The Beginning of Infinity - by David Deutsch


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.

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 ‘ininity’ referred to in the title of this book.

1 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

One of the most remarkable things about science is the contrast between the enormous reach and power of our best theories and the precarious, local means by which we create them.

Scientific theories are explanations: assertions about what is out there and how it behaves. Where do these theories come from? For most of the history of science, it was mistakenly believed that we ‘derive’ them from the evidence of our senses – a philosophical doctrine known as empiricism. But, in reality, scientiic theories are not ‘derived’ from anything. We do not read them in nature, nor does nature write them into us. They are guesses – bold conjectures. Human minds create them by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas with the intention of improving upon them.

Experience is indeed essential to science, but its role is different from that supposed by empiricism. It is not the source from which theories are derived. Its main use is to choose between theories that have already been guessed. That is what ‘learning from experience’ is.

The misconception that knowledge needs authority to be genuine or reliable dates back to antiquity, and it still prevails. To this day, most courses in the philosophy of knowledge teach that knowledge is some form of justified, true belief, where ‘justified’ means designated as true (or at least ‘probable’) by reference to some authoritative source or touchstone of knowledge. Thus ‘how do we know ...?’ is transformed into ‘by what authority do we claim ...?’ The latter question is a chimera that may well have wasted more philosophers’ time and effort than any other idea. It converts the quest for truth into a quest for certainty (a feeling) or for endorsement (a social status). This misconception is called justificationism.

The opposing position – namely the recognition that there are no authoritative sources of knowledge, nor any reliable means of justifying ideas as being true or probable – is called fallibilism. To believers in the justiied-true-belief theory of knowledge, this recognition is the occasion for despair or cynicism, because to them it means that knowledge is unattainable. But to those of us for whom creating knowledge means understanding better what is really there, and how it really behaves and why, fallibilism is part of the very means by which this is achieved. Fallibilists expect even their best and most fundamental explanations to contain misconceptions in addition to truth, and so they are predisposed to try to change them for the better. In contrast, the logic of justiicationism is to seek (and typically, to believe that one has found) ways of securing ideas against change.Moreover, the logic of fallibilism is that one not only seeks to correct the misconceptions of the past, but hopes in the future to find and change mistaken ideas that no one today questions or finds problematic. So it is fallibilism, not mere rejection of authority, that is essential for the initiation of unlimited knowledge growth – the beginning of ininity.

The scientific revolution was part of a wider intellectual revolution, the Enlightenment, which also brought progress in other fields, especially moral and political philosophy, and in the institutions of society. One thing that all conceptions of the Enlightenment agree on is that it was a rebellion, and speciically a rebellion against authority in regard to knowledge.

What was needed for the sustained, rapid growth of knowledge was a tradition of criticism. Before the Enlightenment, that was a very rare sort of tradition: usually the whole point of a tradition was to keep things the same. Thus the Enlightenment was a revolution in how people sought knowledge: by trying not to rely on authority.

One consequence of this tradition of criticism was the emergence of a methodological rule that a scientiic theory must be testable (though this was not made explicit at first). Testability is now generally accepted as the deining characteristic of the scientiic method. Popper called it the ‘criterion of demarcation’ between science and non-science.

The essence of experimental testing is that there are at least two apparently viable theories known about the issue in question, making conlicting predictions that can be distinguished by the experiment. Just as conlicting predictions are the occasion for experiment and observation, so conlicting ideas in a broader sense are the occasion for all rational thought and inquiry. For example, if we are simply curious about something, it means that we believe that our existing ideas do not adequately capture or explain it. So, we have some criterion that our best existing explanation fails to meet. The criterion and the existing explanation are conlicting ideas. I shall call a situation in which we experience conlicting ideas a problem. Solving a problem means creating an explanation that does not have the conflict.

Since theories can contradict each other, but there are no contradictions in reality, every problem signals that our knowledge must be lawed or inadequate. Our misconception could be about the reality we are observing, or about how our perceptions are related to it, or both. For instance, a conjuring trick presents us with a problem only because we have misconceptions about what ‘must’ be happening – which implies that the knowledge that we used to interpret what we were seeing is defective. To an expert steeped in conjuring lore, it may be obvious what is happening – even if the expert did not observe the trick at all but merely heard a misleading account of it from a person who was fooled by it. This is another general fact about scientiic explanation: if one has a misconception, observations that conlict with one’s expectations may (or may not) spur one into making further conjectures, but no amount of observing will correct the misconception until after one has thought of a better idea; in contrast, if one has the right idea one can explain the phenomenon even if there are large errors in the data.Again, the very term ‘data’ (‘givens’) is misleading. Amending the ‘data’, or rejecting some as erroneous, is a frequent concomitant of scientiic discovery, and the crucial ‘data’ cannot even be obtained until theory tells us what to look for and how and why. A new conjuring trick is never totally unrelated to existing tricks. Like a new scientiic theory, it is formed by creatively modifying, rearranging and combining the ideas from existing tricks.

