Taking the big ideas to infinity and beyond

VOTING systems, Socrates, gravity, time, sex. What do these have in common? Physics, of course. More specifically, certain ideas about science, humanity and progress flowing from the mega-brain of David Deutsch, the Oxford physicist who pioneered the field of quantum computing, and wrote the 1997 cult favourite, The Fabric of Reality.

Certainly, without a deep level of physics understanding, you’re unlikely to grasp the faintest detail of Deutch’s multiverse (or “many worlds”) interpretation of quantum theory – the idea that says our universe is constantly creating countless numbers of parallel worlds.

Serious physics is Deutsch’s starting point, but he is not interested in ivory towers. Instead, he’s dedicated to squeezing moral, political, philosophical and social theories out of physics that can rock the world – even the world of a science-phobe. His latest book, The Beginning of Infinity (Allen Lane) is a true book of ideas, all of them big, all important and all fascinating.

Q: Is there only a beginning of infinity?

A: Every point in an infinite progression is “near the beginning”. Hence there are only two possibilities: we’re either only just scratching the surface of what we can and will achieve, or we’re doomed. Because, as I argue in the book, the logic of the human situation makes staticity fatal – as witness every static society in history. “Sustainability”, as I argue in one of the chapters, is unsustainable. Only rapid progress is sustainable.

Q: How can people use the notion of infinity in their everyday lives?

A: One of the simplest yet most startling features of infinity is that there is no third possibility between infinite and bounded. A personal self-image in which one is inherently bounded, or a political or economic philosophy in which progress is inherently bounded, or a philosophy of science in which knowledge is inherently bounded, all lead to self-fulfilling prophecies in which one expects, and then encounters, that bound sooner rather than later.

Q: What drew you to thinking about the infinite in the first place? Just physics?

A: Not just physics. I could see this theme of unbounded improvement versus staticity coming up in all sorts of disparate subject-areas, and that it linked them all. But harnessing that unbounded potential isn’t preordained; on the contrary, it depends on what choices we make – in many different fields.

Q: Would everyone benefit from learning about physics?

A: Everyone could. But the real benefit is the enjoyment that comes from understanding things in a fundamental way, and from the beauty of the laws that underlie everything. Practical benefits are of course legion, but you can get most of those – like mobile phones and satnav devices -- by letting someone else do the studying.

Q: You have a chapter of an imagined conversation between the philosopher Socrates and the god Hermes. Why are the ancient Greeks so important today – did they see something that we didn't?

A: They are important because they were the first to have philosophical problems in the Enlightenment sense: problems that permit progress to be made in solving them; problems that lead to science and other techniques for correcting errors and hence removing the usual impediments to progress. Also, the society of Athens in particular was what I call a “mini-Enlightenment” -- a short-lived tradition of criticism, and hence flowering of creativity, which is then snuffed out. This tragedy has happened several times in history.

Q: What is the single most pernicious idea in culture today? What is the best?

A: The most pernicious is, perhaps, the idea there are truths that reason (and therefore persuasion) cannot reach. And a second one just as bad: that there are no truths that science cannot reach. Reason is a wider thing, covering philosophy, art, and also ideas not expressed in words.

The best, and most valuable of our ideas are the largely unspoken ones in the culture of science and in the sociopolitical systems of certain countries, that preserve traditions of criticism. Freedom, tolerance, love of truth, openness to change – we often take these for granted. But they all depend on traditions of criticism which are rare and precious phenomena in the history of our species.

The far more usual case is that traditions are all about preserving the status quo (thus preventing the growth of knowledge), and the more usual role of criticism is to destroy existing knowledge.

Q: Many people feel quite disillusioned – the world around them seeming stupid or dangerous or vacant.

A: Cynics think of themselves as less gullible and more sceptical than the rest of us. They believe that if you’re a pessimist, at least you'll never be disappointed. But that is false on all counts. Optimism -- as I define it: that all evils are due to lack of knowledge -- is a deep truth about reality. And if you run your life on the basis of a misconception about reality, you are absolutely asking for disappointment.

Q: Is there any way in which your book can be applied to the City and economics?

A: Undoubtedly yes. Though I don’t think it can be translated directly into money.

Q: Is there a chance that in future everyone could be rich, or happy, or both?

A: Of course. Note that we are already living in the future, from the perspective of most humans who have ever lived. People who in our society are deemed to be charity cases, have a higher standard of living than royalty did not so long ago. This can continue -- provided we want it and seek it, and do so rationally.

The Beginning of Infinity, £25 (Allen Lane)