Philosophy, recent

The Unconstrained Vision of David Deutsch

In his book A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell argues that a good deal of political disagreements can be traced back to different assumptions about human nature. It is not a coincidence if many people seem to systematically fall on the same side of different, apparently unrelated political issues: starting from different visions of human nature and how the world works, people seem to cluster around the same stable sets of political positions (with the help, I would surmise, of some good old tribalism).

Sowell distinguishes between the unconstrained vision and the constrained vision. In the unconstrained vision, human beings are capable of great feats of wisdom, virtue, and intellectual power. Our egoism, our self-interestedness, and our wickedness are not part of our nature, but are instead artifacts of cruel, unfair, or irrational institutions. Given our capacity for enlightenment, it follows that some of us, who find themselves further on the path of perfectibility, can use their intellectual and moral power to elucidate what must be done and get rid of the shackles of the past. This is the vision of Rousseau, Condorcet, and Godwin.

In the constrained vision, however, human nature is deeply, fatally flawed. The moral and intellectual limitations of human beings must be put in check by traditions and institutions that stood the test of time. Since no one can wield the knowledge or moral perfection necessary to guide the whole of society, we need systemic processes to coordinate our self-interested strivings, leading to the emergence of a beneficial social order. This is the vision of Hobbes, Burke, and Smith (and, of course, Sowell himself).

That dichotomy is of course a crude simplification. It is in fact a spectrum, as Sowell himself admits, since no vision is fully constrained or unconstrained. However imperfect, Sowell’s categorization is a valuable instrument of interpretation. He does a great job of showing that many famous philosophers fall squarely within one cluster of visions. And then there are oddballs like David Deutsch.

David Deutsch, a renowned quantum physicist, sometimes hailed as the father of quantum computation, is one of the most original thinkers I’ve ever come across. If you don’t know what I mean, pick up one of his books. In his 1997 The Fabric of Reality, Deutsch presents his “theory of everything” by weaving together what he considers to be the deepest strands of our knowledge: evolution, computation, quantum physics, and epistemology. The resulting tapestry is not only consistent, it is breathtakingly beautiful. And if you think that sounds ambitious, just wait until you read his second book, The Beginning of Infinity.

Nothing can prepare you for a book like that. Deutsch’s argument is straightforward: our potential to make progress is infinite. It could in principle go on forever. The implications of such an optimistic view can only be grasped on the cosmic scale.

The starting point of Deutsch’s reasoning is epistemology—that is, the philosophy of knowledge. David Deutsch is a proponent of Karl Popper’s critical rationalism, according to which knowledge consists of unsupported guesses, and grows through a process of conjectures and refutations. Building on that, Deutsch calls himself a fallibilist. As he explains in his interview with Nautilus (a wonderful introduction to his ideas), fallibilism is the philosophical position that all human endeavours — attempts to create knowledge or achieve anything — are subject to error. There can be no foundation upon which to build “reliable”, “probable” or even “justified” knowledge. The logic of this is very simple: any foundation, any “reason to believe” you got things right needs to be itself justified. Therefore, all attempts to ground knowledge in any form of justification leads to an infinite regress.

However bleak this might seem at first, Deutsch maintains that fallibilism is an optimistic doctrine. The very idea that we are subject to error implies that there is such a thing as being right. The fact that knowledge can’t be justified doesn’t imply that it can’t capture some truth: there’s no need for us to know, or to believe, that something is true in order for it to be true. Following Popper, Deutsch argues that, even though certainty is forever out of reach, through repeated cycles of conjectures and refutations, human knowledge can grow indefinitely.

And the power of knowledge is limitless. Deutsch insists that any physical transformation that is not forbidden by the laws of physics is achievable, given the right knowledge. This idea runs very deep. Deutsch even proposed a new way of formulating the laws of physics, not in terms of initial conditions and laws of motions, but in terms of what transformations are possible — and the distinction between what’s possible or not depends on knowledge. In this worldview, knowledge is not a fringe phenomenon in physics: it is one of its central objects, of immense, cosmical importance. (I’m paraphrasing; this stuff is way too advanced for me). 

Optimism, for Deutsch, amounts to a deep philosophical principle. Either something is impossible, or it is achievable with knowledge. Another way to put it is this: All evils are due to insufficient knowledge.

The Unconstrained

There are a few things about David Deutsch that made me think of Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions. I caught myself wondering where such a mind-blowing vision would fall on the spectrum from constrained to unconstrained. At first, Deutsch’s boundless optimism seemed to evoke the unconstrained view.

Deutsch is highly skeptical of behavioural economics. Its focus on cognitive bias and various other forms of human limitations underplays our power to correct our mistakes: according to him, the very concept of bias is a misconception. He is also critical of evolutionary psychology and behavioural genetics: in a memorable run-in with Geoffrey Miller, he wrote that “explaining differences in human behaviour via genes quickly runs counter to human universality,” that is, the all-encompassing role of knowledge in the fate of human beings. He went as far as to say that “the idea that there is a human condition or a human nature is the epitome of the wrong way of explaining humans.”

This skepticism towards any insistence on human beings’ inadequacies, in light of our capacity to create knowledge, bears the hallmark of the unconstrained view. Moreover, Deutsch cites William Godwin, an eighteenth century English philosopher, as one of his main influences. In A Conflict of Visions, Sowell presents Godwin’s book Enquiry Concerning Political Justice as perhaps the purest example of the unconstrained vision. Godwin, a precursor of anarchism, believed in the power of human virtue and reason to supersede the need for coercive institutions. In Godwin’s vision, human beings’ limitations are not a feature of our nature, but a product of our circumstances. According to Deutsch, Godwin anticipated Popper in many ways, even though he “completely misunderstood economics.”

Another striking example is Deutsch’s rejection of Jared Diamond’s ideas about the role of geography and the environment in the rise of civilization. According to Diamond, a conjunction of environmental factors, such as the presence of vegetal and animal species suitable for domestication and the geographical and climatic characteristics of Eurasia, allowed European societies to make rapid progress. They accumulated cultural innovations, acquired immunities to various germs and developed the technologies they needed to conquer and colonize the rest of the world. Incidentally, Sowell wrote very similar things in his Culture trilogy.

