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Asymmetry, abstraction and autonomy: justifying coarse-graining in statistical mechanics

Robertson, Katie (2017) Asymmetry, abstraction and autonomy: justifying coarse-graining in statistical mechanics. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.


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Whilst 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 statistical mechanics 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 (i) `illusory' and (ii) `anthropocentric'. I argue that these objections arise from an unsatisfactory justi�fication 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 justi�fication and o�er replies to the illusory and anthropocentric objections. Finally I consider the broader consequences of this alternative justi�fication: the connection to debates about inter-theoretic reduction and further, the implication that the time-asymmetry in statistical mechanics is weakly emergent.

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Item Type: Published Article or Volume
Keywords: reduction; emergence; statistical mechanics; time-asymmetry
Depositing User: Katie Katie Robertson
Date Deposited: 08 Dec 2017 13:49
Last Modified: 08 Dec 2017 13:49
Item ID: 14182
Journal or Publication Title: The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science
Date: 2017

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