2/9/12

The Bounds of Infinite Progress

The Beginning of Infinity is mind-bendingly expansive book of philosophy and science of the kind I usually like. But this one was just too all over the place for me. (But quite a few others liked it, if you want a different perspective.) The author, David Deutsch is a physicist at Oxford and works in quantum computation there. He's obviously intelligent but he's so readily dismissive of concepts outside of his discipline that I found it off-putting. (To be fair, he does say at the outset that explaining how progress can be infinite "entails a journey through virtually every fundamental field of science and philosophy.") The topics in the book are so wide-ranging it fails to cohere, perhaps due to the relatively feeble intellect of this reader. At times, the author is so at odds with himself that the only explanation I can conjecture is the book was meant to be read quantumly.

Deutsch does write clearly and I understand that the book is about explanations, namely the good ones that grew out of so-called Enlightenment thinking. In his conception, the beginning of infinity was when we started creating explanations. Deutsch dismisses empricism because "we perceive nothing as what it really is. It is all theoretical interpretation: conjecture." That makes sense to me and so does his realism, that the physical world exists and we can explain what it is and how it works in terms of natural laws. But his assertions that human progress is unbounded and that human knowledge will never meet an insuperable obstacle is where it all stopped making sense to me. He asserts:
Progress is sustainable, indefinitely. But only by people who engage in a particular kind of thinking and behavior the problem-solving and problem-creating kind characteristic of the Enlightenment.
He derides the precautionary principle as pessimism and dimisses the idea that the biosphere is a life-support system for humans. He goes so far to say that humans "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." It's clear that he is big on the Enlightenment and a knowledge-based approach to the natural world. This is the imperious approach to the mind-boggling complexity of nature and how it works that has resulted in resource depletion/pollution, climate change, and the ongoing mass extinction. There are absolute limits. No amount of knowledge can reverse those processes set in motion by the application of Enlightenment thinking. Technological innovations can mitigate the effects but that would hardly qualify as unlimited progress.

He confuses the unlimited potential for the growth of human knowledge as a basis for infinite real progress and this is most obvious in his discussion of sustainability. This is despite having also said that in human progress, "problems are inevitable." It's an irrefutable statement but, in the same chapter, he says that instead of 'retreating' into sustainable lifestyles, we could:
Choose instead to embark on an open-ended 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.
What is we have reached the highest step and no scientific/technical innovations will enable us to sustain our current way of life? More knowledge might forestall the full impact of humanity's rapid and sustained progress since the scientific (and Industrial) revolutions but the constraints of the natural world are becoming more apparent all the time. The next step we take has to be toward sustainability but that would require an acknowledgment that human progress is not sustainable indefinitely, no matter how much knowledge we have.

We may never know enough to take that next step up. And it's a long way down.

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