Gendou's Reviews > The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World

The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch
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did not like it
bookshelves: non-fiction, quantum-physics, philosophy, physics

Summary: Loose, philosophical rambling, plus an insightful take on Many Worlds.

Author's favorite word: parochial

I'm trying to be more positive in my reviews. Here are the good parts:
* Plausible story of the evolution of the technology of numerals.
* Refutation of anthropic reasoning for being a bad explanation.
* Introduction to infinite set theory using the idea of Infinity Hotel.
* Refutation of the Precautionary Principle for being pessimism.
* A clever, made-up tale of Socrates and Hermes on epistemology.
* Intro to Philosophy of empiricism, instrumentalism, realism, etc.
* Some nice anecdotes on the history and importance of the Enlightenment.
* Nice definition of a "good" theory: one that breaks if you change it.
* Definition of fungibility and its application in economics and physics.
* An novel description of Many Worlds which emphasizes fungibility.

Now, on to my gripes.

Gripe #1: Many Worlds
That last "good part" is actually an interesting and unique insight! In this interpretation of quantum mechanics, universes branch and merge. Branching is seen as an effect on one of an infinite number of fungible universes. This is equivalent to entanglement. Merging produces a number of possible histories, all of which are real. This is equivalent to measurement. Too bad only one half of one chapter was dedicated to exploring it! Notice that this does NOT solve the measurement problem. It is equivalent to the Copenhagen Interpretation in all predictions. The only novelty is in the explanation, which is all the author claims. So, it's fun to think about! But it does not refute the Copenhagen interpretation, as the author claims. He also dismisses the Copenhagen interpretation as bad philosophy. He calls it "instrumentalism, anthropocentrism, studied ambiguity". Ouch!s None of these accusations are valid, and are really quite insulting to the mainstream.

Gripe #2: No force of gravity in GR
The existence of a force of gravity is, astonishingly, denied by General Relativity. Actually, the classical force of gravity emerges from the curvature of spacetime. But instead of using these correct words, he assaults the sensible reader with hyperbole. Later on emergence is discussed, but too little too late.

Gripe #3: Occam's Razor
Occam's Razor is labeled as a "misconception" and rejected as a poor technique. But the "Occam's Razor" described by the author is not the one practiced in reality. According to the author, it isn't simplicity that makes for a good explanation. It is how hard the explanation is to very. This does NOT account for the situation where two explanations are equally hard to very! Only when this is the case does Occam's Razor come into play.

Gripe #4: Transmutation
The author doggedly refers to thermonuclear fusion as "transmutation". He also brings it up several times in early chapters as a non sequitur. That was really weird...

Gripe #5: Quantum Jumps
The author argues there are no such thing as quantum jumps, only smooth transition. This claim is not justified by evidence or theory. Atomic electron transitions or "quantum jumps" are an unmistakable part of quantum theory.

Gripe #5: Star Trek Transporter
The author gets us thinking about multiple universes with an anecdote from science fiction. Then, instead of moving on to talk about the real world, he keeps up the charade. Never does he actually justify any of his argument by comparing it to experiment. The whole chapter is veiled in a cloak of fiction, so as to defend against criticism. Once the veil is dropped, he's back to your basic Many Worlds interpretation, nothing more. So, why all the wasted time in fantasy land? I don't get it.

Gripe #6: Bohmian Mechanics
The author dismisses Bohmian Mechanics as nothing more than a flavor of Many Worlds. This is blatantly incorrect. Bohmian Mechanics is a non-local theory, where as locality is preserved in Many Worlds.

Gripe #7: Instrumentalism
The most brutalized viewpoint in the book is instrumentalism. He calls it a "bad philosophy of science" because it doesn't require explanation. Of course, this is false, because explanations are part of the instrument. The author uses the jibe "shut up and calculate", but that is bad instrumentalism! The good instrumentalist avoids the real vs. anti-real debate altogether. It seems that the author is objecting instrumentalism as an excuse for bad explanations. I agree that it is often used as an excuse, but that doesn't make it bad philosophy.

Gripe #8: Plasma
The author claims that most matter in the universe is the plasma found in stars. Actually, most of the matter in the universe is found in the intergalactic medium. This is also a plasma, but isn't (yet) part of a star!

Gripe #9: Reach of General Relativity
The author makes a big deal about the "reach" of a theory. He defines reach as the range of energies, distances, times, etc. where the theory works. General Relativity has a grand reach, but he claims its reach to be infinite. This is not true, because at the big bang and event horizon of black holes, it fails.

