Physicist David Deutsch; a radio telescope in New Mexico

Physicist David Deutsch; a radio telescope in New Mexico


Hanna-Katrina Jędrosz / DER SPIEGEL; Evgeny Vasenev / Cavan Images / Getty Images

Physicist David Deutsch on the Infinity of Advancement "Ignoring the Possibility of Progress Is a Sure Method of Destroying Ourselves"

Fly to the stars? Conquer the climate crisis? Mankind can solve all problems, argues British physicist David Deutsch. Progress, he says, is the key: technical, moral, political and scientific.
A DER SPIEGEL Interview Conducted By Rafaela von Bredow und Johann Grolle
About David Deutsch

David Deutsch, 68, is a British physicist, who teaches at the University of Oxford. He is considered a pioneer in the field of quantum computation. In a manifesto for unconditional progress just published in Germany, he argues that a never-ending explosion of human knowledge began with the Enlightenment in the 18th century.

DER SPIEGEL: Professor Deutsch, you believe that mankind, after billions and billions of years of absolute monotony in the universe, will now reshape it to their liking, that a new cosmological era is coming. Are you serious?

Deutsch: I am not the first to propose this idea. The Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani wrote in the 19th century that he had no hesitation in declaring man to be a new power in the universe, equivalent to the power of gravitation.

DER SPIEGEL: And fly to distant planets? Tap energy from black holes? Conquer entire galaxies?

Deutsch: I am not saying that we will necessarily do all this. I am only saying that, in principle, there is nothing to stop us. Only the laws of physics could prevent us. And we do not know a law of physics that forbids us, for example, from traveling to distant stars.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 14/2022 (April 2nd, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

DER SPIEGEL: Theoretically, the colonization of the galaxy may be possible. But how would this work practically?

Deutsch: Human brains, assisted by our computers, can create the necessary knowledge for this – even though we do not yet know how.

DER SPIEGEL: Your late colleague Stephen Hawking did not have such high hopes for Homo sapiens. He thought we were "just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies." Was Hawking wrong?

Deutsch: Well, it's literally true. Just as it is true in a sense that the war in Ukraine was caused by atoms. It's factually true, but it doesn't explain anything. What we need to understand the world and our role in it are explanations, not empty statements.

"I'm reluctant to diss my colleagues, but, unfortunately, there's a sort of cult of the expert."
Physicist Deutsch: "Science is currently in a deplorable state."

Physicist Deutsch: "Science is currently in a deplorable state."

Foto: Hanna-Katrina Jędrosz / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Even among your fellow researchers, it might be hard to find many who grant us humans such a godlike role in the universe as you do.

Deutsch: Science is currently in a deplorable state. I'm reluctant to diss my colleagues, but, unfortunately, there's a sort of cult of the expert. Accordingly, many researchers remain narrowly focused on their particular field, and even within that they are focused on creating usefulness rather than finding explanations. This is a terrible mistake.

DER SPIEGEL: What is so terrible about useful science?

Deutsch: All usefulness, every prediction, comes from understanding. However, if you no longer strive for fundamental explanations, but believe that it is sufficient to generate something useful, then you will merely move incrementally from one decimal place to the next, and even then, only in areas that are already well studied. This tendency has dramatically slowed down progress.

"There is no such thing as a computer that's suitable for understanding the savanna, but not the sky."

DER SPIEGEL: There are photos of a black hole, we can genetically modify people and develop a vaccine against a new pathogen within months. All this is not progress?

Deutsch: Yes, it is, but it is going slower than it could.

DER SPIEGEL: Biologist Richard Dawkins believes that this is perhaps because our brains are insufficient to comprehend the increasingly complex world. After all, it evolved to deal with problems on the African savanna. Now, however, we have to deal with stars, quantum and nuclear reactions.

Deutsch: Dawkins overlooks the fact that there is basically only one kind of computer. Whether it's your laptop, or a supercomputer for modeling the climate, any computer can run the same computations. And our brain is nothing more than a universal computer. Its hardware can run any program, and we can use extra memory in our computers if necessary; therefore, it can run any explanation. There is no such thing as a computer that's suitable for understanding the savanna, but not the sky. We couldn't build one if we tried. It violates the laws of physics.