Since theories can contradict each other, but there are no contradictions in reality, every problem signals that our knowledge must be lawed or inadequate. Our misconception could be about the reality we are observing, or about how our perceptions are related to it, or both.

Because explanation plays this central role in science, and because testability is of little use in the case of bad explanations, I myself prefer to call myths, superstitions and similar theories unscientiic even when they make testable predictions. But it does not matter what terminology you use, so long as it does not lead you to conclude that there is something worthwhile about the Persephone myth, or the prophet’s apocalyptic theory or the gambler’s delusion, just because is it testable. Nor is a person capable of making progress merely by virtue of being willing to drop a theory when it is refuted: one must also be seeking a better explanation of the relevant phenomena. That is the scientifc frame of mind.

Conjectures are the products of creative imagination. But the problem with imagination is that it can create iction much more easily than truth. As I have suggested, historically, virtually all human attempts to explain experience in terms of a wider reality have indeed been iction, in the form of myths, dogma and mistaken common sense – and the rule of testability is an insuficient check on such mistakes. But the quest for good explanations does the job: inventing falsehoods is easy, and therefore they are easy to vary once found; discovering good explanations is hard, but the harder they are to ind, the harder they are to vary once found. The ideal that explanatory science strives for is nicely described by the quotation from Wheeler with which I began this chapter: ‘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.

Summary Appearances are deceptive. Yet we have a great deal of knowledge about the vast and unfamiliar reality that causes them, and of the elegant, universal laws that govern that reality. This knowledge consists of explanations: assertions about what is out there beyond the appearances, and how it behaves.

For most of the history of our species, we had almost no success in creating such knowledge. Where does it come from? Empiricism said that we derive it from sensory experience. This is false. The real source of our theories is conjecture, and the real source of our knowledge is conjecture alternating with criticism. We create theories by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas with the intention of improving upon them. The role of experiment and observation is to choose between existing theories, not to be the source of new ones. We interpret experiences through explanatory theories, but true explanations are not obvious.

Fallibilism entails not looking to authorities but instead acknowledging that we may always be mistaken, and trying to correct errors. We do so by seeking good explanations – explanations that are hard to vary in the sense that changing the details would ruin the explanation. This, not experimental testing, was the decisive factor in the scientiic revolution, and also in the unique, rapid, sustained progress in other ields that have participated in the Enlightenment. That was a rebellion against authority which, unlike most such rebellions, tried not to seek authoritative justifications for theories, but instead set up a tradition of criticism. Some of the resulting ideas have enormous reach: they explain more than what they were originally designed to. The reach of an explanation is an intrinsic attribute of it, not an assumption that we make about it as empiricism and inductivism claim.

Meanings of 'the beginning of infinity' encountered in this chapter

  • The fact that some explanations have reach.
  • The universal reach of some explanations.
  • The Enlightenment.
  • A tradition of criticism.
  • Conjecture: the origin of all knowledge.
  • The discovery of how to make progress: science, the scientiic revolution, seeking good explanations, and the political principles of the West.
  • Fallibilism

2 Closer to Reality

It may seem strange that scientific instruments bring us closer to reality when in purely physical terms they only ever separate us further from it. But we observe nothing directly anyway. All observation is theoryladen. Likewise, whenever we make an error, it is an error in the explanation of something. That is why appearances can be deceptive, and it is also why we, and our instruments, can correct for that deceptiveness.

The growth of knowledge consists of correcting misconceptions in our theories. Edison said that research is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration – but that is misleading, because people can apply creativity even to tasks that computers and other machines do uncreatively. So science is not mindless toil for which rare moments of discovery are the compensation: the toil can be creative, and fun, just as the discovery of new explanations is.

3 The Spark

Every putative physical transformation, to be performed in a given time with given resources or under any other conditions, is either

  • impossible because it is forbidden by the laws of nature; or
  • achievable, given the right knowledge.