Gripe #10: Infinite Progress
The main thesis of the book is that progress is infinite. This is justified using an inductive argument: Since science has continued to produce new, better theories with greater reach, it will continue to do so indefinitely. But in the first chapter, the author claims inductivism to be bad philosophy, contradicting the argument for the book's thesis.
I agree with the author that we won't reach the end of science any time soon, if ever. But the whole point of the book is that the process necessarily is infinite, and I disagree. For one thing, all species have a finite lifetime, providing a necessary end to progress.
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Reading Progress

September 29, 2011 – Shelved
October 1, 2011 – Started Reading
October 11, 2011 – Shelved as: non-fiction
October 14, 2011 – Shelved as: quantum-physics
October 14, 2011 – Shelved as: philosophy
October 14, 2011 – Shelved as: physics
October 14, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-21 of 21 (21 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Your reviews doesn't seem to match you rating.

message 2: by Gendou (last edited Jul 01, 2012 03:39PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Gendou As I said, I'm trying to be more positive in my reviews.
The one-star rating means "I didn't like it", which is how I feel about this book.
Reading it was an act of masochism.

Michael Wow, thanks for the eloquent review. While not nearly as well versed as you I was having trouble with the authors deviations and hyperbole. And your final comment is hilariously poignant. Thanks for taking time to write.

Jennifer I couldn't tolerate his self-indulgence any further once I found myself in the thick of his pointless foray into transporter fiction. Kudos to you for powering through. And thank you for your review. I'm glad I wasn't the only reader who failed to have a life changing shift in thinking as a consequence of reading this book.

Blair I want to thank you for this thought provoking review. It caused me to read the book again, although that may not be what you intended. I still think the book is well worth reading for the many philosophical insights. But perhaps you can help me with some of my problems interpreting the science.

Like you, I had trouble with the Multiverse chapter. The Star Trek story was no help at all. The claim is there is a spitting event x => x:y, then an interference event which restores x:y => x. But why the asymmetry with y changed and x not? In the Mach-Zehnder interferometer, what makes the photon going through the semi-silvered mirror stay the ‘same', but be different when reflected? And why is it the opposite at the other mirror? He does not mention that this experiment can be explained with classical wave mechanics, except for the case of a single photon.

Do we really need a multiverse to explain why a photon appears to behave as two interfering waves? To me, wave-particle duality simply means our macroscopic notions of waves and particles are not sufficient to fully explain what we observe.

I am not sure he is calling a probabilistic interpretation itself bad philosophy. He objects to a “shut up and calculate” mentality that prevents a search for a deeper explanation, or the notion that we cannot possibly describe what is going on in “classical” (human) language. He (and I) certainly object to the notion that human consciousness affects the outcome.

The alternative to a a probabilistic interpretation is the notion that every possible quantum action is happening somewhere. But does it follow that every possible physical history must therefore occur? He points out that we are made of atoms, which are made of sub-atomic particles. But is it not reductionism to claim sub-atomic actions determine what will happen at a larger scale? The atom is an emergent entity, whose properties cannot be predicted based on those of its components. Maybe this breaks the chain of causality, and each “universe” is completely independent of the others.

The notion that there is another universe almost identical to this one where I chose not to bother writing this note strikes me as parochial and anthropocentric. Maybe locality as no meaning between universes. One of my electrons may be shared with an atom of hydrogen in inter-galactic space in some other (or even this) universe. Or the place these other quantum actions happen may not resemble this universe at all.

There appears to be no test where multiverse makes a different prediction than the Copenhagen Interpretation. So it comes down to which seems to be the better explanation. The quantum computer might be a good example where multiverse seems to make more sense, but his explanation of it was so brief I could not understand how it works.

As for quantum jumps, what exactly happens when a electron in an atom absorbs a photon and jumps to a higher energy level? I see three claims: it happens instantly, it takes a certain amount of time (so what is going on during this time?), and finally it does not happen until the result is observed. He seems to be saying that all the instances of the electron in the multiverse jump at different times, so half way through only half of them have jumped. In our universe, it still jumps. And how can all the instances be fungible if they are in different states?

His philosophical thinking is fascinating, but I think he could have used the same amount of space to give a much better explanation of the science he is an expert in.

message 6: by Gendou (last edited Feb 13, 2015 01:18PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Gendou Blair, we're free to choose the labels we put on photons as they pass through the Mach-Zehnder interferometer. If same/different are helpful labels, it's okay to use them. I don't think they're helpful. I think paths should be labeled A and B or whatever, without prejudice. Same with fungible universes.

No, we do not "need" a multiverse to explain quantum interference. Interpretation of QM is yet another mater of choice. Some people prefer MWI. Others prefer the CI. Whichever interpretation a person chooses, so long as it helps them solve problems by providing insight, that's great.

The process by which electrons absorb a photon and jump to a higher energy state takes zero time. Spontaneous emission happens after an unpredictable amount of time, but like absorption takes zero time to complete. In other words, you can never catch an electron having only half absorbed a photon, and you can never catch an electron half emitting a photon. It's all or nothing. Or, "quantized" if you will.

Blair How do we know an electron jumps to a higher energy state in zero time? At best we can say it takes less time than we can measure with our current technology. But how do we know when it has reached its new state? As far as I can tell, we only know when it emits a photon with a specific energy, which as you say happens after an unpredictable amount of time, and returns to the ground state. This article ( claims it does not jump until it is observed, which is an entanglement action.