DER SPIEGEL: What if we do reach a limit of what can be explained?

Deutsch: If these limits are not determined by laws of physics, you are appealing to the supernatural here.


Deutsch: Even many researchers are not aware that they are appealing to the supernatural when they say that something other than physics prevents us from understanding the world. Even amongst atheists, there's some residual religious feeling when they talk about issues like the mind, the universe and our place in it.

DER SPIEGEL: Nature, you say, has equipped Homo sapiens with a brain with which to conquer the galaxy. Then why have people used only stone axes for tens of thousands of years?

Deutsch: Because they used it almost exclusively for transmitting their culture. Unfortunately, not improving it. This is the greatest tragedy in history; it caused more suffering than any other.

DER SPIEGEL: If progress was so beneficial to society, why didn't it catch on more quickly?

Deutsch: Unfortunately, ideas that demonize being different have a cultural-evolutionary advantage over those that celebrate being different. This is why new ideas have a hard time spreading. For example, many traditional societies sacrificed the best food to the gods. Now what happened to the person who said: Why not feed these offerings to hungry children instead of wasting them on the gods? He will be killed. His idea could not spread in that society.

DER SPIEGEL: Still, even in very static societies progress did not come to a total standstill ...

Deutsch: ... that's right. Culture did change, but too slowly for the enforcers of cultural stability to notice. The Bible says: "What has been, will be again. What has been done, will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun." That means, for a person who lived hundreds of years B.C., the world didn't seem to change. Almost everyone lived a life in which they never saw anything new.

"Morally the worst thing of all is to impede the correction of errors."
The Rafael fresco "The School of Athens," 1510 to 1511: "It was optimism that made science take off."

The Rafael fresco "The School of Athens," 1510 to 1511: "It was optimism that made science take off."

Foto: Universal Images Group / Getty Images

DER SPIEGEL: What had to happen to make people begin to allow change?

Deutsch: At some point, some societies came to realize that improvement was actually possible, ancient Athens and Renaissance Florence being two well-known examples. But even in these cases, the innovative society was destroyed within a couple of generations. Only the Enlightenment survived, it spread and produced everything we have today.

DER SPIEGEL: What was different in the case of Enlightenment?

Deutsch: It was optimism that made science take off. It's very ingrained in our culture today that when something changes for the worse, people complain. Because they are convinced that the problem is soluble, and therefore that the situation can be improved again. That attitude is new. For most of history, people thought: The world is bad and, usually, it's getting worse.

DER SPIEGEL: Can the Enlightenment still fail today?

Deutsch: Definitely. If it fails, it will be because people lack the knowledge to prevent failure. That's why our top priority should be to make progress as fast as possible. And I am talking here not only about technical, but also moral, political and fundamental scientific progress. You can never know what insight will prove crucial to the survival of our civilization. At the beginning of the Second World War, no one foresaw that the properties of the exotic element uranium could have any role in the outcome of the war. And yet that was the case.

DER SPIEGEL: Does a progressive society need to be democratic?

Deutsch: Democracy, said Winston Churchill, is the worst form of government except for all the others. Following the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper, I think the most important feature of democracy is not the elections, nor even human rights. Rather, what is crucial is that in democracies it is possible to change the government and the policies without violence.

DER SPIEGEL: How about the freedom of speech?

Deutsch: That’s very important. Morally, the worst thing of all is to impede the correction of errors. We should judge all political and social institutions by how well they promote the correction of errors.

DER SPIEGEL: Overall, how good are we at it?

Deutsch: I think the political culture, and business and science in our Western societies are broadly OK. Heading on balance towards more progress, more openness, more creativity. Other parts of our Western culture are still along the ancient lines of transmitting traditional knowledge faithfully, which is the exact opposite of the Enlightenment way.

DER SPIEGEL: Which parts of our culture are you talking about?

Deutsch: A notable example is our educational system. Schools and universities have curricula and they have standards. Curricula mean: You have a particular set of ideas that everybody should put into their minds. Standards mean that people are standardized. In a more rational society, schools would advertise that every child who leaves them is different. But today they advertise the exact opposite.

