Ah, physicists! So smart at teasing out the large and small-scale laws and structure of the Universe, so clueless about the Human Condition. Today's uninformed view of the Human Prospect comes from—
Quantum computing genius and Oxford don David Deutsch is a thinker of such scale and audaciousness he can take your breath away. His bottom line is simple and breathtaking all at once.
It’s this: human beings are the most important entities in the universe. Or as Deutsch might have it, in the “multiverse.” For eons, little changed on this planet, he says. Progress was a joke. But once we got the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, our powers of inquiry and discovery became infinite. Without limit.
This hour NPR's On Point: David Deutsch and the beginning of infinity.
That intro was written by On Point host Tom Ashbrook. Click on the link directly above to listen to the interview.
We've got an excerpt from the introduction to Deutsch's new book The Beginning Of Infinity. Bear in mind as you read it that many, many Americans (and an entire political party) reject the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, evolution and God Knows what else. These enlightened humans are more likely to believe that God put fossils in the ground to test our faith, or that the Devil put those fossils in the ground to mislead us—there are many variations. Generally speaking, the so-called Enlightenment didn't catch on. Homo sapiens was designed by Nature for Faith and Belief, not Reason.
Progress that is both rapid enough to be noticed and stable enough to continue over many generations has been achieved only once in the history of our species. It began at approximately the time of the scientific revolution, and is still under way. It has included improvements not only in scientific understanding, but also in technology, political institutions, moral values, art, and every aspect of human welfare.
[My note: If nothing else, the Housing Bubble demonstrated the great Moral Progress of humankind.]
Whenever there has been progress, there have been influential thinkers who denied that it was genuine, that it was desirable, or even that the concept was meaningful.
[My note: Yes, "thinkers" like me, all my knowledge having been obtained a posteriori, i.e. from experience and observation.]
They should have known better. There is indeed an objective difference between a false explanation and a true one, between chronic failure to solve a problem and solving it, and also between wrong and right, ugly and beautiful, suffering and its alleviation – and thus between stagnation and progress in the fullest sense.
In this book I argue that all progress, both theoretical and practical, has resulted from a single human activity: the quest for what I call good explanations. Though this quest is uniquely human, its effectiveness is also a fundamental fact about reality at the most impersonal, cosmic level – namely that it conforms to universal laws of nature that are indeed good explanations. This simple relationship between the cosmic and the human is a hint of a central role of people in the cosmic scheme of things.
[My note: Thus Deutsch puts Science, and by extension, himself, at the heart all Human Progress, such as it is.]
Must progress come to an end – either in catastrophe or in some sort of completion – or is it unbounded? The answer is the latter. That unboundedness is the ‘infinity’ referred to in the title of this book.
Explaining it, and the conditions under which progress can and cannot happen, entails a journey through virtually every fundamental field of science and philosophy. From each such field we learn that, although progress has no necessary end, it does have a necessary beginning: a cause, or an event with which it starts, or a necessary condition for it to take off and to thrive. Each of these beginnings is ‘the beginning of infinity’ as viewed from the perspective of that field. Many seem, superficially, to be unconnected. But they are all facets of a single attribute of reality, which I call the beginning of infinity.
Undeterred by the fact that Western Civilization, where all this Progress began, is on the wane, and the astonishing human assault on the Earth's habitability, Deutsch prattles on, saying people like me should know better because "there is indeed an objective difference between a false explanation and a true one, between chronic failure to solve a problem and solving it, and also between wrong and right, ugly and beautiful, suffering and its alleviation – and thus between stagnation and progress in the fullest sense." Babbling! The main difference between us being: I know stagnation—no, decay—when I see it, as opposed to "progress in the fullest sense."
Perhaps I shouldn't say Deutsch is undeterred, for it seems to me that he is unaware that the advanced economies are dying and the Earth is under heavy assault. That's not my idea of Progress. (Read my previous 600 posts.) Deutsch is thus a disembodied talking head who has put together a fantasy of gargantuan proportions to establish the promise of infinite progress in various fields of study.
Human beings have a wildly inflated view of themselves which causes no end of troubles. Progress will never exist until that changes. What we need around here is a highly developed, well-earned sense of humility. In this context, the only infinite thing is the human capacity for self-deception.