Defining a crisis: the roles of principles in the search for a theory of quantum gravity

Synthese 198 (Suppl 14):3489-3516 (2021)
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In times of crisis, when current theories are revealed as inadequate to task, and new physics is thought to be required—physics turns to re-evaluate its principles, and to seek new ones. This paper explores the various types, and roles of principles that feature in the problem of quantum gravity as a current crisis in physics. I illustrate the diversity of the principles being appealed to, and show that principles serve in a variety of roles in all stages of the crisis, including in motivating the need for a new theory, and defining what this theory should be like. In particular, I consider: the generalised correspondence principle, UV-completion, background independence, and the holographic principle. I also explore how the current crisis fits with Friedman’s view on the roles of principles in revolutionary theory-change, finding that while many key aspects of this view are not represented in quantum gravity, the view could potentially offer a useful diagnostic, and prescriptive strategy. This paper is intended to be relatively non-technical, and to bring some of the philosophical issues from the search for quantum gravity to a more general philosophical audience interested in the roles of principles in scientific theory-change.

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Karen Crowther
University of Oslo


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