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Reconstruction and Reinvention in Quantum Theory


I consider the fact that there are a number of interesting ways to ‘reconstruct’ quantum theory, and suggest that, very broadly speaking, a form of ‘instrumentalism’ makes good sense of the situation. This view runs against some common wisdom, which dismisses instrumentalism as ‘cheap’. In contrast, I consider how an instrumentalist might think about the reconstruction theorems, and, having made a distinction between ‘reconstructing’ quantum theory and ‘reinventing’ quantum theory, I suggest that there is an adequate (not ‘cheap’) instrumentalist approach to the theory (and to these theorems) that invokes both.

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  1. My divisions are artificial, and set aside work that might be considered relevant. Bohmians, for example, might be taken as ‘reconstructing’ quantum theory from various assumptions about the nature of point particles, the forces they experience, and our capacities to interact with them. See, e.g., [11].

  2. Hardy’s axioms are not explicitly framed in terms of information, but they are explicitly connected with the probabilistic structure of the theory and how ‘tests’ can be designed to ascertain the values of observables. See, for example, [10, Sect. 2] and [15] for further discussion.

  3. Bub [4], for example, speaks of quantum information as “a new physical primitive”.

  4. Fuchs [12] is famous for giving something like this answer.

  5. I have left out of the discussion the ‘partial reconstructions’ identified by Grinbaum [15, 16], such as the ‘toy models’ of Spekkens [23]. In this work, researchers produce models that reconstruct a portion of quantum theory, intentionally leaving the rest out for the purpose of investigating some one (or few) principles independently of the rest of quantum theory. This activity is consonant with the instrumentalist view. In contrast, a traditional realist position appears to have more trouble making sense of the value of this theoretical activity, because of the ‘unreality’ of the assumptions that go into the construction of these ’intentionally incomplete’ models.

  6. The suggestion is not that these theorems ‘reinvent the wheel’ in a pejorative sense, but that they re-present quantum in a new light, potentially providing new understanding.

  7. I do not pretend to be the first to raise such questions, which are common in the history of the discussion of operationalism in physics. I merely apply them to recent work in axiomatics, not by way of objection to that work, but to suggest that there may be legitimate instrumentalist interest in what I will call ‘reconstruction’.

  8. No presumption is made here, by using the term ‘system’, that there are little yellow orbs, or anything of the kind, traveling from one apparatus to another. The presumption is simply that we have identified procedures that may, prima facie, be understood in the way described.

  9. I set aside, here, the interesting but thorny question of what counts as ‘success’ of a theory.

  10. These questions do not presuppose a realist standpoint, but only recognize that as a matter of fact, laboratory procedures are described in these terms. The question is: How are we to understand those descriptions?

  11. For the sake of keeping things relatively simple, I stick to non-relativistic quantum theory.

  12. I am leaving out some details. See [9] for a more careful discussion, and references to the original results.

  13. Again, I’m leaving out some mathematical details and assumptions. They do not affect the main point being made, here.

  14. This point perhaps echoes a similar point (arrived at from a somewhat different angle) made by Grinbaum [15]: “Philosophical and linguistic justification, and mathematical derivation, play here a game of mutual onslaught and retreat which, ultimately, leads to the advance of science”.

  15. I’m not convinced that anybody ever really thoughtfully believed in cheap instrumentalism.


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Thanks to the organizers of the session on reconstruction theorems, to two anonymous referees, and to the participants for their helpful questions and comments.

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Correspondence to Michael Dickson.

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Dickson, M. Reconstruction and Reinvention in Quantum Theory. Found Phys 45, 1330–1340 (2015).

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  • Quantum theory
  • Reconstruction
  • Instrumentalism