge, we can do everything possible. It's just a question of finding the explanations. Elon Musk has a very similar idea - if you had a magic wand that could assemble a rocket from the raw materials it would be very very cheap to produce rockets. Science and engineering are the processes, where we search for and create and build those magical wands.
I like the stuff David Deutsch writes in general. You should check out his other book The Fabric of Reality as well.
All progress, both theoretical and practical, has resulted from a single human activity: the quest for what I call good explanations.
The beginning of Infinity is the facet of reality that allows people to make unbounded progress within it. That is what the book is about.
Chapter 1 - The Reach of Explanations
The physical world is not only much bigger and more violent than it once seemed, it is also immensely richer in detail, diversity and incident. Yet it all proceeds according to elegant laws of physics that we understand in some depth. I do not know which is more awesome: the phenomena themselves or the fact that we know so much about them.
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.
Nor is nature a book: one could try to "read" the dots in the sky for a lifetime - many lifetimes - without learning anything about what they are.
Far from providing direct or untainted access to reality, even they themselves are never experienced for what they are - namely crackles of electrical activity. Nor, for the most part, do we experience them as being where they are - inside our brains. Instead, we place them in the reality beyond, we do not just see blue: we see a blue sky up there, far away. We do not just feel pain: we experience a headache or a stomach ache. The brain attaches those interpretations -"head", "stomach" and "up there" - to events that are in fact within the brain itself.
Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves. - Richard Feynman
That is what makes good explanations essential to science: It is only when a theory is a good explanation - hard to vary - that it even matters whether it is testable. Bad explanations are equally useless whether they are testable or not.
The better an explanation is, the more rigidly its reach is determined - because the harder it is to vary an explanation, the harder it is in particular to construct a variant with a different reach, whether larger or smaller, that is still an explanation.
But - so what? Gold is important to us, but in the cosmic scheme of things it has little significance. Explanations are important to us: we need them to survive. But is there anything significant, in the cosmic scheme of things, about explanations, that apparently puny physical process that happens inside brains?
We create theories by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas with the intention of improving upon them. The role of experiment and observation is to choose between existing theoriesy not to be the source of new ones.
We interpret experienced through explanatory theories, but true explanations are not obvious.
Chapter 2 - Closer to Reality
I was wrong to be impressed by the mere scale of what I was looking at. Some people become depressed at the scale of the universe, because it makes them feel insignificant. Other people are relieved to feel insignificant, which is even worse. [...] Feeling insignificant because the universe is large has exactly the same logic as feeling inadequate for not being a cow. Or a herd of cows. The universe is not there to overwhelm us; it is our home, and our resource. The bigger the better.
It is a marvellous fact that objects can exist which, when we observe them, accurately take on the appearance and other attributes of other objects that are elsewhere and very differently constituted. Our sensory systems are such objects too, for it is only they that are directly affecting our brains when we perceive anything. Such instruments are rare and fragile configurations of matter.
Physically, all that has happened is that human beings, on Earth, have dug up raw materials such as iron ore and sand and have rearranged them - still on Earth - into complex objects such as radio telescopes, computers and display screens, and now instead log looking at the sky, they look at those o objects.
It may seem strange that scientific instruments bring us closer to the reality when in purely physical terms they only ever separate us further from it. But we observe nothing directly anyway.
The idea is that reality is never something we can have any idea about directly. We can only ever map over sensory stimuli within our reach to extrapolate and use them as building blocks for abstract concepts and explanations. Those explanations can in turn be used to construct different arrangements of matter, that give us access to more sensory stimuli, which we can reinterpret again to see if our explanations of reality hold true or not. Which we can keep doing, building more and more elaborate apparatus, on a quest to discover how the world, which we only ever know by analogy, behaves. And that's what we call scientific progress in the end. The building of concrete abstract explanations of how the unaccessible real world works. On the way there we introduced a lot more in between us and reality, but without this stuff, in between, we wouldn't be able to gather the data necessary at all, since our built-in instruments are too weak for that. The marvelous thing is that the universe allows itself to be mapped within our brains, that we can have representations of how it works, stored within connections between neurons, somehow behaving as a mental entity, in a complementary way, to how the real thing would behave. That is mindboggling, fun, creative and beautiful.
Chapter 3 - The Spark
So it may seem that human beings and their wishes and actions are extremely insignificant in the universe at large.
We should not consider ourselves significant, they assert, we should not expect the world to submit indefinitely to our depredations. [...] they are both false, even in the straightforward factual sense.
There is a Life-Support system in Oxfordshire today, but it is not provided by the biosphere. It has been built by humans. It consists of clothes, houses, farms, hospitals, an electrical grid, a sewage system and so on. Nearly the whole of Earth's biosphere in its primeval state was likewise incapable of keeping an unprotected human alive for long. It would be much more accurate to call it a death trap for humans rather than a Life-Support system.
The biosphere only ever achieves stability - and only temporarily at that - by continually neglecting, harming, disabling and killing individuals.
To the extent we are on a "spaceship", we have never been merely its passengers, nor (as is often said) its stewards, nor even its maintenance crew: we are its designers and builders. Before the designs created by humans, it was not a vehicle, but only a heap of dangerous raw materials.
Dawkins proposes that there is a limit to understanding, while Deutsch argues that there is no such limit and that potentially the mind can construct infinitely better explanations over time - my question would be about fundamental problems of mathematics, such as the Halting Problem or Gödels Incompleteness Theorem? And what about the set of all possible theories and mathematical worlds that could potentially exist, but make no sense to us? Aren't those proofs of Dawkins' point?
Every putative physical transformation, to be performed in a given time with given resources or under any other conditions, is either 1. Impossible because it is forbidden by the laws of nature; or 2. Achievable given the right knowledge.
