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 Book Review of David Deutsch: The Beginning of Infinity

 Explaining it All: How We Became the Center of the Universe

 Explanations That Transform the World
 By David Deutsch
 Illustrated. 487 pp. Viking. $30.

 David Deutsch's "Beginning of Infinity" is a brilliant and
 exhilarating and profoundly eccentric book. It's about everything:
 art, science, philosophy, history, politics, evil, death, the
 future, infinity, bugs, thumbs, what have you. And the business of
 giving it anything like the attention it deserves, in the small
 space allotted here, is out of the question. But I will do what I

 It hardly seems worth saying (to begin with) that the chutzpah of
 this guy is almost beyond belief, and that any book with these sorts
 of ambitions is necessarily, in some overall sense, a failure, or a
 fraud, or a joke, or madness. But Deutsch (who is famous, among
 other reasons, for his pioneering contributions to the field of
 quantum computation) is so smart, and so strange, and so creative,
 and so inexhaustibly curious, and so vividly intellectually alive,
 that it is a distinct privilege, notwithstanding everything, to
 spend time in his head. He writes as if what he is giving us amounts
 to a tight, grand, cumulative system of ideas--something of almost
 mathematical rigor--but the reader will do much better to approach
 this book with the assurance that nothing like that actually turns
 out to be the case. I like to think of it as more akin to great,
 wide, learned, meandering conversation--something that belongs to
 the genre of, say, Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy"--never
 dull, often startling and fantastic and beautiful, often at odds
 with itself, sometimes distasteful, sometimes unintentionally
 hilarious, sometimes (even, maybe, secondarily) true.

 The thought to which Deutsch's conversation most often returns is
 that the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, or
 something like it, may turn out to have been the pivotal event not
 merely of the history of the West, or of human beings, or of the
 earth, but (literally, physically) of the universe as a whole.

 Here's the sort of thing he has in mind: The topographical shape and
 the material constitution of the upper surface of the island of
 Manhattan, as it exists today, is much less a matter of geology than
 it is of economics and politics and human psychology. The effects of
 geological forces were trumped (you might say) by other forces--
 forces that proved themselves, in the fullness of time, physically
 stronger. Deutsch thinks the same thing must in the long run be true
 of the universe as a whole. Stuff like gravitation and dark energy
 are the sorts of things that determine the shape of the cosmos only
 in its earliest, and most parochial, and least interesting stages.
 The rest is going to be a matter of our own intentional doing, or at
 any rate it's going to be a matter of the intentional doings of what
 Deutsch calls "people," by which he means not only human beings, and
 not all human beings, but whatever creatures, from whatever planets,
 in whatever circumstances, may have managed to absorb the lessons of
 the Scientific Revolution.

 There is a famous collection of arguments from the pioneering days
 of computer science to the effect that any device able to carry out
 every one of the entries on a certain relatively short list of
 elementary logical operations could, in some finite number of steps,
 calculate the value of any mathematical function that is calculable
 at all. Devices like that are called "universal computers." And what
 interests Deutsch about these arguments is that they imply that
 there is a certain definite point, a certain definite moment, in the
 course of acquiring the capacity to perform more and more of the
 operations on that list, when such a machine will abruptly become as
 good a calculator as anything, in principle, can be.

 Deutsch thinks that such "jumps to universality" must occur not only
 in the capacity to calculate things, but also in the capacity to
 understand things, and in the closely related capacity to make
 things happen. And he thinks that it was precisely such a threshold
 that was crossed with the invention of the scientific method. There
 were plenty of things we humans could do, of course, prior to the
 invention of that method: agriculture, or the domestication of
 animals, or the design of sundials, or the construction of pyramids.
 But all of a sudden, with the introduction of that particular habit
 of concocting and evaluating new hypotheses, there was a sense in
 which we could do anything. The capacities of a community that has
 mastered that method to survive, and to learn, and to remake the
 world according to its inclinations, are (in the long run)
 literally, mathematically, infinite. And Deutsch is convinced that
 the tendency of the world to give rise to such communities, more
 than, say, the force of gravitation, or the second law of
 thermodynamics, or even the phenomenon of death, is what ultimately
 gives the world its shape, and what constitutes the genuine essence
 of nature. "In all cases," he writes, "the class of transformations
 that could happen spontaneously--in the absence of knowledge--is
 negligibly small compared with the class that could be effected
 artificially by intelligent beings who wanted those transformations
 to happen. So the explanations of almost all physically possible
 phenomena are about how knowledge would be applied to bring those
 phenomena about." And there is a beautiful and almost mystical irony
 in all this: that it was precisely by means of the Scientific
 Revolution, it was precisely by means of accepting that we are not
 the center of the universe, that we became the center of the

 This is all definitely incredibly cool. But I have no idea how one
 might go about investigating whether it is true or false. It seems
 more to the point to think of it as something emotive--as the
 expression of a mood. An incredibly cool mood. A mood that (maybe)
 no human being could ever have been in before right now. A mood
 informed by profound and imaginative reflection on the best and most
 advanced science we have. But not exactly, not even remotely, a live
 scientific hypothesis.

 Anyway, it's that mood, or conceit, or whatever it is, that gives
 "The Beginning of Infinity" its name. But a lot of the meat of this
 book is in its digressions. And of those (alas) I can only, hastily,
 randomly, mention a few.

