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Li, Bihui (2015) MOVING BEYOND “THEORY T”: THE CASE OF QUANTUM FIELD THEORY. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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A standard approach towards interpreting physical theories proceeds by first identifying the theory with a set of mathematical objects, where such objects are defined according to mathematicians’ standards of rigor. In making this identification, philosophers rule out the relevance of many inferential methods that physicists use, as these often do not meet mathematicians’ standards of rigor. Philosophers thus sanitize physical theories of all math- ematically messy or ambiguous parts before interpreting them.

My dissertation argues against this sanitized approach towards interpreting theories using the example of quantum field theory (QFT). When we look at the details of QFT, we find that the mathematical objects it requires differ according to the specific systems the theory is being applied to in ways that advocates of the sanitized approach do not anticipate. Furthermore, the mathematical objects required for successful application are still being developed in some applicational contexts, so it would be unwise to determine in advance which objects constitute the theory. During this ongoing developmental process, physicists interpret the mathematics using strategies that violate the standards of pure mathematics. In contrast to the sanitized approach, these strategies are more sensitive to the ways in which the mathematics required for the relevant contexts is still under development. I argue that these strategies are not merely instrumental. They suggest alternative approaches to interpretation that philosophers should take into account.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairBatterman, RBATTERM
Committee MemberWoodward, Jamesjfw@pitt.eduJFW
Committee MemberNorton, John D.jdnorton@pitt.eduJDNORTON
Committee MemberWilson, Markmawilson@pitt.eduMAWILSON
Committee MemberRuetsche,
Date: 22 June 2015
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 27 March 2015
Approval Date: 22 June 2015
Submission Date: 13 April 2015
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 128
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > History and Philosophy of Science
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: physics, theory, philosophy, quantum field theory, rigor
Date Deposited: 22 Jun 2015 12:16
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 14:27


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