That momentous dichotomy exists because if there were transformations that technology could never achieve regardless of what knowledge was brought to bear, then this fact would itself be a testable regularity in nature. But all regularities in nature have explanations, so the explanation of that regularity would itself be a law of nature, or a consequence of one. And so, again, everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.

Both the Principle of Mediocrity and the Spaceship Earth idea are, contrary to their motivations, irreparably parochial and mistaken. From the least parochial perspectives available to us, people are the most signiicant entities in the cosmic scheme of things. They are not ‘supported’ by their environments, but support themselves by creating knowledge. Once they have suitable knowledge (essentially, the knowledge of the Enlightenment), they are capable of sparking unlimited further progress. Apart from the thoughts of people, the only process known to be capable of creating knowledge is biological evolution. The knowledge it creates (other than via people) is inherently bounded and parochial. Yet it also has close similarities with human knowledge.

Meanings of 'the beginning of infinity' encountered in this chapter

  • The fact that everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.‘Problems are soluble.’
  • The ‘perspiration’ phase can always be automated.
  • The knowledge-friendliness of the physical world.
  • People are universal constructors.
  • The beginning of the open-ended creation of explanations.
  • The environments that could create an open-ended stream of knowledge, if suitably primed – i.e. almost all environments.
  • The fact that new explanations create new problems

4 Creation

The evolution of biological adaptations and the creation of human knowledge share deep similarities, but also some important differences. The main similarities: genes and ideas are both replicators; knowledge and adaptations are both hard to vary. The main difference: human knowledge can be explanatory and can have great reach; adaptations are never explanatory and rarely have much reach beyond the situations in which they evolved.

False explanations of biological evolution have counterparts in false explanations of the growth of human knowledge. For instance, Lamarckism is the counterpart of inductivism. William Paley’s version of the argument from design clariied what does or does not have the ‘appearance of design’ and hence what cannot be explained as the outcome of chance alone – namely hard-to-vary adaptation to a purpose. The origin of this must be the creation of knowledge. Biological evolution does not optimize benefits to the species, the group, the individual or even the gene, but only the ability of the gene to spread through the population. Such benefits can nevertheless happen because of the universality of laws of nature and the reach of some of the knowledge that is created.

The ‘fine-tuning’ of the laws or constants of physics has been used as a modern form of the argument from design. For the usual reasons, it is not a good argument for a supernatural cause. But ‘anthropic’ theories that try to account for it as a pure selection effect from an infinite number of different universes are, by themselves, bad explanations too – in part because most logically possible laws are themselves bad explanations.

Meanings of 'the beginning of infinity' encountered in this chapter

  • Evolution.
  • More generally, the creation of knowledge.

5 The Reality of Abstractions

Reductionism and holism are both mistakes. In reality, explanations do not form a hierarchy with the lowest level being the most fundamental. Rather, explanations at any level of emergence can be fundamental. Abstract entities are real, and can play a role in causing physical phenomena. Causation is itself such an abstraction.

Meanings of 'the beginning of infinity' encountered in this chapter

  • The existence of emergent phenomena, and the fact that they can encode knowledge about other emergent phenomena.
  • The existence of levels of approximation to true explanations.
  • The ability to understand explanations.
  • The ability of explanation to escape from parochialism by ‘letting our theories die in our place’.

6 The Jump to Universality

All knowledge growth is by incremental improvement, but in many fields there comes a point when one of the incremental improvements in a system of knowledge or technology causes a sudden increase in reach, making it a universal system in the relevant domain. In the past, innovators who brought about such a jump to universality had rarely been seeking it, but since the Enlightenment they have been, and universal explanations have been valued both for their own sake and for their usefulness. Because error-correction is essential in processes of potentially unlimited length, the jump to universality only ever happens in digital systems.

Meanings of 'the beginning of infinity' encountered in this chapter

  • The existence of universality in many fields.
  • The jump to universality.
  • Error-correction in computation.
  • The fact that people are universal explainers.
  • The origin of life.
  • The mysterious universality to which the genetic code jumped.

7 Artificial Creativity

I have settled on a simple test for judging claims, including Dennett’s, to have explained the nature of consciousness (or any other computational task): if you can’t program it, you haven’t understood it.

We should expect AI to be achieved in a jump to universality, starting from something much less powerful. In contrast, the ability to imitate a human imperfectly or in specialized functions is not a form of universality. It can exist in degrees. Hence, even if chatbots did at some point start becoming much better at imitating humans (or at fooling humans), that would still not be a path to AI. Becoming better at pretending to think is not the same as coming closer to being able to think. There is a philosophy whose basic tenet is that those are the same. It is called behaviourism – which is instrumentalism applied to psychology

The field of artificial (general) intelligence has made no progress because there is an unsolved philosophical problem at its heart: we do not understand how creativity works. Once that has been solved, programming it will not be dificult. Even artificial evolution may not have been achieved yet, despite appearances. There the problem is that we do not understand the nature of the universality of the DNA replication system.

