It has been a week of mad travel so although I haven’t posted much, at least I’ve had plenty of time to read. One of the books was, well, extraordinary. In a really good way, although I have no idea what to make of it in terms of substance. It’s The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World by David Deutsch. He’s a computational physicist so it is very much not an economics book, but Deutsch is bravely going far beyond the boundaries of his own discipline, something to be applauded given the height of the silo walls in the academic world.
His argument is that there is such a thing as progress, which began with the Enlightenment (the British rather than the romantic Continental variant), and that humans are rather special. The engine of progress is not empiricism, nor accurate prediction, but rather the ability to conjecture and see whether conjectures are consistent with what else we’ve learnt about reality, rejecting them if not. The scientific method consists not in careful observation followed by theorising, but the creative development of theories or hypotheses which then have to be confronted with observations, with robust mechanisms of rejection. So all this is somewhat contrarian, even I know, but it also seems pretty persuasive. Even the parts about how unlikely and therefore central to progress humans are in the universe.
Ah yes, the universe. One of the most gripping sections of the book is its explanation of quantum mechanics. I’ve never pretended to understand at all what this implies about the nature of reality. I still don’t, but Deutsch does nevertheless give one of the clearest explanations I’ve come across. To which the only reaction is awe at the sheer weirdness of the multiverse and therefore everyday life. I don’t think being on an overnight flight had much to do with my reaction. This is seriously weird.
It is all very enjoyable, including wonderful factoids and expressive comparisons along the way. That Oxfordshire is really a bleak deathtrap without so many human innovations to sustain life. That it is easy to confuse mathematical abstractions with physical facts (eg that the angles of a triange add to 180 degrees – only in maths, not on the ground). (By the way, economics is riddled with this kind of error; I give you ‘capital’ or ‘goods’.) That an American born today has more chance of being killed by an asteroid than of dying in a plane crash.
The one section I didn’t much appreciate tries to explain social choice theory. Even given that I know a lot more about this than about quantum physics, and other readers will know more about other subjects covered here, from evolutionary biology to astrophysics to philosophy, this is not a criticism – this is the inevitable downside of inter-disciplinarity. But we need more of this.
After I read the book (first published in 2011), I looked at some reviews. Most reviewers enjoyed it too, even though, as the New York Times review pointed out, “The chutzpah of this guy is beyond belief.” But concludes, “He is exactly who he is, and he is well worth getting to know, and we are very lucky indeed to have him.” So I wasn’t deranged by aircraft fumes; this is a book worth reading.