Probability in deterministic physics

Journal of Philosophy 106 (2):89-108 (2009)
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The role of probability is one of the most contested issues in the interpretation of contemporary physics. In this paper, I’ll be reevaluating some widely held assumptions about where and how probabilities arise. Larry Sklar voices the conventional wisdom about probability in classical physics in a piece in the Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy, when he writes that “Statistical mechanics was the first foundational physical theory in which probabilistic concepts and probabilistic explanation played a fundamental role.” And the conventional wisdom about quantum probabilities is that they are basic, not reducible to the types of probabilities we see in statistical mechanics. In the first section of this paper, I’ll argue that in fact classical physics was steeped in probability long before statistical mechanics came on the scene, specifically, that an objective measure over phase space is an indispensable component of any informative physical theory. In the next section, I’ll argue that this objective measure is the fundamental form of physical probability and that quantum probabilities can be defined in terms of it. In the last, I’ll raise some questions about the metaphysical status of the fundamental measure

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Jenann Ismael
Columbia University


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