8 A Window on Inifnity

Meanings of 'the beginning of infinity' encountered in this chapter

  • The ending of the ancient aversion to the infinite (and the universal).
  • Calculus, Cantor’s theory and other theories of the infinite and the infinitesimal in mathematics.
  • The view along a corridor of Infinity Hotel.
  • The property of infinite sequences that every element is exceptionally close to the beginning.
  • The universality of reason.
  • The infinite reach of some ideas.
  • The internal structure of a multiverse which gives meaning to an ‘infinity of universes’.
  • The unpredictability of the content of future knowledge is a necessary condition for the unlimited growth of that knowledge.

9 Optimism

The Principle of Optimism: All evils are caused by insuficient knowledge.

Optimism (in the sense that I have advocated) is the theory that all failures – all evils – are due to insufficient knowledge. This is the key to the rational philosophy of the unknowable. It would be contentless if there were fundamental limitations to the creation of knowledge, but there are not. It would be false if there were fields – especially philosophical fields such as morality – in which there were no such thing as objective progress. But truth does exist in all those fields, and progress towards it is made by seeking good explanations.

Problems are inevitable, because our knowledge will always be infinitely far from complete. Some problems are hard, but it is a mistake to confuse hard problems with problems unlikely to be solved. Problems are soluble, and each particular evil is a problem that can be solved. An optimistic civilization is open and not afraid to innovate, and is based on traditions of criticism. Its institutions keep improving, and the most important knowledge that they embody is knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors.

Meanings of 'the beginning of infinity' encountered in this chapter

  • Optimism.(And the end of pessimism.)
  • Learning how not to fool ourselves.
  • Mini-enlightenments like those of Athens and Florence were potential beginnings of infinity.

11 The Multiverse

The physical world is a multiverse, and its structure is determined by how information flows in it. In many regions of the multiverse, information flows in quasi-autonomous streams called histories, one of which we call our ‘universe’. Universes approximately obey the laws of classical (pre-quantum) physics. But we know of the rest of the multiverse, and can test the laws of quantum physics, because of the phenomenon of quantum interference. Thus a universe is not an exact but an emergent feature of the multiverse.

One of the most unfamiliar and counter-intuitive things about the multiverse is fungibility. The laws of motion of the multiverse are deterministic, and apparent randomness is due to initially fungible instances of objects becoming different. In quantum physics, variables are typically discrete, and how they change from one value to another is a multiversal process involving interference and fungibility.

12 A Physicist’s History of Bad Philosophy With Some Comments on Bad Science

Let me define ‘bad philosophy’ as philosophy that is not merely false, but actively prevents the growth of other knowledge.

Its combination of vagueness, immunity from criticism, and the prestige and perceived authority of fundamental physics opened the door to countless systems of pseudo-science and quackery supposedly based on quantum theory. Its disparagement of plain criticism and reason as being ‘classical’, and therefore illegitimate, has given endless comfort to those who want to defy reason and embrace any number of irrational modes of thought. Thus quantum theory – the deepest discovery of the physical sciences – has acquired a reputation for endorsing practically every mystical and occult doctrine ever proposed.

Error is the normal state of our knowledge, and is no disgrace. There is nothing bad about false philosophy. Problems are inevitable, but they can be solved by imaginative, critical thought that seeks good explanations. That is good philosophy, and good science, both of which have always existed in some measure. For instance, children have always learned language by making, criticizing and testing conjectures about the connection between words and reality. They could not possibly learn it in any other way.

Bad philosophy has always existed too. For instance, children have always been told, ‘Because I say so.’ Although that is not always intended as a philosophical position, it is worth analysing it as one, for in four simple words it contains remarkably many themes of false and bad philosophy. First, it is a perfect example of bad explanation: it could be used to ‘explain’ anything. Second, one way it achieves that status is by addressing only the form of the question and not the substance: it is about who said something, not what they said. That is the opposite of truth-seeking. Third, it reinterprets a request for true explanation (why should something-or-other be as it is?) as a request for justification (what entitles you to assert that it is so?), which is the justified-true-belief chimera. Fourth, it confuses the nonexistent authority for ideas with human authority (power) – a much-travelled path in bad political philosophy.And, fifth, it claims by this means to stand outside the jurisdiction of normal criticism.