 Deutsch is interested in neo-Darwinian accounts of the evolution of
 culture. Such accounts treat cultural items--languages, religions,
 values, ideas, traditions--in much the way that Darwinian theories
 of biological evolution treat genes. They are called "memes," and
 are treated as evolving, just as genes do, by mutation and
 selection, with the most successful memes being those that are the
 most faithfully replicated. Deutsch writes with enormous clarity and
 insight about how the mechanisms of mutation and transmission and
 selection of memes are going to have to differ, in all sorts of
 ways, from those of genes.

 He also provides an elegant analysis of two particular strategies
 for meme-replication, one he calls "rational" and the other he calls
 "anti-rational." Rational memes--the sort that Deutsch imagines
 will replicate themselves well in post-Enlightenment societies--
 are simply good ideas: the kind that will survive rigorous
 scientific scrutiny, the kind that will somehow make life easier or
 safer or more rewarding because they tell us something useful about
 how the world actually works. Irrational memes--which are more
 interesting, and more diabolical, and which Deutsch thinks of as
 summing up the essential character of pre-Enlightenment societies--
 reproduce themselves by disabling the capacities of their hosts (by
 means of fear, or an anxiety to conform, or the appearance of
 naturalness and inevitability, or in any number of other ways) to
 evaluate or invent new ideas. And one particular subcategory of
 memes--about which Deutsch has very clever things to say--
 succeeds precisely by pretending not to tell the truth. So, for
 example: "Children who asked why they were required to enact onerous
 behaviors that did not seem functional would be told 'because I say
 so,' and in due course they would give their children the same reply
 to the same question, never realizing that they were giving the full
 explanation. (This is a curious type of meme whose explicit content
 is true even though its holders do not believe it.)"

 Another chapter is devoted entirely to the evolution of creativity.
 At first glance, the ability to come up with new and better ways of
 doing things would appear to confer an obvious survival advantage.
 But if that's how it worked--or so Deutsch argues--then the
 archaeological record ought to contain evidence of the accumulation
 of such better ways of doing things that are contemporaneous with
 the time when the human brain was actually in the process of
 evolving. And it doesn't, which would seem to amount to a puzzle.
 Deutsch has a cute proposal for solving it. The thought is that the
 business of merely passing on complicated memes, without any thought
 of innovation, requires considerable creativity on the part of their
 recipients. Learning a language, for instance, is a matter of
 inferring, from a small number of examples, a collection of general
 rules, each with a potentially infinite number of applications,
 governing the uses of the words involved. In Deutsch's view, the
 work of keeping such complex memes in place, from generation to
 generation, is no less a creative business than the work of
 improving them.

 This, as I said, is cute, and typical of the dexterity of Deutsch's
 mind, but it's hard to know how seriously to take it. Wouldn't it be
 a reproductive advantage to have a heritable capacity to think on
 your feet, and outside the box, in a sticky situation, whether or
 not any particular thought you have ends up getting preserved, and
 passed down to your children, and enshrined in the practice of a
 whole society? And isn't it possible that creativity was never
 selected for at all, but arose as a byproduct of the selection of
 something else? As to the business of learning a language--well,
 gosh, haven't linguists been thinking about these sorts of questions
 very hard, and very systematically, and along very different lines,
 for decades now? If Deutsch has reasons for thinking that all of
 that is somehow on the wrong track, he ought to tell us what those
 reasons are. As it is, none of that gets so much as a mention in his

 And there are, in some places, explicit and outrageous falsehoods.
 Deutsch insists again and again, for example, that the only
 explanation we have for the observed behaviors of subatomic
 particles is a famous idea of Hugh Everett's to the effect that the
 universe of our experience is one of an infinite and endlessly
 branching collection of similar universes--and that what
 resistance there is to this idea is attributable to the influence of
 this or that fancy, misguided philosophical critique of good, solid,
 old-fashioned realistic attitudes toward what scientific theories
 have to tell us about the world. This is simply, wildly, wrong. Most
 of the good, solid, old-fashioned scientific realists who take an
 interest in questions of the foundations of physics--like me, for
 example--are deeply skeptical of Everett's picture. And that's
 because there are good reasons to be worried that Everett's picture
 cannot, in fact, explain those behaviors at all--and because there
 are other, much more reasonable-looking proposals on the table, that
 apparently can.

 Deutsch's enthusiasm for the scientific and technological
 transformation of the totality of existence naturally brings with it
 a radical impatience with the pieties of environmentalism, and
 cultural relativism, and even procedural democracy--and this is
 sometimes exhilarating and sometimes creepy. He attacks these
 pieties, with spectacular clarity and intelligence, as small-minded
 and cowardly and boring. The metaphor of the earth as a spaceship or
 life-support system, he writes, "is quite perverse.... To the
 extent that we are on a 'spaceship,' we have never merely been 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." But it's hard to get to the end of this
 book without feeling that Deutsch is too little moved by actual
 contemporary human suffering. What moves him is the grand Darwinian
 competition among ideas. What he adores, what he is convinced
 contains the salvation of the world, is, in every sense of the word,
 The Market.

 And there are moments when you just can't imagine what the deal is
 with this guy. Deutsch--notwithstanding his open and
 anti-authoritarian and altogether admirable ideology of inquiry--
 is positively bubbling over with inviolable principles: that
 everything is explicable, that materialist interpretations of
 history are morally wrong, that "the only uniquely significant thing
 about humans ... is our ability to create new explanations," and
 on and on. And if the reader turns to Pages 64 and 65, she will find
 illustrations depicting two of them, literally, carved in stone. I

 Never mind. He is exactly who he is, and he is well worth getting to
 know, and we are very lucky indeed to have him.

 David Albert is a professor of philosophy at Columbia and the author
 of "Quantum Mechanics and Experience."

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