Most observers agree that modern physical theory attempts to provide objective representations of reality. However, the claim that these representations are based on conventional choices is viewed by many as a denial of their objectivity. As a result, objectivity and conventionality in representation are often framed as polar opposites.
Offering a new appraisal of symmetry in modern physics, employing detailed case studies from relativity theory and quantum mechanics, Objectivity, Invariance, and Convention contends that the physical sciences, though dependent on convention, may produce objective representations of reality. Talal Debs and Michael Redhead show that both realists and constructivists have recognized important elements of an understanding of science that may not be contradictory.
The position—“perspectival invariantism”—introduced in this book highlights the shortcomings of existing approaches to symmetry in physics, and, for the constructivist, demonstrates that a dependence on conventions in representation reaches into the domain of the most technical sciences. For the realist, it stands as evidence against the claim that conventionality must undermine objectivity. We can be committed to the existence of a single real ontology while maintaining a cultural view of science.
The problems of symmetry in physics have become significant, particularly in the clash of renormalizable gauge field theory and general relativity or in ‘symmetry-breaking’ in condensed matter physics. Here, Debs and Redhead (both, London School of Economics) tackle the problem of whether invariance under transformations endow the invariants with objectivity or reveal merely convention-generated presupposition.
Debs and Redhead claim that invariants in the fundamental theories of physics are ultimately ‘perspectival’ because invariance is always relative to specified transformations or symmetries. Moreover, they argue, the choice of a perspective is ultimately conventional. These and other controversial claims are sure to engage not only philosophers of physics but other philosophers of science and the broader science studies community as well.
In this engaging book, Debs and Redhead offer a courageous and novel answer to two questions that are still at the frontier of current scholarship: What precisely is being presented by scientific presentations? Are they attempts to approximate an objective representation of reality, or is any such attempt fatally undermined by its inescapable conventionalist choices? The evenhanded and persuasive answers to these questions, bolstered by three case studies from modern theoretical physics, will greatly interest a wide range of scholars—historians and philosophers of science, social constructivists as well as realists.
- 208 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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