This raises an all-important question, how many natural laws are there truly if an entity would exist that had infinite knowledge? What are the absolute, unbreakable boundaries?
The ability to create and use explanatory knowledge gives people a power to transform nature which is ultimately not limited by parochial factors, as all other adaptations are, but only by universal laws. This is the cosmic significance of explanatory knowledge - and hence of people, whom I shall henceforward define as entities that can create explanatory knowledge.
Using knowledge to cause automated physical transformations is, in itself, not unique to humans. It is the basic method, by which all organisms keep themselves alive: every cell is a chemical factory. The difference between humans and other species is in what kind of knowledge they can use (explanatory instead of rule-of-thumb) and in how they create it (conjecture and criticism of ideas, rather than the variation and selection of genes).
And, while every other organism is a factory for converting resources of a fixed type into more such organisms, human bodies (including their brains) are factories for transforming anything into anything that the laws of nature allow. They are 'universal constructors'.
You do not become less of a person if you lose a limb in an accident; it is only if you lose your brain that you do.
Human reach is essentially the same as the reach of explanatory knowledge itself. An environment is within human reach if it is possible to create an open-ended stream of explanatory knowledge there.
Because humans are universal constructors, every problem of finding or transforming resources can be no more than a transient factor limiting the creation of knowledge in a given environment.
An unproblematic state is a state without creative thought. Its other name is death.
This reminds me a lot of the description of Joscha Bach of an AI automating all tasks away, leading to perfect solutions for every problem, solutions that don't require thought and therefore no consciousness. In other words, this AI would mean death for all. It might very well be, that nature could exist on its own and be the very same as this AI.
Carving maxims into stone - Problems are inevitable but also soluble. What a crazy way to think about the world. Fundamentally right, but at the same time, the devil is in the details. Because the question is always, can humans not do it in theory but in practice? That means are there constraints that limit our reach? Constraints, that kill us before we acquire the knowledge necessary to overcome them?
The rule is person-friendliness to people who have the relevant knowledge. Death is the rule for those who do not.
The question here is - into which group do we belong over time? Can we stay ahead far enough on the knowledge curve to ward off extinction forever? How far is our reach in practice? How urgent is action necessary and needed?
Many things are more obviously significant than people. Space and time are significant because they appear in almost all explanations of other physical phenomena. Similarly, electrons and atoms are significant. Humans seem to have no place in that exalted company. Our history and politics, our science, art and philosophy, our aspirations and moral values - all these are tiny side effects of a supernova explosion a few billion years ago, which could be extinguished tomorrow by another such explosion.
Knowledge is a significant phenomenon in the universe, because to make almost any prediction about astrophysics one must take a position about what types of knowledge will or will not be present near the phenomena in question. So all explanations of what is out there in the physical world mention knowledge and people, if only implicitly.
The moon, rebuilding itself into a habitable environment, and generating more knowledge, would have originated from one thing only, the arrival of a bit of knowledge at its surface. That's the only thing necessary to create a "Beginning of Infinity".
Like an explosive awaiting a spark, unimaginably numerous environments in the universe are waiting out there, for aeons on end, doing nothing at all or blindly generating evidence and storing it up or pouring it out into space. Almost any of them would, if the right knowledge ever reached it, instantly and irrevocably burst into a radically different type of physical activity: I tense knowledge-creatiob displaying all the various kinds of complexity, universality and reach that are inherent in the laws of nature, and transforming that environment from what is typical today into what could become typical in the future. If we want to, we could be that spark.
People are the most significant entities in the cosmic scheme of things. They are not 'supported' by their environments, but support themselves by creating knowledge. Once they have ehutsvlr knowledge, they are capable of sparking unlimited further progress.
This chapter gave a whirlwind tour of why humans can become truly awesome. It dismantled two ideas of humility, one the idea of humans being mediocrity itself in the universe and nothing special at all, and the other that humans should rely on their roots, living like they used to, being provided by "mother" earth. the claims are both wrong, one because we build our environments and that's the only way we survive as long as we did, i.e. mother Earth or benevolent nature is a deadly lie/trap that we only escaped by building our habitats through the use and generation of knowledge. The other idea can then be dismantled by the same logic, when we can support ourselves by creating knowledge, that's the only thing binding us - the amount of knowledge we can create essentially is the only limiting factor to our potential abilities, besides natural unbreakable laws, that can not ever be altered by having more knowledge.
This effectively gives us a "Beginning of Infinity", i.e. we can change the things that will happen in this universe if we chose to do so and therefore we can claim our significance. Or at least the significance of universal intelligence embodied in a universal constructor. We are and have both and that's why we and other "people" (the term Deutsch uses for this kind of civilization) have the power to change almost everything.
We can build knowledge-creation machines, out of the thin vacuum of space, given that we want to do so and find the right knowledge to enable it. This means we could transform "empty" space into whatever we want it to be, by using the sparsely spread hydrogen available. And that thought, of us as a "Beginning of Infinity", of a spark to create pattern and meaning and complexity in this universe is what the chapter was all about. Acknowledging this capacity and not being taken aback by its seeming arrogance of it. Because it is a logically sound argument, and a very empowering one at that, since it gives perspective to our pursuits, meaning where there otherwise would be none.
Chapter 4 - Creation
The knowledge in human brains and the knowledge in biological adaptations are both created by evolution in the broad sense: the variation of existing information, alternating with selection.
The two types of information that they respectively evolved to store have a property of cosmic significance in common: once they are physically embodied in a suitable environment, they tend to cause themselves to remain so. Such information- which I call knowledge - is very unlikely to come into existence other than through the error-correcting process of evolution or thought.
