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Byron Jennings | TRIUMF | Canada

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Is there a place for realism in science?

In the philosophy of science, realism is used in two related ways. The first way is that the interior constructs of a model refer to something that actually exists in nature, for example the quantum mechanical wave function corresponds to a physical entity. The second way is that properties of a system exist even when they are not being measured; the ball is in the box even when no one can see it (unless it is a relative of Schrodinger’s cat). The two concepts are related since one can think of the ball’s presence or absence as part of one’s model for how balls (or cats) behave.

Despite our and even young children’s belief in the continued existence of the ball and that cats are either alive or dead, there are reasons for doubting realism. The three main ones are the history of physics, the role of canonical (unitary) transformations in classical (quantum) mechanics, and Bell’s inequality. The second and third of these may seem rather obtuse, but bear with me.

Let’s start with the first, the history of physics. Here, we follow in the footsteps of Thomas Kuhn (1922–1996). He was probably the first philosopher of science to actually look at the history of science to understand how science works. One of his conclusions was that the interior constructs of models (paradigms in his terminology) do not correspond (refer in the philosophic jargon) to anything in reality. It is easy to see why. One can think of a sequence of models in the history of physics. Here we consider the Ptolemaic system, Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, relativistic field theory (a combination of quantum mechanics and relativity) and finally quantum gravity. The Ptolemaic system ruled for half a millennium, from the second to seventeenth centuries. By any standard, the Ptolemaic model was a successful scientific model since it made correct predictions for the location of the planets in the night sky. Eventually, however, Newton’s dynamical model caused its demise. At the Ptolemaic model’s core were the concepts of geo-centrism and uniform circular motion. People believed these two aspects of the model corresponded to reality. But Newton changed all that. Uniform circular motion and geo-centrism were out and instantaneous gravitation attraction was in. Central to the Newtonian system was the fixed Euclidean space time geometry and particle trajectories. The first of these was rendered obsolete by relativity and the second by quantum mechanics; at least the idea of fixed number of particles survived–until quantum field theory. And if string theory is correct, all those models have the number of dimensions wrong. The internal aspects of well-accepted and successful models disappear when new models replace the old. There are other examples. In the history of physics, the caloric theory of heat was successful at one time but caloric vanished when the kinetic theory of heat took over. And on it goes. What is regarded as central to our understanding of how the world works goes puff when new models replace old.

On to the second reason for doubting realism–the role of transformations: canonical and unitary.  In both classical and quantum mechanics there are mathematical transformations that change the internals of the calculations[1] but leave not only the observables but also the structure of the calculations invariant. For example, in classical mechanics we can use a canonical transformation to change coordinates without changing the physics. We can express the location of an object using the earth as a reference point or the sun. Now this is quite fun; the choice of coordinates is quite arbitrary. So you want a geocentric system (like Galileo’s opponents), no problem. We write the equation of motion in that frame and everyone is happy. But you say the Earth really does go around the sun. That is equivalent to the statement: planetary motion is more simply described in the heliocentric frame. We can go on from there and use coordinates as weird as you like to match religious or personal preconceptions.  In quantum mechanics the transformations have even more surprising implications. You would think something like the correlations between particles would be observable and a part of reality. But that is not the case. The correlations depend on how you do your calculation and can be changed at will with unitary transformations. It is thus with a lot of things that you might think are parts of reality but are, as we say, model dependent.

Finally we come to Bell’s inequality as the third reason to doubt realism. The idea here goes back to what is known as the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox (published in 1935). By looking at the correlations of coupled particles Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen claimed that quantum mechanics is incomplete.  John Bell (1928 – 1990), building on their work, developed a set of inequalities that allowed a precise experimental test of the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen claim. The experimental test has been performed and the quantum mechanical prediction confirmed. This ruled out all local realistic models. That is, local models where a system has definite values of a property even when that property has not been measured. This is using realism in the second sense defined above. There are claims, not universally accepted, that extensions of Bell’s inequalities rule out all realist models, local or non-local.

So where does this leave us? Pretty much with the concept of realism in science in tatters. The internals of models changes in unpredictable ways when science advances. Even within a given model, the internals can be changed with mathematical tricks and for some definitions of realism, experiment has largely ruled it out.  Thus we are left with our models that describe aspects of reality but should never be mistaken for reality itself. Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804), the great German philosopher, would not be surprised[2].

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[1] For the relation between the two type of transformations see: N.L. Balazs and B.K. Jennings, Unitary transformations, Weyl’s association and the role of canonical transformations, Physica, 121A (1983) 576–586

[2] He made the distinction between the thing in itself and observations of it.

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