David Deutsch is the most visionary thinker writing today. His scope is breathtaking. The essential premise of The Beginning of Infinity is that the scientific revolution that began in the 17th century need have no end; the only things that are not possible are those forbidden by the laws of physics. In practice, this means that Deutsch is sure that we shall be able to colonise space, creating artificial ecosystems to sustain us.
Dutch believe that human knowledge – good explanations for natural phenomena – is the most powerful forces in the universe. True knowledge always has reach beyond its immediate sphere of application. He cites the alphabet. In early systems of written language, a symbol represented a single object; beyond that it had no reach. But an alphabetic language has no difficulty in coining new words all the time.
Even more basic is the different between tallying and mathematics. A tallying system simply counts, making notches on wood or stone. The tallies cannot be manipulated except by lining them up to see which is the largest. But mathematics can open up the electromagnetic spectrum or explain why the earth goes around the sun; or even tell us how to make an artificial sun.
Deutsch has plausible answers to some of the greatest mysteries of all time. Why, for instance, are flowers beautiful to us as well as the insects they have evolved to attract? Insects and flowers have the problem of communicating across an evolutionary gap. Within the same species, communication is easy – a single chemical can attract the moth to its mate. But how does a plant signal to an animal?
Flowers employ objective beauty – graded curves, symmetry with subtle variations, colour harmonies. Deutsch points out individual humans can be as different from each other, in signalling terms, as a plant and an animal. We recognise the universal symbols used by plants because by necessity we use them too. Within less varied species it is different: the hippo is beautiful to its mate but not to us.
Deutsch's overriding concept is universality. Animals have limited repertoires which are genetically programmed and can only be extended by a mutation once in a blue moon. Human beings are universal problem solvers. We can solve problems we don't yet know exist; our language is universal in that it constantly invents new concepts, and our computers are universal machines, capable of performing tasks for which they were not designed. It is this universality that leads Deutsch to conclude that human development will now extend infinitely into the future, even beyond residence on planet earth.
This is the great Life, the Universe and Everything book for our time and the answer is not 42: it is infinity. To understand precisely what Deutsch means by this, you will have to read him. Do so and lose your parochial blinkers forever.