Probabilities in Statistical Mechanics: What are they?

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Myrvold, Wayne C.
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This paper addresses the question of how we should regard the probability distributions introduced into statistical mechanics. It will be argued that it is problematic to take them either as purely ontic, or purely epistemic. I will propose a third alternative: they are almost objective probabilities, or epistemic chances. The definition of such probabilities involves an interweaving of epistemic and physical considerations, and thus they cannot be classified as either purely epistemic or purely ontic. This conception, it will be argued, resolves some of the puzzles associated with statistical mechanical probabilities: it explains how probabilistic posits introduced on the basis of incomplete knowledge can yield testable predictions, and it also bypasses the problem of disastrous retrodictions, that is, the fact the standard equilibrium measures yield high probability of the system being in equilibrium in the recent past, even when we know otherwise. As the problem does not arise on the conception of probabilities considered here, there is no need to invoke a Past Hypothesis as a special posit to avoid it.