Transcendental Structuralism in Physics: An alternative to Structural Realism

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Bitbol, Michel
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In physics, structures are good candidates for the role of transparadigmatic invariants, which entities can no longer play. This is why structural realism looks more credible than standard entity realism. But why should structures be stable, rather than entities ? Here, structural realists have no answer ; they content themselves with the mere observation that this is how things stand. By contrast, transcendental structuralism (a byproduct of Kant’s transcendental idealism) can easily make sense of this fact. Indeed, it shows that when knowledge bears on phenomena, namely on the emergent byproduct of a relation between the explorer and what is to be explored, this knowledge necessarily bears on relations between such phenomena. After a development on the clarifying power of transcendental structuralism, I turn to an early transcendental structuralist interpretation of quantum mechanics proposed by Jean-Louis Destouches (1909-1980). Destouches, an early French philosopher of physics, was a student of Louis de Broglie. He recasted in the 1940 the very concept of physical theory in the light of quantum physics. According to him, whenever phenomena are inextricably relative to the experimental set-up, a physical theory cannot provide anything beyond a list of interconnected predictions for future facts given a relevant class of past facts. In his general mathematical theory of predictions, the Ψ-functions of quantum mechanics do not refer to some “real” waves; they are shown to be nothing but the formal expression of the phenomena’s being relative to incompatible experimental contexts. Since the quantization of variables can itself be derived from a wave-mechanical formalism, it becomes clear that the most prominent features of quantum mechanics are a mere consequence of contextuality. Destouches thus proved that it is easy to make sense of quantum mechanics provided a reflective attitude is adopted. By contrast, too many difficulties arise when one tries at any cost to make quantum mechanics intelligible within a purely ontological framework.