Renormalization for philosophers

In Tomasz Bigaj & Christian Wüthrich (eds.), Metaphysics in Contemporary Physics. Brill. pp. 437–485 (2015)


We have two aims. The main one is to expound the idea of renormalization in quantum field theory, with no technical prerequisites. Our motivation is that renormalization is undoubtedly one of the great ideas—and great successes--of twentieth-century physics. Also it has strongly influenced in diverse ways, how physicists conceive of physical theories. So it is of considerable philosophical interest. Second, we will briefly relate renormalization to Ernest Nagel's account of inter-theoretic relations, especially reduction. One theme will be a contrast between two approaches to renormalization. The old approach, which prevailed from ca. 1945 to 1970, treated renormalizability as a necessary condition for being an acceptable quantum field theory. On this approach, it is a piece of great good fortune that high energy physicists can formulate renormalizable quantum field theories that are so empirically successful. But the new approach to renormalization explains why the phenomena we see, at the energies we can access in our particle accelerators, are described by a renormalizable quantum field theory. For whatever non-renormalizable interactions may occur at yet higher energies, they are insignificant at accessible energies. Thus the new approach explains why our best fundamental theories have a feature, viz. renormalizability, which the old approach treated as a selection principle for theories. That is worth saying since philosophers tend to think of scientific explanation as only explaining an individual event, or perhaps a single law, or at most deducing one theory as a special case of another. Here we see a framework in which there is a space of theories. And this framework is powerful enough to deduce that what seemed “manna from heaven” is to be expected: the good fortune is generic. We also maintain that universality, a concept stressed in renormalization theory, is essentially the familiar philosophical idea of multiple realizability; and that it causes no problems for reductions of a Nagelian kind.

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Jeremy Butterfield
Cambridge University

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