I referenced Laughlin’s book “A Different Universe” here, and now I’ve finally gotten around checking it out. It’s written to be accessible by laymen and contains plenty of humorous asides to help the pop science go down, but I still get the sense it’s beyond me. The point that we rely on robust assemblies of many, many molecules to measure things and that certain phenomena seem to go away as the number of entities in a collection goes down is interesting, but I see that he’s trying to make a broader point I don’t really grasp. He claims that as a physicist he can’t really reject reductionism, so I don’t know what non-strawman position he’s arguing against. He mocks the idea that we can logically deduce the laws of physics rather than observing consistent phenomena observationally (although he mentions General Relativity as something that came from nowhere but Einstein’s brain), but I think even a logician would tell you some non-deduced facts taken as axioms are necessary to get anywhere through logic. He argues that all things perceived as fundamental (such as the laws of the universe we might hope to use as axioms) are really emergent phenomena of collectives. Is that supposed to be “elephants all the way down”? I don’t know.

Some bits like noting the irrelevance of the different possible arrangements of floor tiles to a history of ancient Rome reminded me of Murray Gell-Man’s “The Quark and the Jaguar” on “coarse-graining”. Pointing out how robust collective phenomena can be to the most fundamental microfoundational assumptions reminded me of Milton Friedman’s positivist argument for judging economic theories by predictions rather than realistic assumptions. I personally tend to prefer a sloppy analysis of data to data-free theorizing, so that kind of reassurance feels good but I’m not sure it’s safe advice to give to human beings, apt by their nature to abuse any leeway. At times I couldn’t tell whether he was arguing that reality is just far too complicated for us to compute at the lowest level now, or if it’s impossible even theoretically. A surprising bit is where he seems to attempt rehabilitation of “ether” theory through General Relativity, and in case you’re skeptical of that he tries to enlist the name of Einstein by claiming the enduring-revolutionary would fight against the current dogma based on relativity itself! I couldn’t quite believe that since Einstein never reconciled himself to the experimental confirmation of quantum mechanics, which still hasn’t been made compatible with relativity.

I’m only about halfway through, but if I start to understand later or remember something pertinent, I’ll give an update. I’d also like to note that I dislike the word “grok”, but it seemed appropriate.