Effective theories and infinite idealizations: a challenge for scientific realism

Synthese 198 (12):12107-12136 (2020)
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Williams and J. Fraser have recently argued that effective field theory methods enable scientific realists to make more reliable ontological commitments in quantum field theory than those commonly made. In this paper, I show that the interpretative relevance of these methods extends beyond the specific context of QFT by identifying common structural features shared by effective theories across physics. In particular, I argue that effective theories are best characterized by the fact that they contain intrinsic empirical limitations, and I extract from their structure one central interpretative constraint for making more reliable ontological commitments in different subfields of physics. While this is in principle good news, this constraint still raises a challenge for scientific realists in some contexts, and I bring the point home by focusing on Williams’s and J. Fraser’s defense of selective realism in QFT.



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Sébastien Rivat
Ludwig Maximilians Universität, München