From the point of view of both the species and all its members, the change brought about by this period of its evolution has been a disaster. But evolution does not 'care' about that. It favours only the genes that spread best through the population.
Organisms are the slaves, or tools, that genes use to achieve their 'purpose' of spreading themselves through the population. [...] Genes gain advantages over each other in part by keeping their slaves alive and healthy, just as human slave owners did. Slave owners were not working for the benefit of their workforces, nor for the benefit of individual slaves: it was solely to achieve their objectives that they fed and housed their slaves, and indeed forced them to reproduce. Genes do much the same thing.
The most general way of stating the central assertion of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is that a population of replicators subject to variation (for instance by imperfect copying) will be taken over by those variants that are better than their rivals at causing themselves to be replicated.
What is a scientiest, or any sort of thinking person, in a universe in which only bad explanations are true?
The problem has been not that the world is so complex that we cannot understand why it looks as it does, but it is that it is so simple that we cannot yet understand it. But this will be noticeable only with hindsight.
Before a discovery is made, no predictive process could reveal the content or the consequences of that discovery. For if it could, it would be that discovery. So scientific discovery is profoundly unpredictable, despite the fact that it is determined by the laws of physics.
What science - and creative thought in general - achieves is unpredictable creation ex nihilo. So does biological evolution. No other process does.
The main question of this chapter was how knowledge can be created in the world, he then goes on to dismantle different theories of what he calls creationism. All of them have the same thing in common and that's their fatal flaw, they explain creation by invoking magic, hence their explanations are easily varied and therefore infinite. There is no good way to compare one to the other as objectively better and hence no real knowledge is created. These theories hold no explanatory power. They are bad explanations and besides their name don't explain creation at all. The question: Where did the knowledge come from? - remains unanswered by all of them except one - neo-Darwinism. Knowledge can evolve via natural variation and selection. Variation is the creative aspect, producing new knowledge, and selection is the process of improving that knowledge over time, leading to more complexity over time. One form of this "evolution" in neo-Darwinism is the formation of ideas. Ideas can be replicators - just like genes are and as long as they vary - people think new thoughts - and are selected - they refute and criticize their thoughts and hence improve upon them - neo-Darwinistic evolution happens for the real of thought as well.
The main difference between the evolution of genes and species and the evolution of ideas is their directedness and therefore speed. Whereas variation in natural evolution occurs randomly and is somewhat rare, it happens rapidly in human minds and therefore the creation of new knowledge happens much faster as well - that's why technology these days is capable of supporting us in lots of different environments easily, whereas our bodies can not. The conclusion of the chapter is this: creationist theories don't deserve their name, because they don't explain creation at all! The only theory that would deserve that name is neo-Darwinism, i.e. the general theory of the evolution of replicators.
Chapter 5 - The Reality of Abstractions
Emergent phenomena are essential to the explicability of the world. Long before humans had much explanatory knowledge, they were able to control nature by using rules of thumb.
We can let our theories die in our place. - Karl Popper
You know that if your computer beats you at chess, it is the program that has beaten you, not the silicon atoms or the computer as such. The abstract program is instantiated physically as a high level behavior of vast numbers of atoms, but the explanation of why it has beaten you cannot be expressed without also referring to the program in its own right.
If you were suddenly the last human on Earth, you would be wondering what sort of life to want. Deciding "I should do whatever pleases me most" would give you very little clue, because what pleases you depends on your moral judgement of what constitutes a good life, not vice versa.
A theory can have infinite reach even if the person who originated it is unaware that it does. However, a person is an abstraction too. And there is a kind of infinite reach that is unique to people: the reach of the ability to understand explanations. And this ability is itself an instance of the wider phenomenon of universality.
Emergence causes abstractions to arise and those abstractions have to be factored in when designing and thinking of good explanations. To develop a solid understanding of the universe we have to factor in emergent entities- abstractions. Such as intelligence, causation, people, life etc. and we can even study those scientifically. It also shows that only knowing physics is not even close to enough for a theory of everything, because even though everything could be reduced to quantum mechanics, those explanations would be a lot worse and less "explaining" than ones that do involve higher order concepts and abstractions.
Chapter 6 - The Jump to Universality
Indeed it seems to be a recurring theme in the early history of many fields that universality, when it was achieved, was not the primary objective, if it was an objective at all. A small change in a system to meet a parochial purpose just happened to make the system universal as well. This is the jump to universality.
Knowledge is information, which, when it is physically embodied in a suitable environment, tends to cause itself to remain so.
To appreciate universality at the time of its discovery, one must either value abstract knowledge for its own sake or expect it to yield unforeseeable benefits. In a societx that rarely experienced change, both those attitudes would be quite unnatural. But that was reversed with the Enlightenment, whose quintessential idea is, as I have said, that progress is both desirable and attainable. And so, therefore, is universality.
The philosopher John Searle had placed the AI project in the following historical perspective: for centuries, some people have tried to explain the mind in mechanical terms, using similes and metaphors based on the most complex machines of the day. First the brain was supposed to be like an immensely complicated set of gears and levers. Then it was hydraulic pipes, then steam engines, then telephone exchanges - and, now that computers are our most impressive technology, brains are said to be computers. But this is still no more than a metaphor, says Searle, and there is no more reason to expect the brain to be a computer than a steam engine. But there is. A steam engine is not a universal simulator. But s computer is, so expecting it to be able to do whatever neurons can is not a metaphor: it is a known and property of the laws of physics as best we know them.
In reality, information that cannot be reliably retrieved is not being stored.
Genes are replicators that can be interpreted as instructions in a genetic code. Genomes are groups of genes that are dependant on each other for replication. The process of copying a genome is called a living organism.
