Allen Lane, £25, 487pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, By David Deutsch

Science has never had an advocate quite like David Deutsch. He is a computational physicist on a par with his touchstones Alan Turing and Richard Feynman, and also a philosopher in the line of his greatest hero, Karl Popper. His arguments are so clear that to read him is to experience the thrill of the highest level of discourse available on this planet and to understand it.

Why is Deutsch so different? For a start he has no truck with the powerful tendency in contemporary thought that denies the reality behind the equations of science. Deutsch has no doubt that science reveals the underlying nature of things. He uses a simpler vocabulary than most scientists and philosophers. This is enormously helpful.

For him, science deals in explanations; good explanations. He discusses evolution in nature and notes the similarities and differences between biological and cultural evolution but, crucially, he talks of the difference between animals and humans as a matter of knowledge. Knowledge is information not possessed by the physical world and only to be found in human brains that can act on that world.

For example (and his examples are always graphic and apt): a huge meteorite hit the earth around 65 million years ago and caused climate change and the extinction of the dinosaurs. The natural process of evolution was then the only show on earth - but we have knowledge. We know that such events will occur again but not only are we able to track potential hazards; we possibly have the means to avert disaster, thanks to our knowledge of nuclear fission and rocketry.

Another of Deutsch's key concepts is what he calls reach. True knowledge always has reach. 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: 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. At the other extreme, consider the reach of mathematics into the physical world in James Clerk Maxwell's four equations of electromagnetism in the 1860s. They predicted radio waves, from which have flowed not just radio but TV, mobile telephony, radio astronomy, 3G wireless internet, radar and microwave ovens.

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 that 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.

For a physicist, Deutsch's insights into biological evolution are remarkable. Why, when human culture developed with the advent of farming and we began to build permanent well-crafted dwellings, did we not then automatically become rational people? Instead, every society for around the first 9000 years of urban life was obsessed with death cults and barbarous sacrifices. Today we marvel at the Egyptians' fine craft skills, but they employed them in the service of grandiose and hopeless oblations to the afterlife (as shown in the recent Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition at the British Museum).

Even in Homer, around 3000 years ago, we recognise modernity in the dignity, humour, wiliness, love and loyalty, the fondness for fine clothes and food. But we also still find the incessant bloody sacrifices of animals and the omnipresent louring presence of those supposed gods for whom human beings were merely puppets dangled at their whim.

Deutsch is a child of and a passionate advocate for the European Enlightenment. He shows how and why previous enlightenments – Periclean Athens and the Italian Renaissance – were destroyed, and why the scientific enlightenment that began with Galileo is capable of lasting forever. Deutsch is a modern Voltaire, lacerating fallacious views with crystal-clear thinking.

For him, evolution played a terrible trick on humanity. For most of our history, humankind has not been able to "bear very much reality". In order to prepare us for the great leap forward into true knowledge, to develop our free thinking, problem-solving minds, our brains first had to be honed by slavish adherence to trammelling tribal rituals and death-cult prostrations: a terrible but apparently necessary stage between the gene-led rote behaviour of apes and our modern universality.

For most people, Deutsch's most startling iconoclasm will be his scathing denunciation of contemporary concerns for "sustainability" and the whole notion of Spaceship Earth. He points out that our open society is by definition unsustainable, always becoming something else, but that doesn't mean it is not going to be viable in the future. Quite the reverse. His mantra is "Problems are inevitable; problems can be solved."

Deutsch is the kind of passionate, clear-headed advocate who can change minds. He endorses Stephen Hawking's view that we would be wise to colonise space because the asteroid that will certainly come one day might be beyond even the capacity of our nuclear weapons. I have never believed in space colonisation, thinking it an idle fantasy. With no atmosphere or ecosystem we would have to live in bubbles. But Deutsch convinces me that we could colonise the moon and, after a while, that this life would seem natural.

He points out the shocking fact that the earth's natural ecosystem is almost incapable of supporting human beings, certainly in any numbers. We have created our own life-support system of food, energy, transport, shelter and communications. He is fond of using his own territory of Oxfordshire as an example. Take away the farms and modern infrastructure and, in the woods and downs, little of the vegetation you will find is edible.

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.

Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage' (Yale) has won the 2011 Warwick Prize for Writing

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own