Causal explanations and scientific realism in particle physics


Request a copy
Serval ID
PhD thesis: a PhD thesis.
Causal explanations and scientific realism in particle physics
Egg M.
Esfeld M.-A.
Institution details
Université de Lausanne, Faculté des lettres
Faculté des lettresUniversité de LausanneUNIL - DorignyAnthropole - bureau 2049CH-1015 LausanneAnthropole - bureau 2049
Publication state
Issued date
Number of pages
Particle physics studies highly complex processes which cannot be directly observed. Scientific realism claims that we are nevertheless warranted in believing that these processes really occur and that the objects involved in them really exist. This dissertation defends a version of scientific realism, called causal realism, in the context of particle physics.
I start by introducing the central theses and arguments in the recent philosophical debate on scientific realism (chapter 1), with a special focus on an important presupposition of the debate, namely common sense realism. Chapter 2 then discusses entity realism, which introduces a crucial element into the debate by emphasizing the importance of experiments in defending scientific realism. Most of the chapter is concerned with Ian Hacking's position, but I also argue that Nancy Cartwright's version of entity realism is ultimately preferable as a basis for further development. In chapter 3,1 take a step back and consider the question whether the realism debate is worth pursuing at all. Arthur Fine has given a negative answer to that question, proposing his natural ontologica! attitude as an alternative to both realism and antirealism. I argue that the debate (in particular the realist side of it) is in fact less vicious than Fine presents it.
The second part of my work (chapters 4-6) develops, illustrates and defends causal realism. The key idea is that inference to the best explanation is reliable in some cases, but not in others. Chapter 4 characterizes the difference between these two kinds of cases in terms of three criteria which distinguish causal from theoretical warrant. In order to flesh out this distinction, chapter 5 then applies it to a concrete case from the history of particle physics, the discovery of the neutrino. This case study shows that the distinction between causal and theoretical warrant is crucial for understanding what it means to "directly detect" a new particle. But the distinction is also an effective tool against what I take to be the presently most powerful objection to scientific realism: Kyle Stanford's argument from unconceived alternatives. I respond to this argument in chapter 6, and I illustrate my response with a discussion of Jean Perrin's experimental work concerning the atomic hypothesis.
In the final part of the dissertation, I turn to the specific challenges posed to realism by quantum theories. One of these challenges comes from the experimental violations of Bell's inequalities, which indicate a failure of locality in the quantum domain. I show in chapter 7 how causal realism can further our understanding of quantum non-locality by taking account of some recent experimental results. Another challenge to realism in quantum mechanics comes from delayed-choice experiments, which seem to imply that certain aspects of what happens in an experiment can be influenced by later choices of the experimenter. Chapter 8 analyzes these experiments and argues that they do not warrant the antirealist conclusions which some commentators draw from them. It pays particular attention to the case of delayed-choice entanglement swapping and the corresponding question whether entanglement is a real physical relation. In chapter 9,1 finally address relativistic quantum theories. It is often claimed that these theories are incompatible with a particle ontology, and this calls into question causal realism's commitment to localizable and countable entities. I defend the commitments of causal realism against these objections, and I conclude with some remarks connecting the interpretation of quantum field theory to more general metaphysical issues confronting causal realism.
Create date
26/11/2012 16:54
Last modification date
29/10/2020 12:49
Usage data