Deutsch will have none of that. As he put it in his 2007 TedTalk, the problem is never resources, that are always plentiful, but knowledge, which is scarce. A culture can only exploit the resources present in its environment if it develops the knowledge required to use them. If a meteorite containing a metal with wonderful properties had fallen in Africa in prehistory, our primitive ancestors would not have known how to use it; if they had the right culture to do so, they wouldn’t need it to make rapid progress.

There’s clearly something unconstrained, almost ethereal, about this irrelevance of parochial factors. According to Deutsch, the beginning of infinity could have taken place anywhere: as he put it, “History is the history of ideas, not of the mechanical effects of biogeography.” And yet, it is striking to notice how much Deutsch’s epistemology owes to the constrained view.

The Constrained

According to Sowell, one of the main differences between the constrained and the unconstrained visions is epistemological in nature. The two visions have different assumptions about what knowledge is, how it can be used, and how scarce it is.

In the unconstrained vision, knowledge consists mainly of articulated propositions that can be understood by an individual. Those who have an unconstrained view of human nature believe in the power of articulated rationality: human reason is capable of elucidating anything, and that which cannot be justified before the tribunal of reason must be discarded. The fact that a tradition stood the test of time is no excuse; in fact, it is suspect, because it must then incorporate the prejudices and ignorance of the past.

In the constrained vision, knowledge is mainly experience, and the scope of knowledge goes far beyond what any particular individual can contemplate at one glance. This particular epistemology owes much to Friedrich Hayek, according to whom knowledge should be understood to…

…include all the human adaptations to environment in which past experience has been incorporated. Not all knowledge in this sense is part of our intellect and our intellect is not the whole of our knowledge. Our habits and skills, our emotional attitudes, our tools and our institutions — all are in this sense more or less effective adaptations formed by past experience, that have grown up by selective elimination of less suitable conduct and which are as much an indispensable foundation of successful action as is our conscious knowledge.

This view of knowledge closely tracks what Popper had in mind when he talked about objective knowledge. (The intellectual affinities between Popper and Hayek are well-known: Conjectures and Refutations is dedicated to Hayek.) For Popper, knowledge does not have to have a knowing subject. It exists in books, brains, computers, but also social organizations, traditions, and our genome: it is, in effect, information, instantiated in various physical substrates, that proved resistant to falsification, in a way reminiscent of Darwinian evolution.

In his magnum opus Knowledge and Decisions, building on Hayek’s seminal 1945 paper, Thomas Sowell insists on another aspect. Knowledge is scarce, and scattered thinly throughout society. What any given individual can know pales in comparison to the sum of knowledge spread out, in a myriad parcels, in a complex civilization. The central concern of economics, therefore, is not a problem of accumulating knowledge in a central authority that could then organize the whole of society and allocate resources for the greater good: given the intellectual limitations of man, such a task is impossible. The problem is communication and coordination. Individual specks of knowledge must be brought to bear on decision-making in the form of incentives through various systemic and institutional mechanisms.

Not only is the scarcity of knowledge central in Deutsch’s epistemology, but it goes with a somewhat tragic view of the human condition. In his appearance on Sam Harris’ podcast, David Deutsch outlined a view of history that seems to come straight out of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan:

I see human history as a long period of complete failure — failure, that is, to make any progress. Now, our species has existed for maybe 50,000 years, maybe 100,000 to 200,000 years. The vast majority of that time, people were alive, they were thinking, they were suffering, they wanted things. But nothing ever improved. The improvements that did happen happened so slowly that geologists can’t distinguish the difference between artifacts from one era to another with a resolution of 10,000 years. So from the point of view of a human lifetime, nothing ever improved, with generation upon generation upon generation of suffering and stasis.

It doesn’t get much more constrained than that. Deutsch has some strong-worded criticism for the prevailing view knowledge and progress among most liberal intellectuals:

Although the institutions of our culture are so amazingly good that they have been able to manage stability in the face of rapid change for hundreds of years, the knowledge of what it takes to keep civilization stable in the face of rapidly increasing knowledge is not very widespread. In fact, severe misconceptions about several aspects of it are common among political leaders, educated people, and society at large. We’re like people on a huge, well-designed submarine, which has all sorts of lifesaving devices built in, who don’t know they’re in a submarine. They think they’re in a motorboat, and they’re going to open all the hatches because they want to have a nicer view.

The submarine analogy echoes the distinction between the constrained and the unconstrained visions. It definitely sounds like something Sowell could say. In his defense of the constrained vision, in books like The Vision of the Anointed and Intellectuals and Society, Sowell rants on and on about the tendency of many intellectuals to “anoint” themselves with a special role to help society. The anointed believe themselves to be capable of wielding enough knowledge to judge and prescribe social outcomes, instead of social processes, without being accountable for the results of their ideas. Intellectuals have a dangerous tendency, and powerful incentives, to isolate themselves from any form of feedback and reality-check.

This fits Popperian thinking like a glove. In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch is even more blunt. According to Deutsch, since there is no secure foundation upon which to build knowledge, and since error is the normal state of our knowledge, the only thing we can cling on to is the hope to correct our errors. It therefore follows that the ultimate immoral thing is to destroy the means of correcting errors, that is, to isolate ourselves from criticism. In an imagined dialog between Socrates and the god of knowledge Hermes, David Deutsch puts the following line in the mouth of the philosopher: “Could it be that the moral imperative not to destroy the means of correcting mistakes is the only moral imperative? That all other moral truths follow from it?”

This question is met with an equivocal silence from the god.

The Human Condition, From Constrained to Unconstrained

In light of Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, David Deutsch appears as a remarkable, unclassifiable thinker. His synthesis of the constrained and unconstrained visions is perhaps the most remarkable thing about his work.

