The Beginning of Infinity - By David Deutsch


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.

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. 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.

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.


The Reach of Explanations

Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it – in a decade, a century, or a millennium – we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise?

John Archibald Wheeler, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 480 (1986)

To unaided human eyes, the universe beyond our solar system looks like a few thousand glowing dots in the night sky, plus the faint, hazy streaks of the Milky Way. But if you ask an astronomer what is out there in reality, you will be told not about dots or streaks, but about stars: spheres of incandescent gas millions of kilometres in diameter and light years away from us. You will be told that the sun is a typical star, and looks different from the others only because we are much closer to it – though still some 150 million kilometres away. Yet, even at those unimaginable distances, we are confident that we know what makes stars shine: you will be told that they are powered by the nuclear energy released by transmutation – the conversion of one chemical element into another (mainly hydrogen into helium).

Some types of transmutation happen spontaneously on Earth, in the decay of radioactive elements. This was first demonstrated in 1901, by the physicists Frederick Soddy and Ernest Rutherford, but the concept of transmutation was ancient. Alchemists had dreamed for centuries of transmuting ‘base metals’, such as iron or lead, into gold. They never came close to understanding what it would take to achieve that, so they never did so. But scientists in the twentieth century did. And so do stars, when they explode as supernovae. Base metals can be transmuted into gold by stars, and by intelligent beings who understand the processes that power stars, but by nothing else in the universe.

As for the Milky Way, you will be told that, despite its insubstantial appearance, it is the most massive object that we can see with the naked eye: a galaxy that includes stars by the hundreds of billions, bound by their mutual gravitation across tens of thousands of light years. We are seeing it from the inside, because we are part of it. You will be told that,