Even Life on Earth will eventually be extinguished unless people decide otherwise. Only people can rely on themselves into the unbounded future.
Chapter 7 - Artificial Creativity
If you can't program it, you haven't understood it.
Unfortunately it is very rare for practical solutions to fundamental problems to be discovered without any explanation of why they work.
Without explaining where the knowledge that an AI generates comes from we can have neither a successful Turing test nor the AI in the first place. However, those explanations start to exist when one looks at neural networks and the state of the art of research there! I.e. they start to show that knowledge is indeed being generated by something that wasn't coded in already! They are about to make the jump to universality and then - who knows what's going to happen... We start to have those explanations of how computer programs can generate intelligent replies, images and more.
In fact, if we had only such an explanation but had not yet seen any output from the program - and even if it had not been written yet - we should still conclude that it was a genuine AI program. So there would be no need for a Turing test.
If the program is thinking, then in the course of such a conversation it will explain itself - in one of countless, unpredictable ways - just as you or I would.
In any case, we should expect AI to be achieved in a jump to universality, starting from something much less powerful.
This is the exact point in time we are at... Isn't it? When is that jump going to occur at OpenAIs or DeepMinds labs?! And what the heck will the world look like after that jump has happened?
The analogue of evolutionary change in a species is creative thought in a person. The analogue of the idea that AI could be achieved by an accumulation of chatbot tricks is Lamarckism, the theory that new adaptations could be explained by changes that are in reality just a manifestation of existing knowledge.
the problem of AI boils down to the same question as the problem of evolution then - where does the knowledge come from? What are the random permutation and selection equivalents of naturally occurring evolution and conjecture/refutation in human sciences? The answer to this is surprisingly simple nowadays - randomness is introduced as a bias vector to the GAN as separate input and the network architecture of the GAN as a generator of how to shape that information into something that can then be refuted by the discriminator! That's insane.
I think we have to face the fact, both with artificial evolution and with AI, that these are hard problems. There are serious unknowns in how those phenomena were achieved in nature. Trying to achieve them artificially without ever discoverinh those unknowns was perhaps worth trying. But it should be no surprise that it has failed.
The question of this chapter is where does knowledge come from - when trying to implement artificial intelligence? And to this day, this question remains unsettled, the jump to universality that our brains have done, a mystery of yet unknown implementation details. We still lack the understanding of this problem (how nature achieved universality with the genetic code and the human brain) Specifically we do not know what happened exactly to make those two things special, we do not know what made them jump... but that's not a big deal, because problems are soluble and we, therefore, should find a better explanation someday which will then make it easy to also implement Artificial Intelligence and other universal systems.
Chapter 8 - A Window on Infinity
The reach of explanations cannot be limited by fiat.
The Principle of Mediocrity set out to escape parochialism and to reach for infinity, but ends up confining science to an infinitesimal and unrepresentative bubble of comprehensibility.
Was Cantor experiencing Infinity when he proved theorems about it? Or was he experiencing only symbols? But we only ever experience symbols.
Almost all mathematical truths have no proofs. They are unprovable truths. It also follows that almost all mathematical statements are undecidable: there is no proof that they are true, and no proof that they are false. Each of them is either true or false, but there is no way of using physical objects such as brains or computer to discover which is which. The laws of physics provide us with only a narrow window through which we can look out on the world of abstractions.
Our knowledge of whether or not a proposition is true or false always depends on knowledge about how physical objects behave.
There is no such thing as abstractly proving something, just as there is no such thing as abstractly knowing something.
Contrary to what most mathematicians since antiquity have believed and believe to this day, proof theory can never be made into a branch of mathematics. Proff theory is a science: specifically, it is computer science.
At present we do not know why the laws of physics seem fine-tuned; we do not know why various forms of universality exist (though we do know of many connections between them); we do not know why the world is explicable. But eventually we shall. And when we do, there will be infinitely more left to explain.
The most important of all limitations on knowledge-creation is that we cannot prophesy: we cannot predict the content of ideas yet to be created, or their effects.
Definitely one of the harder chapters. A lot of ideas about mathematical infinity. Puppies that get lost in the singularity of Infinity by pushing them down the rooms of Hilbert's hotel and the idea that mathematical proofs are dependent on reality. I.e the main thing that makes proof a valid toolkit to discover facts about abstract mathematics is that they exist in a specific universe, where some actions are valid and easy and others are not, which gives rise to the concept of proofs and therefore to the idea of what is and isn't true in mathematics generally. There is no higher mathematical plane on which things could exist, independent of physics, when we would have different physics we would also have different ideas of what constitutes proof and what doesn't. Also, there were a lot of ideas about weird conclusions about infinities, the main one to remember that every item in an infinite ordered set is maximally close at its beginning and that if things get pushed along the rooms of Hilbert hotel they can disappear - or even reappear, where the idea would be akin to a naked singularity, a white hole, that instead of taking in stuff and making it disappear forever, spews fort stuff into the universe. The big bang might have been such an event. However these speculations are bad explanations - because well - they don't explain anything, they just transfer the problem of - where did this stuff come from to some other place, infinity... Instead of God.
Chapter 9 - Optimism
We cannot even predict most of the problems that we shall encounter, or most of the opportunities to solve them, let alone the solutions and attempted solutions and how they will affect events.
People in 1900 did not consider the internet or nuclear power unlikely: they did not conceive of them at all.
In the meantime we have no option but to see the world through our best existing explanations - which include our existing misconceptions. And that biases our intuition. Among other things, it inhibits us from conceiving of significant changes.
Blind optimism is a stance towards the future. It consists of proceeding as if one knows that the bad outcomes will not happen.