From a constrained view of human history, and fully aware of our mediocre beginnings as primitive beasts, Deutsch believes that the capacity to create knowledge, and the cultural institutions and traditions that allow us to do so, makes us on a par with the gods. Even though we are frail and fallible earthly creatures, made of mundane matter, and even though we come from an excruciating history of stasis, suffering, and stupidity, our knowledge sets us apart in the universe. Ultimately, human knowledge may come to shape the cosmos; through knowledge, we are unconstrained.


Clovis Roussy is a Quebec lawyer. He works as a law clerk at the Court of Appeal of Quebec. His fields of interest are epistemology and moral philosophy. You can follow him on Twitter @cloroussy


  1. E. Olson says

    Interesting reviews. It seems to me that a key problem with the unconstrained (aka Leftist) viewpoint is that it comes from the minds of very smart people who tend to interact in bubbles of other smart people (aka the ivory tower) and therefore fail to contemplate the implications of their “plans”, “theories”, and “schemes” for perfect human, societal, and earthly progress when implemented and administered by people who aren’t so smart, and/or who have other priorities, and/or who don’t like being told what to do, and who comprise 99% of the human population. The fact that so many of these unconstrained types fail to consider such problems as well as their own knowledge and experience limitations is also the antithesis to Popper’s falsification ethic, which is why so much of science is corrupted by biases and an an active effort to avoid falsification of “perfect” theories, schemes, and plans. Theoretical “perfection” always looks great when compared to the imperfect and “unfair” reality, which is why so many Leftists continue to promote Communism, climate change hysteria, gender infinity, unilateral disarmament, affirmative action, and other failed causes no matter how many times they are refuted by reality.

    • El Uro says

      @E. Olson
      If reality is contrary to theory – so much the worse for reality.

    • david of Kirkland says

      The real split seems to be between those who think progress occurs by individuals seeking their own paths and solutions, and those who think it’s society creates progress by focusing on expertise. Both seem to hold true, but the former is better at adapting to mistakes.
      Like science grows over time from observation of reality (evidence), it has to be tested and not just accepted, and must adapt to new information. Societies have a way of locking human minds up, pretending it already has the answers or that the answers are whatever a majority say it is.

    • TarsTarkas says

      The fallacy of perfectibility. The belief that man is innately good, it’s just circumstances that make us bad. The founding fathers of the USA knew better, that man is Fallen and can never be perfect, and therefore built a political system to check the foul impulses within all of us and to use that energy to support the whole. Whereas the Philosophes and their descendants have constantly tried and failed (quite bloodily) to force mankind into Utopia, blaming each failure on the ‘No True Scotsman’ excuse, unable to understand that a system of governance that requires having the right people running it (themselves, of course) is to fragile to survive the wear and tear of existence and reality.

    • E.Olson and the right wingers should read the quote from Deutsch about the highest moral
      imperative being the freedom to correct our mistakes. While the left’s economic views ignore this, so do the views on the right when they blindly rebut climate science based on their own a priori biases and those of their capitalist allies, and spend their time trying to discredit credible scientists’ peer reviewed work shored up by undeniable data and empirical observation. The views on this site of people with serious limitations and confirmation biases are a clear example. Disagreements on social and economic issues are necessary, but free marketeers and neo cons’ attempts to undermine honest science not to mention the laws of physics indicate that theirs is a failed cause. They are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts, as the saying goes. The left relies on discredited causes; the right relies on discredited science.

  2. Comparing David Deutsch to Thomas Sowell is a compliment to Thomas Sowell – and vice versa. I think differentiating them on the constrained/unconstrained axis is not informative. Deutsch sets out his “constrained credentials” with:

    “Neither the human condition in particular nor our explanatory knowledge in general will ever be perfect, nor even approximately perfect. We shall always be at the beginning of infinity.”

    I see the major difference between these two greats being that Deutsch is much more the optimist.

    • david of Kirkland says

      Optimism generally occurs if you accept that individuals will keep on making progress with accumulated information. Pessimism generally arises because we’re constrained to the thinking of a few authorities who have power over us. When majorities rule others (democracy over liberty), the groupthink issues that arise due to the desire to coerce others and control them (power corrupts) seem inevitable. Our brains are remarkable — but only a few of them. The vast majority of brains aren’t; survival is what groups do; progress is something that comes out of rare minds.

  3. Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

    @E. Olson

    “Theoretical “perfection” always looks great when compared to the imperfect and “unfair” reality”

    It seems to me that one of the reasons the West prospered — and this was articulated by the FF of America — is that, given a hundred different versions of religious perfection ensconced in a hundred Protestant sects, everyone understood that a truce would have to be imposed and that there would be no official religion and that everyone would be free to falsify everyone else’s truth and thus the spirit of skeptical inquiry prospered and so did we. IOW mistakes were corrected even at the heavy cost of hurt feelings. But, by stealth, we now have an official state religion (PC-Social Justice) and, like all religious perfections, it is vigorously shutting down the means for correcting mistakes because it views itself as perfect already and hates competition (which is why it likes Communism). Symbolically I pin the ‘beginning of the end’ of rational skepticism to the Confession of St. John the Imaginer:

    • E. Olson says

      Ray – the Christian religion is not based on the perfection of man, but the admitted imperfections. Christian doctrine says we are all sinners in thought or deed, and Jesus died for our sins paving the way for sinners to be forgiven with entry to heaven made possible for all sinning believers. The checks and balances built into the US Constitution by the founding fathers is also about checking the imperfections of man that tend to be magnified when individuals (i.e. Kings) or religions (i.e. official state religions) are given absolute power over others. The old Lord Acton quote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, is very much illustrated by the behavior of SJWs and Climate Change proponents of today.

      • Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

        @E. Olson

        Quite. You know, there’s food for thought there, A Luther or a Calvin does hold his faith to be the One True Faith as I suggested, yet of course what you say is also true. Christianity must therefore at least attempt to resist One True dogmatism even if it usually fails — humans being what we are. Correctness has no such checks even in theory.

        I’ve known many a fundamentalist who tries to square the circle there, claiming that whereas she is an imperfect sinner, her religion is perfect, every doctrine she holds is exactly right. How does she know? Because Jesus told her himself. Gnosis. Perhaps the modern parallel is that the Correct always believe in evolution, but that it has no effect on gene pools, nor on anything to do with the brain.