One currently inluential philosophical movement goes under various names such as postmodernism, deconstructionism and structuralism, depending on historical details that are unimportant here. It claims that because all ideas, including scientific theories, are conjectural and impossible to justify, they are essentially arbitrary: they are no more than stories, known in this context as ‘narratives’. Mixing extreme cultural relativism with other forms of anti-realism, it regards objective truth and falsity, as well as reality and knowledge of reality, as mere conventional forms of words that stand for an idea’s being endorsed by a designated group of people such as an elite or consensus, or by a fashion or other arbitrary authority. And it regards science and the Enlightenment as no more than one such fashion, and the objective knowledge claimed by science as an arrogant cultural conceit.

Perhaps inevitably, these charges are true of postmodernism itself: it is a narrative that resists rational criticism or improvement, precisely because it rejects all criticism as mere narrative. Creating a successful postmodernist theory is indeed purely a matter of meeting the criteria of the postmodernist community – which have evolved to be complex, exclusive and authority-based. Nothing like that is true of rational ways of thinking: creating a good explanation is hard not because of what anyone has decided, but because there is an objective reality that does not meet anyone’s prior expectations, including those of authorities. The creators of bad explanations such as myths are indeed just making things up. But the method of seeking good explanations creates an engagement with reality, not only in science, but in good philosophy too – which is why it works, and why it is the antithesis of concocting stories to meet made-up criteria.

13 Choices

To choose an option, rationally, is to choose the associated explanation. Therefore, rational decision-making consists not of weighing evidence but of explaining it, in the course of explaining the world. One judges arguments as explanations, not justifications, and one does this creatively, using conjecture, tempered by every kind of criticism. It is in the nature of good explanations – being hard to vary – that there is only one of them. Having created it, one is no longer tempted by the alternatives. They have been not outweighed, but out-argued, refuted and abandoned. During the course of a creative process, one is not struggling to distinguish between countless different explanations of nearly equal merit; typically, one is struggling to create even one good explanation, and, having succeeded, one is glad to be rid of the rest.

Proportional representation is often defended on the grounds that it leads to coalition governments and compromise policies. But compromises – amalgams of the policies of the contributors – have an undeservedly high reputation. Though they are certainly better than immediate violence, they are generally, as I have explained, bad policies. If a policy is no one’s idea of what will work, then why should it work? But that is not the worst of it. The key defect of compromise policies is that when one of them is implemented and fails, no one learns anything because no one ever agreed with it. Thus compromise policies shield the underlying explanations which do at least seem good to some faction from being criticized and abandoned.

In science, we do not consider it surprising that a community of scientists with different initial hopes and expectations, continually in dispute about their rival theories, gradually come into near-unanimous agreement over a steady stream of issues (yet still continue to disagree all the time). It is not surprising because, in their case, there are observable facts that they can use to test their theories. They converge with each other on any given issue because they are all converging on the objective truth. In politics it is customary to be cynical about that sort of convergence being possible.

It is a mistake to conceive of choice and decision-making as a process of selecting from existing options according to a fixed formula. That omits the most important element of decision-making, namely the creation of new options. Good policies are hard to vary, and therefore conflicting policies are discrete and cannot be arbitrarily mixed. Just as rational thinking does not consist of weighing the justiications of rival theories, but of using conjecture and criticism to seek the best explanation, so coalition governments are not a desirable objective of electoral systems. They should be judged by Popper’s criterion of how easy they make it to remove bad rulers and bad policies. That designates the plurality voting system as best in the case of advanced political cultures.

Meanings of 'the beginning of infinity' encountered in this chapter

  • Choice that involves creating new options rather than weighing existing ones.
  • Political institutions that meet Popper’s criterion.

14 Why are Flowers Beautiful

It is true that, just as one cannot deduce moral maxims from scientific theories, likewise nor can one deduce aesthetic values. But that would not prevent aesthetic truths from being linked to physical facts through explanations, as moral ones are.

There are objective truths in aesthetics. The standard argument that there cannot be is a relic of empiricism. Aesthetic truths are linked to factual ones by explanations, and also because artistic problems can emerge from physical facts and situations. The fact that lowers reliably seem beautiful to humans when their designs evolved for an apparently unrelated purpose is evidence that beauty is objective. Those convergent criteria of beauty solve the problem of creating hard-to-forge signals where prior shared knowledge is insuficient to provide them.

