A Different Universe

A Different Universe
by Robert B. Laughlin

The Artful Universe Expanded
by John D. Barrow

The goal of “reductionism” is to take all of nature apart to see all the cogs and levers moving matter and energy around. A thorough going materialist could hope that reductionism is the path, however arduous, to a complete understanding of the universe. A more modest version of materialism would allow that some aspects of the universe will inevitably remain opaque to our inquiries, but still insist that looking for the underlying cogs and levers is the only way to get a valid understanding of nature.

Major opposition to mechanistic reductionism has usually come from those who argue that there must also be some kind of “vital principles” such as souls to account for some aspects of nature. Nineteenth-century vitalists pointed to wounds that heal themselves, embryos that somehow develop into offspring, and the other wonders of reproduction. One person quipped that if you put two live dogs together you may end up with puppies, but however long two mechanical clocks lie side-by-side they will never produce little tickers. Living things need goal-directed souls to reproduce. Similarly, Whiteheadian process philosophy today declares that even the simplest physical event in the universe already has a mental aspect.

Robert Laughlin represents a quite different form of antireductionism. He is an “emergentist.” From physics mainly, the field in which he won his Nobel Prize, but also from biology, he offers...

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