    • david of Kirkland says

      In God We Trust shows that America never could shake its religious authoritarianism.

      • augustine says

        “In God We Trust” suggests the opposite of authoritarianism. The phrase does not imply that anyone who does not trust in God cannot participate, and no specific faith is indicated. What would you have us trusting in, then? Reason, The Dollar, or Man perhaps? Any of those sounds authoritarian to me.

        • There are several problems with “In God We Trust” – The first and foremost being that that ‘We’ as a society do not trust God. It’s a remarkable presumption. You’re correct that no specific faith is indicated but a specific subset of faiths is – that of the monotheist’s. It is exclusionary of both polytheists and non-theists…It’s also a bit meaningless and therefore silly and divisive…and what is a god but ultimately an authoritarian?

          • E. Olson says

            Rick – most religions believe their God(s) is/are perfect, so trusting in God makes perfect sense. Although atheism has become more common/popular in recent times, I believe all the founding fathers claimed to deists and hence trust in God also makes sense, while the checks and balances of the US Constitution definitely indicate they had no faith in the perfection of man (rightfully so).

  4. So, a Québécois law clerk, an American economist and an Israeli theoretical physicist walk into a bar find the meaning of life?

    Certainly, the constrained version attributed to Sowell is derived from the “T” in TULIP calvinism (i.e.; the total depravity of man). That idea teaches us that the product of human reason is as likely to reflect the worst devils of our nature as it is to reflect the better angels of nature and so should be treated with a good deal of caution. Suggesting that Sowell picked it up from Hayek is bizarre.

    Maybe Deutsch could have had a lovely and productive discussion about the unconstrained implications of his ideas with Stephen Hawkings but no one else would understand it.

    Finally, suggesting, as Roussy does, that Deutsch thinks that taking 50k or 100k years to go from the discovery of fire to atomic bombs and stepping into the solar system can be blown off with the observation that most of the time was wasted suggests that Deutsch is simply not worth reading.

  5. R Henry says

    –Reminds me of an old Steve Martin comedy schtick.

    He asks the audience: “How many of you were Philosophy majors?”

    He notices that a few hands only go halfway up….as those Philosophy majors can’t quite confirm or deny…ANYTHING! They are just …. confused….conflicted…unsure.

    • James Pelton says

      Maybe it is simply that we are somewhat, but only
      somewhat, aware of the vastness of our ignorance.

  6. R Henry says

    Deutsch illustrates the secular circularity of seeking to understand reality and human nature. One realization leads to another, but there is always that next realization that puts some shade on the former. It is the definition of an endless circle.

    Religious Faith can eliminate this ceaseless quest. In the case of Christianity, believers accept that they are flawed (sinful) by nature, but with Faith, are entirely forgiven. Believers are called to respond to this liberationby doing good works. Many do, and our world is a better place for it.

  7. “Our egoism, our self-interestedness, and our wickedness are not part of our nature, but are instead artifacts of cruel, unfair, or irrational institutions.”
    But who creates those institutions, if not us?

    “The moral and intellectual limitations of human beings must be put in check by traditions and institutions that stood the test of time.”
    But again, who creates THOSE institutions, if not us?

    The dichotomy is somewhat false. Which is chicken and which egg?

    And Sowell rants on and on? Some things need to be repeated.

  8. It’s great to see Deutsch reviewed here. I consider him one of the world’s top philosophers, first from his contributions to physics, and then branching out into the more general goals of science and society.

    What might interest some readers here, his views on global warming are quite refreshing too – that we should treat it as an opportunity. If we want to control the temperature of Earth let’s see if we’re capable – it’s just an engineering problem after all.

  9. John Galt says

    This issue was traced a long time ago. Arguably a better analysis of the different ‘ways of thinking’ is contained in the DIM Hypothesis by Objectivist L. Peikoff. A recommended read as it goes to the very heart of reason itself.

  10. codadmin says

    How was science even done with those 2007 laptops? Lol…but Deutsch is a legend. A brilliant, hilarious, take down of the cosmic nihilists.

  11. Physicists attempting Philosophy… a cobbler should stick to his last.

    • TarsTarkas says

      Does that mean that Eric Hoffer should have never written a word? Spinoza stuck to grinding lenses? Wegener to never utter a peep regarding continental drift?

      • No. To make it explicit – Theoretical Physicists usually make a complete hash of it when they attempt Philosophy. Yet, they are taken very seriously due to the prestige of their field.

  12. Some say torture should be illegal. But much is revealed in Clovis Roussy’s torture of the ideas of Thomas Sowell.

    Thomas Sowell’s distinction between a constrained and unconstrained world view do indeed describe very elementally different orientations to reality (Friedrich Nietzsche made a similar distinction between the tragic and theoretic world views and more recently, historian Victor Davis Hanson makes a distinction between the tragic and therapeutic views). But the author ends up stretching, twisting and torturing Sowell’s distinctions to fit the apparently radically capacious mind of David Deutsch.

    According to Mr. Roussy, David Deutsch is both constrained and unconstrained at the same time. How is that possible? How can the author affirm, following David Deutsch, that “the power of knowledge is limitless” and “all evils are due to insufficient knowledge” while simultaneously arguing that David Deutsch’s thinking is “a remarkably unclassifiable thinker” who is a “synthesis of the constrained and unconstrained”? Is not the assertion “the power of knowledge is limitless” the virtual definition of the unconstrained vision?

    Much confusion of the significance of the difference between the constrained and unconstrained vision arises from Mr. Roussy’s and David Deutsch’s vague and apparently limited ideas of knowledge. The author, following David Deutsche, acknowledges that “error is the normal state of our knowledge, the only thing we can cling to is the hope to correct our error.” This is a reasonable statement but what follows is where Mr. Roussy (and apparently David Duetsch) goes off the rails. “It therefore follows that the ultimate immoral thing is to destroy the means of correcting error, that is, to isolate ourselves from criticism”. Indeed, is “criticism” actually the “means of correcting error”?

