Chapter Eighteen – The Beginning
And so we reach the final chapter. For the third chapter in a row, Deutsch goes after a book I’d read and appreciated. This time it’s John Horgan’s The End of Science. In retrospect, that book never really had a chance of being right. We always think we’ve found the answer, when in fact we’ve just improved our misconceptions. Just in the short time since that book was written the vast amount that we do not yet understand has grown tremendously, (dark matter, dark energy, the incredibly bad prediction by physics of the vacuum energy, and that’s just in cosmology).
The idea that we’re always wrong so easily slips into relativism, but it shouldn’t. In fact, it’s just the opposite. We make progress, but the truth itself is always still out there, still on the horizon, never within reach, yet always, crucially, in sight. The most valuable part of this final chapter (besides the end, to which I will come shortly) has to be the reiteration of the idea that all explanations contain misconceptions. We are fallible, and progress consists of moving from misconception to better misconception.
“I have often thought that the nature of science would be better understood if we called theories ‘misconceptions’ from the outset, instead of only after we have discovered their successors. Thus we could say that Einstein’s Misconception of Gravity was an improvement on Newton’s Misconception, which was an improvement on Kepler’s. The neo-Darwinian Misconception of Evolution is an improvement on Darwin’s Misconception, and his on Lamarck’s.” (p 398)
And then to the ending. There’s an unwritten rule that all popular science writers need to find an uplifting message at the end of their books. Leon Lederman had great fun with this rule in The God Particle. Deutsch has written a very different kind of book, and so it needs a very different kind of ending. He doesn’t try to make the medicine go down easily; he just gives it to us straight.
“There is only one way of thinking that is capable of making progress, or of surviving in the long run, and that is the way of seeking good explanations through creativity and criticism. What lies ahead of us is in any case infinity. All we can choose is whether it is an infinity of ignorance or of knowledge, wrong or right, death or life.” (p 410)
By the end of this book I am a different person than I was when I began it. In many places Deutsch made me say, “No! That can’t be right! But wait . . .” In others I said, “That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say!” and in still others I said, “Oh, how could I have been so wrong for so long?”
I see the world differently now. I’m still not convinced about the multiverse, but I’m very open to learning more about it. I’m not completely convinced that there is objective truth in art, but again I’m willing to look for it. But I am completely convinced that it is only through progress that we humans can not merely survive but become the infinity-seeking beings that Deutsch urges us to be. I think I always believed it, but somehow let politically correct ideas of the dangers of technological hubris get in the way of what in retrospect is an obvious truth. We are, and always have been, our only hope. It’s been quite a journey. I’m ready to head back into the world, knowing much more than when I began this remarkable book, but more than anything else knowing just how little I actually know. I will always be at the beginning of infinity. And that’s an amazing place to be!