The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World by David Deutsch

This book is dry, complicated, overly detailed, tangential, and excessive for what it should be, a layperson’s introduction into the theories of the universe and how they may apply to the social sciences.  I’m still not entirely sure what the book is about.  It’s about the importance of having a good way of explaining natural phenomena which is the scientific method and then goes into countless ways we have created bad ways of explaining natural phenomena like superstitions and imploring supernatural beings and mysterious ways.  It’s really that simple, but somehow the author makes it infinitely more complex and confusing.  Fortunately, he provides a summary to each chapter and you might want to just read the summaries and call it a day. 

 The reason I really got into reading science books while hating science in school was the ability of modern science authors to give me a good story.  It often involved fascinating anecdotes about scientists which made their lives colorful and interesting, and as a side note, I learned about their amazing discoveries and not vice versa.  Likewise, history comes to life if you read it as a series of rather amazing dramas instead of an encyclopedia organized by years.  There are a few colorful and exciting parts to the book involving multiple universes and the scale of astronomic phenomenon which is inconceivable to an advanced primate brain, but for the most part the author just drudges through minutia like a typical obtuse and impersonal textbook, the reason I learned to hate science, and if by some miracle you can get through this book, you may never pick up another science book again.  Well, that’s basically my advice then.  Don’t read this book.  It certainly has some valuable lessons about science, valuable explanatory tools versus useless ones, but it’s just not worth the time and effort.  Someday, someone will explain all this with much greater color more concisely, and you will appreciate it instead of walk away more befuddled and frustrated. 

 Well, if you know my blog, you know what’s coming next.  Schools are not really meant to inspire you to learn and be curious and expand your knowledge.  Schools have two purposes for two types of people.  For people who want to be obedient, it provides them with an excessive amount of trivial, often useless knowledge that clutters their minds.  It is not presented in an interesting or personal way that inspires them to learn the rest of their lives.  Rather, it trains them to slog through dry and boring lessons and use pure perseverance to memorize often meaningless knowledge.  But it does teach you important things here and there, so if you fail school, they can always accuse you of being stupid in the important areas as well as the unimportant ones.  For those who have no need for obedience, it punishes you severely.  It makes you feel inadequate and a failure.  For many kids, schools will force you to take drugs or refuse to allow you back to class which then becomes a crime for your parents unless they have the time and ability to home school you.  The facts back this up.  The majority of people never read a book after graduating from school and never take another class in their lives.  It was too traumatizing.  Unfortunately, they mistake their school for learning.  If they understood that the school is not an institution of learning, they may give learning a second chance.  It is, quite frankly, books like this, forced upon students, that make them hate learning.  I can only imagine some teacher forcing me to read this book and then write a report about it.  I’d probably get a B-, because I skimmed a lot of it and couldn’t quite grasp everything the author was saying.  Now, is that because my comprehensive abilities were inadequate or the author inadequately aroused my interest in the subject?  But I have read many other science books and grasped most of it and would probably write an A paper on it.  So how can my comprehensive abilities be a B- for one book and an A for another?  The answer is obvious.  The B- paper  is rather a reflection of the book as is the A paper. 

 Those who did the best in school often were not motivated by the thirst for knowledge but rather the desire to get into a good college or the fear of upsetting their demanding parents.  They’re the ones who only did sufficient studying to get by and took everything they learned at face value.  They quickly learned the teacher’s biases and fed to them.  Certainly, they had a high range of intelligence, but there were many with equal intelligence or greater who refused to play this game, and they received B’s.  And of course, there are those who tried to play the game and didn’t do so well, so they received B’s as well.  The intelligent kids who refused to play the game chose which subjects interested them the most and spent more time on them.  They delved further than necessary for an A.  They let other subjects slip.  They often asked the question ‘why’ and never took anything at face value until it made absolute sense to them.  And they were constantly frustrated, because the matter was never presented in a logical, concise, and interesting manner.  So much was left unexplained or even obfuscated.  School was designed to make you absorb everything unfiltered.  There was no reason to explain the ‘why’ or the context, background, history, or personalities behind concepts.  For the A-students, they graduated at the top of their class, went to nice colleges, found great jobs, but they rarely picked up another nonfiction book or took a class outside their profession.  Their intellectual growth ended.  For the rebels, they continued to pursue knowledge on their own. 

 As humans, not only do we have a social instinct to give and share which give us pleasure, we also have an instinct to learn and teach which also give us pleasure.  To claim that some kids just don’t have the motivation to learn is total and utter bullshit.  What is really happening is that for some kids, you have utterly and completely destroyed their enjoyment and passion for learning and you have provided them with no opportunities for teaching to enhance their comprehension of what they learn and no satisfaction of gaining valuable knowledge they can pass on.   

