Theses Doctoral

Representation and Realism in the Age of Effective Theories

Rivat, Sebastien

Philosophers traditionally engage with metaphysical questions at the frontiers of physics by treating theories as putatively fundamental and complete. While this interpretative strategy sits uneasily with the limited success of past theories, it breaks down with the failure of our best current theories, Quantum Field Theories (QFTs), to consistently describe the world on the smallest scales. My dissertation examines how physicists' reconceptualization of successful theories as effective theories affects the epistemological and semantic foundations of the interpretative practice in physics. Chapter 1 offers a detailed analysis of renormalization theory, the set of methods that underwrite physicists' construction of empirically successful QFTs. Chapter 2 demonstrates that effective theories are not merely the only candidates left for scientific realists in QFT but also worth interpreting in realist terms. Chapter 3 shows that effective theories stand as a challenge for traditional approaches to scientific representation and realism in physics. I suggest that indexing truth to physical scales is the most promising way to account for the success of effective theories in realist terms. Chapter 4 develops the referential component of this proposal by taking a detour through the problem of referential failure across theory-change. I argue that to reliably assess referential success before theory-change, we need to index reference-fixing to the limited physical contexts where a given theory is empirically reliable.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Albert, David Z.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 3, 2020