DER SPIEGEL: Technological progress has also given us global warming, plastic pollution and species extinction. In the end, won't progress itself bring about the end of our civilization?

Deutsch: These are consequences of progress, but they won’t destroy us. Every solution to a problem ends with the creation of new problems – and these too can be solved. Unfortunately, for instance, there is a taboo against using methods of geoengineering that could potentially solve the problem of climate change today. We should be inventing and testing as many of these methods as possible in the coming decades. Instead, it looks like people will only start when it is almost too late.

DER SPIEGEL: If every solved problem creates a new one, and if the number of problems to be solved keeps growing, doesn't that inevitably lead to catastrophe?

Deutsch: No. For one thing, many problems are good things. They are the very means of making progress. Then there are catastrophes that we cannot prevent because we still lack the necessary knowledge. But disasters are not inevitable. No one can prevent us from creating the necessary knowledge to avert them.

"I do not think immortality will be invented in my lifetime."
Biotechnology workers in Rome developing a COVID-19 vaccine: "There are people who are willing to risk their lives to save the lives of others. Why aren't they allowed to?"

Biotechnology workers in Rome developing a COVID-19 vaccine: "There are people who are willing to risk their lives to save the lives of others. Why aren't they allowed to?"

Foto: Alessandro Serrano' / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

DER SPIEGEL: The vaccine against COVID-19 ...

Deutsch: ... yes, that is a good example. At the beginning of the pandemic, people said: It will be many years before we have a vaccine. In the end, it only took months. And if it weren't for all the regulations, it could have been done in a matter of days. Such regulations are part of the forces of staticity that stand in the way of the creation of new knowledge.

DER SPIEGEL: Can it be wrong to thoroughly test a vaccine before giving it to millions of people?

Deutsch: Thoroughly enough to address the problem. In this case, for example, volunteers could have been allowed to be intentionally infected with SARS-CoV-2 in order to test drugs or vaccines on them. There are people who are willing to risk their lives to save the lives of others. Why aren't they allowed to?

DER SPIEGEL: You consider caution an evil?

Deutsch: Precaution is good. The precautionary principle is bad. If you suppress anything new because it might have unforeseen side effects, then you prevent new solutions to problems, and that means you cause suffering.

DER SPIEGEL: Isn't it wiser to step back from using new technologies that are too risky?

Deutsch: No! Ignoring the possibility of progress is a sure method of destroying ourselves. Then the question no longer arises as to whether, but only when our civilization will perish. Let it happen to our children, not to us! – is what the precautionary principle really boils down to. It is extremely unwise, not to say immoral.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think you are more rational than others?

Deutsch: No, not at all. I am convinced that I am full of errors and contradictions. Mere contradictions are not a bad thing, though, by the way. On the contrary: They are the stuff that problems we need to solve are made of. And they are therefore the stuff progress is made of.

DER SPIEGEL: Will the progress that you so much adore eventually lead to a full understanding of the world, a theory of everything?

Deutsch: No. There will never be a theory of everything. However, physicists use this term to mean something much narrower. They are looking for a formula that encompasses all elementary-particle interactions including gravity. To me, that's just a small facet of physics, and physics is just a small facet of science, and science is just a small facet of human knowledge. In other words, this is clearly not a "theory of everything."

DER SPIEGEL: Is there such a thing as truth?

Deutsch: Yes, there is a truth. But we are unable to recognize it as such. When we say we are looking for the truth, we really mean that we are looking to correct errors in our existing knowledge. When we advocate a theory, we mean that we have not yet encountered the ways in which it is wrong. Our knowledge consists of misconceptions, which have the virtue of containing less severe errors than our previous misconceptions.

DER SPIEGEL: Hence the technical civilization of the present is a grandiose triumph of error. How much will you benefit yourself? Will you live to experience the invention of immortality?

Deutsch: Given the current state of progress in medical knowledge, I might live longer than I currently expect. However, I do not think immortality will be invented in my lifetime. But perhaps I'll be surprised. If so, we can continue this discussion in 100 years.

DER SPIEGEL: With pleasure. See you then, Professor Deutsch, and we thank you for this interview.

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