Thursday, August 19, 2021

A philosophical advantage of quantum mechanics over Newtonian mechanics

We often talk as if quantum mechanics were philosophically much more puzzling than classical mechanics. But there is also a deep philosophical puzzle about Newtonian mechanics as originally formulated—the puzzle of velocities—which disappears on quantum mechanics.

The puzzle of velocities is this. To give a causal explanation of a Newtonian system’s behavior, we have to give the initial conditions for that system. These initial conditions have to include the positions and velocities (or momenta) of all the bodies in the system.

To see why this is puzzling, let’s imagine that t0 is the first moment of the universe’s existence. Then the conditions at t0 explain how things are at all times t > t0. But how can there be velocities at t0? A velocity is a rate of change of position over time. But if t0 is the first moment of the universe’s existence, there were no earlier positions. Granted, there are later positions. But these later positions, given Newtonian dynamics, depend on the velocities at t0 and hence cannot help determine what these velocities are.

One might try to solve this by saying that Newtonian dynamics implies that there cannot be a first moment of physical reality, that physical reality has to have always existed or that it exists on an interval of times open at the lower end. On either option, then, Newtonian dynamics would have to be committed to an infinite temporal regress, and that seems implausible.

Another solution would be to make velocities (or, more elegantly, momenta) equally primitive with positions (indeed, some mathematical formulations will do that). On this view, that the velocity is the rate of change of position would no longer be a definition but a law of nature. This increases the number of laws of nature and the fundamental properties of things. And if it is a mere law of nature that velocity is the rate of change of position, then it would be metaphysically possible, by a miracle, that an object standing perfectly still for days would nonetheless have a high velocity. If that seems wrong, we could just introduce a technical term, say “movement propensity” (that’s kind of what “momentum” is), in place of “velocity”, and it would sound better. However, anyway, while the resulting theory would be mathematically equivalent to Newton’s, and it would solve the velocity problem, it would be a metaphysically different theory, since it would have different fundamental properties.

On the other hand, the whole problem is absent in quantum mechanics. The Schroedinger equation determines the values of the wavefunction at times later than t0 simply on the basis of the values of the wavefunction at t0. Granted, the cost is that we have a wavefunction instead of just positions. And in a way it is really a variant of the making-momenta-primitive solution to the Newtonian problem, because the wavefunction encodes all the information on positions and momenta.

El Filósofo said...

Dr. Pruss, what is your opinion that quantum mechanics presupposes Naturalism according to Quentin Smith?

Andrew said...
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Andrew said...
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