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Local Selective Realism: Shifting from Classical to Quantum Electrodynamics

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This article elaborates local selective realism in view of the shifting from classical to quantum electrodynamics. After some introductory remarks, we critically address what we call global selective realism, hence setting forth the background for outlining local selective realism. When examining the transition from classical to quantum electrodynamics, we evaluate both continuities and discontinuities in observational features, mathematical structures, and ontological presuppositions. Our argument leads us to criticise the narrow understanding of limiting-case strategies, and to reject the claim that we need a fully coherent theoretical framework to account for the transition from one theory to its successor in the case of electrodynamics. We close with a few remarks on the scope of local selective realism.

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  1. Among others, Saatsi (2017) observes that selective versions of scientific realism dominate the debate. Saatsi develops his own exemplar realism, which takes realism to be an attitude that should be applied locally by specifying the exemplar in each case. Below, differences between local selective realism and other forms of selective realism will become clear.

  2. We greatly thank one of the referees for helping us to make this point clear throughout the article.

  3. We thank one of the referees for directing our attention to this passage from Maxwell.

  4. Note that beyond the variables of the set of equations above, the mathematics in the Fresnel–Maxwell case involves various theoretical assumptions: (a) the minimal mechanical assumption that the velocity of the displacement of molecules of ether is proportional to the amplitude of the light wave; (b) the principle of conservation of energy during the propagation of light in the two media; and (c) the geometrical analysis of the configuration of the light-rays in the interface of two media (Psillos 1999).

  5. Although neither Planck’s work on black-body radiation nor Einstein’s on the photoelectric effect amount to complete theories of electromagnetism, they certainly provided new theoretical elements that played a crucial part in the transition from CED to QED. Such elements could also be targets of the PMI against a smooth transition from CED to QED. Taking these elements into consideration helps us point out traces of continuities or discontinuities in a piecemeal fashion in the present case.

  6. The following lines summarise ideas taken from Weinberg (2005). Similar approaches appear in Greiner (2000), Sect. 15.5, pp. 364–366, Frisch (2005), p. 16 and Rohrlich (1988).

  7. Any term with higher derivatives or higher order in \(F_{\mu \nu }\) can be included in the matter action \(I_M\).

  8. It is not possible to re-obtain the whole of classical mechanics from quantum mechanics by taking the limit of \(\hbar \) to zero. The latter claim is true for only a—limited—number of results. More to the point, as quantum field theory is a perturbation theory where calculations are performed by means of expansion in powers of the fine structure constant (which is inversely proportional to \(\hbar \)), the limit \(\hbar \) to zero cannot be performed in quantum field theory. We thank one of the referees for bringing our attention to this point.

  9. Note that the previous discussion overlaps with the larger debate concerning theory reduction. The limiting-case strategy belongs to a case of “domain preserving reduction” (Nickles 1973). Yet, this is not the only form of theory reduction, as other cases of theory reduction would involve the explanation of one theory by another (or domain combined reduction, following (Nickles 1973) once more). The case at hand is a complex one of “domain combined reduction” that includes “domain preserving reduction” as well. It is not our intention to dive into the theory reduction debate. But the point we want to make is that a narrow understanding of the limiting-case strategy overlooks complexities associated with exactly these considerations. As Nickles points out: “I am not advancing the simplistic view that all or even most historical reductions fit neatly into one or the other of the schemata. For one thing, many of the reductions will be partial; for another, [domain combined] reduction is rarely strictly derivational” (Nickles 1973, p. 186). We thank one of the referees for suggesting Nickles’ work in view of our argument.


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Correspondence to Diego Romero-Maltrana.

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This article is a partial result of research carried out within the framework of governmental funded Grants FONDECYT de Iniciación No. 11160324, “The Physico-Mathematical Structure of Scientific Laws: On the Roles of Mathematics, Models, Measurements and Metaphysics in the Construction of Laws in Physics”, responsible investigator: Dr. Cristian Soto; and FONDECYT Regular No. 1150661, “Masa, emergencia y realismo estructural”, responsible investigator, Dr. Diego Romero-Maltrana. We thank their financial support. Likewise, we are deeply grateful to two referees for Foundations of Science. They helped us work through the details of our own views, providing invaluable feedback on ways to improve our argument.

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Soto, C., Romero-Maltrana, D. Local Selective Realism: Shifting from Classical to Quantum Electrodynamics. Found Sci 25, 955–970 (2020).

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