Brain Pickings

The Beginning of Infinity: David Deutsch Explains the World

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A new way to explain explanation itself, or how science and philosophy got their start.

Since time immemorial, mankind’s greatest questions — what is reality, what does it mean to be human, what is time, is there God — have endured as a pervasive frontier of intellectual inquiry through which we try to explain and make sense of the world, the pursuit of these elusive answers having germinated disciplines as diverse as philosophy and physics. But what place does explanation itself have in the universe and our understanding of it? That’s exactly what iconic physicist and quantum computation pioneer David Deutsch explores in The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World — an important and wildly illuminating new book on the nature and evolution of human knowledge. Fluidly switching between evolutionary biology, quantum physics, mathematics, philosophy, ancient history and more, Deutsch offers surprisingly — or, perhaps knowing his work, unsurprisingly — plausible answers to everything from why beauty exists to what is infinity.

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.” ~David Deutsch

In 2009, I had the pleasure of seeing Deutsch speak at TEDGlobal, where he delivered what was unequivocally the event’s most mind-bending talk, presenting a new way to explain explanation itself — a teaser for the book as he was in the heat of writing it. Stay on your toes and try to keep up:

Empiricism is inadequate because scientific theories explain the seen in terms of the unseen and the unseen, you have to admit, doesn’t come to us through the senses.” ~ David Deutsch

Perhaps most powerful of all is Deutsch’s remarkable ability to shift convictions. As Peter Forbes writes in The Independent,

Deutsch is the kind of passionate, clear-headed advocate who can change minds. He endorses Stephen Hawking’s view that we would be wise to colonise space because the asteroid that will certainly come one day might be beyond even the capacity of our nuclear weapons. I have never believed in space colonisation, thinking it an idle fantasy. With no atmosphere or ecosystem we would have to live in bubbles. But Deutsch convinces me that we could colonise the moon and, after a while, that this life would seem natural.”

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World comes as Deutsch’s highly anticipated follow-up, thirteen years later, to his excellent The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications, in which Deutsch outlined the four fundamental strands of existing knowledge.

Bear in mind, this is no light beach book, nor is it an easy read, but it’s an incredibly lucid one, the kind of book that stays with you for your entire lifetime, insights from it finding their way, consciously or unconsciously, into every intellectual conversation you’ll ever have.

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Hurricane Story: Haunting Analog Photos of Katrina Memories

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What red glitter shoes have to do with one family’s plight to find order in chaos.

When Hurricane Katrina swept across New Orleans six years ago next month, killing 1,836 people, damaging and destroying over 76,000 houses, and leaving many homeless, photographer Jennifer Shaw found solace in capturing the turmoil with a plastic Holga camera. Hers is a story both incredible and true — from the dramatic birth of her first child on the very day of Katrina’s first strike, to her struggle with depression and her husband’s rage episodes, to their eventual return to New Orleans in time for their son’s first Mardi Gras. Hurricane Story is part memoir, part fairy tale, part poetic story of exile and homecoming, told through 46 beautiful, dream-like images and simple but powerful prose. The Holga’s rudimentary functionality, with its limited control over exposure, focus and lighting, further intensifies the story’s haunting, cinematic feel, drawing you into a seemingly surreal world that sprang from an extraordinary and brave reality.

For an ultimate cherry on top, the book comes with a poignant foreword by New York Times “Consumed” columnist and fellow Design Observer writer Rob Walker.

Any city worth living in strikes a balance between order and chaos. I guess any life worth living strikes that balance too. In late August 2005, Jennifer Shaw’s city, and I can only assume her life, tilted too far in one direction. The remarkable series of forty-six images collected in Hurricane Story tells the tale, and in doing so sets the balance right again.” ~ Rob Walker

'We left in the dark of night.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'My water broke at one-thirty that morning.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'The next morning we turned on the TV.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'It was impossible not to watch.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'We took our hurricane sideshow on the road.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'It was nice to have a distraction.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'FEMA hauled off our downed trees.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'It was months til the phone was restored.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'We got a new roof before Christmas.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

'Anointed in glitter, we reclaimed the streets.'

Image courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

Hurricane Story comes from indie publisher Chin Music Press and is one of the most spellbinding pieces of personal history ever captured.