    Mr. Roussy seems to be suggesting that new knowledge is gained from our ability to criticize our old ways of thinking. This is how we “progress”. I think this is a quite misleading. I agree that “criticism” is a “means of correcting error” but it is not the only or even the most important means for correcting error. The correcting of dysfunctional ways of viewing reality begins not with knowledge, but with experience, which is to say, by suffering the consequences of our errors (and this is precisely what Thomas Sowell claims our contemporary intellectuals do not do). I believe this is true for individuals and it is true for civilizations.

    We may become receptive to new ideas, new knowledge, but often this is a function of the degree we have suffered from our present ideas, a function of the degree that we become aware of the limits of our ideas. At this point the human imagination generates a new series of correspondences and relationships which sustain us. We grow and evolve more by experience and the imaginative transformation of experience than simply by new or better knowledge.

    The essential difference between the constrained and unconstrained view is then found in how knowledge is understood. Although the author acknowledges Hayek’s broader notions of knowledge, Mr Roussy and David Deutsch seem to think of knowledge more like information – They seem to think a human or a human civilization is a kind of machine which can be perpetually improved by accretion or perpetual tinkering -“human knowledge can grow indefinitely”. Again this is the unconstrained view of reality in full display.

    In the constrained view knowledge is not simply information but is embodieded in the myths, stories and images which sustain life. It can be found in the Upanishads, Greek pottery, a Gothic cathedral etc etc. This knowledge tell us who we are and how the universe works. All of this kind of knowledge tells us that we are subject to powers beyond ourselves. Much of this has historically been called wisdom and in fact, the wisdom passed down through time often has to do precisely with the limits of human knowledge. Nietzsche felt the highest knowledge, what he called “tragic wisdom”, was embodied in Greek tragedy. This kind of knowledge can neither be proven by logic and science, nor can it be disproven. It cannot be accumulated over time nor can it “grow indefinitely”.

    Significantly David Deutsch evokes the spirit of Socrates to validate his own observations about knowledge. Socrates is the archetypal embodiment of the critical spirit. He is the great questioner, the great debunker. “Couldn’t it be” David Deutsch’s imagined Socrates argues, “that the moral imperative not to destroy the means of correcting mistakes is the only moral imperative that all other moral truths follow from it?” Friedrich Nietzsche, also understanding Socrates as the avatar of such critical thinking, addresses this question. And his answer is: No. Socratic criticisms are not the “means of correcting mistakes”, they are not the means by which a society revives itself and generates new knowledge. Why does Nietzsche say this?

    For Nietzsche, Socrates is the embodiment of the theoretic world view which is in contrast to the tragic world view (Socrates is also “the mystagogue of science”). “Tragic wisdom” reflects an understanding that at any point in time we live by some interpretation of reality which may consist of all kinds of knowledge about all kinds of things. But this particular interpretation is always limited and it ultimately can never be derived from reason – which mean we always live by some kind of faith, no one lives by logic or by knowledge gained by logic. In other words, we live by means of the “illusion” that the ideas we have in our heads actually reflect reality. To understand and accept this perpetually limited nature of human thinking is what the tragic or constrained vision is all about.

    Over time our human ideas become increasingly dysfunctional, increasingly dissociated from reality – as Mr. Roussy says, we are prone to “error”. We may begin to question these ideas – enter Socrates. Significantly, Socrates appears as the tragic wisdom, as found in the great Greek playwrights, is in decline. To question ideas, to criticize ideas in itself creates nothing, does nothing. This is Nietzsche’s “Problem with Socrates” – Socrates takes things apart, he doesn’t put things together. Socrates generates nothing, creates nothing – he creates no life sustaining illusion. Socrates is not the cure of the societal decay of Athens, rather he is its most prominent symptom.

    So today, what do we now know that we didn’t when we lived for millennia in a state of “failure – failure that is to make progress”? What is the knowledge we now possess which makes us so special? We certainly have material progressed, but are we any more aware of how reality works than we were five hundred or five thousand years ago? Are we any more alive?

    Mr. Roussy seems to think that acknowledging that human knowledge has been limited historically and may indeed be limited at the moment in itself constitutes a constrained view. But the moment, he, David Duetsch or anyone else says, “All evils are due to insufficient knowledge” everything changes. Can there be a statement any less constrained? Any more unoriginal? Any more hubristic?

    • Tim Stephenson says

      The point is that we are only constrained by the laws of physics. The ancient understanding of what knowledge is, that it is justified true belief, is false. Knowledge always consists of unjustified conjectures but it can be improved by criticism, by argument, by seeing if the logical implications deduced from an explanation are falsified by empirical observation. That is what makes the enlightenment and scientific revolution a beginning of infinity. The reason Sowell is right to criticise the unconstrained vision of leftist thinkers is precisely that ideas such as Marxism do not correctly predict social outcomes in the countries that adopt those policies, but to embrace the idea that he creation of new knowledge is impossible is also falsified by the real technological progress we have seen in the past few hundred years.

    • The Dionysian chorus mocks the Apollonian hero. Indestructible life vs. the illusion of reason and light, I think, is what N. was getting at.

  13. Sabin Levesque says

    Hi M. Roussy,

    Add me on Facebook. I really enjoyed this article. We should meet up if you live in Montreal.

  14. Fickle Pickle says

    We all transform the intrinsically unknowable World Process by our mostly unexamined culturally determined presumptions about what we are as human beings.

    All systems of philosophy and philosophical conjecture are based upon and are an extension of the subtle structures of the human body-mind-complex.

    Does Western philosophy take into account the five subtle sheaths or koshas of the human body-mind-complex – the annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijanamaya, anandamaya.

    Obviously not.

    What if you did philosophy and perceived the World Process from the much expanded paradoxical perspective of either the Causal Body (the Anandamayakosha), or from the sheath of discriminative intelligence (the vijnanamayakosha).

    Western philosophers know diddly squat about these paradoxical dimensions of our existence-being. Therefore how profound could Western “philosophy” possible be?