The harm that can flow from any innovation that does not destroy the growth of knowledge is always finite; the good can be unlimited. There would be no existing ship designs to stick with, nor records to stay within, if no one had ever violated the precautionary principle.
In other words - the only way - is the way forward. Burn the ship, be careful, and then go find out how the world works and use it.
So would it casually wipe out billions of people? Would we seem like insects to it? This can seem plausible only if one forgets that there can be only one type of person: universal examiners and constructors. The idea that there could be brings that are to us as we are to animals is a belief in the supernatural.
We do not yet know what we have not yet discovered.
Prior to every natural disaster that people once used to think of as 'just happening', or being ordained by the gods, we now see many options that the people affected failed to take - or, rather, to create.
We shall never be able to afford to sit back and hope for the best.
Induction, Instrumentalism and even Lamarckism all make the same mistake: they expect explanationless progress. They expect knowledge to be created by fiat with few errors, and not by a process of variation and selection that is making a continual stream of errors and correcting them.
Systems of government are to be judged not for their prophetic ability to choose and install good leaders and policies, but for their ability to remove bad ones that are already there.
Unless a society is expecting its own future choices to be better than its present ones, it will strive to make its present policies and institutions as immutable as possible.
The Principle of Optimism All evils are caused by insufficient knowledge.
The end of pessimism is potentially a beginning of Infinity.
Like every other destruction of optimism, whether in a whole civilization or in a single individual, these must have been unspeakable catastrophes for those who had dared to expect progress. But we should feel more than sympathy for those people. We should take it personally. For if any of those earlier experiments in optimism had succeeded, our species would be exploring the stars by now, and you and I would be immortal.
Wealth is the repertoire of physical transformations that one is capable of causing.
The whole chapter was about the idea of optimism, mainly in our capacity to invent and make the future unimaginably better than it is now. It attacked the ideas of pessimism and blind optimism, arriving at the same conclusions that Peter Thiel does in his book Zero to One. Namely, that one can only be positive in the future in a useful way if one accepts the responsibility and possibility of going out there and improving it. That's what civilization should become good at - solving problems. We are always going to be at the beginning of this, and there will never be a point in time without any problems to solve.
But the idea is that we can keep playing the game if we only generate enough knowledge quickly enough to avoid catastrophes that would wipe us out without this knowledge. And that's important. it's more than important - it is the most worthwhile endeavor there is. And we need a good deal of optimism for it. Believing in our capability to progress towards a better future, with more wealth and the ability to solve ever greater problems.
Chapter 10 - A Dream of Socrates
But as for certain truth, no man has known it, Nor will he know it; neither the gods, Nor yet of all things of which I speak. And even if by chance he were to utter The perfect truth, he would himself not know it - For all is but a woven web of guesses.
When we hear something being said, we guess what it means, without realizing what we are doing.
We guess what is there and then we hone our guesses, and then fashion the best ones into a sort of waking dream of reality.
Here we sit, for ever imprisoned in the dark, almost-sealef cave of our skull, guessing. We weave stories of an outside world - worlds, : a physical world, a moral world, a world of abstract geometrical shapes, and so on - but we are not satisfied with merely weaving, nor with mere stories. We want true explanations.
The default assumption should be that misunderstandings are ubiquitous and that neither intelligence nor the intention to be accurate is any guarantee against them.
Objective knowledge, though attainable, is hard to attain.
Chapter 11 - The Multiverse
Imagining inexplicable worlds can help us to understand the nature of explicability.
Although imagination might baulk, reason does not.
Common sense and classical physics contain the parochial error that only one history exists. This error, built into our language and conceptual framework, makes it sound odd to say that an event can be in one sense extremely unlikely and in another certain to happen. But there ie nothing odd about it in reality.
All fiction that does not violate the laws of physics is fact.
The chapter was about the idea of a multiverse and its confounding properties. Namely that of multiplying entities because of the idea of their fundamental fungibility. Fungible things, like money, can not be distinguished from one another in any aspect. I.e. when some money is moved onto an account and there was already some money on that account and then that same amount is removed from the account again, the question of which part of the money it belonged to, does not make sense. Interestingly energy in the multiverse has that property and therefore can interact in quantum mechanics ways. In other words, it can split between universes and lead to different things happening in different universes even though the underlying laws and principles are the same. This leads to a continuing splitting of the multiverse into all versions of how energy could spread from moment to moment. And each of those instances of the multiverse has a certain likelihood of existing compared to other versions leading to the notion of randomness in our universe. Everything is happening, but since we don't know in which specific instance of history we end up we can't predict what's going to happen, we can only count - i.e. measure the number of universes that follow a specific path and use that count as an estimate of probability in our predictions. Things then look random, even though they aren't.
Chapter 12 - A Physicist's history of Bad Philosophy - with some comments on bad science
Error is the normal state of our knowledge, and is no disgrace.
The creators of bad explanations such as myths are indeed just making things up. But the method of seeking good explanations creates an engagement with reality, not only in science, but in good philosophy too - which is why it works, and why it is the antithesis of concocting stories to meet made-up criteria.
In genuine science, one can claim to have measured a quantity only when one has an explanatory theory of how and why the measurement procedure should reveal its value, and with what accuracy.
Happiness is a state of continually solving one's problems, they conjecture. Unhappiness is caused by being chronically baulked in one's attempts to do that.
As soon as scientists allow themselves to stop demanding good explanations and consider only whether a prediction is accurate or inaccurate, they are liable to make fools of themselves.
Bad philosophy is philosophy that denies the possibility, desirability or existence of progress. And progress is the only effective way of opposing bad philosophy.