 The Information Age will bring about not only more information but changes to how we organize, classify, and convey information.  Right now, we are just emerging out of the Industrial Age, and just like farmers used agricultural terms to understand the Industrial Age, we are using industrial terms to try to understand information, which is faulty.  The Industrial Age was all about quantities, containment, separation, and specialization.  We put everything, including our thinking, on assembly lines.  We liked pieces to fit together, we like volume, economies of scale, simplicity, and efficiency.  Information is nothing like that.  Every time we unearth a rock of information, we scatter countless unknowns and questions.  Information grows exponentially.  Trying to treat information like commodities or assembly line pieces is misguided.  Information is fleeting.  The more we know, the more we uncover the incorrectness of our previous information, our misconceptions, biases, faulty generalizations, and premature assumptions.  In the Information Age, you exist in an ephemeral state of transitioning between unknowns to knowns and uncovering knowns as false.  It is fluid, dynamic, and amorphous, and it will require an intensely creative, imaginative, counter-intuitive mind to cope. 

 One of the new inventions of the Information Age will be the ability to convey information effectively, to explain things concisely, entertainingly, and effectively, and ironically this book fails.  Throughout the Industrial Age, conveying information was not important.  The only real method was pounding it into you through rote memorization and repetition drills.  This may be a great way of teaching you physical skills, but it does nothing for your mind except clutter and confuse it.  Nobody really cared about the best and most effective explanation.  However, modern nonfiction books seem to be evolving in that direction.  The bestselling books are the best written in such a manner that it is concise, entertaining, and effective with just a sufficient amount of technical detail.  These books should be viewed as seeds.  If you happen to find the subject matter fascinating enough, you can then buy a more technical book.  But it’s also a generic seed that sparks your interest in learning about all sorts of things and to continue reading countless introductory books covering a wide array of subject matters.  And this is crucial, because apart from mutation, creativity comes from finding one concept in one field and then applying it to another field, or crosspollination.  Information Age people need to have a broad understanding of concepts over a wide array of diverse fields.   

 An interesting theme of the book is how most of all our past attempts to explain things fail because they are parochial and anthropic.  The laws of nature, it turns out, are misanthropic and counterintuitive.  The human mind was “fine-tuned” by evolution to deal with human-scale matters on a planet.  We never had to navigate between atoms or galaxies, so matters of a much larger or smaller scale appear counter-intuitive and nonsensical to us.  The beauty of science is that it does not favor the human scale.  It explains all scales, and as such, we need to abandon temporarily our parochial, anthropic, intuitive side when analyzing nature in different scales.  However, I would also argue that a critical part of science everyone seems to forget about is the conception of hypotheses.  The scientific method does not create hypotheses, human creativity does.  As such, when conceiving of hypotheses, our parochial, anthropic, intuitive senses are invaluable.  The oddity of the scientist is that they have to be both imaginative and creative but then learn to dampen that side when it comes time to testing a hypothesis. 

 Lastly, as dynamic a time we live in, the author is wrong to believe that we have escaped a static society.  It is not that we now cling to religion or mysticism so much as we still cling to the notion that the state is a benevolent force of good, but the state is static.  I just also started reading another book called Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era which is quite mind-blowing.  One of the most important parts of American history was between 1890 and 1920.  It was the Progressive Era, and I don’t think most any American knows just how much it shaped modern society and thought.  And it is written so much better than this horrendous word-factory.  Statism is static.  Government may invest in technology, but they will always quickly follow up by regulating it (e.g., Uber).  The only way to escape harmful regulation is to be too big to regulate, to be able to afford lobbyists to actually write new regulations that favor you.  Government effectively weighs down all small entrepreneurs and innovators.  They impose their ‘memes’ as the author would call them upon society using the mandatory 12-year indoctrination camp called public schooling.  If the state was not static, graduates would leave high school excited about learning, reading, and thinking.  They would spend hours stuck in nonfiction books and take community college classes to expand their minds.  Quite the contrary, people are happy to graduate and escape the indoctrination camp and they leave school hating the idea of reading and thoughtful analysis.  Finally, if you slog through this book, you will hate life and reading.  I only managed by skimming the entire second half.  You may also note that I will always admit when I skim a book.  There is no shame in skimming.  Often only reading the first sentence of every paragraph gives you a good idea of what’s going on and may prompt you to stop skimming.  Skimming allows you to avoid indoctrination in anyone’s book as well as tedious, poor writing while still getting a few good ideas out.  There have been a few books I skimmed only to discover gems near the end of the book.  Any book reviewer who doesn’t tell you they skim is a bold-face liar and any book reviewer who doesn’t skim occasionally must have a horrible life and probably has learned to hate books.  My goal is not to faithfully read every book cover to cover or be a book reviewer.  This is an aside to my main goal of feeding my thirst for both knowledge and entertainment.  There is no greater high for me than getting my mind blown by new ideas or perspectives.  You can’t get your mind blown if you’re stuck in a long dry book you hate and force yourself to read, discovering often that your mind keeps floating away and daydreaming. 

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