Turn and Face the Strange... Ch-ch-changes: Philosophical Questions Raised by Phase Transitions

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Menon, Tarun; Callender, Craig
preprint description
Phase transitions are an important instance of putatively emergent behavior. Unlike many things claimed emergent by philosophers (e.g., tables and chairs), the alleged emergence of phase transitions stems from both philosophical and scientific arguments. Here we focus on the case for emergence built from physics, in particular, arguments based upon the infinite idealization invoked in the statistical mechanical treatment of phase transitions. After teasing apart several challenges, we defend the idea that phase transitions are best thought of as conceptually novel, but not ontologically or explanatorily irreducible to finite physics; indeed, by looking at ongoing work on “smooth phase transitions” we even suggest that they’re not even conceptually novel. In the case of renormalization group theory, consideration of infinite systems and their singular behavior provides a central theoretical tool, but this is compatible with an explanatory reduction. Phase transitions may be “emergent” in some sense of this protean term, but not in a sense that is incompatible with the reductionist project broadly construed.