Philosophy affects science - in bad and good ways. Philosophies that make science harder to happen and are against the creation of knowledge all share the same criterion. They are bad explanations and usually very pessimistic in the sense that was explained in the book. Whenever something claims that the generation of new knowledge is impossible one has to be very very careful about it.
Chapter 13 - Choices
A decision making system moderated by civic responsibility has the defect that it gives disproportionate weight tot the opinions of people who lack civic responsibility and are willing to lie.
At the heart of decision-making is the creation of new options and the abandonment or modification of existing ones.
Rational decision-making consists not of weighing evidence but of explaining it, in the course of explaining the world.
If a policy is no one's idea of what will work, then why should it work?
In the advanced political cultures of the Enlightenment tradition the creation of knowledge can and should be paramount, and the idea that representative government depends on proportionate representation in the legislature is unequivocally a mistake.
Creatively changing the options is what allows people in real life to cooperate in ways that no-go theorems seem to say are impossible; and it is what allows individual minds to choose at all.
Social Choice Theory is badly flawed. Mathematically flawed. If one wants to create the perfect system it will never be found, since it doesn't exist. There are only tradeoffs that can be made when trying to implement representational voting schemes. One can't have all the Arrow criteria at the same time.
However, that's not a problem, since the main problem of choosing good political strategies can be much simpler. Namely, the only measure for political systems is the one that is important for scientific progress as well. Namely how well can the political system itself be refuted, refined and made better over time by criticism, conjecture and refutation? Any system that has a high degree of this malleability is getting constantly better all the time because it creates knowledge about how governments should work best and can run experiments in governance to derive this better knowledge. And that's how those systems over time start to become ever better and why democracy has a leg up against most other systems we have. Because it encourages that dialog about the system itself and allows some change where others (like monarchies) wouldn't
Chapter 14 - Why are Flowers Beautiful?
Elegance is the beauty in explanations.
Is art truly creative, like science and mathematics? That question is usually asked the other way round, because the idea of creativity is still rather confused by various misconceptions.
Humans often act in ways that are contrary to any preferences that might plausibly have been built into our genes. People fast - sometimes for aesthetic reasons. Some abstain from sex. People act in very diverse ways for religious reasons or for any number of other reasons, philosophical or scientific, practical or whimsical.
During that biological co-evolution, just we in the history of art, criteria evolved, and means of meeting those criteria co-evolved with them. That is what gave flowers the knowledge of how to attract insects, and insects the knowledge of how to recognize those flowers and the propensity to fly towards them. But what is surprising is that these same flowers also attract humans.
We are universal explainers and can create knowledge about anything. But still, why did we want to create aesthetic knowledge in particular? It is because we did face the same problem as the flowers and insects. Signalling across the gap between two humans is analogous to signalling across the gap between two entire species. A human being, in terms of knowledge content and creative individuality, is like a species.
The other kind of problem, the pure kind, which has no analogue in biology, is that of creating beauty for its own sake - which includes creating improved criteria for beauty: new artistic standards or styles. This is the analogue of pure scientific research. The states of kind involved in that sort of science and that sort of art are fundamentally the same. Both are seeking universal, objective truth.
Beautiful things are objectively beautiful because they have to bridge a communication gap between species usually. And there is something objective there because in a way beauty, therefore, has to be general enough to be understood. And the thing is that humans are general enough to pick up on those patterns of communication and find them in turn beautiful as well. Because they understand the language spoken between the species. So flowers are beautiful, objectively, because they found a way to generally communicate with insects, that they have common interests with them. Humans can go one step further though, beyond flowers and their intrinsically biological motivations and create intricate patterns of communication for their sake. Because of beauty. Because they want them to be understood by other human brains, which are as fundamentally different as are different species to each other and hence need the same objective general standard for communication to succeed.
Chapter 15 - The Evolution of Culture
A culture is a set of ideas that cause their holders to behave alike in some ways.
Cultures change. People modify cultural ideas in their minds, and sometimes they pass on the modified versions.
The overwhelming majority of ideas disappear within a lifetime or less. The behavior of people in a long-lived culture is therefore determined partly by recent ideas that will soon become extinct, and partly by long-lived memes: exceptional ideas that have been accurately replicated many times in succession.
What is it about a long-livef meme that gives it this exceptional ability to resist change throughout many replications?
Although we do not know exactly how creativity works, we do know that it is itself and evolutionary process within individual brains.
interesting question: Why didn't CRISPR-style gene drive genes evolve that would force themselves to be transmitted to the next generation?
To be a meme, an idea has to contain quite sophisticated knowledge of how to cause humans to do at least two independent things: assimilate the meme faithfully, and enact it. That some memes can replicate themselves with great fidelity for many generations is a token of how much knowledge they contain.
The successful meme variant is the one that changes the behavior of its holders in such a way sad to make itself best at displacing other memes from the population. This variant max well benefit its holders, or their culture, or the species as a whole. But if it harms them, or destroys them, it will spread anyway. Memes that harm society are a familiar phenomenon.
When people think of new ideas to make life better that leads to the evolution of those ideas and a "Beginning of Infinity". Except that there are taboos in place which effectively prevent this upward spiral of growth! The idea of those taboos is that one has a metric to judge oneself and others and disable the generation of new ideas in the brain. Ideas that can spread and then stop people from having new ideas are very good memes.
Another important question: How can one protect oneself from dangerous memes? And even more important - how could one design a meme that has a distinct positive benefit for society and also is good at reproducing itself?
This destruction of human minds makes static societies almost unimaginable from our perspective. Countless human beings, hoping throughout lifetimes, and for generations, for their suffering to be relieved, not only fail to make progress in realizing any such hope: they largely fail even to try to make any, or even to think about trying.
