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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Chance and time : cutting the Gordian Knot Hagar, Amit


One of the recurrent problems in the foundations of physics is to explain why we rarely observe certain phenomena that are allowed by our theories and laws. In thermodynamics, for example, the spontaneous approach towards equilibrium is ubiquitous yet the time-reversal-invariant laws that presumably govern thermal behaviour in the microscopic level equally allow spontaneous approach away from equilibrium to occur. Why are the former processes frequently observed while the latter are almost never reported? Another example comes from quantum mechanics where the formalism, if considered complete and universally applicable, predicts the existence of macroscopic superpositions—monstrous Schrodinger cats—and these are never observed: while electrons and atoms enjoy the cloudiness of waves, macroscopic objects are always localized to definite positions. A well-known explanatory framework due to Ludwig Boltzmann traces the rarity of " abnormal" thermodynamic phenomena to the scarcity of the initial conditions that lead to it. After all, physical laws are no more than algorithms and these are expected to generate different results according to different initial conditions, hence Boltzmann's insight that violations of thermodynamic laws are possible but highly improbable. Yet Boltzmann introduces probabilities into this explanatory scheme, and since the latter is couched in terms of classical mechanics, these probabilities must be interpreted as a result of ignorance of the exact state the system is in. Quantum mechanics has taught us otherwise. Here the attempts to explain why we never observe macroscopic superpositions have led to different interpretations of the formalism and to different solutions to the quantum measurement problem. These solutions introduce additional interpretations to the meaning of probability over and above ignorance of the definite state of the physical system: quantum probabilities may result from pure chance. Notwithstanding the success of the Boltzmannian framework in explaining the thermodynamic arrow in time it leaves us with a foundational puzzle: how can ignorance play a role in scientific explanation of objective reality? In turns out that two opposing solutions to the quantum measurement problem in which probabilities arise from the stochastic character of the underlying dynamics may scratch this explanatory itch. By offering a dynamical justification to the probabilities employed in classical statistical mechanics these two interpretations complete the Boltzmannian explanatory scheme and allow us to exorcize ignorance from scientific explanations of unobserved phenomena. In this thesis I argue that the puzzle of the thermodynamic arrow in time is closely related to the problem of interpreting quantum mechanics, i.e., to the measurement problem. We may solve one by fiat and thus solve the other, but it seems unwise to try solving them independently. I substantiate this claim by presenting two possible interpretations to non-relativistic quantum mechanics. Differing as they do on the meaning of the probabilities they introduce into the otherwise deterministic dynamics, these interpretations offer alternative explanatory schemes to the standard Boltzmannian statistical mechanical explanation of thermodynamic approach to equilibrium. I then show how notwithstanding their current empirical equivalence, the two approaches diverge at the continental divide between scientific realism and anti-realism.

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