Symmetry and Gauge Freedom

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Belot, Gordon
preprint description
The classical field theories that underlie the quantum treatments of the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces share a peculiar feature: specifying the initial state of the field determines the evolution of some degrees of freedom of the theory while leaving the evolution of some others wholly arbitrary. This strongly suggests that some of the variables of the standard state space lack physical content---intuitively, the space of states of such a theory is of higher dimension than the corresponding space of genuine physical possibilities. The structure of such theories can helpfully be characterized in terms of the action of symmetry groups on their space of states; and the conceptual problems surrounding their strange behavior can be sharpened in light of the observation that it is usually possible to eliminate the redundant variables associated with these symmetries---which turn out to be precisely those variables whose evolution is unconstrained by the dynamical laws of the theory. This paper discusses this approach, uses it to frame questions about the interpretation of classical gauge theories, and to reflect (pessimistically) on our prospects of reaching satisfactory answers to these questions.