Meanings of 'the beginning of infinity' encountered in this chapter

  • The fact that elegance is a heuristic guide to truth.
  • The need to create objective knowledge in order to allow different people to communicate

15 The Evolution of Culture

A culture is a set of ideas that cause their holders to behave alike in some ways. By ‘ideas’ I mean any information that can be stored in people’s brains and can affect their behaviour. Thus the shared values of a nation, the ability to communicate in a particular language, the shared knowledge of an academic discipline and the appreciation of a given musical style are all, in this sense, ‘sets of ideas’ that define cultures.

Although we do not know exactly how creativity works, we do know that it is itself an evolutionary process within individual brains. For it depends on conjecture (which is variation) and criticism (for the purpose of selecting ideas). So, somewhere inside brains, blind variations and selections are adding up to creative thought at a higher level of emergence [meme evolution].

To be a meme, an idea has to contain quite sophisticated knowledge of how to cause humans to do at least two independent things: assimilate the meme faithfully, and enact it. That some memes can replicate themselves with great idelity for many generations is a token of how much knowledge they contain.

Memes are subject to all sorts of random and intentional variation in addition to all that selection, and so they evolve. So to this extent the same logic holds as for genes: memes are ‘selfish’. They do not necessarily evolve to benefit their holders, or their society – or, again, even themselves, except in the sense of replicating better than other memes. (Though now most other memes are their rivals, not just variants of themselves.) The successful meme variant is the one that changes the behaviour of its holders in such a way as to make itself best at displacing other memes from the population. This variant may well benefit its holders, or their culture, or the species as a whole. But if it harms them, or destroys them, it will spread anyway. Memes that harm society are a familiar phenomenon.

The post-Enlightenment West is the only society in history that for more than a couple of lifetimes has ever undergone change rapid enough for people to notice. Short-lived rapid changes have always happened: famines, plagues and wars have begun and ended; maverick kings have attempted radical change. Occasionally empires were rapidly created or whole civilizations were rapidly destroyed. But, while a society lasted, all important areas of life seemed changeless to the participants: they could expect to die under much the same moral values, personal lifestyles, conceptual framework, technology and pattern of economic production as they were born under. And, of the changes that did occur, few were for the better. I shall call such societies static societies: societies changing on a timescale unnoticed by the inhabitants

Static societies have customs and laws – taboos – that prevent their memes from changing. They enforce the enactment of the existing memes, forbid the enactment of variants, and suppress criticism of the status quo.

The enforcement of the status quo is only ever a secondary method of preventing change – a mopping-up operation. The primary method is always – and can only be – to disable the source of new ideas, namely human creativity. So static societies always have traditions of bringing up children in ways that disable their creativity and critical faculties. That ensures that most of the new ideas that would have been capable of changing the society are never thought of in the first place.

How is this done? The details are variable and not relevant here, but the sort of thing that happens is that people growing up in such a society acquire a set of values for judging themselves and everyone else which amounts to ridding themselves of distinctive attributes and seeking only conformity with the society’s constitutive memes. They not only enact those memes: they see themselves as existing only in order to enact them. So, not only do such societies enforce qualities such as obedience, piety and devotion to duty, their members’ sense of their own selves is invested in the same standards. People know no others. So they feel pride and shame, and form all their aspirations and opinions, by the criterion of how thoroughly they subordinate themselves to the society’s memes.

Dynamic societies: To be transferred to a single person, a meme need seem useful only to that person. To be transferred to a group of similar people under unchanging circumstances, it need be only a parochial truth. But what sort of idea is best suited to getting itself adopted many times in succession by many people who have diverse, unpredictable objectives? A true idea is a good candidate. But not just any truth will do. It must seem useful to all those people, for it is they who will be choosing whether to enact it or not. ‘Useful’ in this context does not necessarily mean functionally useful: it refers to any property that can make people want to adopt an idea and enact it, such as being interesting, funny, elegant, easily remembered, morally right and so on. And the best way to seem useful to diverse people under diverse, unpredictable circumstances is to be useful. Such an idea is, or embodies, a truth in the broadest sense: factually true if it is an assertion of fact, beautiful if it is an artistic value or behaviour, objectively right if it is a moral value, funny if it is a joke, and so on.

Thus, memes of this new kind, which are created by rational and critical thought, subsequently also depend on such thought to get themselves replicated faithfully. So I shall call them rational memes. Memes of the older, static-society kind, which survive by disabling their holders’ critical faculties, I shall call anti-rational memes. Rational and antirational memes have sharply differing properties, originating in their fundamentally different replication strategies. They are about as different from each other as they both are from genes.

