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A Prescriptivist Account of Physical Theories

Kaveh, Shahin (2021) A Prescriptivist Account of Physical Theories. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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A question of central importance to any philosopher of science is: what is the essential content of a scientific theory? What does a given theory really tell us about the world? Philosophers of science have disagreed on many aspects of the answer to this question, for instance whether the essential content of theories concerns entities, properties, or structures, whether it should be cashed out in terms of sentences or models, and whether one should be a realist or an anti-realist about this content; but philosophers have near-universally agreed on one claim: that theories provide a description of the natural system to which they are applied. Call this the descriptive-ontological view. I argue against the descriptive-ontological view in physics and propose an alternative: the prescriptive-dynamical view. According to the latter, the essential content of a physical theory is to provide prescriptions for interfacing with the natural system. More precisely, physical theories consist of a fixed part and an open-ended part, such that the fixed part is a prescription for constructing the open-ended part from local data, gathered through interaction with the system. The answer to the question of essential content directly determines or at least influences one's response to many other crucial questions such as theoretical equivalence (Chapter 2), theory-world relations (Chapter 3), and realism-antirealism (Chapter 4), which I will subsequently explore. Moreover, as I will argue (Chapter 5), the prescriptive-dynamical account also sheds fresh light on the history of quantum mechanics as a painstaking process of realization that instead of telling us what there is, physical theories must tell us what to do.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Kaveh, Shahinskaveh@pitt.eduskaveh
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairNorton, John
Committee MemberEarman, John
Committee MemberWoodward,
Committee MemberHealey,
Date: 8 October 2021
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 28 July 2021
Approval Date: 8 October 2021
Submission Date: 3 August 2021
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 224
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: Descriptivism, Prescriptivism, Scientific Realism, Theoretical Equivalence, Essential Content, History of Quantum Mechanics
Date Deposited: 08 Oct 2021 19:24
Last Modified: 08 Oct 2021 19:24

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