The Ontology of Quantum Field Theory: Structural Realism Vindicated?

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 59:78-86 (2016)
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In this paper I elicit a prediction from structural realism and compare it, not to a historical case, but to a contemporary scientific theory. If structural realism is correct, then we should expect physics to develop theories that fail to provide an ontology of the sort sought by traditional realists. If structure alone is responsible for instrumental success, we should expect surplus ontology to be eliminated. Quantum field theory (QFT) provides the framework for some of the best confirmed theories in science, but debates over its ontology are vexed. Rather than taking a stand on these matters, the structural realist can embrace QFT as an example of just the kind of theory SR should lead us to expect. Yet, it is not clear that QFT meets the structuralist's positive expectation by providing a structure for the world. In particular, the problem of unitarily inequivalent representations threatens to undermine the possibility of QFT providing a unique structure for the world. In response to this problem, I suggest that the structuralist should endorse pluralism about structure.

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David Glick
University of California, Davis


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