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Science vs. Religion: 50 Famous Academics on God

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Decoding divinity, or what the great intellectuals of our time have to say about science and spirituality.

The dialogue between science and religion is among humanity’s oldest and most controversial, drawing each era’s greatest thinkers into some of history’s most heated debates. We’ve previously looked at a BBC documentary on the complex relationship between the two and 7 essential books on the psychology of faith. Today, we turn to a fantastic mashup of 50 famous academics — including Brain Pickings favorites Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Oliver Sacks, Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett — talking about spirituality and science, created by Jonathan Pararajasingham.

I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large, because they seem to be too simple, to connected, too local, too provincial. The Earth! He came to the Earth! One of the aspects of God came to the Earth, mind you. And look at what’s out there! How can… It isn’t in proportion.” ~ Richard Feynman

My favorite has to be Brian Cox, at around 18:30, who echoes my own belief that curiosity is more important than knowledge — an alternative route to intellectual inquiry that offers an antidote to the fundamental human discomfort with the unknown.

The speakers, in order of appearance:

1. Lawrence Krauss, World-Renowned Physicist
2. Robert Coleman Richardson, Nobel Laureate in Physics
3. Richard Feynman, World-Renowned Physicist, Nobel Laureate in Physics
4. Simon Blackburn, Cambridge Professor of Philosophy
5. Colin Blakemore, World-Renowned Oxford Professor of Neuroscience
6. Steven Pinker, World-Renowned Harvard Professor of Psychology
7. Alan Guth, World-Renowned MIT Professor of Physics
8. Noam Chomsky, World-Renowned MIT Professor of Linguistics
9. Nicolaas Bloembergen, Nobel Laureate in Physics
10. Peter Atkins, World-Renowned Oxford Professor of Chemistry
11. Oliver Sacks, World-Renowned Neurologist, Columbia University
12. Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal
13. Sir John Gurdon, Pioneering Developmental Biologist, Cambridge
14. Sir Bertrand Russell, World-Renowned Philosopher, Nobel Laureate
15. Stephen Hawking, World-Renowned Cambridge Theoretical Physicist
16. Riccardo Giacconi, Nobel Laureate in Physics
17. Ned Block, NYU Professor of Philosophy
18. Gerard ‘t Hooft, Nobel Laureate in Physics
19. Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford Professor of Mathematics
20. James Watson, Co-discoverer of DNA, Nobel Laureate
21. Colin McGinn, Professor of Philosophy, Miami University
22. Sir Patrick Bateson, Cambridge Professor of Ethology
23. Sir David Attenborough, World-Renowned Broadcaster and Naturalist
24. Martinus Veltman, Nobel Laureate in Physics
25. Pascal Boyer, Professor of Anthropology
26. Partha Dasgupta, Cambridge Professor of Economics
27. AC Grayling, Birkbeck Professor of Philosophy
28. Ivar Giaever, Nobel Laureate in Physics
29. John Searle, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
30. Brian Cox, Particle Physicist (Large Hadron Collider, CERN)
31. Herbert Kroemer, Nobel Laureate in Physics
32. Rebecca Goldstein, Professor of Philosophy
33. Michael Tooley, Professor of Philosophy, Colorado
34. Sir Harold Kroto, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
35. Leonard Susskind, Stanford Professor of Theoretical Physics
36. Quentin Skinner, Professor of History (Cambridge)
37. Theodor W. Hänsch, Nobel Laureate in Physics
38. Mark Balaguer, CSU Professor of Philosophy
39. Richard Ernst, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
40. Alan Macfarlane, Cambridge Professor of Anthropology
41. Professor Neil deGrasse Tyson, Princeton Research Scientist
42. Douglas Osheroff, Nobel Laureate in Physics
43. Hubert Dreyfus, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
44. Lord Colin Renfrew, World-Renowned Archaeologist, Cambridge
45. Carl Sagan, World-Renowned Astronomer
46. Peter Singer, World-Renowned Bioethicist, Princeton
47. Rudolph Marcus, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
48. Robert Foley, Cambridge Professor of Human Evolution
49. Daniel Dennett, Tufts Professor of Philosophy
50. Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics

(One also has to wonder why there’s only one woman on this list — are there really this few female voices in academia weighing in on the science vs. religion debate, or is this mashup simply reflective of whose opinions Pararajasingham has chosen to hear?)

via @kirstinbutler

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