Losing Sight of the Forest for the Ψ: Beyond the Wavefunction Hegemony

In Steven French & Juha Saatsi (eds.), Scientific Realism and the Quantum. Oxford University Press (2019)
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Traditionally Ψ is used to stand in for both the mathematical wavefunction (the representation) and the quantum state (the thing in the world). This elision has been elevated to a metaphysical thesis by advocates of the view known as wavefunction realism. My aim in this paper is to challenge the hegemony of the wavefunction by calling attention to a little-known formulation of quantum theory that does not make use of the wavefunction in representing the quantum state. This approach, called Lagrangian quantum hydrodynamics (LQH), is not an approximation scheme, but rather a full alternative formulation of quantum theory. I argue that a careful consideration of alternative formalisms is an essential part of any realist project that attempts to read the ontology of a theory off of the mathematical formalism. In particular, I show that LQH undercuts the central presumption of wavefunction realism and falsifies the claim that one must represent the many-body quantum state as living in a 3n-dimensional configuration space. I conclude by briefly sketching three different realist approaches one could take toward LQH, and argue that both models of the quantum state should be admitted. When exploring quantum realism, regaining sight of the proverbial forest of quantum representations beyond the Ψ is just the first step.

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Alisa Bokulich
Boston University


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