Gendou Atomic events like the absorption of a photon by an electron have zero duration by definition. What would it mean to measure the duration an electron takes to absorb a photon? What would you conclude marked the beginning and end of the absorption? What does an half-absorbed photon look like to any conceivably advanced technology? What possible instrument could continuously measure the quantum state of an electron? The word "quantum" means there's a discontinuity between states! There just isn't any in between.

Gendou Look no further than the very first sentence in the paper that article is referencing. "Quantum jumps - the discontinuous change in the state of a microscopic system (such as an atom)..." [1]

A paper which, while interesting, has never, so far as I can tell, been cited [2].


Blair I am impressed you found the paper and its (lack of) citations. Is there a standard way of doing this, or is it specific to this subject?

I am well aware of the continuum from mainstream science to legitimate minority ideas to outright pseudoscience. The paper I cited seems to be legitimate, but do the lack of citations suggest it might be a minority viewpoint, or simply yet another paper restating well known ideas?

Even Deutsch admits there are discrete quantum jumps, but they occur at different times throughout the multiverse so on average they are continuous. I agree with your original statement that claiming quantum jumps are a myth is grossly misleading at best.

But it still seems we can’t know when the jump occurs, even if its duration is instantaneous. I am still having trouble with the idea that it does not jump until we detect the emission that will cause it to return to the ground state. Then how do we ever know it reached the ground state?

My thinking now is that much of the confusion about quantum mechanics is a problem of language. What is the difference between the quantum state actually jumping and us knowing that it jumped? What is the difference between an event detected by an “observer” and something going splat against the wall when no one is looking? The concept of decoherence seems to be crucial, but I am having trouble understanding exactly what it means.

Gendou 1. Look at the bottom of the article for the DOI.
2. Follow the DOI link and copy the paper title.
3. Search for title + author on
4. Click on "cited by" in the right hand panel.

Wiseman is a prolific theoretical physicist. I haven't had much luck searching for discussion of this particular paper of his aside from this one thread.

When you detect a photon having energy equal to the difference between an atom's electron (n=1) and (n-2) states, you can be sure that atom's electron was in the ground state upon emitting the photon.

Yes, language can be a source of confusion. There's nothing special about a conscious "observer" in quantum mechanics. Any sufficiently large object is bound to decohere in very short order by interacting with its environment. Going splat on a wall sounds like a process at high enough temperature acting on a large enough body over a long enough time for decoherence to collapse the wave function, whether or not anybody's looking.

message 12: by Ric (new)

Ric Watts So you manage to list 10 bullets for positive points but still give it 1 star....?

Gendou Yep. What's wrong with that?

message 14: by Clay (new) - rated it 1 star

Clay Hales I'm not very far in, but it feels like the whole book is about empiricism, instrumentalism, realism, and all the philosophical approaches like they are one or the other kinds of things. I would think that any given hypothesis might have some element of one, many, or all of them. I'm glad there is more to the book than that, but where I'm at if feels like that's the only note he is hitting, and I'm just thinking, what's the point. I think I'm enduring rather than reading at this point.

Gendou I feel your pain, Clay!

message 16: by Gendou (last edited Nov 23, 2019 10:20AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Gendou Why would I give one star to a book I spent so much time reviewing and critiquing? I got two words for you:

Intellectual honesty.

message 17: by Gendou (last edited Nov 23, 2019 10:30AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Gendou Oh, also, Sam, you inglorious troll, I even addressed this question in a comment above dated July 1st, 2012. I carefully consider my own impact on rating websites. Looking at your reviews, you wouldn't know sound philosophy of science if it bit you in the dick.

You devalue your own time by trying to convince me not to do something I love doing: carefully and expertly critiquing lousy science books.

Robin Foster On gripe #10: I don't think he _does_ justify possibly unboundedness of progress inductively. He instead provides an argument along the line that to believe progress is bounded you would have to believe it is bounded at some specific point, and, since there's no good argument for any specific point, you may as well argue that it is unbounded. (And we don't yet know that species which currently are not extinct have a finite lifetime. )

message 19: by Gendou (last edited May 16, 2020 05:08AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Gendou This is a textbook example of the argument from ignorance logical fallacy.

We can't conclude something is unbounded just because we can't prove it's bounded.

"To believe my penis is bounded you would have to believe it is bounded at some specific point, and, since there's no good argument for any specific point, you may as well argue that it is infinitely long."

Also, "we can't prove all living species have a finite lifetime" doesn't get you to the conclusion "Homo sapiens will have an infinite lifetime".

Gendou Pro top: anytime you restate an inductive argument in an attempt to hide the fact that it uses induction, you're going to introduce some kind of logical fallacy.

message 21: by Thom (new) - added it

Thom Finished the first chapter and had a strong sense of doubt; found this review and yup, I'm not the only one. DNF.

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