Quantum Foundations of Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics

In Eleanor Knox & Alastair Wilson (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Physics. London, UK: Routledge. pp. Ch. 29 (2022)
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Statistical mechanics is often taken to be the paradigm of a successful inter-theoretic reduction, which explains the high-level phenomena (primarily those described by thermodynamics) by using the fundamental theories of physics together with some auxiliary hypotheses. In my view, the scope of statistical mechanics is wider since it is the type-identity physicalist account of all the special sciences. But in this chapter, I focus on the more traditional and less controversial domain of this theory, namely, that of explaining the thermodynamic phenomena.What are the fundamental theories that are taken to explain the thermodynamic phenomena? The lively research into the foundations of classical statistical mechanics suggests that using classical mechanics to explain the thermodynamic phenomena is fruitful. Strictly speaking, in contemporary physics, classical mechanics is considered to be false. Since classical mechanics preserves certain explanatory and predictive aspects of the true fundamental theories, it can be successfully applied in certain cases. In other circumstances, classical mechanics has to be replaced by quantum mechanics. In this chapter I ask the following two questions: I) How does quantum statistical mechanics differ from classical statistical mechanics? How are the well-known differences between the two fundamental theories reflected in the statistical mechanical account of high-level phenomena? II) How does quantum statistical mechanics differ from quantum mechanics simpliciter? To make our main points I need to only consider non-relativistic quantum mechanics. Most of the ideas described and addressed in this chapter hold irrespective of the choice of a (so-called) interpretation of quantum mechanics, and so I will mention interpretations only when the differences between them are important to the matter discussed.

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Orly Shenker
Hebrew University of Jerusalem


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