    Do any of the usual dreadfully sane Western philosophers take into account the Chakra system, which is closely related to the five koshas.

    Obvious not.

    What if INFINITY is our Real condition prior to all of our atrocious thoughts and self-reinforcing philosophical chit chat, and all of our grotesque towers of babble (Babel)

    What is the nature of Reality altogether, prior to all of our atrocious thoughts?

    The Nature of Reality Itself can be said and observed to be Spherical, without center or bounds.
    It is not elsewhere. It is not a point. It is not separate.
    The ego versus object – mind – is a mental fiction. It is not a description of Reality Itself, not even a description of what the process of experiencing is in any moment.
    Experience is not based on point and separation.
    There are no points.
    There are no centers.
    There is infinite association.
    Boundless Touch and Feeling.
    Centerless Being.
    Everything is organized in the manner of spheres – not points.
    What appears to be a point is a temporary apparent conjunction of spheres.
    There is no point, no center, no finality, no dilemma, no ego.
    All difficulty can be intrinsically transcended, because everything is a sphere – Boundless, Centerless Being.


    • D-Rex says

      @ Pickle, who would have thought that when you mentioned the word “babble” you were referring to the vast bulk of your comment. I was tempted to call your ramblings sophistry but then I couldn’t decide whether you were being deliberately misleading or actually believed this dribble.

    • Charles says

      Fickle Pickle. The Aryan invasion of India led to the caste system and eventually to immobility. If the shadow of an untouchable touched that of a Brahmin they had to undergo 7 days of purification. Hindu society became rigid and was unable to defend itself from the Muslim invasion of post 1000 AD. Buddhism also led to lack of dynamic development and destruction by the Muslim hordes; Timur the lame being the last.

      When judging any philosophical system one needs to look at the results: Heidegger supported the Nazis and Sartre did nothing to fight them. Hinduism and Buddhism has often resulted in passivity and cessation of any cultural, intellectual or technical development after about 800 AD.

      • Charles,

        I agree that “when judging any philosophical system one needs to look at the results” with this caveat: most philosophical systems are subject to many interpretations. Heidegger is to be criticized for his support of Nazism, but many of his observations of the modern world are as relevent as ever – that is to say, Heidegger’s own apparent interpretation of his ideas are highly dubious. Satre’s Stalinism also represents an interpretation of his own ideas, though, in my opinion, he is a far more mediocre thinker than Heidegger to begin with.

        Moreover, I think there are profound differences between the notion of a “philosophical system” and what historically we think of as religions. This is embodied in the appearance in the modern world of the tern “ideology”.

  15. D-Rex says

    One of the main reasons that I read Quillette every day is so that I can encounter comments such as yours. Every time I come here, I venture from my particular bubble of knowledge and understanding to a myriad of worlds that I would never have experienced otherwise.
    Now “All evils are due to insufficient knowledge” brings to mind a conversation between JB Peterson and Sam Harris, where Sam said the same thing, to which Peterson replied something like “then you’ve never met a truly evil person, I have”.
    Harris and Duetsch seem to be kindred spirits in many ways as both seem to believe in “human reason is capable of elucidating anything, and that which cannot be justified before the tribunal of reason must be discarded. “, I think that is called scientism.

    “Deutsch is highly skeptical of behavioural economics. Its focus on cognitive bias and various other forms of human limitations underplays our power to correct our mistakes: according to him, the very concept of bias is a misconception. He is also critical of evolutionary psychology and behavioural genetics: in a memorable run-in with Geoffrey Miller, he wrote that “explaining differences in human behaviour via genes quickly runs counter to human universality,” that is, the all-encompassing role of knowledge in the fate of human beings. He went as far as to say that “the idea that there is a human condition or a human nature is the epitome of the wrong way of explaining humans.”

    This whole paragraph is problematic and it would be interesting to read Peterson or Haidt’s views on these utterings. I look forward to reading comments on this from people more articulate and informed than myself.

    “Another striking example is Deutsch’s rejection of Jared Diamond’s ideas about the role of geography and the environment in the rise of civilization.” and “Deutsch will have none of that. As he put it in his 2007 TedTalk, the problem is never resources, that are always plentiful, but knowledge, which is scarce. A culture can only exploit the resources present in its environment if it develops the knowledge required to use them.”

    Is ridiculous. If Duetsch’s assertions were true then the wheel would have been ubiquitous several millennia ago. China missed the early industrial revolution despite importing the knowledge because it couldn’t access its own coal resources.
    In many if not most cases, the discovery of a resource precedes the knowledge of how to use it. Where was the theoretical applications of metallic copper to be found before copper metal was accidentally produced from cooking cobs at the end of the stone age?

    Duetsch has clearly brilliant ideas concerning the nature of physical systems but I’ll take Sowell’s ideas on the human condition any day.

    • D-rex

      I think all you points are well taken. I’ve not read anything by David Deutsch but I think he and the author seem to have a muddled view of what constitutes knowledge.

      My impression is that both the author and David Deutsch have some good intuitions about the limits of the prevailing scientism but lack a deeper understanding of how human consciousness works. Indeed, its unclear that either has ever even thought about how human consciousness itself at any point in time represents a kind of adaptation to the world in which it finds itself. In my opinion, to understand the limited nature of human consciousness itself is to understand the constrained or tragic vision.

      By the way and as you seem to suggest, Peterson clearly has a tragic or constrained view of reality, Sam Harris – with his infinite faith in scientific methodologies to reveal reality – appears to have an unconstrained view.

  16. Doug Deeper says

    @CA – Bravo! You may enjoy George Gilder’s “Knowledge and Power.” Gilder does a very good job describing how the work of Godel, von Neumann and Turing shows how limited rationality is. He also makes the point that “imagination precedes knowledge.” I also see the rather obvious limits of criticism. Gilder writes that imagination and freedom of choice provide new knowledge, and thus progress.

    • Doug Deeper

      Thanks for the reference – I look forward to checking it out. I’ve run across all kinds of profound critiques of the limits of rationality. Nueroscientist Iain McGilchrist’s excellent book on the brain demonstrates why scientific methodologies in themselves cannot understand how the brain works.
      Human reason can begin to reveal its own limits.