Aside from here: isn't our society pretty much still like that? Most humans are just the way he described. So there is still important work to be done inventing more effective memes to enable change in society. His book is an attempt to create such a meme then! Something that can convert people to the idea of fallibilism and therefore makes them better explainers and scientists, enabling better chances of human progress and prosperity! Another thought around this is about the effects of social media and interconnectedness in memes. Could there evolve a meme by accident that kills human society in its tracks? Could that even be a solution to the Fermi paradox - a great filter?
Static societies tend to sacrifice the welfare of individuals for the "good" of (that is to say, for the prevention of changes in) society.
Violence is a response of a static society to change. Also, many new memes arising in a static society are harmful, because they last not long enough to be improved upon for the benefit of their beholders. Static societies in that regard are evil. One can show that static societies must have been the rule until recently for otherwise, they would have turned into the powerhouse of progress that we have now much longer ago. This settles the debate of the noble savage once and for all.
Memes that can exist unchanged in a changing environment are hard to think of. They have to have one key characteristic - they need to be general. They need to have universal reach. And the only general ideas like that are truthful and also useful ideas. Because otherwise, they wouldn't spread. And those are the ones that survive in dynamic societies. Criticism further enhances the survivability of this type of meme because they can survive much better in this environment of critique and change!
A true, deep idea has an objective reason to be considered useful by people with diverse purposes over long periods.
Introduces the idea of anti-rational vs. rational memes. Each thrives only in their society. Rational ones can only exist in dynamic and anti-rational ones only in static societies. The one thrives on criticism and adversity and benefits from uncertainty and changes the other tries to completely suppress change and keep the environment stable for its survival. In a way one of them is anti-fragile and the other is fragile. They have completely different reproductive strategies and completely different ecological niches. Static societies do evolve - on time scales too slow for anti-rational memes to notice though. Over many human generations, things become better until enough momentum has been gathered that society has to switch from being static to being dynamic. An Enlightenment movement has occurred, and the "Beginning of Infinity" has happened.
The Enlightenment today is nowhere near complete. [...] In many [...] areas memes are still replicated in the old manner, by means that suppress the recipients' critical faculties and ignore their preferences.
Consider how you would be judged by other people if you went shopping in pyjamas, or painted your home with blue and brown stripes. That gives a hint of the narrowness of the conventions that govern even these objectively trivial and inconsequential choices about style, and the steepness of the social costs of violating them. Is the same thing true of more momentous patterns in our lives, such as careers, relationships, education, morality, political outlook and national identity?
Despite modern talk of encouraging critical thinking, it reminds the case that teaching by rote and inculcating standard patterns of behavior through psychological pressure are integral parts of education, even though they are now wholly or partly renounced in explicit theory.
The distinction between "evolution" and "heroic inventors" as being the agents of discovery makes sense only in a static society. [...] But in a dynamic society, scientific and technological innovations are generally made creatively. [...] When evolution takes place largely within an individual mind, it is not meme evolution. It is creativity by a heroic inventor.
The idea throughout this book is much like Ayn Rand's ideas. People have to take care of themselves and others by using their reason and criticism to build better and better explanations and become truly heroic inventors. And that in itself is a beneficial meme trying to spread, because people want to believe that it is true that they can change the world for the better, yet never do it, because of the memes tying them down. It is also the idea of habits 1-3 in another disguise yet again. We are our masters and can vastly improve everything we put our minds to if we only chose to do so. And we have that choice. We can make it! It is also - then of course - the idea of the chef and the cook in yet another disguise. We have the power to invent our, ever better recipes and have to be on the lookout for societal dynamics and memes that try to pry this privilege away from us again. We have to take care of our beginning of Infinity!
We had better remember that what we are attempting - the sustained creation of knowledge - has never worked before.
Our next transformation: [...] active agents of progress in the emerging rational society - and universe.
A whirlwind chapter. Probably the best so far from the whole book, blistering with energy and new ideas. Namely those of rational memes and their corresponding dynamic societies and anti-rational memes and their corresponding static societies. We know which we want to live in and that we are in a transition period between the two, that collapse and snap back again into the boring, unchanging times of suffering that a static society implements. That has to be avoided, critical thought nourished, until the transformation into a truly dynamic society has been completed and we are at the beginning of Infinity. Memes are like genes, except that we have a choice over which memes to prefer, rational ones versus anti-rational ones, and therefore should be on the lookout for signs of creeping back symptoms of the return to a static society. Refuting bs and using creativity to find ever better memes and explanations of everything further entrenches the entitled position of a dynamic society and creates vast wealth and freedom to be creative and unique, for everyone.
Chapter 16 - The Evolution of Creativity
The unique effect of creativity dominate our experience of the world.
The creativity that humans use to improve ideas is what pre-eminentlx set us apart from other species.
Can enhanced creativity help one to be less innovative than other people?
The ape avoids the infinite ambiguity of copying by already knowing, inexplicitly, the meaning of every action that it is capable of copying.
But the real question is - why and where are humans different in that regard, rather than "simply" having an astounding number of those cases? Because humans copy without copying actions directly. The abstract meaning from the actions and then replay that meaning in their actions... But isn't that just a more complicated statistical analysis then?
Imitation is not at the heart of human meme replication.
If we end up behaving like other people, it is because we have rediscovered the same idea.
The puzzle of how one can possibly translate behavior back into a theory that contains its meaning is therefore the same puzzle as where scientific knowledge comes from.
The transmission of human-type memes - memes whose meaning is mostly predefined within the receiver - cannot be other than a creative activity on the part of the receiver. Memes, like scientific theories, are not derived from anything. They are created afresh by the recipient.
