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Topic for 31 July 2017: David Deutsch, knowledge, science, and optimism

12 July 2017 is the day that I first heard physicist David Deutsch (Wikipedia, home, twitter) talk about knowledge, science, and the nature of the universe. (Here’s the first talk I heard — also linked below) He’s at Oxford, is considered the father of  quantum computing, is one of the leaders in understanding the implications of quantum theory, and the increasingly accepted many worlds interpretation, and is creating a  new field called “constructor theory.

Deutsch is enthusiastic, articulate, knowledgeable, and witty. He is optimistic, but not naive. (Talk at RSA on Optimism) He acknowledges that things may go horribly wrong as–he points out–they have done for hundreds of thousands of years. But we’ve reached a point where the future before us is unlimited—but we must take care and successfully avoid disaster.

I majored in mathematics and minored in physics at MIT, have pursued my love of these subjects for half a century and spent my whole career working with computers. In an embarrassingly short time, Deutsch convinced me that my understanding of mathematics and science were deeply flawed; that my epistemology was defective; that some of my certainties were wrong, and that my understanding of the implications of computation was shallow.

(Deutsch article “Why it’s good to be wrong” Yes, it is!)

Here’s a taste, excerpted and edited from the first TED talk below:

I want to start with two things that everyone already knows. The first one is something that has been known for most of recorded history, and that is, that the planet Earth is uniquely suited to sustain our present existence, and most important, our future survival.

This idea has a dramatic name: Spaceship Earth. Outside the spaceship, the universe is implacably hostile, and inside is all we have, all we depend on, and we only get the one chance: if we mess up our spaceship, we’ve got nowhere else to go.

The second thing that everyone already knows is that human beings are not the hub of existence. As Stephen Hawking famously said, we’re just a chemical scum on the surface of a typical planet that’s in orbit around a typical star, which is on the outskirts of a typical galaxy, and so on.

The first of those two things is kind of saying that we’re at a very un-typical place,  and the second one is saying that we’re at a typical place.

If you regard these two as deep truths to live by and to inform your life decisions, then they seem a little bit to conflict with each other.

But that doesn’t prevent them from both being completely false.

So here are some talks by and with Deutsch and links to his books (both excellent).

(Also at TED, with a transcript)

Also at TED with a transcript

Podcast: Surviving the Cosmos with Sam Harris        (Transcript)

Podcast: Finding our way in the Cosmos

Deutsch’s books: (click on images to go to Amazon)




  • Listened to part of The Beginning of Infinity last month,,,old news, new wineskin….The Big Picture a good read as well. Look forward to talking about it.

  • Really looking forward to this discussion… since, as far as I can tell from the videos/ talks, what he’s saying is so general as to seem meaningless to me. i.e not illuminating in ways which redefine or enable ‘knowledge’ beyond relating structure to function or visa versa, at every scale. I found the ‘hard to vary’ test/principle incomprehensible. And ‘Constructor Theory’ …. how does that clarify or enable knowing what’s ‘true’ beyond the instruments at hand, with those to come, not known? The ‘replication’ and ‘self reproduction’ rules???? Definitely worth giving up a morning sail!

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