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David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity (BoI) features 18 chapters. They’re about epistemology, evolution, physics, aesthetics, optimism, sustainability, and more. This article is primarily meant for those who have read the book at least once and remember the ideas fairly well. However, at the bottom, I recommend a chapter order for everyone, including those who haven’t read the book yet.
BoI is my favorite book. I’ve studied it extensively and worked with Deutsch on and off for roughly two years to translate it into German.
I noticed that the chapter order could be improved. The book jumps between different topics quite a bit, which makes it harder to understand those topics. This includes references to other chapters, explicit or implicit, both for low-level topics and higher-level, overarching topics.
Here’s the full list of chapters plus the main topic(s) in each chapter:
Here’s an example of the book jumping between low-level topics. Chapter 1 makes four implicit references to chapter 9 when it invokes prophets:
Every would-be prophet who claims that the sun will go out next Tuesday has a testable theory. […] [W]hat is the vital, progress-enabling ingredient that is present in science, but absent from the testable theories of the prophet […]?
[W]hen [a prophet’s] theory is refuted by experience, they do indeed switch to a new one; but, because their underlying explanations are bad, they can easily accommodate the new experience without changing the substance of the explanation.
[T]here is [nothing] worthwhile about […] the prophet’s apocalyptic theory […] just because it is testable.
By adopting easily variable explanations, […] prophet[s] are ensuring that they will be able to continue fooling themselves no matter what happens.
But by the time you get to chapter 9 – which is 163 pages and several unrelated topics later – you will have forgotten all about these passages, although what Deutsch says in them applies to Martin Rees and Thomas Malthus in chapter 9. Even reading the book multiple times may not help much because the chapters are so far apart.
You could read all the chapters out of order – but there are 18! (meaning 18 · 17 · 16 · … · 3 · 2, i.e. LOTS of) orders in which the chapters could be read. How to decide in which order to read them?
Explicit references can help, generally speaking. There’s one explicit reference to chapter 9 in chapter 1, but in this particular case it’s outside the context of prophecies, so it can easily be overlooked.
The index can also be helpful when trying to determine the order in which one should read the chapters to understand a particular topic better. (I found lots of errors in the index while creating the index for the German edition – see here, section ‘Glitches in index’ – but overall it’s still helpful.) Consulting the index entry ‘prophecy’ and its various subentries should show you all the relevant passages. And you’ll see more or less at a glance that this topic stretches sporadically throughout the book: in addition to chapters 1 and 9, it also appears in chapters 4, 12, 17, and 18. But having topics so far apart without explicit in-text references is still a problem because, having missed the connection, you won’t look for it in the index. And the reference in chapter 4 is too tiny and too far apart from both chapters 1 and 9 to build a bridge between them. I suppose all you could do at that point is scan the index for entries that interest you and then read the referenced pages.
The stuff about prophecy is just one example. There are others, such as the question of whether animals are sentient, which is sprinkled throughout the book, and what Deutsch calls Zeno’s mistake, which is covered in chapters 8 and 13.
When it comes to high-level concepts, in which order should you read BoI? Whether you’re about to read it for the first time or want to read it again, this is the order I tentatively recommend, grouping chapters by high-level topic:
Read the introduction
The introduction sets the tone for the book: it’s all about the possibility and desirability of open-ended progress.
Read the chapters on epistemology.
Epistemology is the most fundamental topic in the book. You’ll need it to understand the rest. I suggest this order: Chapters 1, 2, 4, 15, 16, 10, 6, 7, 13. Chapter 6 isn’t strictly about epistemology in the narrow sense – it’s about universality – but you’ll need it to understand chapter 7. I grouped chapters 4, 15, and 16 together because all three of them are about evolution. Then, after reading about static and dynamic societies in chapters 15 and 16, you get to read chapter 10, which rests on an understanding of them (the comparison between Sparta and Athens). In addition, I’ve written this post about the chapters that are relevant to the study of artificial general intelligence specifically, which make up a subset of the chapters listed above. Chapter 13 may superficially seem like it’s about politics, but it’s really about how to make decisions rationally, which is an epistemological question.
Read the chapters on optimism.
Chapter 9 is all about optimism. Afterwards, optionally re-read the passages in chapter 1 that are referenced in the index entry for ‘prophecy’ to understand the connection to epistemology. Next, read chapter 3, which is a very optimistic and hopeful chapter, too.
Read chapter 17. It directly ties in with the stuff about the environment from chapter 3 and also static societies (chapter 15). If you want a refresher on the latter, read chapter 15 again before reading chapter 17.
Read the chapters on physics.
That’s chapter 11 on the multiverse, and chapter 12, which is a bit more about the multiverse as well as the recent history of physics, before it goes into philosophy of science and good vs. bad philosophy.
Read these three standalone chapters in any order you like.
Chapter 5 is about abstractions and emergence. Chapter 8 is about the mathematical concept of infinity. Chapter 14 is about aesthetics. Other chapters loosely reference these three chapters, but you should largely have been able to get by without them just fine until now. Read them in any order you like. Chapter 8 references fine-tuning and anthropic reasoning from the section ‘Fine-tuning’ in chapter 4, so you may wish to read that section again before reading chapter 8, but it’s still mostly standalone.
Read the last chapter.
Chapter 18 ties it all together and presents many open problems to work on next.
You may have noticed that even with this new order I still recommend revisiting previously read chapters or sections at times. And there will still be times when you’re missing a concept from another chapter, such as when reading about Zeno’s mistake in chapter 13 before reading chapter 8. It can’t be avoided altogether, but now there should be a lot less jumping around overall in terms of high-level topics. You get more of a chance to deepen your understanding of a particular topic before moving on to other topics.
If you’re unsure about the proposed chapter order, read the chapters in the original order first, then read them again in my proposed order. (You’ll want to read the book more than once anyway.)
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