      By the way, I agree that human’s can and do progress. This is done to the degree we, as individuals or as a civilization, can absorb and transform conflict and suffering into some harmonious whole. But this is always limited since reality is infinitely more complex and ever changing.

  17. Clark Coleman says

    The Gnostic idea that knowledge is the key to all progress and that human nature is not the barrier to progress ignores the difficulties in making moral progress, which are precisely because of human nature. The state of New York just passed a law to permit more abortions in the third trimester, even though they already had legal protections when the life of the mother was threatened.

    So, an unborn child at 8 months gestation could be delivered and adopted, but someone wants to kill it instead. This is explained by noting that the mother wants “psychological closure” in the case; no wondering where her child is at the moment years hence, I guess.

    This barbarism is not based on lack of knowledge. It is an outcome of human willfulness. It is a desired outcome. Those who focus only on technological progress and knowledge tend to miss the moral dimension of life. Evils are not committed primarily because someone did not know that the acts were evil, or did not know what the outcomes would be, but because they desired the outcomes and acted accordingly.

    • Jack B. Nimble says

      @Clark Coleman

      You: “…..The state of New York just passed a law to permit more abortions in the third trimester, even though they already had legal protections when the life of the mother was threatened……So, an unborn child at 8 months gestation could be delivered and adopted, but someone wants to kill it instead….”

      The law you mentioned does NOT remove all abortion restrictions, but allows late-term abortions if the fetus is not viable. Don’t believe me? Read it for yourself:

      Who would want to adopt and care for a nonviable neonate who would only live a few hours or days before dying? That is typical magical thinking by religious conservatives.

      If readers can’t understand the issues involved, here is a real-life story:

      “…..My husband and I were thrilled last year to find out I was pregnant again after a miscarriage at ten weeks. After almost eight long months of learning one “extremely rare” and “totally random” complication after the next, we were told at 30 weeks that the baby’s growth had fallen off a cliff and that I had developed polyhydramnios, or high amniotic fluid levels. High fluid coupled with a lack of growth indicated that the baby was not swallowing. As our doctor was explaining this to us, putting the puzzle pieces of the past eight months together, he finally got to his point: “Swallowing is how the baby practices breathing on the outside. If he cannot swallow, he will not be able to breathe.”

      He didn’t have to say the words “incompatible with life” at this moment because he could see in our horrified faces that we understood. When we asked what this would mean for our baby, he explained that if we decided to carry to term, and this is presuming I didn’t have a third-trimester miscarriage, the baby would live for only a short time before choking to death.

      When we heard this outcome for our baby, which sounded to us like suffering, we immediately wanted to know if there was any other option……But then we learned that our doctor would not be able to provide this care to us because abortions are illegal in New York after 24 weeks unless the life of the pregnant person is in immediate danger…..”

      Bottom Line: the NY law is compassionate, not barbaric.

  18. Maximilian says

    If only his hair stylist wasn’t stuck in the Middle Ages.

  19. Jezza says

    Thank you, Quillette, for publishing this essay, and thank you responders for your illuminating comments. I am particularly taken with the quote “imagination precedes knowledge”. I think of the nuclear submarine described in “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea”, and the lift (elevator) described by Homer. Now I think the quote should be extended to “imagination precedes knowledge which is then tested and either confirmed or refuted”. Without testing knowledge remains ephemeral. Trial and error is a beneficial process. Testing spotlights one’s mistakes which hurts so many people avoid it and thus remain mired in error, but those who embrace it move on. There is no gain without pain.

    On another point entirely, has anyone come across a discussion of the effect of food preservation on the advancement of civilization?

  20. James Lee says

    “It therefore follows that the ultimate immoral thing is to destroy the means of correcting errors, that is, to isolate ourselves from criticism.”

    I fear this is where we stand as a species. With AI and our current system of surveillance capitalism, we are on the doorstep of creating feedback loops of tyrannical automated algorithms that permit or deny free choice. It may be very soon that particular criticisms of elite policy will be branded a hate crime, and enforced with automated repercussions (i.e., Sargon of Akkad is a bad boy, now his income is frozen…)

    China has struck the first blow with its social credit score system, and I expect to see the global spread of a similar type of system in a more subtle form.

  21. Fickle Pickle says

    I see that both Clovis and David are fans of Hayek.

    What if Hayek’s writings and influence turn out to be catastrophically wrong?

    Such is the argument presented by Eric Zencey in his essay Mill, Hayek & Our Midas Plight.. It is featured on The Front Porch Republic website.
    I came across Eric’s work via a critique of Steven Pinker’s recent essay on Quillette.

    How many of the Quillette readers know about what in my opinion is Karl Popper’s most important book which is The Poverty of Historicism.

    To make history is to exert power.

    Earlier times featured great migrations of people, barbaric invasions and even the resort to war by “religious” movements as a means of enforcing their teachings.

    But only in modern Europe and by extension America did men begin to make history – that is, exert systematic power over others, even as a means of justifying their own impoverished psyches.

    The his-story of the modern world from the late 18th century to now has been characterized by three broad areas of change.
    1. The mechanization of consciousness, the materialization of values, and the industrialization of human society with its consequent disruption of planetary ecosystems.
    2. Accelerated social and political upheavals of all kinds including revolutions and global warfare.
    3. Cultural disintegration, the stratification of knowledge by academic institutions and the almost complete erasure of any kind of visionary or “mystical” apirations.

    In terms of human development, the age of self-conscious historicism is brief and violent.
    It epitomizes, on the one hand, the “triumph” of teche, and on the other, the disintegration of the human spirit’s intrinsic capacity to express itself as an integral function of nature.

    And of course any kind of ecstatic self-transcendence is completely verboten!

  22. Fickle Pickle says

    Never mind that George Gilder is one of the original boosters of turbo-charged capitalism

    As far as I know he was also instrumental in creating the benighted The “Discovery” Institute as a means of providing the “religious” justifications for such turbo-charged capitalism.

