David Deutsch is known for pioneering the field of quantum computation. In his work, The Beginning of Infinity, he explores the Enlightenment of the 18th century as the start of a potentially unending sequence of purposeful knowledge creation. He examines the nature of memes and how and why creativity evolved in humans.
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The central thesis of Beginning of Infinity argues that 1) knowledge-creation and 2) traditions of criticism are the core foundation of progress, the key mechanisms for pushing civilization out of stasis.
It emphasizes the most important of all limitations on knowledge is we can’t prophecy, we can’t predict the contents of ideas yet to be created, and their effects.
How then would you prioritize / allocate resources toward basic research vs. applied? So too, what is your view of knowledge-creation in the sciences vs. humanities?
It’s not for me to allocate other people’s resources. But I think the most important thing in research funding is diversity: as many different conflicting agendas and conflicting world views as is reasonably possible. As many different sources of funding as possible (including the government, which has a legitimate interest, for instance, in research that might have military applications, either for the good guys or for the enemies of civilisation).
Given the values of the 18th century European Enlightenment, seeking better explanations, distrust of dogmatism, openness to change etc. took so long to emerge historically speaking, how do you view the project of such values achieving global reach?
It’s urgent because the problem of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of enemies of civilisation is severe and urgent. Yet the spread of those values has nearly stalled. Unfortunately I don’t have specific suggestions. This requires both knowledge and expertise that I don’t have.
You critique romantic notions of Spaceship Earth by pointing to the fact that the biosphere in its primeval state is extremely harsh, and that we create our life support systems of housing, clothing, medicine etc. via forming new knowledge. Knowledge that is hard won via generations of effort and cultural transmission; knowledge that is not present in our genome.
What is your take on the naturalistic fallacy?
It’s a fallacy. There are no sources of truth, but regarding ‘nature’ as a moral oracle is especially perverse.
What are your thoughts on the evolution of the neocortex as the catalyst for such knowledge-creation?
You challenge notions that our predicament is necessarily forever resource scarce. You illustrate the example of a solar system sized cube of “empty space” contains a billion tons of ionized hydrogen. Given the knowledge were achieved to explain how to transmute such elements, such matter and energy could be used to build space stations, power supplies, and research facilities that in turn generate further novel knowledge to push civilization and culture forward ad infinitum.
There are no guarantees we would ever come to discover such knowledge, but either way, you claim, all of our projects of cultural and physical transformation are either 1) impossible, due to laws of physics 2) achievable given the right knowledge. Therefore aiming for knowledge-creation is always the optimal strategy.
How do you view current developments in 3D printing, or nanotechnology? What areas of research could give us insight into potential types of transmutation?
3D printing is one of the technologies that are currently making tiny steps towards the universal constructor. Another is robotics. The enormous benefits that will flow from fully-fledged, robust universal constructors is greatly underestimated in public discussion.
You reiterate that no genetic evolution optimizes progress. Or reframed, evolution has no design or direction; it can lead to organisms that are more complex, or less complex.
Given the genes are indifferent to our well-being, and aren’t headed in any particular direction, what are your thoughts on emerging fields such as gene therapy, synthetic biology, bionics, and artificial intelligence etc.? Might there be a moral argument to be made for intervening on evolution’s legacy, taking responsibility for its shape forward?
We are already doing so.
If so, from what foundation can we articulate a more “optimal” outcome? And how can we avoid the ethical failures of what has happened historically in the name of eugenics?
By respecting human (and people’s in general) rights. Particularly the right to own one’s own body and other property.
I would like to end with a beautiful closing statement from the book, and suggest people pick up a copy, if they are so inclined:
Profound abstractions in mathematics, morality and aesthetics are accessible to us. Ideas of tremendous reach are possible. But there is also plenty in the world that does not and will not make sense until we ourselves work out how to rectify it. Death does not make sense. Stagnation does not make sense. A bubble of sense within endless senselessness does not make sense. Whether the world ultimately does make sense will depend on how people – the likes of us – chose to think and to act.