Status in such a [static] society is reduced by transgressing people's expectations of proper behaviour, and is improved by meeting them. [...] People's opinions would determine one's ability to eat, thrive and reproduce, and hence the date of one's genes.
In my words - static societies breed better creativity by making people better copiers of others' behavior because they have to conform to their behavior as best as possible to have evolutionary success themselves. And the only way to truly replicate is to understand what's going on, which is a fundamentally creative process.
Paradoxically, it requires creativity to thrive in a static society - creativity that enables one to be less innovative than other people.
The beginning of creativity was, in that sense, the beginning of Infinity.
Two questions that lead to the idea of where creativity could come from:
- How can creativity be selected for, by evolution, if we don't see any innovation at the beginning of the human species?
- How can memes be transferred between human minds - faithfully - i.e. not merely copied, but the idea, the rule itself transmitted between people? The answer to those questions is the point of the chapter, namely that creativity arose to find those patterns in other human behavior and be able to replicate them faithfully. The act of deriving accurate representations from behavioral data needs creativity. And the evolutionary advantage came because in the first place it was good to know better survival strategies and learn them from others and later to understand how to behave "correctly" in a static society, based on the behavior one observes from others. This leads to this paradox, ever more creative people, can copy memes - the gist of the memes to be exact or a sort of pattern matching of behaviors to the underlying ideas - without also using that same creative mechanism to start reaching for the stars. The mechanism however was there, only used for a different purpose, that of more conformity.
Chapter 17 - Unsustainable
Developments such as abstract language, explanation, wealth above the level of subsistence, and long-range trade all had the potential to erode parochialism and hence to give causal power to ideas.
The Soviet System lost because its ideology wasn't true, and all the biogeography in the world cannot explain what was false about it.
The landscape we live in is the product of ideas.
The contrast [is] between two different conceptions of what people are. In the pessimistic conception, they are wasters: they take precious resources and madly concert them into useless coloured pictures. This is true of static societies: those statues [on the Easter Islands] were what my colleague thought color televisions are - which is why comparing our society with the "old culture" of Easter Island is exactly wrong. In the optimistic conception - the one that was unforeseeable vindicated by events - people are problem-solvers: creators of the unsustainable solution and hence also the next problem. In the pessimistic conception, that distinctive ability of people is a disease for which sustainability is the cure. In the optimistic one, sustainability is the disease and people are the cure.
There are ideas that reliably cause disasters, and one if them is, notoriously, the idea that the future can be scientifically planned.
All triumphs are temporary.
Reminds me a lot of the idea of personal mastery from the Art of Learning. They essentially amount to the same ideas, only that Deutsch in this book, advocates the ideas for the whole of humanity, while Waitzkin uses it only on a per person level as a means of personal growth in given expertise. In short, we need not just engineering-driven companies but engineering-driven societies.
The unpredictable factor of new human ideas, both good and bad, [...makes] the scientific prediction [of the future] useless.
No precautions can avoid problems that we do not yet foresee. To prepare for those, there is nothing we can do but increase our ability to put things right if they go wrong.
The idea of sustainability is in itself a lie since a sustainable society doesn't live forever either. Because they limit their wealth artificially they also limit their reach and the problems they could potentially solve, waiting for disaster to strike and wipe them out.
The only way out of this problem of sustainability is that of sustaining progress at faster rates than the problem of sustainability can catch up to. Namely that new technology solves the sustainability issues from yesterday while creating new sustainability issues for the next generation of technology to solve. Looking at it this way things like climate change are handled completely wrongly, instead of fixing the problem at its technological root we try to fix its symptoms, by throwing out the baby with the bathwater. And that's something we shouldn't do, or else the next asteroid or super volcano or any other type of disaster like it is going to wipe us out with complete certainty.
Chapter 18 - The Beginning:
How different do two Simulations of people have to be before they count as two people for moral purposes?
Since humans are already universal explainers and constructors, they can already transcend their parochial origins, so there can be no such thing as a superhuman mind as such. There can only be further automation, allowing the existing kind of human thinking to be carried out faster, and with more working memory, and delegating "perspiration" phases to (non-AI) automata.
In future, when the rate of innovation will also increase due to the sheet increasing clock rate and throughput of brain add-ons and AI computers, then our capacity to cope with that will increase at the same rate or faster: if everyone were suddenly able to think a million times as fast, no one would feel hurried as a result. Hence I think that the concept of the Singularity as a sort of discontinuity is a mistake. Knowledge will continue to grow exponentially or even faster, and that is astounding enough.
Some explanations for have reach into the distant future, far beyond the horizons that make most other things unpredictable. One of them is that fact itself. Another is the infinite potential of explanatory knowledge - the subject of this book.
We have lot only a few candles here and there. We can cower in their parochial light until something beyond our ken snuffs us out, or we can resistm we already see that we do not live in a senseless world. The laws of physics make sense: the world is explicable. There are higher levels of emergence and higher levels of explanation. Profound abstractions in mathematics, morality and aesthetics are accessible to us. Ideas of tremendous reach are possible.
What lies ahead of us is in any case infinity. All we can choose is whether it is an infinity of ignorance or of knowledge, wrong or right, death or life.
The last chapter. Reiterating over the main ideas, of progress as good and necessary and of humans being the people that could discover what makes the universe tick, forever expanding their knowledge and making for themselves better explanations and trying to solve ever greater problems, living in a dynamic society where the paramount value is progress. But so far we are not there. Truth is, we will never be there since infinity is well. Beyond our reach and we will always feel at the beginning because we will always be since our problems have unbounded scope. That is the foundation of optimism in the end though. Because all those problems will be soluble eventually and questions of ever greater complexity will therefore be answered by ever greater explanations.