Existing accounts of memes have neglected the all-important distinction between the rational and anti-rational modes of replication. Consequently they end up missing most of what is happening, and why. Moreover, since the most obvious examples of memes are long-lived anti-rational memes and short-lived arbitrary fads, the tenor of such accounts is usually anti-meme, even when these accounts formally accept that the best and most valuable knowledge also consists of memes.

Living with memes

How should we understand the existence of the distinctively human emergent phenomena such as creativity and choice, in the light of the fact that part of our behaviour is caused by autonomous entities whose content we do not know? And, worse, given that we are liable to be systematically misled by those entities about the reasons for our own thoughts, opinions and behaviour? The basic answer is that it should not come as a surprise that we can be badly mistaken in any of our ideas, even about ourselves, and even when we feel strongly that we are right. So we should respond no differently, in principle, from how we respond to the possibility of being in error for any other reason. We are fallible, but through conjecture, criticism and seeking good explanations we may correct some of our errors. Memes hide, but, just as with the optical blind spot, there is nothing to prevent our using a combination of explanation and observation to detect a meme and discover its implicit content indirectly.

For example, whenever we find ourselves enacting a complex or narrowly defined behaviour that has been accurately repeated from one holder to the next, we should be suspicious. If we find that enacting this behaviour thwarts our efforts to attain our personal objectives, or is faithfully continued when the ostensible justifications for it disappear, we should become more suspicious. If we then find ourselves explaining our own behaviour with bad explanations, we should become still more suspicious. Of course, at any given point we may fail either to notice these things or to discover the true explanation of them. But failure need not be permanent in a world in which all evils are due to lack of knowledge. We failed at first to notice the non-existence of a force of gravity. Now we understand it. Locating hang-ups is, in the last analysis, easier.

Another thing that should make us suspicious is the presence of the conditions for anti-rational meme evolution, such as deference to authority, static subcultures and so on. Anything that says ‘Because I say so’ or ‘It never did me any harm,’ anything that says ‘Let us suppress criticism of our idea because it is true,’ suggests static-society thinking. We should examine and criticize laws, customs and other institutions with an eye to whether they set up conditions for anti-rational memes to evolve. Avoiding such conditions is the essence of Popper’s criterion.

Cultures consist of memes, and they evolve. In many ways memes are analogous to genes, but there are also profound differences in the way they evolve. The most important differences are that each meme has to include its own replication mechanism, and that a meme exists alternately in two different physical forms: a mental representation and a behaviour. Hence also a meme, unlike a gene, is separately selected, at each replication, for its ability to cause behaviour and for the ability of that behaviour to cause new recipients to adopt the meme.

The holders of memes typically do not know why they are enacting them: we enact the rules of grammar, for instance, much more accurately than we are able to state them.

There are only two basic strategies of meme replication: to help prospective holders or to disable the holders’ critical faculties. The two types of meme – rational memes and antirational memes – inhibit each other’s replication and the ability of the culture as a whole to propagate itself. Western civilization is in an unstable transitional period between stable, static societies consisting of anti-rational memes and a stable dynamic society consisting of rational memes. Contrary to conventional wisdom, primitive societies are unimaginably unpleasant to live in. Either they are static, and survive only by extinguishing their members’ creativity and breaking their spirits, or they quickly lose their knowledge and disintegrate, and violence takes over. Existing accounts of memes fail to recognize the signiicance of the rational/anti-rational distinction and hence tend to be implicitly anti-meme. This is tantamount to mistaking Western civilization for a static society, and its citizens for the crushed, pessimistic victims of memes that the members of static societies are.

16 The Evolution of Creativity

What replicates human memes is creativity; and creativity was used, while it was evolving, to replicate memes. In other words, it was used to acquire existing knowledge, not to create new knowledge. But the mechanism to do both things is identical, and so in acquiring the ability to do the former, we automatically became able to do the latter. It was a momentous example of reach, which made possible everything that is uniquely human.

Memes, like scientiic theories, are not derived from anything. They are created afresh by the recipient. They are conjectural explanations, which are then subjected to criticism and testing before being tentatively adopted. This same pattern of creative conjecture, criticism and testing generates inexplicit as well as explicit ideas. In fact all creativity does, for no idea can be represented entirely explicitly. When we make an explicit conjecture, it has an inexplicit component whether we are aware of it or not. And so does all criticism.

