Asymmetry, Abstraction, and Autonomy: Justifying Coarse-Graining in Statistical Mechanics

British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 71 (2):547-579 (2020)
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While the fundamental laws of physics are time-reversal invariant, most macroscopic processes are irreversible. Given that the fundamental laws are taken to underpin all other processes, how can the fundamental time-symmetry be reconciled with the asymmetry manifest elsewhere? In statistical mechanics, progress can be made with this question. What I dub the ‘Zwanzig–Zeh–Wallace framework’ can be used to construct the irreversible equations of SM from the underlying microdynamics. Yet this framework uses coarse-graining, a procedure that has faced much criticism. I focus on two objections in the literature: claims that coarse-graining makes time-asymmetry ‘illusory’ and ‘anthropocentric’. I argue that these objections arise from an unsatisfactory justification of coarse-graining prevalent in the literature, rather than from coarse-graining itself. This justification relies on the idea of measurement imprecision. By considering the role that abstraction and autonomy play, I provide an alternative justification and offer replies to the illusory and anthropocentric objections. Finally, I consider the broader consequences of this alternative justification: the connection to debates about inter-theoretic reduction and the implication that the time-asymmetry in SM is weakly emergent. 1Introduction 1.1Prospectus2The Zwanzig–Zeh–Wallace Framework3Why Does This Method Work? 3.1The special conditions account3.2When is a density forwards-compatible?4Anthropocentrism and Illusion: Two Objections 4.1The two objections in more detail4.2Against the justification by measurement imprecision5An Alternative Justification 5.1Abstraction and autonomy5.2An illustration: the Game of Life6Reply to Illusory7Reply to Anthropocentric8The Wider Landscape: Concluding Remarks 8.1Inter-theoretic relations8.2The nature of irreversibility.



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Katie Robertson
University of Birmingham

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