Single Quote: Robert B. Laughlin

[Extracted by Lynn C. Rees]

From A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down (2006) by Robert B. Laughlin:

The transition to the Age of Emergence brings to an end the myth of the absolute power of mathematics. This myth is still entrenched in our culture, unfortunately, a fact revealed routinely in the press and popular publications promoting the search for ultimate laws as the only scientific activity worth pursuing, notwithstanding massive and overwhelming experimental evidence that exactly the opposite is the case. We can refute the reductionist myth by demonstrating that rules are correct and then challenging very smart people to predict things with them. Their inability to do so is similar to the difficulty the Wizard of Oz has in returning Dorothy to Kansas. He can do it in principle, but there are a few pesky technical details to be worked out. One must be satisfied in the interim with empty testimonials and exhortations to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The real problem is that Oz is a different universe from Kansas and that getting from one to the other makes no sense. The myth of collective behavior following from the law is, as a practical matter, exactly backward. Law instead follows from collective behavior, as do things that flow from it. such as logic and mathematics. The reason our minds can anticipate and master what the physical world does is not because we are geniuses but because nature facilitates understanding by organizing itself and generating law.

An important difference between the present age [i.e. the Age of Emergence] and the age just past [i.e the Age of Reductionism] is the awareness that there are evil laws as well as good ones. Good laws, such as rigidity or quantum hydrodynamics, create mathematical predictive power through protection, the insensitivity of certain measured quantities to sample imperfections or computational errors. Were the world a happy place containing only good laws, it would indeed be true that mathematics was always predictive, and that mastering nature would always boil down to acquiring sufficiently large and powerful computers. Protection would heal all errors. But in the world we actually inhabit, dark laws abound, and they destroy predictive power by exacerbating errors and making measured quantities wildly sensitive to uncontrollable external factors. In the Age of Emergence it is essential to be on the lookout for dark laws and artfully steer clear of them, since failure to do so leads one into delusional traps. One such trap is inadvertently crossing a Barrier of Relevance, thereby generating multiple ostensibly logical paths that begin with nearly identical premises and reach wildly different conclusions. When this effect occurs it politicizes the discussion by generating alternative “explanations” for things that cannot be distinguished by experiment. Another trap is the hunt for the Deceitful Turkey, the mirage law that always manages to be just out of focus and just beyond reach, no matter how much the measurement technology is improved. Ambiguities generated by dark law also facilitate fraud, in that they allow a thing to be labeled quantitative and scientific when it is, in fact, so sensitive to the whim of the measurer that it is effectively an opinion.

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