Not only is creativity necessary for human meme replication, it is also suficient. Deaf people and blind people and paralysed people are still able to acquire and create human ideas to a more or less full extent. Hence, neither upright walking nor ine motor control nor the ability to parse sounds into words nor any of those other adaptations, though they might have played a role historically in creating the conditions for human evolution, were functionally necessary to allow humans to become creative. Nor, therefore, are they philosophically signiicant in understanding what humans are today, namely people: creative, universal explainers.

On the face of it, creativity cannot have been useful during the evolution of humans, because knowledge was growing much too slowly for the more creative individuals to have had any selective advantage. This is a puzzle. A second puzzle is: how can complex memes even exist, given that brains have no mechanism to download them from other brains? Complex memes do not mandate speciic bodily actions, but rules. We can see the actions, but not the rules, so how do we replicate them? We replicate them by creativity. That solves both problems, for replicating memes unchanged is the function for which creativity evolved. And that is why our species exists.

Meanings of 'the beginning of infinity' encountered in this chapter

  • The evolution of creativity.
  • The reassignment of creativity from its original function of preserving memes faithfully, to the function of creating new knowledge.

17 Unsustainable

Physical resources such as plants, animals and minerals afford opportunities, which may inspire new ideas, but they can neither create ideas nor cause people to have particular ideas. They also cause problems, but they do not prevent people from inding ways to solve those problems. Some overwhelming natural event like a volcanic eruption might have wiped out an ancient civilization regardless of what the victims were thinking, but that sort of thing is exceptional. Usually, if there are human beings left alive to think, there are ways of thinking that can improve their situation, and then improve it further. Unfortunately, as I have explained, there are also ways of thinking that can prevent all improvement. Thus, since the beginning of civilization and before, both the principal opportunities for progress and the principal obstacles to progress have consisted of ideas alone. These are the determinants of the broad sweep of history. The primeval distribution of horses or llamas or lint or uranium can affect only the details, and then only after some human being has had an idea for how to use those things. The effects of ideas and decisions almost entirely determine which biogeographical factors have a bearing on the next chapter of human history, and what that effect will be. Marx, Engels and Diamond have it the wrong way round.

There is no resource-management strategy that can prevent disasters, just as there is no political system that provides only good leaders and good policies, nor a scientiic method that provides only true theories. But there are ideas that reliably cause disasters, and one of them is, notoriously, the idea that the future can be scientiically planned. The only rational policy, in all three cases, is to judge institutions, plans and ways of life according to how good they are at correcting mistakes: removing bad policies and leaders, superseding bad explanations, and recovering from disasters.

Prevention and delaying tactics are useful, but they can be no more than a minor part of a viable strategy for the future. Problems are inevitable, and sooner or later survival will depend on being able to cope when prevention and delaying tactics have failed. Obviously we need to work towards cures. But we can do that only for diseases that we already know about. So we need the capacity to deal with unforeseen, unforeseeable failures. For this we need a large and vibrant research community, interested in explanation and problem-solving. We need the wealth to fund it, and the technological capacity to implement what it discovers.

There is as yet no serious sign of retreat into a sustainable lifestyle (which would really mean achieving only the semblance of sustainability), but even the aspiration is dangerous. For what would we be aspiring to? To forcing the future world into our image, endlessly reproducing our lifestyle, our misconceptions and our mistakes. But if we choose instead to embark on an openended journey of creation and exploration whose every step is unsustainable until it is redeemed by the next – if this becomes the prevailing ethic and aspiration of our society – then the ascent of man, the beginning of infinity, will have become, if not secure, then at least sustainable

18 The Beginning

Illness and old age are going to be cured soon – certainly within the next few lifetimes – and technology will also be able to prevent deaths through homicide or accidents by creating backups of the states of brains, which could be uploaded into new, blank brains in identical bodies if a person should die. Once that technology exists, people will consider it considerably more foolish not to make frequent backups of themselves than they do today in regard to their computers. If nothing else, evolution alone will ensure that, because those who do not back themselves up will gradually die out. So there can be only one outcome: effective immortality for the whole human population, with the present generation being one of the last that will have short lives.

To attempt to predict anything beyond the relevant horizon is futile – it is prophecy – but wondering what is beyond it is not. When wondering leads to conjecture, that constitutes speculation, which is not irrational either. In fact it is vital. Every one of those deeply unforeseeable new ideas that make the future unpredictable will begin as a speculation. And every speculation begins with a problem: problems in regard to the future can reach beyond the horizon of prediction too – and problems have solutions.