  23. Peter from Oz says

    I’m sorry if someone has said this above, but constrained and unconstrained thinkers appear on both sides of the political divide.
    For example I’d say that many of those who see racism as the world’s major problem do not see human nature as perfectable, but see racism as a kind of original sin. These leftists elieve that we are all racist, not because institutions made us that way, but because we are people who were born white. That is about as constrained as you can get.

  24. Charlie says

    I suggest what is ignored is the question ” What motivates humans “. A Toynbee said civilisation occurs where peoples over come challenges. If there are no challenges there is no need for civilisation and they are too great , the task is to great.
    What motivated Phoenicians to sacrifice babies( Moloch) and Meso Americans to sacrifice humans up to the 1490s AD? What motivated Atilla the Hun, Genghis Khan and Timur the Lame to rampage across the Eurasian World slaughtering millions.
    Yet what motivated the Nazis and communist to murder tens of millions ? What motivated those to create the Italian Renaissance and music of Hadyn, Mozart and other great composers.

    Muggeridge said Bolsheviks were urban, products of cheap boarding houses who had a grudge against their fellow men and civilisation. Solzhenitsyn said the Bolsheviks were intellectuals and not workers and they created a system such that by 1918, the Cheka were murdering 40,000 a month. Heidegger one of the supposedly great intellectuals supported Hitler. Shalamov said one can survive on spite and one can divided the world not into good and bad but cowards and non cowards. Cowards can be threatened to undertaken acts of murder. Orwell said he did not fear a dictatorship of the proletariat but the intellectuals

    If would suggest that the wealth and comfort then West has produced has led to a vast mass of weak timid spiteful, resentful, self hating and self pitying types whom mostly come from the effete impractical white collar middle classes who are largely irrelevant to civilisation. Consequently, because of their inadequacy ( they are inadequate with regards to creating and maintaining civilisation ) they have a grudge against their fellow man and western civilisation. How many intellectuals produce anything of worth ? J Austen only wrote six novels yet she achieved more to the sum of western civilisation than probably all humanities departments in the last 30 years.

    I would suggest the reason for success of cultural Marxism is that it has stopped the examination of peoples character and motives. Cultural marxism is supported by middle class types not those who undertake arduous blue collar work.Orwell, Muggeridge, Churchill, Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn understood peoples character and what motivated them.

    Ask a simple question. If one had to found a pioneer settlement , say in 1622 AD in N America what are the character of the people most needed to survive ? I would suggest people blessed with resolution, robustness, resilience, resourcefulness, rectitude, fortitude, cheerfulness and a willingness to help others. These are qualities any group of people who have founded civilisations, be it Egypt, Sumer, Minoan, Harappa, etc Now in modern day life who has these skills?

    Knowledge comes from observation, curiosity, trial and error and experimentation. A wall collapses, one examines the pile of stones and either give up or carry on until one builds one which stays upright.

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  27. scribblerg says

    Mr. Deutsch needs to read the well founded studies of identical twins and triplets separated at birth and raised in utterly different social environments. Their similar behavior and other social outcomes are startlingly consistent.

    Brilliant guy, obviously. But horribly wrong about reason. The plain fact is that reason must also be informed by virtue for it to have good outcomes. This gives you the difference between China and the U.S., for example…

  28. Wisdom comes from experience. Experience comes from a lack of wisdom.

  29. DontTakeMeSeriously says

    Reading the comments, the impression is that the article did not sufficiently articulate Deutsch’s view (or that some of the commentators are misreading it). I’d urge people to read the The Beginning of infinity.

    The comparison to Sowell’s constrained/unconstrained visions might be misleading. Deutsch himself contrasts justificationism and fallibilism (advocating the former).

  30. David Deutsch is an extreme example of what I like to call the hubriati: those who believe that every problem facing humanity can be solved by applying the right technique, technology, social engineering, money, intellectual theory or economic activity. They are materialist, instrumentalist rationalists, who value their abstractions over visceral existence, denigrate all traditional human values and culture, and have no concept of metaphysical or physical limits on the human enterprise. Frankly, I find these people extreme, disturbing, spiritually impoverished and almost soulless. They are creating a new intellectual foundation for an old game of imperialism and cultural destruction. After all, if you don’t embrace the hubriati’s values, cling to the obsolete ways of your ancestors and don’t believe you are gods in the making, you are clearly culturally deficient and deserve to be conquered. The fact that such dangerous and metaphysically deranged people are taken seriously says a lot about the spiritual and intellectual pathologies of this age.

  31. Jasper Dunleavey says

    The discussion of Sir Popper is most welcome.

    Deutsch shares some insights with Pinker re: the betterment of he human condition. But infinite progress belies what we know of just about every natural system, be it growth of bacterial colonies or corporations, or the capacity of the world’s smartest dog to learn tricks.

    In natural systems you see a shallow increase for a prolonged period, then a huge logarithmic upswing, then an eventual asymptote to which the system can get gradually and infinitely close, but can never surpass (and may well ricochet right off of). This can be due to resource constraints or inherent organismal capacity. We’re in the upswing now, and we’re heady with the feeling of unstoppable momentum. But we don’t yet know the shape of the function, or where the asymptote lies. The falsifiable working hypothesis, ala Popper, is that the system of human progress is natural and bounded. It lies to Deutsch, or time, to do the falsification.

  32. A rather basic comment- in comparison to many of those above: while I have the greatest respect for Professor Deutsch’s intellectual powers, I cannot believe that evil is based simply on a lack of knowledge: which knowledge? Moral? Social? Intellectual?Spiritual?Rational? Wisdom?

    This seems to me to be glib and unrealistic.

    When we consider many of the worst excesses for which we humans have been responsible, how can we realistically attribute them simply to lack of knowledge: the catholic inquisition; the gulags; the final solution; witch burnings; ISIS; serial murderers like Bundy, Gacy, Dahmer, Brady and Hindley.

    I’ve read Professor Deutsch’s books, although I cannot claim to have fully understood them, but I’d also take issue with his view that resources are limitless- they aren’t. Consider the consequences of human expansion .

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