Probabilities in Statistical Mechanics

In Alan Hájek & Christopher Hitchcock (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Probability and Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 573-600 (2016)
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This chapter will review selected aspects of the terrain of discussions about probabilities in statistical mechanics (with no pretensions to exhaustiveness, though the major issues will be touched upon), and will argue for a number of claims. None of the claims to be defended is entirely original, but all deserve emphasis. The first, and least controversial, is that probabilistic notions are needed to make sense of statistical mechanics. The reason for this is the same reason that convinced Maxwell, Gibbs, and Boltzmann that probabilities would be needed, namely, that the second law of thermodynamics, which in its original formulation says that certain processes are impossible, must, on the kinetic theory, be replaced by a weaker formulation according to which what the original version deems impossible is merely improbable. Second is that we ought not take the standard measures invoked in equilibrium statistical mechanics as giving, in any sense, the correct probabilities about microstates of the system. We can settle for a much weaker claim: that the probabilities for outcomes of experiments yielded by the standard distributions are effectively the same as those yielded by any distribution that we should take as a representing probabilities over microstates. Lastly, (and most controversially): in asking about the status of probabilities in statistical mechanics, the familiar dichotomy between epistemic probabilities (credences, or degrees of belief) and ontic (physical) probabilities is insufficient; the concept of probability that is best suited to the needs of statistical mechanics is one that combines epistemic and physical considerations.


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