In “Explaining it All: How We Became the Center of the Universe” (New York Times, August 12, 2011), David Albert explains why he just loves David Deutsch’s new book, Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that transform the world” (2011). He is certainly at the opposite end of the spectrum from multiverse skeptics like Peter Woit:
Deutsch (who is famous, among other reasons, for his pioneering contributions to the field of quantum computation) is so smart, and so strange, and so creative, and so inexhaustibly curious, and so vividly intellectually alive, that it is a distinct privilege, notwithstanding everything, to spend time in his head.
Hmmm. Puffball review coming. Look, it gets crazier.
The thought to which Deutsch’s conversation most often returns is that the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, or something like it, may turn out to have been the pivotal event not merely of the history of the West, or of human beings, or of the earth, but (literally, physically) of the universe as a whole.
Here’s the sort of thing he has in mind: The topographical shape and the material constitution of the upper surface of the island of Manhattan, as it exists today, is much less a matter of geology than it is of economics and politics and human psychology. The effects of geological forces were trumped (you might say) by other forces — forces that proved themselves, in the fullness of time, physically stronger. Deutsch thinks the same thing must in the long run be true of the universe as a whole. Stuff like gravitation and dark energy are the sorts of things that determine the shape of the cosmos only in its earliest, and most parochial, and least interesting stages. The rest is going to be a matter of our own intentional doing, or at any rate it’s going to be a matter of the intentional doings of what Deutsch calls “people,” by which he means not only human beings, and not all human beings, but whatever creatures, from whatever planets, in whatever circumstances, may have managed to absorb the lessons of the Scientific Revolution.
This would have made more sense in the glory days of the space race. And you knew it would degenerate into Darwinism didn’t you?
Deutsch is interested in neo-Darwinian accounts of the evolution of culture. Such accounts treat cultural items — languages, religions, values, ideas, traditions — in much the way that Darwinian theories of biological evolution treat genes.
In short, it is a pile of doo-doo. Darwinian accounts of genes are junk.
Deutsch is also a fan of Everett’s many universes’ theory, and this is where his NYT fan deserts him, reporting re his book:
And there are, in some places, explicit and outrageous falsehoods. Deutsch insists again and again, for example, that the only explanation we have for the observed behaviors of subatomic particles is a famous idea of Hugh Everett’s to the effect that the universe of our experience is one of an infinite and endlessly branching collection of similar universes — and that what resistance there is to this idea is attributable to the influence of this or that fancy, misguided philosophical critique of good, solid, old-fashioned realistic attitudes toward what scientific theories have to tell us about the world. This is simply, wildly, wrong. Most of the good, solid, old-fashioned scientific realists who take an interest in questions of the foundations of physics — like me, for example — are deeply skeptical of Everett’s picture. And that’s because there are good reasons to be worried that Everett’s picture cannot, in fact, explain those behaviors at all — and because there are other, much more reasonable-looking proposals on the table, that apparently can.
Aw, come on,
What moves him is the grand Darwinian competition among ideas. What he adores, what he is convinced contains the salvation of the world, is, in every sense of the word, The Market.
But they can’t market that yet.